Anglers Log

Lane County rains bring robust winter steelhead

Fishing pontoon boats are fun, and easy to row and transport. They allow access to miles of river but have safety issues consistent with any “microsized” river boat. Always wear a life jacket, share your float plan, and boat with a friend. FRANK ARMENDARIZ/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Heavy rain fell last weekend, continued to fall through most of the week and as I prepare this week’s Anglers Log, rain is forecast into the weekend; although in lesser amounts. Winter steelhead have shown up in a number of coastal rivers and with the rainfall over the past couple of weeks those accounts have only become more numerous. This recent rain event had many rivers reaching some of the highest water levels since last winter, but as they “turn over” and start to drop, I expect even more of these seagoing trout to begin their migration home and that the winter steelhead season has really kicked in. 


I often mention pontoon boats and other small inflatable craft in my column but generally just in passing. The craft does have limitations and I’ll get those in a bit but first let me review a few of the attributes of what is commonly called the “fishing pontoon raft.” I won’t name specific brands but rather point out a few things to look for when buying a small craft. 

Much like any expedition-style whitewater raft, a fishing pontoon raft has a “rowing frame” that straps to an inflatable base. In this case two air chambers or “pontoons” that provide that floatation for the craft. They row much like any other row boat would, with a pair of oars and oarlocks set into retainers that are built into the rowing frame. In general they are designed for small lakes and gentle moving rivers up to about class two on the whitewater one-to-six scale.  

Larger whitewater pontoon rafts are common on our river, some as long as 18 feet. They can carry 1,000 pounds of river gear through haystacks of whitewater and are only sold through whitewater specialty shops. Owners with pontoon rafts like this generally transport them on a trailer. In reality, boats 12 feet and larger are more versatile. They can carry two or more people and gear but they start to reach into the range of larger rafts. Where the space required for transportation exponentially grows in proportion to the length of the boat. As does the overall weight of the package that could easily reach a few hundred pounds.

On the other hand, a nine-foot pontoon raft weighs only about 60 pounds, can be disassembled to pack into the smallest of trunks or transported fully assembled in the back of a compact pickup. Some fishing pontoon rafters will deflate the tubes, strap them to the frame and carry the package on the roof racks of the Prius or some other compact vehicle. Some manufacturers even provide travel bags so the whole boat can be packed and checked in as airline baggage. Generally speaking, boats are easy to transport. At nine feet, most pontoon raft manufacturers include a gear platform as part of the rowing frame’s design – which is a loft behind the rowing seat to strap down a small cooler and a bag for essential safety and personal gear. Fishing pontoon rafts are for sale at a couple of local big box sporting goods outlets and from any number of online sellers. From either outlet you will find fishing pontoon rafts from about six to 10 feet in length.

You will also find two styles of pontoon raft tube that are commonly manufactured – “air cell” rafts and “single-walled” air chamber rafts. A single-walled pontoon is formed by heat or radio frequency welding sheets of raft material cut to shape the tubes. The process is inexpensive and the boat’s price might look pretty good when packaged with a rowing frame and oars. But welded seams are notorious for failure, are not repairable, giving this style of boats a very limited lifespan that declines rapidly in durability with only normal wear, making them, at times, susceptible to catastrophic tube failure. 

Air cell pontoon rafts have two components. The air cell itself, generally made from vinyl, is airtight. The air cell is then sealed inside of a UV-resistant protective shell of durable no-stretch PVC material. Instead of being heat welded, the protective shell of an air cell boat is stitched together much like an automotive seat cover with a zipper running the length of the tube. This style of design makes for a more durable boat that, with care, could last for a decade. And can be aired up firmly, resulting in a responsive craft that floats high on the water. If at some point the air cell were to develop a leak, it’s fully accessible through the zipper and repairs easily in the field. 

Shopping online or at the mall you will find that prices start at about $500. The highest consumer-rated nine-foot model that is available online is $799. But prices can run into the thousands for the best designs with the highest quality materials. Quality and price do matter and higher-priced pontoon rafts are often “serviceable” too. So in the event of damage or wear, components on some brands can easily be repaired or replaced. One high-end manufacturer even offers a five-year no-fault repair guarantee.

Lightweight, compact, durable, maneuverable, easy to learn. … So what could go wrong? You will often find an anchor system on even the smallest of fishing pontoons and it’s fine to use the anchor in a pond. But in moving water, an anchored pontoon raft can suddenly begin to swing wildly in a swift current, turn sideways and roll over. So unlike a drift boat where the rule of anchoring is to “never drop your anchor in water faster than you can row against,” the threshold for a pontoon fishing raft is far, far less.

Fishing and rowing in any river boat at the same time is impossible and a solo pontoon raft is best when used for access only. Floating along, finding a place to fish and pulling out of the current is always the best strategy. Lastly and most importantly. … It is very easy to become overconfident in a small, lightweight and highly maneuverable riverboat. “Over boating” the craft’s abilities is a threshold some new boaters often exceed. So go slow … always wear your lifejacket and always remember that the river is dynamic, constantly changing and demands your full attention.

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