Towers on Boats: Are They Worth It?

Towers aren't just for looks — location and target species play a large role in whether they provide an additional advantage

tower on sport fishing boat
Custom towers often complete the beautiful lines of a sport-fishing boat, yet they are not used as much as you would think.Courtesy Palm Beach Towers

Several facts about fishing hold true no matter where you go or what species you chase. Leave behind, stay behind: true for yellowfin and bonefish. You gotta’ drive over them: holds water for pacific blue marlin and tarpon off Islamorada, Florida. Elephants eat peanuts: it’s the gospel at North Carolina’s big rock and up on the halibut grounds in Alaska.

Here’s another: towers mostly just look good.

I can already hear the cries of protest from our friends in South Florida. I must admit that they, of all the fishermen, would be justified in saying towers also look good.

To a South Florida captain, the tower is his bread-and-butter. When someone mentions a “good tower man,” he sees himself high above the deck, not a skinny kid with a good eye, hanging out with a sandwich in one hand. The tower offers a distinct advantage, the edge every captain worth his salt pursues as hard as he hunts fish.

But I must concede: I was disappointed to learn how few regions depend on this elaborate, intricate, expensive and demanding piece of equipment.

tower, tower boat, bridge boat
The difference in height is quite noticeable when a tower boat passes a bridge boat on the fishing grounds.Richard Gibson

It's All in the Eye

In the early 1980s, Buddy Davis lured an engineer named Don Griffin away from Hatteras Yachts. By the mid-1990s and the heyday of Carolina boatbuilding, Griffin started his own company called Griffin Marine, which became one of the most sought-after marine electrical companies among North Carolina’s Dare County custom boatbuilders.

Sometime around 2004, Griffin Marine had T-shirts printed with line drawings on the back representing each of the 15 active big boatbuilders in Dare County. From afar, the shirt mostly proclaimed that you should “Choose Your Weapon,” and it touted Griffin Marine’s electrical service, of course. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to pick out the hulls of different builders, each bearing the signature overhang, aft window corner and engine vents of the craftsmen of the day.

The only rendering completely out of place was BB Boats. The tweak on the window, exaggerated bow deck and huge cockpit confirmed that she was a Buddy Cannady design. She was built the same way he had made them for 50 years, a proven design for charter fishing for yellowfin tuna off Oregon Inlet. But this drawing was Cannady’s only hull out of 50 that was ever portrayed with a tower. And I must admit, she looked good.

flybridge on sport fishing boats
Top captains around the world fish from the bridge — even if the sport-fisher does have a tower. They’ll often send another set of eyes into the tower instead.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

How We Do It Here

“Kona towers are basically only for looks,” says Capt. Marlin Parker of Marlin Magic fame. “I really don’t use it as much as I should to own one.” That sentiment is right up there with how much work it takes to keep towers looking nice. But when Parker got on the subject of tuna, the talk about the tower started to make a lot more sense.

“I love tuna fishing,” he says. “But the boat says Marlin Magic, and that’s what people want when they come to Hawaii.” When fishing offshore — that’s just 10 miles, folks — the Kona veteran uses his tower to spot schools of porpoises. “You don’t see marlin when it’s calm here, but you can spot tuna in the swells,” he says. Schooling tuna generally can be found following porpoises off the islands, and the tower becomes a valuable asset in finding the fish. “If our people just want to catch any fish, I will usually send Carol [Parker’s fiancée and mate] or the deckhand up in the tower,” he explains. “But that’s only when we are offshore, when even spotting a trash line could produce a good catch for our charter.”

“Back in the day in Bimini, we could see tuna from the tower, and, of course, we could spot sails in Florida.”

- Capt. Marlin Parker of Marlin Magic fame

Parker might not use his good-looking tower much in Hawaii, but he took some time to reminisce about fishing hot spots where he did spend plenty of time up there. “In Australia, it is good to keep an eye on the bait and for drop-offs,” he says, mentioning how more tailers can be found there than in Hawaii. “One day, I spotted eight or 10 fish, and they just wouldn’t eat,” he says. “Back in the day in Bimini, we could see tuna from the tower, and, of course, we could spot sails in Florida.”

“Dang, you sure see ’em from up there,” replies Capt. Daniel “Backlash” Davis, who has spent many an hour as a tower man. His statement might sound a little bit North Carolina redneck, but it’s really just steeped in nostalgia.

“They live in the tower in Florida, and we don’t do that here,” says Davis. “Kites and sight down South.” He explains that most crews up North are simply not big enough to man the tower and the cockpit, especially during tournament time. Not to mention, most fish are worked off ocean upwellings and bottom structure rather than sighted. “When you’re in the Keys, you run the reef, and the tower offers excellent visibility,” he continues. “I don’t like cleaning them, and I think most people would say they don’t use them as much as they should. But a tower sure makes a boat look big.”

flybridge versus tower
Tower boat captains will often fish from the flybridge instead of the tower because of their fishing style, location or the targeted species.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com
flybridge on sport fishing boat
Captains of tower boats will often fish from the flybridge, opting out of the tower because of their fishing style, where they are or the species they are targeting.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

Benefits and Drawbacks

Capt. VJ Bell agrees on the good looks but admits he doesn’t fish much from his tower, even in Florida. “I don’t troll a lot from my tower, but I did run the boat from up there in the Dominican Republic with remotes on the teaser reels,” he explains. He says the remotes for his teaser reels didn’t work as well as he hoped, and he felt he missed a couple fish as a result — that’s all it takes for these boys to head back to the bridge. “What you can see from up there can only help your fishing,” he adds.

boat backing down on blue marlin
Driving the boat from the bridge instead of a tower allows captains to easily communicate with the crew while backing down aggressively on blue marlin.© Scott Kerrigan / www.aquapaparazzi.com

Running an enclosed flybridge is one situation that will force a captain up on the tower as Capt. Dave Graham of the 85-foot Bayliss Dirty Mines explains: “The first Dirty Mines was an enclosed bridge, and I fished from the tower so I could see. It is a great vantage point, and I spotted a lot of blue marlin from up there.” Seeing blues isn’t generally a benefit associated with tower fishing; they are normally aggressive and big enough to spot from the pit. “The Carolina white marlin are stealthy,” he says. “Having eyes in the sky really helps your odds in the cockpit.”

Kite-fishing for sailfish
Most South Florida boats are equipped with a tower to help captains see into the water and spot a sailfish swimming around a live bait when kite-fishing.Richard Gibson

Kite-fishing is another situation in which a good tower man can be paramount to success. Graham explains, “The kite is controlled from the pit, but a good tower man can keep an eye on the bait.” He laments the old days when the tower man had a megaphone: “You could really freak people out with the siren,” he says. “And it was -better than the yelling that took place before that.”

The Power of Sight

“A good tower man will take some pressure off the captain,” explains Daniel Spencer of Spencer Yachts. Spencer has a unique perspective: He regularly serves as an angler, mate, captain or tower man. “Dad [Paul Spencer] used to say, ‘Don’t leave your post!’ and ‘Stay up and don’t get lost!’”

In a nutshell, Spencer’s dad meant to watch for the second fish. “I feel like a good fisherman needs all the chances he can get,” he jokes. “Fish know when you aren’t paying attention, and most of the time, every bite counts.” When tournament fishing, the Spencer team tries to put someone in the tower if they have enough manpower. “We fish a lot of crews that are new to tournament fishing or we fish a lot with small crews, so we need the extra hands in the pit,” says Spencer.

The tower man can give you several seconds of notice, and that makes a big difference. He’s the eyes in the sky.

- Daniel Spencer of Spencer Yachts

“When there is an extra man, especially someone with a good eye, he will work with the anglers in the pit to give the team an advantage,” Spencer adds. “The tower man can give you several seconds of notice, and that makes a big difference. He’s the eyes in the sky: A seasoned tower man can walk you through the bite when conditions prevent you from seeing it from the pit. This also allows the captain to be a little freer to focus more on the bottom machine, radio and the other boats.”

blacked-out metal in tower
Boatbuilders black out metalwork and control boxes in the tower to reduce glare.Courtesy Viking Yachts

Rigging Under the Buggy Top

From teaser reels to blackout paint and full electronics to intercom systems, today’s owners can spec just about anything they want under the buggy top. “We don’t build too many towers with teaser reels,” says Drew McDowell of Palm Beach Towers. “Remotes for the bridge reels are more popular, especially for enclosed bridge boats.”

McDowell explains how modern towers can house a full set of redundant electronics. “Recently, we designed an entire tower around an offset steering wheel and controls,” he says. “This allowed enough room for two large monitors instead of one small one. It’s a changing trend. With this layout, a captain who fishes from the tower a lot, like on our South Florida boats, can lock himself in the corner against the belly band and be comfortable up there for extended periods of time.”

Capt. Ryan Higgins of Viking Yachts believes blackout paint is one of the most important additions to the tower. “It cuts down on the glare,” he says. “We black out the underside of the buggy, the top of the control box and even the metalwork.” Higgins adds that their boats generally have a redundant system of electronics all networked to the bridge. “We don’t have teaser reels under the buggy because we don’t use teasers when we are live-baiting,” he says. “And I only run the boat from up there when we live-bait.”

Higgins explains that the crew tries to stay consistent with two mates that rotate out of the tower during tournaments. “The eyes in the sky,” he says. “It’s important to have someone experienced, and the intercom system is a real help. We use a Comstar system that is connected to a speaker in the cockpit, so the tower man can easily direct the anglers.”

Typically, the mid-Atlantic and Northeast boats have a backrest, and the spotter sits facing backward,” McDowell says. “In the Gulf, the trend is the same, with a tower man watching the spread.” He makes a strong case for comfort, explaining when a mate spends hours up there, it is important that he isn’t standing the whole time. Spencer believes gyrostabilizers have done more for tower fishing than any other recent technology. McDowell doesn’t disagree with this, but Palm Beach Towers still designs the buggy with the fishing style in mind and a place to wedge your body into the tower for the most comfort and safety. “For boats in South Florida and Costa Rica, we make sure the mate can get up in the corner and wrap an arm around the buggy top leg,” he says. He explains that sight-fishing from a Palm Beach tower demands a 360-degree view, and the setup is a little different, with a center jump seat where you can rest a leg. Finally, there’s the western style of Cabo San Lucas. “They are looking for birds and surface bites with binoculars,” says McDowell. “We add a fold-up seat with a backrest and a footrest so the tower man can get comfortable looking forward through the glasses.”

towers, blackout paint
The added elevation from a tower provides an advantage for spotting weed lines or busting bait on the surface.Jack Snow / Offshore Imaging

Have It Your Way

“Buyers are more educated now than they were eight to 10 years ago,” says Paul Mann, of Paul Mann Custom Boats. “Choosing to have a tower is based on their style of fishing, and they come in here knowing what they want. Usually my owners have had boats before — many have had towers before.” He believes the boats are more beautiful with a tower, but most of his owners choose bridge boats.

Building a boat with Paul Mann Custom Boats means you’ll get one of the most elaborate hardtops on the market if you don’t choose a tower. “But I don’t tell them what they can have,” he explains. “If they don’t know, we spend some time going over the ins and outs of tower fishing and if it fits their style of fishing.” He and his wife, Robin, also make working within the budget a top priority, and sometimes a tower is not in the budget for an owner. “I think working within the budget comes from being a fisherman and building charter boats in the beginning,” he adds. “But building a custom boat means the owner pays for the right to have anything he wants. If he wants to add a tower, choosing a tower company comes next and that seldom comes down to price. Excellent service is a big deal.”

Instant Gratification

Hydraulic outriggers, pulley systems, recessed aluminum plates for drilling and tapping the tower legs, gyros, and intercom systems are all advances in boatbuilding to accommodate tower fishermen. Today, towers are getting higher, and the buggy is custom-built for any style of fishing you can imagine. Add a full set of integrated and networked electronics and some matte-black finish paint, and your tower boat is ready to roll.

But before you set out, choose your destination wisely. It is a well-known fact that not all fishing grounds offer a satisfactory return on the tower investment. But damn, she does look good.