Two-stroke vs four-stroke outboard motors. Which is better for fishing?

By: Steve Starling

Steve Starlo fishing on small boat Starlo reckons four-stroke outboards sit right up there alongside electric motors, sophisticated sounders, graphite rods and braided lines. Steve Starlo fishing on small boat
Sea Jay boat with four stroke outboard engine Lower emissions are better for our aquatic environments. Sea Jay boat with four stroke outboard engine
BarCrusher boat on the water There are now four-strokes made to fit every size of boat. This wasn't always the case. BarCrusher boat on the water

Two-stroke vs four-stroke outboard motors. Which is better for fishing? Starlo offers his personal view on this age-old feud.

Two-stroke vs four-stroke outboard motors. Which is better for fishing?
Check out what Starlo has to say about four-stroke outboard motors.

My hero, mentor and first boss in journalism, the late, great Ron Calcutt, was a visionary who always seemed well ahead of the pack. He had a gift for identifying fishing and boating trends and correctly predicting their future directions.

I guess it helped he was also one of the key people actually shaping those trends. However, when Ron confidently informed me in the mid-80s that two-stroke outboards would go the way of the dinosaurs, and would most likely happen sooner than later, I couldn’t help raising a quizzical eyebrow.

It’s worth remembering, at the time four-stroke outboards were rare beasts anywhere in the world. Certainly examples existed, some dating back to the late 1920s. More recently, in 1962, Homelite released its 55hp Bearcat motor, based on the four-cylinder Crosley auto engine. Homelite later sold the Bearcat design to Fischer-Pierce, makers of Boston Whaler boats. But these early offerings were little more than novelties, destined to gather dust in dark corners of engineering museums.

Admittedly, Honda had begun seriously manufacturing four-stroke outboards a year or two before Ron made his bold prediction, and Yamaha were about to join the fray in a big way. But these were still early days for mass-produced four-strokes, and I’d wager few boating pundits shared Ron’s take on the future at that point in time. As usual, ol’ "Coolcat", as those close to Ron called him, was ahead of the game.


Four-stroke outboards close the gap on two-strokes

I’m fairly sure from his comments in the ’80s that Ron believed it would be all over for two-strokes before the arrival of the new millennium. As it turned out he’d underestimated both the innovative brilliance of two-stroke designers and the buying public’s entrenched love affair with the lighter, faster and relatively more affordable modern versions of these traditional outboards.

But there’s also no denying that we live today squarely in the era of the four-stroke, and that the majority of outboard manufacturers have eagerly embraced that technology as the way of the future.

For a time, particularly through the 1990s, the greater weight, less startling performance, higher price and perceived complexity of four-strokes held them back a little, but every year these disadvantages were whittled away, gradually narrowing the gap between the rival technologies.

Meanwhile, the four-stroke’s superior economy, quieter operation and lower emissions continued to grow in importance with buyers and legislators, as fuel prices climbed and the Western world became more and more environmentally aware. The writing was on the wall.


Fishing with four-stroke marine engines

As an angler who’s always embraced the concept of "finesse" in day-to-day fishing, I was drawn to the quieter, smoother operation of modern four-strokes. In my opinion, they’re simply a lot sneakier and more cunning when it comes to finding and fooling fish.

Lower emissions and better economy are welcome bonuses with these motors, far outweighing any slim differences that may still exist in holeshot performance or power-to-weight ratios. For me, four-strokes sit up there alongside bow-mount electric motors, high-definition depthsounders, braided gel-spun polyethylene fishing lines, sophisticated soft plastic lures and featherweight graphite rods as major icons of the sort of intelligent "finesse fishing" that I embrace and espouse.

That old chestnut of the power-to-weight gap between two and four-strokes has also dwindled toward vanishing point in recent times. Looking at some of the current high-performance fours, I reckon you’d need to be a rabid petrol head searching for percentage point edges in top-end torque or acceleration to opt for the older and less efficient tech of two-strokes.

It’s true … I make no bones about being a one-eyed, dyed-in-the-wool four-stroke fan. It’s also no secret that my outboard allegiances lie with one particular brand of Japanese motor characterised by its conservative grey exterior and reputation for reliability. But I acknowledge there are a bunch of other brilliant four-stroke outboard makers these days. And the great news is their products just keep getting better every year. All-in-all, a good time to be a trailerboat fisher.

My friend Ron may have been a tad bold consigning two-strokes to the fossil cabinet alongside the bones of the T-rex, but he proved remarkably prescient predicting the rise of a new epoch in powerboating. The age of the four-stroke still has a long way to run. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out in the end, and how long the alternatives survive.


See the full version of this story in Trade-A-Boat #469, September, 2015. Why not subscribe today?


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