The spindly shacks of Stiltsville loomed ahead as Kevin Barker, president of Barker Boatworks, piloted the new 26 Open across the glassy waters of Florida’s Biscayne Bay toward the Atlantic.
The game plan on this early-November day was twofold. First we would run out to look for dolphin under the weed lines of the Gulf Stream, and then we would head back to target snook and tarpon along the jetties of Miami’s Government Cut.
“The 26 Open is designed for exactly the kind of fishing we’re doing today,” Barker said. “It’s for the angler who wants to fish for tarpon, snook and redfish in the bays, but who also wants to feel comfortable fishing for bluewater species such as dolphin and sails.”
The new Barker is based on a patented 25½-foot Michael Peters-designed twin-step hull that introduces a cushion of air under the boat to increase lift, speed and fuel efficiency. Inside, the 26 Open carries a deep deck throughout most of the interior, with abbreviated casting decks in the bow and stern.
Lots of Live Bait
Bait ’Er Up!
The 26 Open’s 40-gallon upright main livewell abaft the helm seating is pressurized and features a clear acrylic lid. Friction hinges kept the lid open as we loaded more than a hundred live pilchards from a local bait vendor, who was waiting off the south end of Key Biscayne. An aft-facing viewing window lets you keep an eye on the bait.
The 26 Open delivers additional bait capacity with a 15-gallon well in the bow, plus a pair of 15-gallon transom wells. You can also opt for a 40-gallon livewell below the aft cockpit sole.
I stowed my camera bag in the cavernous, front-opening center-console enclosure, and Barker throttled up the Mercury 350 Verado outboard. We headed out, guided by a fully networked Garmin 7616xsv multifunction display. There’s redundancy in the form of a second Garmin MFD on the dash for the half-tower helm.
You’ll find no gauges per se — not even a Mercury VesselView display. Instead you monitor engine functions on the MFDs. A panel of C-Zone digital switches controls everything from navigation lights to livewell pumps. Meanwhile a trio of LED readouts keeps you posted on the voltage of the battery banks for the engine, house and trolling motor.
On the ride out, I tried every seat on the boat. With seas running only about a foot, even the high-back seat in front of the console proved comfortable. The twin helm seats offer flip-up bolsters, fold-down armrests and two tiers of footrests at the base of the console. My favorite place to chill is the bench seat that folds open from the aft casting deck.
East Tower Access
About 8 miles east of Key Biscayne, Barker spotted a weed line, so we set out a pair of trolling lures using the gunwale rod holders in the stern quarters. Five such holders on each side of the 26 Open facilitate techniques such as kite-fishing and drifting, as well as trolling. Each stainless-steel holder also doubles as a drink holder — a touch I appreciated as I tried to stay hydrated in the Florida heat.
Barker climbed up to the second station using a uniquely designed sliding “pilot hatch” in the Key West-style hardtop. You can either stand on a special SeaDek-covered platform or sit on an upholstered bench while aloft.
From this vantage point, Barker could keep the boat trolling parallel to the weed line, a technique that soon resulted in our first dolphin hookup. As I battled the fish closer to the boat, Barker spotted a squad of schoolmates closing fast. This was his cue to descend, pull a spinning rod from the row of five vertical holders on the side of the console, pin on a live pilchard, and cast.
“Hookup!” he announced almost instantly.
I extracted a gaff from the 26 Open’s undergunwale rod rack to land the trolled fish, then switched to bait too. I had barely dropped the pilchard in the water when a mahi inhaled it. It jumped next to the boat and landed on the deck. When Barker told me that the 26 Open was built to catch fish, I never guessed he meant it literally.
Ice ‘Em Down
As we hooked more dolphin, I noted how the layout lent itself to maneuvering and following a fish. Padded coaming bolsters encircling the interior cushioned my knees. We kept eight of the mahi and iced them in the massive insulated forward fish locker.
With fish in the box, we headed in to try for snook and tarpon in Government Cut. Boat traffic leading to the inlet churned the sea into a liquid potato patch. Yet the 26 Open met each wave with smooth confidence, riding cleanly through the confused seas. Barker was able to fine-tune the ride using the Bob’s Machine Shop jack plate.
Sneak Up on Fish
Barker chose to work the outside of the south jetty using the bow-mounted Minn Kota Ulterra Riptide trolling motor. The auto stow-and-deploy feature lowered the motor, and we were underway quickly using the Minn Kota i-Pilot wireless remote control.
Barker stepped up to the forward casting platform using one of two steps on the bow deck. From there he scouted for cruising snook or tarpon. I used the aft deck to cast to the base of the jetty.
Once we reached a promising spot, Barker engaged Spot Lock on the i-Pilot remote to hold us in position. In shallower water, we could have used the twin 8-foot Power-Pole anchors. There’s also an anchor locker in the forepeak that will hold at least 300 feet of line.
Fish were biting, but unfortunately not our target species. We caught jacks and houndfish and got clipped more than once. Barker suspected kingfish.
As we cruised home, I checked out other features of the 26 Open, including a pair of locking compartments in the forward gunwales designed for fly rods up to 10 feet. A rack for seven rods spans the aft edge of the hardtop. I was particularly impressed with the fit and finish throughout.
Plenty of Power
We gathered performance data inside Biscayne Bay. Turning a Mercury Mirage Plus 19-inch-pitch stainless-steel three-blade propeller, the 26 Open jumped on plane in 5.7 seconds and reached 30 mph in 9.5 seconds.
We clocked a top speed of 57 mph, turning 6,200 rpm, where the Mercury 350 Verado burned 30 gallons per hour for 1.9 mpg. The 26 Open achieved its best fuel efficiency at 37 mph (4,000 rpm), where the engine consumed 10.9 gallons per hour for 3.4 mpg. That equates to a remarkable range of 306 miles based on the standard 90-gallon fuel capacity.
With its first model, the 26 Calibogue Bay, Barker quickly gained an enviable reputation for quality, ride and fuel efficiency. Its second model, the 26 Open, adds exceptional versatility, making this a boat that’s easy to love.
POWER Mercury 350 Verado
LOAD 69 gal. fuel, two crew
TOP SPEED 57 mph @ 6,200 rpm
TIME TO 30 MPH 9.5 sec.
BEST MPG 3.4 @ 37 mph (4,000 rpm)
LOA 25 ft. 6 in.
BEAM 9 ft. 3 in.
DEADRISE 18 deg.
DRY WEIGHT Approx. 4,500 lb.
DRAFT 14 in. to 16 in. (motors down)
FUEL 90 gal. standard; 125 gal. optional
MAX POWER 400 hp
MSRP as tested $165,000
(w/ Mercury 350 Verado)