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Sunday, May 23, 2004

Argument of pontoon over canoe really holds water

By Mark Taylor

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    In a lifetime of spending money on outdoor gear I have few regrets.

    The biggest mistake came when I was probably 10, and wasted $6.95 on a worthless slingshot-type thing that used a rubber cone to shoot a projectile through a tube.

    Recently I've started thinking I made a mistake regarding a significantly more expensive purchase.

    Several years ago I bought a canoe, primarily for float fishing the region's smallmouth bass rivers.

    "Why'd you do that?" my brother asked at the time.

    Greg thought I would have been better off buying a pontoon boat.

    Not one of those 24-foot-long aluminum things with a 150 horsepower engine and a wet bar. A boat using two 9-foot-long or so inflated pontoons connected by a metal frame and a seat.

    I know now he was right.

    When it comes to human-powered float-fishing craft, I'm convinced you can't beat a pontoon boat.

    Greg knew it because he and his buddies were using the boats for float fishing rivers out West, streams that ranged from tiny trickles to furious Whitewater maelstroms.

    Rob Tucker knows it because he's been using his pontoon boat in Western Virginia.

    "They're the way to go when fishing the New and the James," said Tucker, a Radford resident who bought one two summers ago. "I love the thing."

    Let me be clear about something here. I don't have one of these boats. Nor am I being compensated to plug these things - although if the Creek Company or Outcast wants to send me one for long-term testing I'd certainly entertain the idea.

    I'm also not basing this only on hearsay.

    Several years ago Greg, his buddy, and I used single-person pontoon boats on a three-day float camping trip down the Deschutes River in Central Oregon.

    Because the boats don't have much cargo capacity we wedged small rubber rafts between the pontoons behind our seats, hauling our dry bag-enclosed gear in those things.

    In the 35-mile trip we easily ran numerous rapids, including a couple of Class IVs. We didn't come close to swimming.

    An experienced paddler could have pulled off the same feat in a canoe. I would have had my boat wrapped around a rock within the first two miles.

    Stability is probably the biggest advantage of a pontoon boat over a canoe, and that's largely a factor of width. The average canoe is roughly three feet wide; the average single-man pontoon boat is close to twice that.

    Sit in a canoe and rock suddenly to the side. You're swimming. Try that in a pontoon boat and the thing won't budge.

    Granted, in large waves shorter pontoon boats can flip over backward if the driver isn't careful.

    Stability helps make pontoon boats a better fishing platform. The elevated seats also help.

    They're also highly maneuverable because of the double-oar system. And they can handle shallow water.

    Pontoon boats aren't perfect.

    Although models with aluminum frames can weigh as little as 50 pounds, some models are relatively heavy. They're all a bit bulky and unwieldy.

    They can also pop if you hit something sharp, although the better models are pretty sturdy.

    They're slow on flat water, although some models come equipped with mounting brackets for trolling motors. And typically there's room for only one person.

    Finally, they're not cheap.

    Entry-level single-man boats start at about $300. Top-of-the-line models can run $1,500. In other words, they're right in line with what canoes cost.

    Despite their advantages, pontoon boats remain rare in these parts.

    "On the New or James we'll pass people and they'll just stare," Tucker said.

    Tradition is probably a big reason. Fishermen float in canoes and little johnboats because that's what they've always floated in.

    Don't buy one of these things on my word alone.

    Go to Blue Ridge Fly Fishers in Roanoke and rent their pontoon boat for a weekend.

    It will cost you $45, but it might save you making a decision you'll later regret.

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