My ideal day onboard begins and ends with pursuing fish in shallow inshore and coastal waters, so I’m particularly partial to small center consoles. I like a boat in the 20-22 foot range that’s easy to trailer, fuel efficient, can get into a few tight spaces, and is simple to operate on solo missions. I’ve also come to appreciate small boats that can, when the need arises, act big. Over my 12 years of testing boats, a few have stood out. Here are three of my favorite small center-consoles in different price ranges: the Angler 204FX, the Campion 602 Explorer, and the Contender 21 Open.
Angler 204 FX
This Angler is one of the best-value center-consoles around. At 20’4” by 8’, this is a narrower- beamed boat with a solid ride. Angler doesn't pack in a ton of amenities, but to me this is a huge positive: There aren't many bells and whistles to break. Its solid construction and simple layout make it an easy boat to maintain and run. Talk around the docks that this boat could handle seas bigger than its size proved true. On the water, I found it to be one of the best-running boats for its size, period. I felt more comfortable in it than in some 24-26 footers I've spent time aboard offshore.
Paired with a 150-hp outboard, the 204 FX approached 45 mph. With the throttles pulled back to 3500 rpm and 25 mph, the boat had a range over 300 miles. With its 65-gallon fuel tank, it’s an efficient and economical boat to own. My biggest gripe? I thought the nonslip was a little slick compared to other models.
Campion 602 Explorer
Campion is a Canadian boatbuilder with a line of performance boats, and the hull of the 602 CC comes directly from that lineage. At 22’3” long, it has a slender 7’8” beam, giving it a sharp, narrow running surface that tapers to 19 degrees of deadrise at the transom. With a 225-hp engine, this boat felt like a rocket climbing onto plane and regularly topped speeds of 55 mph. What I liked best was how in a tight bay chop, it seemed to perform better.
Campion calls its hull design APEX, and it features a concave keel pad that provides lift. Once on a plane, it settles on top of a chop and just goes. You can chase after fish all day, run hard, and not get pounded. Plus, it has several family-friendly amenities such as bow filler cushions and aft jump seats along the transom. The main downside? That narrow beam makes interior space a little cramped, so you don’t want to overload it with gear and people.
Contender 21 Open
This is the boat of choice for many light-tackle fishing guides in the Northeast, because of its rugged build and exceptional performance in rough water. The 21 Open is built to the same specifications as the larger Contender models, like the Contender 30 and the Contender 39 ST, that are legendary among offshore anglers. It starts with its hull form, a sharp forefoot and a steep 24.5-degree deadrise at the transom. At 21’3” LOA and an 8’3” beam, this is a true wave-slicer, carving through a rough sea rather than pounding. The space forward of the console is clear and uncluttered, perfect for casting a fly rod or light tackle. An angler can securely wedge into the bow while casting, supported by deep freeboard and recessed bow rails that do the job but stay out of the way. There’s plenty of walk-around space on either side of the console, making it easy to work from bow to stern.
The 21 Open holds 90 gallons of fuel and approaches 50 mph with a 200-hp outboard. It comes standard with a 30-gallon livewell and an insulated 140-gallon fishbox, with recessed rodholders in the cockpit gunwales. It’s a compact fishing machine with a sweet ride. The caveat is that the 21 Open is a pure fishing boat; there are limited items on the options list to convert this to a more family-friendly utility vehicle.
Pete McDonald writes for Boating, Yachting, and other marine and fishing publications. In the past, he has written for Power & Motoryacht and Salt Water Sportsman, and spent 11 years on staff as a technical editor at Boating. All things considered, at any given moment he would prefer to be fishing.