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CHOOSING A RIVER CRAFT

    While wading and bank fishing are both great ways to catch fish, there comes a time in an angler's life when it's time to get out and see what the world has to offer. For us river rats, that means gettin' a boat. Mobility is  a great asset for a fisherman to have, and allows the angler to escape the bridge overpasses and heavily used sections of stream in search of peace, quiet, and some fish!

    OK, so you've decided to get a boat of some sort, but now what? Everything from float tubes to full-size bass boats will work on some type of river or stream in Georgia. In between these extremes fall pontoon boats, kayaks, canoes, and jon boats. The key to picking out the best river craft for you is to take a realistic look at how, where, and with whom you choose to fish. If you want to specialize in fishing for flathead catfish in the Altamaha River, a kayak might not be a great choice. If you prefer to fish alone in the swift, small streams of northern Georgia, there are better options than a jon boat. What we'll do here is look at the most common and useful types of craft and discuss where they work best and the limitations of each.

JON BOATS

Jon boats can be as fancy or as basic as you want them to be. A new rig like this one will set you back about $6,000. 

    Jon boats are simply flat-bottomed aluminum boats ranging anywhere from 10 to 20 feet in length, though the most common length is usually in the neighborhood of 14 to 16 feet. Jon boats can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. Many people simply outfit their jon boats with a paddle. Others buy jon boats and rig them up with depthfinders, bow-mounted trolling motors, aerated livewells and bait tanks, and jet-propulsion motors. While rather expensive, these outfits are capable of pulling me out of the water on a slalom ski and up the Chattahoochee in three inches of water. You can catch fish out of both. The right jon boat setup for you depends on your budget, your style, and the places you want to fish. New jon boats can run anywhere from around $600 for a short, no-frills model to well over $20,000 for a model with all conceivable options.

    Jon boats seem to be the boat of choice in large rivers and in slower ones. This makes jon boats very popular in South Georgia, where there are a lot of big, slow rivers. Jon boats are extremely stable, and it takes some doing to turn one over, which makes them a great choice if you have young children. South Georgia bass fishermen love this stability because it allows them to fish standing up. Jon boats also will hold a lot of gear and people, and are really the only option if you want a boat that three adults can fish from. The ability to put a motor (electric or outboard) on the back extends the range of a jon boat, allowing fishermen the ability to see a lot more river in a day. 

    Jon boats have their drawbacks, too. They are not the most hydrodynamic craft in the world, and thus can be very hard to control with a paddle in windy conditions or above-average current. In rocky streams, the aluminum hulls seem to bond magnetically with every rock they encounter, requiring the angler to hop out and unstick them. Heavily-equipped jon boats are also weigh more than other river vessels, making them a poor choice for smaller rivers with lots of logjams. Many jon boaters opt for an electric motor for steering purposes, but shallow water can be a hassle and rivers seem to suck the life out of deep-cycle batteries far quicker than lakes do. Many jon boats, especially larger ones, are too big to cartop or throw in the bed of a pickup, requiring the acquisition of a boat trailer. Before you buy a jon boat and trailer and outfit it with everything under the sun, keep in mind that you'll only be able to use it in waterways that have some type of boat ramp, unless you have a good winch. (Editor's note: This does not mean that your significant other should load and unload your boat! There is a difference between "winch" and "wench", though both can be useful at times!)

 

PONTOON BOATS

Pontoon boats are stable, handle well, and can even get you through decent-size rapids. Great for those who commonly fish alone.

    Pontoon boats first became popular with western trout fishermen in the 1980's, and are beginning to catch on with river fishermen in the South. Now, this type of pontoon boat is not the same thing you see on Lake Sinclair that look like two canoes with a roofed deck on top of them. The pontoon boats we're discussing are the one-person fishing kind. These nifty little jobs consist of two inflatable pontoons with a raised seat in the middle and are powered by small (6 or 7 foot) oars that sit on armrests. The angler's feet can be propped up or simply dangle in the water. Most pontoons are between 8 and 10 feet in length and weigh between 20 and 70 pounds. A few companies are making "packable" pontoons that weigh less than 20 pounds and can be broken down and strapped on. Pontoons can range in price anywhere from $250 to over $3,000 for the two-seater model with an aluminum floor and casting platform. A good place to research pontoons online is Bass Pro Shops- they seem to have the broadest selection, though I'd be careful about buying a boat without at least seeing it in person! Continued...

 

    Now before I get started on the pros and cons of pontoons, you should know that I've never fished from one (though I did make a few fake casts from one in a store one time). I have spoken with many anglers who regularly use them, but don't make your decision to buy or not buy a pontoon based solely on what you read here. Pontoons are extremely stable and a far more comfortable fishing platform than float tubes (belly boats). Anyone who has ever gotten their lure hung in a deep river while in a belly boat knows what a hassle this can be. In a pontoon, you simply put your rod in a holder (standard on many) and row on over. Most pontoons also come with a decent amount of storage space, allowing the angler to bring lunch, drinks, and more than three lures. Pontoons can also fit into the back of most pickups and SUV's fully assembled and ready to go.

    If you are floating a river and want to stop and make a few casts in moderately shallow water, all you have to do is hop out and the two pontoons will sandwich around you, keeping the boat right at your back. Many pontoons also come with anchoring systems should you need to stop in deeper water. The oars allow an angler to slow down or even back up a little ways in order to re-fish a promising hole. Controlling a pontoon while fishing can be a little tricky, but minor course adjustments can be made using one oar or with a little foot-paddling, leaving at least one hand free for fishing. With a little practice, pontoons can even be used to run small rapids, and they can float over a few inches of water without sticking to rocks the way aluminum does. They are also very handy for flyrodders, as most come with a casting apron.

    While pontoons are certainly neat inventions, they have their limitations (like every other river craft). First of all, almost all pontoons are built for one, so if you need an excuse not to take your wife fishing, a pontoon is a good bet! Seriously, pontoon anglers who like company when they fish need to figure out another mode of transport for their partner. Another limitation of pontoons is what I call "upstream portability". River anglers who fish alone often like to paddle, row, or motor a ways upstream and then float back to their original launching point. Pontoons are much harder to get upstream than canoes or kayaks because the two tubes create a good bit of drag on the water. On really slow rivers, upstream portability is not as poor, but you will be pretty tired after rowing a mile upstream in even the slowest river. Some pontoons come with electric motor mounts, but this will add weight and require that you register your craft with the state and pay taxes on it. Pontoon anglers, therefore, are generally limited to traditional downstream floats and must have a vehicle waiting at the take out point.

    One thing that makes pontoons so popular on western trout waters is the relative lack of woody cover on these streams. Georgia waterways are generally choked with woody cover, and some of it is sharp. Invariably, you are going to get hung up, brush up against a sharp stick and pop a bladder. Many pontoons come with two bladders on each side (and emergency repair kits), so you could still limp to port even if an "engine" goes out. The rocky streams of northern and middle Georgia are also notoriously hard on the underbellies of boats, so I would make sure that replacement pontoons can be purchased because after a few seasons, many will give out. If you don't mind arranging transportation and are careful around sharp stuff, a pontoon might be a great choice. Almost all of the 'toon owners I have spoken with are happy with their boats.

KAYAKS

Recreational kayaks such as this one have plenty of room for a day's gear. Getting to that gear while afloat can be rather tricky, however.

    While pontoons are all the rage for southern trout fishermen, kayaks seem to be catching on for warm-water river rats. Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, from 18 foot sea kayaks to 6 foot whitewater models. While sea kayaks track (go straight) really well and are ultra-easy to paddle against current, they are not very maneuverable and are not a great option for most Georgia rivers. Unless you plan on fishing Section IV of the Chattooga, whitewater kayaks are not a great choice either. They are very tippy in slow current and track poorly when not being paddled (this means that they go in circles a lot when you are trying to fish). 

    A happy medium can be found in "recreational" kayaks, which are pretty stable and also track well. Recreational kayaks generally range from about 10 to 13 feet in length, making them more maneuverable than most canoes and sea kayaks and more stable than whitewater kayaks and canoes. New recreational kayaks can run anywhere from $400 to $900. Generally speaking, the longer kayaks track better and the wider ones are more stable. Kayaks shorter than 10 feet are going to be a little bit harder to paddle upstream, yet easier to steer in tight quarters and in rapids. If you want more specifics Hobie, Ocean Kayak, Perception, and Old Town are but a few of the companies that manufacture recreational kayaks. Paddling.net also has product reviews available (for canoes also!) where you choose the manufacturer and model and read customer's reviews. If all else fails, ask around on the GRF Message Board.

    Kayaks are a great choice for solo fishermen because they are so easy to paddle upstream, making the whole car shuttle ordeal unnecessary. Simply paddle upstream a mile or two and float back down or vice versa. It's a workout, but I imagine most of us could use a bit more exercise! Most recreational kayaks also weigh between 48 and 55 pounds, making them easy to load up and get to the water almost anywhere. As a fishing platform, kayaks put the angler right on the water's surface, making it easy to skip lures under branches. Fishermen that love to wade use kayaks simply to transport themselves from one wading area to the next. Anglers that also enjoy whitewater will find that recreational kayaks handle Class II's with ease and are also easy to portage when they chicken out! Increasingly, more Georgia anglers are turning to sit-on-top (SOT's) kayaks, which make getting in and out and accessing gear a lot easier. Sit-on-top's are a little wetter ride than traditional kayaks, but in Georgia it's hot for over half the year and donning a pair of ultralight waders during the colder months nips this drawback in the bud!

    Anyone who is afraid of getting a bit wet should probably find another mode of conveyance, however. Even with a spray skirt, some water always seems to find it's way into the kayak, even on flat water, due to drip from the paddle. Obviously, kayaks cannot tote as much gear as canoes or jon boats, and only ultra-light packers can use them for overnight floats. Most recreational kayaks do have room for a small cooler and tackle box using deck rigging, but the rule for kayakers is to travel light. Some anglers feel a bit confined riding in the tight quarters of a kayak, and some manufacturers have addressed this by making larger cockpits on certain models (getting in and out repeatedly is still a hassle, though). Getting to your gear while seated in a kayak often requires bodily dexterity befitting a contortionist. Anglers that rarely have to deal with rapids and don't mind getting wet may want to consider sit-on-top recreational kayaks, which make entering, exiting, and getting at gear simple. Kayaks also require a few easy modifications to make them really effective fishing vehicles (primarily rod and paddle holders) , but anchor systems and even trolling motor mounts and depth finders can be fit onto some kayaks (can you say "overkill"?). 

    Kayaks, like pontoons, are generally one-person outfits. Most manufacturers make tandem kayaks, but these require the anglers to sit really close, which is great for a moonlight serenade with your wife, but bad when you're both slinging treble hooks sidearm. If you really want a maneuverable fishing boat for two, a canoe is probably a better option. Kayaks are extremely versatile once you adapt to the small cockpit, different paddle, and relative lack of storage. They work well in most any situation, but tend to be more popular in small to midsize rivers (motorized craft are more useful in big rivers). If you fish for large species such as big flatheads or blue catfish or even stripers, kayaks are not the best choice (unless you like water skiing!). Likewise, people who fish with live bait or routinely try to catch a mess for dinner will find kayaks impractical. 

CANOES

    If you are looking for a river craft that will suffice in almost all river situations, but excel in few, a canoe might be the choice for you. Canoes can carry two people and a lot of gear comfortably, yet are small enough to be managed on solo trips as well. Canoes are nimble enough for small waters, and canoes with two paddlers track better than most kayaks. The best canoes for most river fishing situations run between 14 and 16 feet in length and are made of anything other than wood or aluminum. Having spent most of my fishing life in an aluminum canoe older than I am, I feel a bit like a traitor. Aluminum canoes are really noisy, however, and they stick to rocks like glue. Fiberglass canoes are fine as long as you don't plan on scraping rocky riverbeds very often, because they will wear out quickly. Canoes made from Royalex or other modern plastics are far quieter and slide off rocks and logs far better than aluminum. New canoes made from modern plastics generally run between $500 and $2,000.

    There are still tons of options to consider when purchasing a canoe such as rocker depth, keel, and whether or not you want a traditional canoe or a square-stern. Most fishermen will want to stay away from the whitewater canoes, which are tippy in slow water and track poorly. These have a pronounced rocker, which means they curve upwards at both ends. Canoes with keels track much better than those without, but are not nearly as maneuverable. Keels also have a way of clipping shallow rocks when not pointed downstream, adding a jolt of excitement, but normally nothing worse. Generally speaking, I would recommend keeled canoes for slower, flatwater streams and rounded hulls for quicker waters with rapids. Square-stern canoes are another consideration. Square-sterns are good options for fishermen who can't decide between a canoe and a jon boat. Square-sterns tend to provide more stability than traditional canoes and paddle better than jon boats. There are many canoe manufacturers, but Old Town and Mad River have very informative websites. Also check out the reviews at Paddling.net

    Canoes are seen on more Georgia rivers than anything else because they can handle pretty much anything. Canoes are better on small waters than jon boats, handle better than pontoons, and hold far more stuff than kayaks. However, if you frequent larger rivers and want to be able to scoot around quickly, a larger, motorized jon is a better choice. If you fish alone, a kayak is a bit easier to manage than a canoe. If you want a stable fishing platform, only the widest canoes come close to the stability offered by jon boats, kayaks, and pontoons (even though most good fishing canoes are quite stable). If you spend enough time in a canoe, however, eventually you will go swimming. Having said all that, for most situations, a good canoe will get the job done! 

THE ULTIMATE RIVER CRAFT

The "Ultimate River Craft" simply doesn't exist. The angler with the $15,000 jet boat isn't going to be able to see as much of the Apalachee River as the guy in the $50 canoe. The guy in the canoe won't get around on the Coosa River nearly as well as the guy in the jet boat. The best craft for any fisherman is whatever they don't mind spending a day afloat in. As I mentioned earlier, I fished from an ancient, tippy aluminum canoe with a huge keel for many years. I kept telling myself that as soon as it gave out, I'd get one of the nice newer ones. I never wore it out despite abusing it on almost every river and stream in North Georgia, and finally sold it for $50 to a buddy who has used it just as hard for 5 more years since (Geez, talk about a good investment!). It still tips over all the time and gets stuck when you merely think about hitting a rock, but it gets the job done because eventually we all learn to adapt to our steeds, even if none of them is perfect. Find something new or used that you can afford, spend as much time as you can in it, and don't fret over your boat's shortcomings because every boat has them!  

 

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