A rising tide, as the adage goes, lifts all boats, and the ongoing developments in fly tackle have been paralleled by an evolution in personal fishing watercraft. From float tubes to kickboats to several generations of pontoon boats and fishing-specific rafts, one-person inflatables keep growing in sophistication. They’re more popular than ever, for good reason. You can float rivers and lakes with limited wading access or no boat ramps, or water too small or shallow for larger boats. You can cover more territory than is possible on foot, taking more gear with less effort than you could shoulder in a pack. And such boats are easier to row, transport and store than a full-size craft.
To investigate some of the options for solo floating, I gathered up a selection of boats—two with the capacity for multi-day excursion and two suited for day-tripping—along with a collection of useful accessories, and spent a season drifting, rowing and fishing, which, come to think of it, actually describes every season for me. But this year, the equipment was considerably better than what I normally use.
Water Master Kodiak
The Water Master is the largest boat in the group; with a high weight capacity, big cargo area, and multiple D-rings and tie-down points, it’s designed to carry the freight, even for multi-day trips, and does so handily. Extra flotation in the rear keeps the boat level when loaded and prevents it from plowing when backrowed. And the big footprint means a shallow draft for gliding over skinny water.
Although rafts don’t offer quite the responsiveness of pontoon boats or track as cleanly, this one certainly handles easily enough to negotiate the Class IV water for which it’s rated. And you won’t get a lapful of water, as you do in a pontoon boat, when punching through standing waves. Surprising to me, given the size of this boat, is how well it maneuvers with fins, and when you add in the fairly high seat platform for good vision and ample elbow clearance when casting, you’ve got an eminently practical boat to fish from. While the wooden seat does add weight, it’s wide and rigid, allowing you to swivel around easily to access gear in the back.
This is a workhorse boat, tough, substantial, and simple to set up.
Outcast Stealth Pro
If a float trip in the Water Master can be likened to car camping, in the Stealth Pro it’s more like backpacking—lower weight capacity and a bit smaller cargo area, but altogether feasible for overnighting. If you stack the gear high in back, the boat holds plenty, and you can always strap on the Frameless Cargo Pocket (optional) to add storage space without stealing it from the cargo well. Dedicated tie-down points are not a strong feature, however, and securing large loads can require some improvising.
The boat is a solid performer on moving water. It handles easily, and because of some rear rocker, it responds quickly. As with all frameless boats, pulling hard on the oars flexes the tubes a bit, but here it’s never enough to feel like the boat isn’t under your control. You do ride low, with the inflatable seat just touching the water, and while not ideal for vision, it does improve fin-kicking efficiency while still allowing plenty of arm mobility for fishing.
This is a basic but versatile boat—certainly suitable for day-tripping as well—with lots of optional add-ons for customization and reasonably priced for a frameless design.
North Fork Outdoors Outlaw Predator
I might have chosen any of several innovative boats from Dave Scadden, but the specs on the Predator sealed the deal: a 7’6″ boat with a hull weight of just 15 pounds. Nothing else out there comes near these numbers.
The boat is wonderfully nimble and light handling, with a rockered design that’s easily up to quick moves and technical maneuvering—my favorite boat of the group for more challenging water. It performs equally well in actual fishing, moving easily with fins, and the seat position affords excellent elbow clearance for casting. The feather weight is a blessing on shallow rivers or in low-water conditions where you might need to carry the boat over dry ledge rock or shoals too skinny to float.
The high weight capacity actually suits this boat to overnight trips, but the cargo area is fairly small—which means stacking gear high—and tie-down points are limited. But fresh from the box, it excels in day-tripping; folds up fairly compactly for anglers with small vehicles or limited home storage space; and handsomely serves anyone who’d rather not muscle around 40 or 50 pounds of boat.
SuperCat 50 (with optional rowing frame)
Narrow, 50-inch cylindrical tubes make this, by far, the smallest boat in the group, and there’s a lot it’s not cut out for: negotiating heavy, technical water; carrying lots of gear; or rowing very fast. But the size is also its biggest virtue. The short tubes and light weight foster easy maneuverability with fins, and the modest dimensions present a small profile to the wind—a real advantage on lakes and ponds. It is, in fact, superbly suited to stillwaters and slower rivers, providing you’re not trying to cover long distances in a hurry, and it’s nicely scaled to stealth fishing smaller streams, where a bigger boat would be too obtrusive and cumbersome.
In a clever and highly useful design twist, the webbing seat supports do double duty as padded backpack straps, and tubes swing to the underside of the boat, where they can be secured. With tubes fully inflated, it makes a package about four feet tall and 28 inches wide—perfect for snaking up trails to less-accessible water.
I can transport this boat, assembled and inflated, in the back of my ’99 4Runner, a small SUV by today’s standards, and it hangs discreetly out of the way on the wall of my garage. This is one for minimalists.
Packing a hand pump on the water—to tweak inflation pressure or compensate for a slow leak (it happens)—goes without saying. And in my experience, this 3″ x 22″ cylindrical design offers the most useful balance of speed, ease and storage convenience. Topping off a tube takes no time at all, and because you use only your hands, not feet, it can be operated on the water. Unlike other pumps I’ve used, it’s simple to lubricate and keep in top condition. Utter reliability and bombproof construction make this one a value. $72.95. www.k-pump.com
Mustang Survival Inflatable Belt Pack PFD
Like seat belts and lawyers, personal flotation devices are a nuisance until you need one. But vest types limit fishing mobility if you wear one and make bulky, awkward cargo if you don’t. The most convenient solution I’ve found is this USCG-approved Type III belt-pack inflatable. The 21-ounce pack, a bit larger than a tall-boy beer can, straps around your waist. It wears comfortably and gives uninhibited arm and body mobility. Should you need it, pull the ripcord, and a CO2 cartridge deploys a horseshoe-shaped PFD that then goes around your neck. But mostly, you just forget it’s there. You’ll find them for about $100 online. www.mustangsurvival.com
K-Pump Kwik Check Gauge
Underinflated tubes flex when you row or have surface wrinkles that produce drag in the water. Overinflation can harm tubes or valve mountings. The surest way to control pressure is with a gauge, and this dial type gives an instant and easily visible readout. I also carry it with me on the water to monitor pressure, which can change with variations in water and air temperature during a day. Checking the tubes takes only seconds, maximizes boat performance and eliminates damage. $37.99.
A Pair of Fins
For actually fishing from a personal inflatable, fins are the single most important accessory. For extended periods of continuous use—trolling on lakes or slowing a boat in moving water as you cast—the fork-tail design of the Outcast Power Kick Fins offers high thrust with a minimum of leg fatigue. The slider-buckle harness, however, makes these slow and clumsy to get on and off, and I find them most practical for situations where you strap them on and leave them. $99. www.outcastboats.com
If, on the other hand, your fishing requires regularly getting in and out of your fins—to wade fish, for instance, or to get over shallows—the Water Master Power Flex Fins are significantly more convenient. Secured with a simple cam-lock harness, they go on and off in seconds; in many angling circumstances, that more than justifies trading away a bit of propulsion efficiency. $69.95. www.bigskyinflatables.com
Simms Dry Creek Boat Bag
This bag offers secure, easy-to-access, waterproof storage, which is exactly what you want on a small boat. A clever magnetic clasp opens easily with one hand; let the lid fall back into place, and the latch automatically engages itself. No twisting around in the cockpit to operate zippers or buckles that require both hands; your stuff is safe even with the bag unzipped. Internal dividers keep your gear organized, and the semi-rigid chassis with D-ring tie-downs proves amazingly durable. I like the large size (2013 cubic inches; $229.95) but a smaller model is available. www.simmsfishing.com
Yeti Hopper 20
I pack a cooler even on day trips; if nothing else, it gives me options when the trout aren’t hitting. This soft-sided Yeti is custom cut for a one-person craft. A tall bag with a narrow footprint, it takes up little deck space; rugged, flexible sides let you wedge it into tight spaces; an assortment of D-rings gives ample tie-down options. On one gear-intensive trip, I lashed it to the side of the boat and let it hang in the water; the shell is completely leak proof. It’s expensive, but when you really want a really cold one, it’ll feel like money well spent. $299.99. www.yeticoolers.com
Niteize S-Biner Slidelock
These clips proved indispensable for securing smaller items—fins, wading cleats, thermos, coffee cup, lumbar pack, even rods—to the boat. This S-shaped carabiner has two gates that lock independently with sliding plastic stops.
I find the double-gated style more convenient and versatile than conventional ’biners, and while you must be mindful not to slide the stops off the gate end, the locks ensure nothing accidentally detaches if something pushes against the gate. They’re cheap insurance. The large #4 size (about $5 online) is most useful. www.niteize.com/product/S-Biner-SlideLock.asp