Selecting & Using Pontoon Float Boats

Pontoon float boats like other boats, come in different sizes and with many different features, along with a vast difference in prices.   Most single person units are made from 7 foot to 10 footers.   I even saw a 6’er in a store the other day, so you have many choices to choose from.   For the new comer to this way of being on the water, some of the factory advertisements may well be new to them and possibly misleading.   It is recommended that you look at many of these boats that are set up in the stores, ask salespersons questions, make notes as to make, model and prices, call your friends, ask what they have, how they use it and if they were to purchase another one what would they get the next time.

Some longer models are made with 2 rowing stations with an extra 2 or more passenger seats.   These are commonly used by some fishing/floating guides.

One thing is the advertised length may not be the actual length.  One model, (same one sold by 3 different companies) was listed by one company as an 8′ 7″er.  The other 2 companies selling the same boat advertised it as a 9′.   Kind of inconsequential, but 5″ is 5″, and it sure makes a difference when measuring for legal length salmon or sturgeon.  But I guess this is a totally different game.

Here the author is coming back to shore after the maiden voyage.

Preference & Your Needs ;  The preference of many fishermen around here seems to fall in the 8′ or 9′ range.  Some say that the 7’ers seems to be a little squirrelly on the water.  The 8’ers work OK, but 9’ers seem to be more preferred.  It also depends on whether you plan on floating a river, fishing a large lake or use it on a pack in on small lake as to the size.  Also look at the floatation capacity of each unit.  All makes of the same size are not rated the same.  If you are a person who weighs in at 250#, and the 8’er you are looking at only is rated at 300#, another reason to look at a different brand or go up to the 9’er with a rating of usually 400# plus.

Some will be rated only for lakes while others may be OK for whitewater #1 or #2 ratings.

Look at Construction & Ask Questions ;   The metal framework can be made from small diameter thin tubing up thru a larger size thicker walled tubing that is powder coated for better resistance to the weather.  This tubing does not have to be super thick wall material and totally out of proportion with the rest of the boat however.  Framework on the more expensive units may even be made of stainless steel.   On the lighter weight economy models look for a strong footrest.  Some are made so the seat is adjustable to balance you with the boat, while others the seat is not movable.  The better ones will have 3 different locations for the oarlocks to be inserted into, giving you a better more relaxed rowing position.   Most all units will have adjustable footrests.  Others may have a aluminum diamond-plate lower deck where your feet are not near the water.   Oars will usually be made in 2 snap together sections, and will vary in diameter of the handles from 7/8″ to 1 5/16″, depending on the size and price of the boat.

The float tubes themselves usually are made of using a single bladder for each side, while the better ones seem to utilize dual bladders on each side which are inserted inside a rip-stop outer shell.  Most will use straps directly to the tube for attachment to the seat /rowing framework.   Most all will have side bags on the top of the tube on each side of the seat for storage of gear.  Then some will have a nylon net under the seat to catch anything that you may drop.  Most will have another nylon net behind the seat to stow other gear, some will have a metal rack here.  Most will have some sort of a simple rod holder.  Others will have additional gear bags on the front & rear of each float tube.  Some even have an anchor system plus a outboard motor bracket, (usually for electric trolling motors).   Another one has a single wheelbarrow type wheel that can be stored flat-wise under the seat and removed to be placed in the down position with the whole boat pushed like a wheelbarrow to transport it to and from the water.

The economy 8’ers will get you there and back, while depending on your preferences and finances, the larger more expensive ones will do it also, but may add ease and comfort to your outing, (some of the time).   Also depending on your intended usage, there really is no need to go for a 10’er for a smaller stream or one that you intend to move around quite a bit as these larger boats really require 2 people to move it on land.  Some of the smaller units are also designed to be a backpacker.  

One thing you will find is that some makes come with a molded plastic folding seat, while others (even the cheaper ones) may have a better folding metal tube type that has a canvas/nylon seat with back.  In my findings this metal seat is preferable in that it usually has a higher and stiffer backrest.  This sturdier seat is something you will wish you had if you spend time on this type of boat, especially if you plan on floating a river where you need to be rowing forward.  This type of rowing puts a lot of strain on your back as you are pushing the oar handle forward.   Doing it this way, it is helpful to be able to support your back as you push the oars forward instead of just setting in a flimsy seat, trying to use your leg and back muscles.   Being able to have your back supported sure makes for less aches at the end of a long day.

My boat has a special adapter valve that the air pump locks onto.  This adapter depresses the tube check-valve when being inflated then releases it to close when the adapter is removed.  Then a screw on cap seals this filler neck.  These tube fillers are out of the way on top of the tube.  I have seen another brand that has the filler stuffed inside the attached pouch in the middle of the tube.  This is a cheaper and probably more common unit that has a clamshell type valve on the tube that you then have to screw a cap onto the filler that has a attached plastic O-Ring which is used to make the final seal.   One tube on the Grandson’s boat has leaked repeatedly.  It was found that the plastic O-Ring was not carefully seated right.  Apparently not totally foolproof to a 15 year old that is not familiar with mechanical workings.

Some boats will come with a inflation pump, while others may not.  Prices of these high capacity hand pumps may vary from $6 to $30.

One thing to consider is that the oarlocks have some kind of retention system to keep the oar from being dislodged and falling overboard.  These aluminum oars do not float well. 

Oar Mountings ;  Some brands of these boats have the oarlocks clamped onto the oars making the paddle end always located in the rowing position.  Others use the conventional oarlock where the oar can rotate & the rower has to constantly watch to be sure the oar is biting into the water properly.  The problem I found on this type is that the rubber oar stop ring could not be tightened enough to stay in position.  If you tightened it TIGHT, the heads of the screw or nut would simply pull thru the rubber.

Here someone was thinking and built a plastic clamp which incorporates a bar that when set properly, holds the oar in rowing position.  This company, Tom Grant Sporting Products of Madras OR, makes 2 sizes.  The small (#333 A, for shaft size wrapping sleeve 1 3/8″ to 1 5/8″)  size which appears to be the more common size for the smaller pontoon boats.  The set comes complete for $36.99.   The 333 B size fits 2″ to 2 1/4″ size oar.

Clamp type oarlock Standard oarlock Oar-Right
Picture               forthcoming

Accessories ;   You can purchase accessories like anchors, patch kits, motor mounts, rudders, wheels, depthfinder mounts, rod tethers and numerous other add ons.  I did find an economy high volume air pump that was small enough to carry on my boat for a price of $6.00 at a local sporting goods store.

Usually the main reason for acquiring one of these little gems, is for the purpose of fishing.   So you may need to purchase another small fabric style tackle bag and other gear that more fits the usage on these units (at least that is what you can tell the wife).  I found a neat small tackle bag at Wal-Mart for $8.00

Boat Prices ;  Prices for an 8’er can be as low as $200 (even as low as $150 if on sale) with 9’ers usually $400/$500 & up well into the $1000 range.  Currently (7-07) if you go online Creek Company has an 8′ for $199 shipping included.  If you do your homework, take manufacturers or importers names off the units and go onto an internet Google search, you will be surprised what you may come up with.  About all of the “economy” models are made in China.   However there are a few made in China that appear to also be well made.  Other domestic brands all appear to be quite well made and will probably offer better warranty than trying to go thru an importer, who may be out of business when you need them.   

In my initial limited research I had about decided that a 9’er was about what I was interested in.  Without knowing a lot about them, I initially had set a $500 maximum price if I was going to purchase one.   My search led me to a major sporting goods store that was out of that size in their own name brand model in that price range.   The salesman said they could not keep enough of that model in during the early summer,  he then glanced around to see if anyone else was in earshot and asked if I was a member of a well known national wholesale chain store.  The answer was yes, he then informed me that the local store had some very good 9’ers in at a price of $299.   Within an hour, I investigated, took the importers name off the box, came home to the computer.  I found the importer’s company website, and the product, but no price.  Then went I to Cabelas catalog for more checking, found that they also had this same pontoon boat, listed in their fly fishing catalog but using the different model name of Rogue, listed for $499.   Guess which one I went back and bought the next day.

Fast forward to February 2013.   Cabela’s sales flier shows the Classic Accessories brand, model Colorado XT Pontoon Boat to be essentially the same boat.

My  9′ Outfitter 300 pontoon boat Front view

In the photo above, (but not seen in the photo) this model has a single wheel unit attached in the center, under the seat for mobility while out of the water, that is why the boat is setting up slightly on the rear in the above photo.  This wheel bracket slides into a square receptacle and pinned in place for when the wheel is down, for floating, it is pulled out rotated 90 degrees, inserted sideways so the wheel unit lies under the seat and out of the way.  The total weight of this unit is 90#.

This boat appears to be well made, has many features (like lots of storage) that I liked.  I now have a air pump in one of the bags in front with 50′ of 3/8″ rope in the other, both available if needed, but yet out of the way.  I carry used plastic shopping bags in one of the rear bags for use in garbage cleanup.

The one thing I made a change in quite soon was the rod-holder, as it was designed for a fly rod, I extended it about 4″ with a piece of PVC over the metal base.  Notice the multi position oarlock locations and dual bladder filler valves and having the larger dia. (1 5/16″) oar shafts with brass oarlocks.

Inflation ;  The manufacturers recommended inflation of these units is recommended at between 3 1/2# to 5# .   This may seem minimal to a newbie, but at 5# the tube is really tight.  You will get the best performance out of your boat if the tube is near this level of inflation.  You may well have to adjust  the inflation depending on the weather.  In a hot day, the air inside the tube will expand, so you may have to deflate it slightly.  And on a cold day you may have to inflate it some.  It is best to purchase a special air pressure gauge made just for this purpose until you get used to using your boat.

On mine it only takes 5 pumps of the large hand pumps to go from slightly under-inflated to full inflation.

When not in use, it is best to slightly deflate the tubes.

In use, depending on the weather and water temperature, as seen in the photo below, shorts with no shoes can be the norm.  However if steelheading in a river in the fall/winter chest waders would be more appropriate. 

Extra Oars ;  One thing I intend to do is purchase another set of replacement oars.  I have heard horror stories of float trips in rivers where an oar is lost.  It’s rather hard to control one of these boats in moving water, by just tying to paddle with one oar they say.   My intention is to just take one extra along in the collapsed form lashed to the rear carrier rack or up tight under the seat along side the pontoon.   I will also fill the hollow handles with the spray in insulating foam that is available from hardware stores to make the oar floatable.   I also have purchased a smaller hand air pump that I stow onboard.

Also you may consider using a set of small bungee cords to keep the oars in place on the rear (paddle end) and to the tube brackets while in transit or just moving it to the waters edge.

You can purchase special waterproof bags for some of your gear.  Even a 30 gallon garbage bag with duct tape can perform well if needed.  I use a one gallon Zip-Lock baggie for may camera and related gear.   Be sure that the camera has a neck strap AND use it.   You might even use another baggie to put your hearing aids into, just in case, if you are a Mouldy Old Fogy.   Polaroid glasses are also a plus if you plan on fishing in an area that is subject to bright sunshine.   Another thing you may want to carry is a 3/8″ nylon rope of about 50′ long.  You may need to portage the boat around the side of a rapids, up or down a steep bank at times if traveling a river.  Also when you pull it up on shore, be sure it is high enough on the bank and tethered, so it does not float away without you.

Water Safety ;  It is advised to travel at least pairs especially when floating a river, as accidents can happen.   And of course, always wear a Personal Floatation Devise.   The inflatable vests are very easy to wear all day.   I am not sure yet whether I want to use my self-inflatable on one of these boats, but the manual units would be a must.

 These float boats can be a good way of doing a 2 or 3 day trip with friends, where you all take different needed items to set the overnight camps up with.

Grandson Kris using his  8′ Creek Company ODC  on Montana’s Wade Lake

Getting Used to This Type of Boating & Observations ;  Listed here are some of my limited observations.  There is a slight learning curve involved as with most new toys.   I would suggest you do not plan a whole day on the water for your first outing.   Or at least break the day into segments.

You will probably have to make adjustments in the seat location (if this is an option), the footrests, etc. to have it fit you for what is most comfortable.  Comfort here is A PRIME objective in that once you are on the boat, you are pretty well committed as being cramped can lead to aching muscles by the end of the trip.  Getting used to how it handles under different conditions, (like rowing against the wind) needs to be understood.  These boats, being light and with no keel, will travel a distance pretty rapidly if just drifting with the wind, but not necessarily where you really wanted to go.

Rowing for fishing on a large slow moving river or lake will probably be the natural way that many of us old row-boaters are accustomed to by rowing backwards.  It is easier, as you are pulling on the oars and you will put less strain on your back, (especially us Moldy Old Fogies).  It also allows you to watch your fishing line for possible strikes.  It is suggested to have 2 rod holders mounted in different locations so that they do not interfere with the oars depending on which way you are rowing.

However if you are floating a river, where you need to maintain a position, either in or out of the current to avoid rocks, logs or swift corners, then rowing forward seems to be a pre-requisite.  But remember that this type of rowing is just reversed from the method described above.  Here depending on the seat type that your boat is equipped with, you consider using a industrial type back brace, as the strain is back against the seat’s back and most of these seats appear to not be that sturdy.  I like the canvas higher backed seats for forward rowing as it gives you better back support.  For the plastic clamshell type seats even a wooden wedge in between the back and the base may give you more support.

On the long slow runs with no riffles or minimal white water, your boat will usually be floating broadside with the current. 

I have found that on a river it is best when entering the tail out above a riffle where you need to hit a slot, to be rowing forward (even ever so slightly) so that you can maintain exact control when you hit the slot.  Don’t wait until, for the last second to get into position as just a little too much oar motion may push you out of your needed position.  You need to be able to still use the oars as you are moving thru the fast slot, as it may want to shift you around to it’s current, and not where you want to be.  Almost always try to hit the main flow and then when you are in it you may want to row to the inside before the end to keep you out of any possible heavy water as many of these can be on a corner which could have down trees or debris.  On a river where there are riffles and sharp bends, it is sometimes best to pull over just above the riffle, either pull the boat over the gravel bar, or by using a tether rope, lead it thru the bad slot.  This is particularly advantageous if there are overhanging tree limbs or protruding logs, undercut banks or anything that could suck you under or get you in a precarious situation.

On low water conditions on some rivers, you may even drag bottom in places, especially on the riffles.

One thing you should get used to doing at the end of your trip is to wash the boat off with fresh water, especially if you had used it in salt or brackish water.  It is not a bad idea to even do this anytime to remove any foreign debris or even mud.

This type of boat is not designed as a speedboat, but they do move across the water with ease.  Matter of fact if you are using it for trolling, it moves so easily that you may have to slow down to allow your lure to sink below the surface.  

Another thing is carry a couple of bungee cords.  These can come in handy to attach your coat to the boat later when the weather warms up.  Also the small ball type bungees work great to secure the oar blade to the boat while transporting it.

Ease of Launching ;   With these things, you don’t really need a regular boat launch.  Matter of fact about any gravel bar, beach or even a brushy access that does not a deep drop off seems to work just fine.

Websites for a few pontoon boat manufacturers.

I had fun with the one I bought, but sold it after a couple of years because with back problems, the seat was not conducive to extended time rowing and I could not find a seat that supported my back that was adaptable to this boat.  And for this old overweight boy, small boats with small outboards seem to work quite well.

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