I’ve always heard that the two happiest days of boat ownership are the day that you buy the boat and the day that you sell it. Why would owning a boat, something that should be a positive experience, carry with it such a negative stigma?
As enjoyable as it can be to spend a day at the lake on a large pontoon boat or to fish from a tournament-ready bass boat, big boats can be a big responsibility. In addition to their hefty price tags, these boats can have significant maintenance costs and be a hassle to store and transport. Because of this, a boat can become more of a burden than a blessing, which can sink the enthusiasm of even the most optimistic owner.
Fortunately, when it comes to boats, bigger isn’t always better. Generally, small boats are much more affordable and require less upkeep and maintenance. They are also much easier to transport and are perfect for fishing small lakes and ponds, as well as locations that are restricted to carry-on vessels — places the big boys just can’t go.
In this article, I will share my two favorite types of small fishing boats and discuss some of the accessories that will help make your time on the water more productive and enjoyable. I’ll also tell how I restored and modified an old Coleman Crawdad, which, in my opinion, is one of the best small fishing boats ever made.
As someone who has had small boats and kayaks for years, I found that the best days of ownership were not when I bought and sold, but the many days of fun in between.
The Yak Attack
The popularity of kayak fishing has exploded in recent years and for good reason. Kayaks are durable, lightweight, are easy to transport and, most importantly, are perfect for fishing.
Unlike canoes, kayaks are very stable in the water. In fact, you can stand up and fish out of them (something you’d never attempt in any canoe). Typically, the wider the kayak, the more stable, and models designed specifically for fishing are noted for their exceptional stability.
Kayaks come in two flavors: sit-inside and sit-on-top. Most anglers prefer the sit-on-top models, as these kayaks have higher-profile seats for casting and flat decks that provide easy access to fishing gear. Sit-on-top kayaks also have small holes, called scuppers, that allow water to drain through the deck. This prevents them from sinking in severe waves or choppy conditions.
These days, a variety of manufactures produce a wide range of kayaks that are specifically engineered for fishing. It’s best to try out different makes/models to see which one(s) best meet your needs and fit your budget. Several years ago, I purchased FeelFree’s Lure model. This kayak is ultra stable and the adjustable “Gravity Seat” is so comfortable that I can spend an entire day on the water without getting a sore back (or backside).
Kayaks are designed to move easily across the water with a paddle. However, some models have pedal-drive systems and mounts for small electric motors. Paddling is still the best option to access shallow water and to maintain a stealthy approach when you want to stalk spooky fish. Kayak paddles are not one-size-fits-all, and it’s important to use the right size paddle for your height and for the width of the boat — something that an experienced outfitter can assist you with.
A major part of a kayak’s appeal is its simplicity. However, there are endless ways to modify and accessorize these small vessels. The Scotty “rail mount” system is one of the more popular ways to add electronics, rod holders and other items to a kayak.
Be warned: kayak fishing is wet fishing. This may be part of the appeal and adventure for some and a deal breaker for others. If you prefer to stay completely comfortable, warm and dry, a traditional fishing boat may be a better option.
kayaks range in price from several hundred dollars for entry-level models to as much as $5,000 for top of the line fishing systems.
One of the most popular small fishing boats is the classic jon boat. Whether made from aluminum, fiberglass or plastic, jon boats are usually light weight and are extremely versatile.
Unlike their v-hull brethren, jon boats have a flat bottom and are extremely stable. Their flat profile also allows them to move through shallow water without hitting bottom, which makes them ideal to navigate small lakes, ponds and rivers.
Jon boats range in size from 8 to 24 feet, with the shorter models being much easier to transport. Jon boats can be powered by small outboard gas motors that range from 3 to 25 horsepower. For smaller and lighter boats, electric trolling motors are a great option to avoid exhaust fumes and noise from a gas-powered engine.
Although it can be quite the workout, rowing a jon boat is also an option depending on the size and weight of the boat. If an engine fails, a set of oars can also mean the difference between making it home safely or needing to be rescued by a park ranger or another boater. A set of oarlocks can be added to any jon boat for this added safety measure.
Most jon boats are quite utilitarian and have only bench seats. However, they can be upgraded with padded swivel-seats and modified to accommodate the needs of any angler.
A jon boat can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Great deals can be found on the used market.
Who’s Your Crawdaddy?
One of the coolest “jon” boats is the Coleman Crawdad. Coleman made these small 2-person boats during the 1980s and 90s. The Coleman company eventually sold its boat division to Pelican that went on to make similar models of small fishing boats. Ever since its production ended, the original Coleman Crawdad has developed a cult-like following among anglers. In fact, there are Facebook groups and blogs dedicated to restoring and modifying these little green or gray-colored vessels.
At 11-feet long and weighing in at just 130 pounds, the Crawdad is one of the lightest jon boats ever made. Coleman manufactured these boats out of an extremely lightweight and nearly indestructible polyethylene called Ram-X. Because of their excellent durability, you can find good examples of these boats on the used market despite their age. Prices typically range from a couple hundred to $1,500 for fully-equipped and restored versions.
My father purchased a Coleman Crawdad in the late 1980s, and it has remained in our family ever since. Over the years, my dad and I enjoyed countless fishing trips together in this little boat. It was perfect for our father-son outings on the small lakes of Colorado’s Grand Mesa and the Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area.
On another ill-advised outing, one that could begin with “just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale — a tale of a faithful trip,” a college girlfriend and I launched the Crawdad on Lake Granby — a huge reservoir in Grand County. What began as a calm, beautiful afternoon suddenly turned into mass chaos when a thunderstorm appeared from nowhere and blew us into the next county. We barely make it back to the boat ramp with the 30-pound-thrust electric motor. This is when I learned (the hard way) that a small jon boat, especially one powered only by an electric motor, is not well-suited for large reservoirs. After this near-death experience, my dad revoked my “Crawdad Privileges.” I was landlocked for the remainder of the summer.
In addition to surviving some bad decisions from my youth, this unsinkable little boat has outlasted multiple moves and has persevered through many years of neglect. For almost a decade, the boat sat in my backyard and had become a much better home for field mice than for fishing gear. A few years ago, I considered selling my Crawdad until I saw a Facebook post by Chad LaChance. LaChance, who is host of TV’s “Fishful Thinker,” had turned a Coleman Crawdad into the ultimate little bass buggy, equipped with standing decks and dual trolling motors. This inspired me to return my Crawdad to its former glory, and turn it from a backyard eyesore into a lean, mean, fishing machine.
Because of the Crawdad’s durability and construction, my 35-year-old boat was, overall, in good condition. There was a small, dime-sized hole in the bottom that I needed to fix, but there were no other leaks, cracks or damage. It can be difficult to get traditional marine patch-kits or epoxy products like J-B Weld to adhere to Coleman’s Ram-X material. Therefore, the best way to repair these boats is to use a plastic welding kit. Similar to a soldering iron, the welding iron will melt plastic into the hole to form a watertight repair.
The Crawdad originally came with a carpeted wood floor, which was completely warped and rotted from years of neglect. To keep with the original design, I installed new plywood, which I pretreated with a water sealer and then covered with new carpeting.
Similar to LaChance’s boat, I wanted to modify my Crawdad and build a deck where I could stand and fish. Since I primarily fly fish, I wanted a clean, flat deck where I could cast and not worry about the fly line getting tangled around seats, motor mounts or other accessories. At 6’ 3’’ and 220 pounds, I also needed a platform that could support my weight but not make the boat too heavy. For this, I used half-inch plywood and added plumbing flanges and aluminum rods underneath for support. I also added an L-shaped metal strip along the top edge for additional strength. For safety, I kept the original foam blocks in place to ensure the boat would stay afloat in case of an accident.
Lastly, I purchased a couple of folding, padded seats and secured them with quick-release brackets. This allows me to remove and store the seats when not in use, or when I want to stand and fly fish on the bow. The swivel seats were another great Craigslist find that only set me back $50 for the pair.
If you’re going to run lights, electronics or use an electric trolling motor, you’ll need to have a reliable power source. Battery technology has come a long way in the last few years and boaters now have two choices: Lead-Acid and Lithium.
The new lithium batteries are half the weight of traditional lead batteries and can last up to 4 times longer with each charge. Many also carry a 10-year (or longer) warranty, which is nearly 10 times that of lead-acid batteries. The downside is that they can be very expensive and the technology is still improving. However, if money isn’t an obstacle, a lightweight lithium battery is certainly the best option for a small boat or kayak — even if solely for the reduction in size and weight.
If you’re on a tight budget, a traditional lead-acid, deep-cycle marine battery is your best bet. Deep-cycle batteries provide continuous power over long time periods — perfect for powering trolling motors, lights and fish finders. The marine battery that I purchased from Walmart will power my Minn Kota motor for a full day of trolling. The downside is that it weighs more than 50 pounds and is a beast to transport. For this reason, I will eventually move to a lightweight lithium battery as soon as my wallet is heavy enough to purchase one.
Let There Be Light
I enjoy fishing at night in my Crawdad. To comply with Colorado’s boating regulations, I installed both stern and bow navigation lights that I purchased from Amazon. Safety is critical when fishing from a small boat, and you want to ensure that larger boats can see you after dark.
I also added waterproof LED light strips along the inside of the boat. These are designed for use in truck beds but work great to provide bright light to unhook a fish or rig-up a rod without having to fumble for a flashlight.
To make the lighting and wiring setup more seamless and easier to operate, I installed a waterproof switch panel. I added a separate, small, 12-volt battery to power the switches, navigation lights, LEDs and the fish finder. The panel also includes USB ports to charge my cell phone and to power other accessories.
While it’s not necessary to add items like GPS electronics or fish finders to a small boat or kayak, I’ve found that this technology can make for a safer and more enjoyable fishing experience.
After reading many positive reviews online, I decided to purchase the Garmin Striker Vivid 4CV fish finder. It’s compact size and portability makes it a great choice for small boats. In addition to locating fish and bottom-structure, the Garmin can create maps and save GPS waypoints to direct you to your favorite fishing spot or lead you back to your launch site.
I used a Scotty “rail system” and universal fish-finder mount to attach the Garmin and transducer to the Crawdad. Best of all, I can use this same setup on my kayak and can easily swap the Garmin between the two boats.
Whether fishing from a jon boat or a kayak, a plastic milk crate is a must-have item. Not only does it serve as the ultimate portable “catch-all” for things like bug spray, sunscreen and fishing tackle, it also works great to transport fishing rods. I attached a wall-mounted rod holder to the side of the crate to keep rods organized and to prevent them from getting stepped on inside the boat.
Trailers For Sale or Rent
One major advantage of a small jon boat or kayak is that you don’t necessarily need a trailer to transport them. In most cases, you can simply “load and go” by placing these small “carry-on” crafts on top of an SUV or in the bed of a pickup truck.
That said, a trailer can make transporting your boat much easier. There are a variety of small trailers out there that are specifically designed to carry small boats and kayaks. I purchased a Harbor Freight “Haul Master” utility trailer, which, after some simple modifications, worked well for my needs. I added a carpeted deck to transport my Crawdad and built a platform to haul my kayak using 2×4 braces and aluminum cross supports. This dual configuration works great when I want to carry both boats, and it still falls well below the trailer’s 1195-pound weight limit.
The biggest drawback of the Harbor Freight trailer are its tires, which are restricted to a speed rating of 55 MPH. Like Sammy Hagar, I can’t drive 55, especially when I’m in a hurry to get to my favorite fishing spot. To get around this limitation, I purchased a new set of 12-inch tires on Amazon that had a speed rating of around 80 MPH. Obviously, I don’t plan to drive that fast with my boat or kayak in tow, but it gives me peace of mind to know that I can travel the speed limit without exceeding the tire’s safety ratings. It’s important to check tire speed and weight restrictions on any small trailer before hitting the highway.
To keep my boats secure, I added numerous d-loop tie downs and eye bolts to the trailer’s frame. In my experience, you can never have too many places to secure cargo. Ratchet straps work well to tie down the Crawdad. For my kayak, I prefer to use cam straps since ratchet straps can warp or crack a kayak’s more fragile, plastic hull.
Play It Safe
When boating and fishing, safety should always be your top priority. This means that you should always wear a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD).
Fortunately, lifejackets have come a long way since the days of those bulky orange life-preservers. Today’s lifejackets are extremely comfortable and allow for a free-range of movement when fishing or when rowing a kayak.
Recently, I acquired one of the inflatable PFDs made by Mustang Survival. These innovative vests are low-profile but will automatically inflate to full buoyancy when immersed in water. Because they provide both exceptional comfort and safety, these vests have become popular among boaters and anglers alike. They are also a top choice among many of CPW’s park rangers and fisheries staff.
With these modern designs, there’s simply no reason to not have a lifejacket when boating and fishing. Wear it!
Per Colorado regulations, all motorized boats and sailboats must be registered and have an aquatic nuisance species (ANS) stamp prior to launching on any public waters. Kayaks and other small self-propelled boats are exempt from this requirement. Boat registration, ANS inspection requirements and safety information can be found on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website.
Article and photos by Jerry Neal. Jerry is the senior video producer and media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.