Jim McLennan on Jon Boats and Drift Boats

Boats are indeed useful tools for fishing, but there are some things I feel compelled to advise you about, starting with this: “A boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money.”

by Jim McLennan (illustration by Jeff Kennedy)

Most people who fish, including fly fishers, have or will have some sort of experience with owning a boat. It may be a brief, passing flirtation or it may border on obsession. In either case it usually starts with the mostly logical thought that you can get to more water with a boat and therefore catch more fish. The boat might be simple, propelled only by oars, or it may be anything but simple, with big horsepower, steering wheel, windshield, and an emergency backup outboard motor.

It might be a hard-sided boat made of wood, aluminum or fibreglass, or it might be made of rubber and filled with air. The most recent incarnation of the latter is the pontoon boat and I’ve been fascinated to observe its evolution over the last 20 years or so. It seems to have started with what was called a float tube or belly boat that you steered by kicking your feet with the aid of swim fins. This evolved into the more user-friendly U-boat, which then morphed into the pontoon boat, with two air chambers instead of one. Then small oars were added and after that the craft was enlarged to become a two-man pontoon boat with oars and an electric motor mount. The latest development seems to be the addition of a floor and a place for a lunch cooler. Is it just me or is this pretty much the same thing we used to call an inflatable raft, which fly fishers have used for decades?

But I digress. Boats are indeed useful tools for fishing, but there are some things I feel compelled to advise you about, starting with this: “A boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money.” Nobody seems to know who came up with that line, but it’s a great one that’s also true. Once you own a boat there are always upkeep costs and more accessory gizmos you can get that may help you catch more fish, but will cost you more money.

I’ve only owned three boats. The first was a 12-foot aluminum car-topper that I stole and then inherited from my father. He and I used this to fish the trout lakes of Jasper National Park when I was growing up and I later used it on moving water, where it proved to be a little lacking in, shall we say, river-worthiness. I hoodwinked a friend into buying it from me and the last time I saw it it was in his garage, filled with snowshoes, some elk antlers, and a portable duck blind.

Next came an aluminum Jon boat, which was the most versatile of my modest fleet. Its olive drab colour and flat bottom made it a good platform from which to shoot ducks, and it would also take an outboard motor. What I used it for mainly though, was float-fishing a large, gentle trout river, where it performed admirably. But as fly fishing boomed in the ‘90s, john boats went out of fashion and almost everybody else on the river was rowing what were then called McKenzie River driftboats. I didn’t want to be the last guy to the party so of course I had to get one of those. I sold the john boat to another unsuspecting friend and bought a nice, used, wooden driftboat. This was probably my favourite boat, because it rowed well, looked great, and made me feel that I was a sophisticated fly fisher who was up with the times and also had an obvious appreciation for tradition. I didn’t mind either that other fishermen always seemed to admire the pretty wooden boat.

But because it was made of wood, this boat needed maintenance every couple of years. As a mechanically-challenged individual, this meant that I needed other people to do the work. So at least four and possibly five times, I found friends who had the knowledge, interest, tools, garage space, and most importantly the gullibility to take on the tasks of refinishing, repairing, repainting, and whatever else the boat needed. It is noteworthy that no one individual worked on it twice. Everyone found it to be more work and less fun than they expected.

After about 15 years I realized I was running out of the right kind of friends, and concluded that people like me should never own any piece of equipment that requires frequent maintenance. So I sold the boat a year or so ago to another fishing buddy, who immediately refinished and refurbished it. The boat looks great again, he loves it, and I’m satisfied that it is he who should own it.

I now borrow a boat when I need one. The main problem with this is in figuring out how to operate all the clever but complicated and puzzling systems for anchors, oarlocks, hitches, straps and covers, and then putting them all back together properly before I return the boat.

So that’s my life with boats (so far). Along the way I’ve learned other important lessons – too many of them the hard way – about the importance of details like drain plugs, spare oars, anchors, life jackets, and tool kits.

I’ve also found some other people with experience similar to mine and we’re considering starting an organization called Recovering Boaters Anonymous. Send an email to this magazine if you think you need help. No need to include your name.