Author: Alan Jones
Stratos has a new home, and it’s a legendary one with a strangely appropriate name for a place where fishing boats are built: Flippin, Ark., the home of Ranger boats since 1968. Part of the Platinum Equity family, Stratos is the nexus where value, performance and utility merge in its boats to offer a quality experience at an affordable price.
Although the Stratos 326 XF looks like a walleye boat, that’s only a sliver of the story. It’s a boat that wouldn’t be out of place on the FLW Walleye Tour, even though most of those boats are aluminum and this one is fiberglass with a bassin’ flashin’ metallic sparkle gelcoat that stays well within the bounds of good taste. Its mission is to provide owners with a boat that can target nearly any species and also give families a boat that can shine when the fishing is done.
A great example of its many purposes can be found in the centerline locker. Not only can it hold 10 fishing rods up to 8 feet long, but that same compartment can store a ski pylon as well as wakeboards or slalom skis for when you shift into watersports mode. If that isn’t enough, the lid forms a handy step-up to the front casting deck. Up front there’s a pedestal fishing seat that you can reposition from the cockpit, a standard trolling motor and a panel for up to a 10-inch fishfinder display. The bow can easily shift gears with the addition of passenger pads to form a perch for stretching out when catching rays instead of fish. To make it perfect, however, some sort of backrest is needed. As it stands, most sun seekers will use a towel draped over the windshield to lean against.
When you are a company that also builds bass boats, performance is grafted into your DNA. Our 20-foot, 4-inch test boat is powered by a Mercury Verado 225 hp, which features a supercharger to give the 326 XF incredible snap out of the hole. With this technology, we reached plane in a blistering 2.5 seconds. You can get the Stratos 326 XF with less power, but I conducted a quick Google search and found no dealer that had ordered it with anything less than 225 hp, which is this boat’s maximum. Many had OptiMax direct-injected two-strokes, which will cost less money, but with the Verado you can also get the DTS (Digital Throttle and Shift), which is vastly superior to the cable-activated shifter our boat has. While we’re nitpicking, for me the shifter is placed a little too far aft.
While having a quick holeshot is important, excellent mid-range acceleration can be even more important. After reaching a 30 mph cruise speed in 7.2 seconds, we found we could make quick throttle adjustments with no lag, a trick that will come in handy if you get caught in some weather and have to work the throttle for a safe, controlled ride. If you have to do some fast forwarding, the 326’s top speed of 58.3 mph will get the job done.
Because of its fiberglass construction, rather than aluminum, the 326 weighs a bit more, but this translates into a better ride when you’re negotiating rough water. The balance of the 326 XF is superb, thanks to the way the weight is distributed. A smart move was to place the trio of batteries on the centerline under an easily accessible compartment between the driver and co-pilot. The 50-gallon fuel tank is also mounted in the middle. This allows you to maintain plane at 16 mph, which is a handy trick when clawing your way through rough water. Another aid to its choppy-water handling is the modified-V hull, which is sharper up front for carving a soft ride but flatter in the stern for stability when going slow.
When I said this boat wouldn’t look out of place on the FLW Walleye Tour, that was before I found an owner for our Owner Feedback section, who happens to fish on that tour. Ironically, during the taping of our boat test video, I remarked that this boat has the size and design to handle large bodies of water such as Lake Erie, which, due to its shallowness, can grow some terrifyingly steep waves. When I interviewed the fishing-tour boat owner, he was pre-fishing a tournament in the very same spot.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s got the fishing chops to handle tournament duty with features such as the 50-inch livewell in the stern, which can handle long species such as muskie and pike or can be divided to assist with culling smaller fish during a tournament. The foredeck has a 24-inch baitwell with a minnow bag, in front of the driver’s console for easy reloading with a golden shiner. A feature that makes this boat stand out is the flat panel in the driver’s dash, which can accommodate big-screen electronics such as the 10.4-inch Humminbird color fishfinder/GPS our test boat sports.
But this boat is far more than a walleye wagon for two. It will be just as at home pulling skiers or entertaining. With flip-up stern jumpseats and a trio of pedestal seats, there’s seating for six in the cockpit, so sunset cruises while listening to the optional twin-speaker JBL stereo are on the agenda. There’s even a built-in cooler in front of the port console for passenger refreshment. Guests who want to take a dip or ski a set will be able to reboard easily thanks to a ladder that’s neatly recessed.
The 326 XF comes ready to fish with a standard 24v Minn Kota Fourtrex. If back-trolling is on the agenda, a kicker — the 9.9 hp four-stroke on our boat, for example — is a must. The standard fishfinder is a 5-inch Humminbird, but opting for a 10-inch display is a must as well as adding another in front. One of the coolest ideas ever was the invention of the Hot Foot throttle, which allows you to keep both hands on the wheel. Most such throttles need cable shifters, but there is now a model that is compatible with electronic shift outboards. Stratos will rig your boat with any brand outboard you choose. We tested this boat at dawn when the temperature was near freezing and the tall windshield was much appreciated, but there is no dam to block off the walk-through, which could easily be fabricated with a sheet of Starboard or Lexan. Stratos makes its own trailers in-house, and the standard dual-axle model is stylish and stout.