By Janice Togal
Now I have a confession. While I envy the Ariels of the world – and the whole “becoming one with the fish” spirit – truth be told I’m a bit of a water wimp. I am more comfortable ON the water than IN the water. Yes, yes…it is beautiful…and I do feel closer to nature—I do—but no mermaid fantasies here! Even in dog days of summer, when wet wading replaces waders, my ultra light, full length quick-dry pants provide a slim protective armor between me and “fish, turtles, weeds and other yuk,” the slightest touch from which guarantees to interrupt a cast or illicit a girlie squeal. So when I discovered the pontoon – an inflatable float that would hold me safely and securely, could get me to the honey holes too deep to wade while riding high ON the water, and that I could almost afford – this was the float for me!
A pontoon (often called a ‘toon) has two inflatable bladders covered by abrasion resistant pvc bottoms, separated by a sturdy frame which holds the pontoons securely in place with Velcro straps, provides a base for a seat with back support and adjustable above-water foot rests that extend forward an opening for easy entry and exit. It rides higher in the water than U-tubes and can be used on streams and lakes, big rivers, small rivers (most rated for Class 1), some big creeks and almost all lakes and ponds.
Pontoons are propelled by dropping your legs in the water to use your fins as flippers, or by resting your feet on foot rests (picture riding a Harley) to use your oars like a row boat; either way to skim ‘skeeter-like’ across the water. My fishing buddy is a master at using only her fins to propel backwards across the water in a line as straight as her cast, fishing (and catching) as she travels. Still working on my flipping skills, I zig and zag on a course in no way resembling a linear direction, so I mostly row to cover distance. Found a hole you aren’t ready to drift away from? A slow and easy flip of your fins holds you in place to cast in any direction, change flies, or sip your favorite refreshment.
While features and accessories differ among pontoon models, many include rod holders, drink holders, a stripping apron (with built in fish ruler), a small anchor system, and substantial easy-access storage pockets for fly boxes and tackle, rain gear, camera and lunch. I call it ‘Easy Chair’ fishing.
Some models have a small rear storage rack for gear or small cooler and/or motor mount where a small trolling motor can be attached (which would then require a marine license). Quality pontoons feature double or triple stitching of durable nylon with non-corrosive zippers immune to rust. With a quick-draining bottom, the float can readily dry off for transport inside your car.
The In’s and Out’s
Alas, comfort comes with a price. The bladders must be partially deflated to fit in the back of your car or SUV for transport and before attaching to the frame; therefore, some assembly is required. It takes only a few minutes, but the pontoons have to be strapped onto the frame, then pumped with a double-action pump to top off inflation, and the 2- or 3-piece oars put together (I keep mine put intact).
Once assembled, you simply lift one end by the frame and drag to the water’s edge, walk up to the seat (no squeezing into an enclosed space like an O-ring), strap on the fins (if using), and push yourself off. It’s as simple as sitting down and rowing yourself away from shore. A few new models have a built-in wheel under the frame for easy transport to and from the water.
The ease of portability is determined by the size of the pontoon and the size of your vehicle. With 8 foot bladders, a smaller frame and larger vehicle, my friend can easily partially deflate and throw her Classic Arrow Backpacker Pontoon in her car, loading and unloading quick and effortlessly. I, on the other hand, while enjoying the comfort of ‘easy chair’ fishing from my larger framed, 9-ft double-bladder Trout Unlimited Classic Colorado XT Pontoon, have been challenged to lift, load and transport my ‘easy chair’ in a compact SUV. After experimenting with various methods (and much grunting and bruising), I ultimately installed a special pontoon transport frame (ordered thru Oregon Fishing online: www.oregonfishing.com) that fits into my receiver hitch so it now rides fully assembled, standing behind my car. This works like a champ but cost almost as much as I spent on the float. I can still partially deflate and stow disassembled in my car; however, this method leaves open space for oars and fishing gear and is ready to launch with just a little topping off of air. A pickup truck can transport a fully-assembled pontoon (even two), ready for launch.
Pontoons–Cheers and Jeers:
Safety and Stability –
- PRO – TWO flotation bladders (air leaks not common but tend to be slow-second bladder provides sufficient flotation and time for angler to reach shore)
- CON – It’s not a boat.
- PRO – Fins and oars – TWO ways to propel and control
- CON – Slight learning curve (flipping and rowing)
- PRO – Developing Popeye-like muscles (without eating spinach)
- CON – Rowing against the wind
Riding High –
- PRO – Better site casting
- CON – Bigger wind target
- PRO – Reason to buy that pickup truck you’ve always wanted
- CON – “Some assembly required”; weight
See Susan Dymond’s article “O-rings and U-tubes…Belly up to the Belly Boats!” Her references to resources and gear such as pumps, flippers, patch kits, and pfds apply to all floats—be they O-rings, U-tubes or pontoons. Purchasing from a retail outlet with an easy Return policy allows you to buy and try, and return for a refund if you decide it’s just not for you. Cabela’s Web site offers a comparison chart for most models on the market.
All in all, even with the learning curve and the assembly, I love fishing from my ‘toon once I’m floating on top of the water, seated comfortably and casting in every direction while holding in place with my flippers, hands-free. I am envious, however, of the faster setup and pack-up time of my friend’s smaller model. If I were to purchase another pontoon, I would consider parting with a few of the extra creature comforts and size for the lighter, easier assembly and transport of a slightly smaller model. If you are an ‘Ariel-not’ like me, or just enjoy a comfortable float, you’ll love a ‘toon.
(More to come on the next level of floatation for fishing: kayaks!)
 Classic Arrow Backpacker – Manufacturer claims “this pontoon boat breaks down to fit inside its own backpack making it perfect for hiking.” Maybe – if you’re the Hulk. While it has great functionality and is easily broken down for transport, unless you’re built like the Hulk, don’t plan on repacking it’s disassembled frame, bladders, pump and 3-piece aluminum oars in its original bag and loading the 42 pounds on your back while carrying rod and tackle. (Specs include: weight capacity 350#, assembled wt. 49.5#, 72” oars, about $195–$225 at Cabellas)
 Classic Accessories Trout Unlimited Colorado XP—I was able to purchase the last 2008 model in Cabela’s inventory (at significant discount). The design of the 2009 model, represented in the attached photo, differs slightly. (Specs— weight capacity 400#, assembled wt. 77#, 84# oars, about $450–$500 at Cabellas)