Personal Watercraft Buyer's Guide
Author: Curtis Howard
Anglers gain access to additional water. Float tubes and personal pontoons grant anglers an edge on accessing water, catching fish, and exploiting outdoor opportunities.
As fishing lore has it, an adolescent duo mindlessly floated over a fisherman’s honey-hole and inspired a fishing revolution. If not for these leisure-floating youths, fisherman would still be dreaming about casting further, fishing the other bank or launching the boat in inaccessible water. The realization of those dreams arrived with float tubes and personal pontoons. Water that was never accessible with large, costly, trailer-pulled boats is now at hand, providing access to a surplus of opportunities.
The pioneers of the float tubes and personal pontoon boats were fly-fishers, but the watercraft is not limited to fly-fishing. These boats are used in a variety of ways from whitewater to trolling. For safety and satisfaction, reviewing the selection of watercraft ensures the correct choice.
The relaxed pace of float tubes creates a brilliant combination with still water - primarily small lakes, ponds and bays. The inflatable bladders serve as both frame and flotation. This simplicity makes them a joy to use. The lightweight engineering opens up a new world of high mountain lakes and secluded water. Inflated, they will fit comfortably in a pickup bed or SUV and deflated, in a bag or backpack.
The original float tubes or belly boats were single bladder inflatable tubes with a center canvas sling seat and the angler wore diver’s swim fins to be used as thrust. Fins continue to be used as the primary thrust, but the boats have changed - sporting as many as three PVC or Urethane air bladders, up to 1000-denier bladder covers for protection against snags and abrasion, backpack straps, multiple storage compartments, backrests, stripping aprons, and raised seating.
The models of float tubes consist of the traditional round shape, U-shape and the hydrodynamic design. The round boats are excellent for beginners as this design creates an enclosure, helping the beginner to feel more secure and they include a modern contoured seat for comfort. Having the tube encircle the user gives added elbow support and it’s impossible to slip out. Slipping out of float tubes is not a common occurrence; however, this design adds the often-needed security for first-time tubers.
U-shaped boats allow the user to ride higher out of the water with padded stadium-like seats, board the boat with ease and add streamlined mobility. On many of the U-shaped models there is a stabilizing bar, stripping apron or both to secure and enclose the open front. Anyone who has used fins on dry land can identify with the clumsiness, making the open-front boarding a lifesaver for avoiding a partner’s routine wit.
The hydrodynamic float tubes are a hybrid of sort - float tube pontoons. Allowing the user higher and drier seating, extra storage on the bow, open front boarding, increased maneuverability, added seating support and comfort. The typical design is a V-shape, permitting the craft to cut through the water in a superior manner. The higher seating creates an environment that allows for improved sight fishing and staying warm in chilly water.
Spawned by the success of float tubes, personal pontoons have been progressing at a rate faster than the electronics industry. It is the thrust system, river qualifications, and weight differences that separate the pontoon from tubes. One- and two-man boats are available with trolling motor capability, casting platforms, recliner comfort, powder coated paint jobs, anchor systems, stripping aprons, cargo decks, whitewater frames and up to class V river ratings. Thanks to the advancement in textiles and plastics there is little water too forbidding for today’s highly durable, compact pontoon. The frames are built from aluminum or steel and fasten with cam straps to the pontoons. The added strength supports the ability for swift travel, longer distances, and moving water. The use of oars and/or a trolling motor give the user dry mobility with the option of using fins for leisurely navigation.
When assessing modern pontoons the price diversity is quickly noted. Boats rated for whitewater and the level of luxuries is reflected in the cost. The standard frames of the boats are similar in design, with the variance of some being packable and others offering heavier components for added durability. The bladder material and the pontoon’s outer protection shell are important consideration and dependent on the boats intended use. Pontoons commonly use heavy-duty bladders constructed of 30-gauge PVC or vinyl. The bladder’s external guard materials range from 600- to 1500-denier vinyl, PVC, or PVC coated nylon. Pontoons with a rough-water design use a minimum of 800-denier protective material. The heavier materials do offer additional puncture resistance and strength, but often lead to an increase in overall boat weight, so the distance of transport will weigh heavily on the choice of fabric.
Base model pontoons offer a straightforward quality boat. Consisting of simple 8-foot pontoons, oars approximately 7-feet in length and comfortable seating. The undemanding design makes them lightweight and a great fit for out-of-the-way streams and lakes.
The select-outfitted models are limited only by operator skill. There are a number of options here and the correct choice is reliant on the individual’s requirements. In choosing a boat, make a list of options the boat must be capable of. If the boat is going to be used in white water the river rating is of utmost importance. If the capability of a trolling motor is a must, use that factor to narrow the search. Below are the core variables:
- Motor Mount
- Overall Weight
- Assembled Measurements
- Unassembled Measurements
- Weight Capacity
- Anchor System
- River Rating I - V
- Rear Deck Size
- Oar Length
- Casting Platform
Personal Watercraft Accessories
When the correct boat has been selected, a few accommodating accessories are in order. Personal watercraft owners will need an air pump. Recommended is a two-way pump that pushes air on the up and down stroke, doubling the production for the same effort. However, if you wind easily, or simply don’t want to start out your day’s fishing with exercise, an electric pump is both quick and effortless. The limitation of this option would be that you would have to fill your pontoons or tube where electricity is available (car battery), which might not work for anglers who routinely pack their craft some distance before launching.
Pontoons boats require oars to be used as the main thrust. The powerful strokes of oars manage precise and lengthy navigation with the level of control needed on swift rivers and larger lakes. Fins are recommended for both float tube and pontoon owners. Maximum thrust fins or compact backpacking fins have been designed for the various applications of personal watercraft. For the angler looking to make quick work of finding rising fish or following schools of baitfish a trolling motor might be applicable. A 36-lb. thrust motor has more than enough giddyup.
There are several practical anchor designs and anchoring systems for pontoons and float tubes that are suitable on breezy days or moving water. Rod holders, beverage holders, sonar mounts, rod leashes, oar keepers, additional storage bags and coolers are available to customize the boat. On extended float trips, dry bags are also valuable for maintaining dry gear.
For safety, a PFD or personal floatation device is strongly suggested and in many places - the law. Cabela’s has a large variety of self-inflating and traditional life vests to select from. In the event that something should puncture a tube or pontoon there are repair kits equipped for both urethane and PVC bladders.
While it is unlikely to achieve 50 mph on the water while kicking or rowing personal watercraft (only witnessed once - a time-consuming story about a snake and mouse fly) the watercraft’s comfort is undeniable. The original mischievous tubers may not have recognized they were planting a seed that would explode into personal watercraft, but as a result fishermen are forever thankful.