I grew up in a distinctly blue-collar family.
My dad, my uncle and my grandfather worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever known to keep the lights on and put food on the table.
But buying a boat just wasn’t a feasible option for us. So, if we wanted to fish somewhere besides the bank, we relied on little aluminum rental boats at a small waterworks lake near my home in Birmingham, Ala.
The boats were 10 feet long with a couple of dividers we used as seats. If the temperature was above 80 degrees, you used your life jacket as a seat cushion to avoid burning your rear end, and standing up in one of the boats gave you a greater appreciation for that scene in “The Karate Kid” where Daniel Larusso falls in the water while trying to learn balance.
We had a special block of wood that we took with us on every trip to keep our portable trolling motor locked in position on the bow — and when we’d move from one spot to another, we’d pull the drain pug to get rid of all of the water that had leaked in while we were sitting still.
The boats rented for $5 — and on good days, they were worth almost that much.
Fast forward to 2018, and aluminum boats have come a long way.
If you need proof, just pay attention to Bill Lowen during this week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Elite at Sabine River presented by Econo Lodge.
This will be Lowen’s fifth tournament since he began running an Xpress Xclusive Pro Series X21 aluminum boat.
Remember the little rental vessel I described above?
Lowen’s new ride is pretty much the exact opposite of that.
It’s 21 feet long with a hyper-lift, high-performance hull-pad design that helps it take rough water like a fiberglass boat. But it still allows Lowen to venture into more of the super-shallow areas he likes best as an old river rat who cut his teeth with his trolling motor kicking up mud off the bottom.
The boat has everything.
Because he also has a deal with Johnson Outdoors, he has a Helix 12 depthfinder at the bow and a Helix 10 at the console. His trolling motor is a Minn Kota Ultrex — an incredible piece of equipment that has turned the industry on its ear with amazing features like Spot Lock that will keep you in one place all day with the press of a button.
Two separate storage compartments in front of the console hold Lowen’s extra life jackets, raingear, light poles, tools and accessories. The storage box on the left side will hold as many as 40 to 50 rod-and-reel combos, and the center console will hold all of the tackle an Elite Series angler needs.
The days of stepping over the center seat in an aluminum boat, placing a foot between your cooler and your tackle box and hoping you don’t fall in the process are long gone.
Amazingly, the boat is powered by a Yamaha 250 SHO that will push it 70 mph. I say “amazingly” because that used to be unheard-of for a boat made of anything but fiberglass.
This isn’t your grandfather’s aluminum boat — and it suits Lowen to a tee.
“I caught myself last year doing things that I wouldn’t normally do,” said Lowen, who missed the 2018 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods after qualifying the previous seven years in a row. “During the (2017) Classic on Lake Conroe, I didn’t go up the river — and everyone who knows me knows that’s where I belong.
“There were a couple of more events where I didn’t do what I was comfortable with. Being in this boat has put me back in my comfort zone and put the fun back in fishing for me.
“An aluminum boat is just where I belong.”
Lowen joining the Xpress team in late 2017 was just one of several checkmarks on what has been a phenomenal timeline for aluminum crafts the past couple of years in professional bass fishing.
It all started in 2016 when a fresh-faced kid named Skylar Hamilton won the Bassmaster Central Open on the Arkansas River in an 18-foot Tracker Grizzly — a tunnel-hull aluminum boat that was equipped with a 70 horsepower Yamaha.
Hamilton, who was just 22 at the time, then used his aluminum ride to finish seventh in the next Central Open on the Red River and 48th in the division’s final event on the Atchafalaya Basin. He earned a spot on the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series, and was the first Elite pro to ink a deal with Xpress.
Though Hamilton struggled during his first Elite season, he’s had two Top 30 finishes in the first four events this season and currently ranks 40th in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings — well within striking distance of a Classic berth if he maintains his current pace.
In September 2017, Elite Series pro Ott DeFoe won the Bassmaster Northern Open on Douglas Lake fishing in a tunnel-hull aluminum Tracker. Then just this past April, Arkansas angler Harvey Horne rode an Xpress aluminum boat to a victory in the Central Open on the Arkansas River.
The idea that an angler is at a disadvantage because his boat is made of aluminum is officially off the table — and I wouldn’t be surprised if Lowen makes some noise this week on the Sabine River.
Skinny water, a shallow bite? Doesn’t that sound perfect for him?
And wouldn’t it make for another interesting entry on the evolving aluminum timeline?
“When I’m not fishing out here on tour, I spend all of my time in a Jon boat at home anyway,” Lowen said. “I’m running around with the dogs, with the kids, spending time out on the sandbar. It’s just who I am.
“I’m hard on this boat, and it amazes me every day. It makes me feel like a kid again.”
Trust me, aluminum boats weren’t like that when I was a kid.
But it does my heart good to see that they are now.