Boats are a tricky subject. To some they represent the pinnacle of your fishing gear and to others a bottomless pit in which to toss large sums of hard earned money. Personally, I love boats. I could own a dozen and still find the need for another. My nagging practicality prevents this, to the joy of my neighbors. Despite the coolness of different boats, if they don’t serve a purpose, and preferably more than one, I refuse to drop the coin and garage space on them. I like gear that works. I love gear that works in multiple scenarios. Add to this the lack of a giant trust fund from an unknown uncle and you have the need for a do it all (or at least most of it) watercraft.
I grew up like many in the South, fishing out of bass boats of varying sizes and qualities. Ranging from small Jon boats to 70+ MPH tournament ready rigs, I fished them all. It wasn’t until I started stalking trout that I really found the need for something different. At first my wife and I were wading small streams and tailwaters on low water. We would see the guys with tricked out drift boats and daydream about how incredible it would be to own one. These were college days though, and a Clackacraft or Hyde was NOT in the budget. Hell, sometimes groceries weren’t in the budget! It wasn’t just buying a boat, but all the things that go with it. Even if we had the flow for a boat, then we’d need something to pull it (the ’77 VW Camper had the soul but lacked the oomph), somewhere to park it (dorms tend to frown on boats), money for maintenance, repairs, fuel… aforementioned pit, anyone? We were fishing with one rod each and minimal gear. The boat was a dream… until it wasn’t.
A fishing buddy who was a few years ahead of us had finished college and moved into a new career. He and his wife purchased a new home and upon moving in, discovered an old self-bailing whitewater raft rolled up in the corner. We had struck gold! Now we could float all those tailwaters that wading just couldn’t reach! Before I get ahead of myself and tell you about all the great times we had and fish we caught, let me be clear. It was a piece. Tattered and worn, there was good reason for it to be rolled up in the corner. The self-bailing floor gave up the ghost on one of our early trips. There were multiple leaks that helped to “time” your adventures. And as cool as it was to watch your catch swim around inside the raft due to the deflated floor, the Crapacraft, as we lovingly called her, was not a long-term solution. Years passed and our search continued.
Talking with a friend who was working for a rafting company, I discovered he had a smaller self-bailer that he wanted to sell. After some skilled negotiating, I left with a new to me Riken self-bailer and one less Arc’Terx soft shell. I had done it! Amanda and I had our own boat! We would be legends! They would write songs about all the fish we would catch! Well, at least we’d be able to fish when and where we wanted, despite TVA not consulting our schedule before releasing water. I immediately ordered a rowing frame and a set of oars, and we had it rigged in a matter of days. We fished it hard all year long. I learned to row without destroying a $10K boat in the process. I also learned if you attempt to stand on the inflated rubber floor of a raft in sub freezing temps while wearing felt soled boots, you will subsequently bust your ass.
All boats are compromises. There is no way around it. The Riken served us well for several years. Then we had kids. Now, while we loved the raft and it allowed us the freedom to access a lot of water, we wanted something a little more refined with more usable space for the boys. We still had that dream of a proper drift boat. While fishing with a buddy in his Clacka, he told me he was planning to sell it to fund a mission trip. He only wanted three grand! Amanda and I had some money squirreled away for something special and could sell the Riken to make up the difference. A deal was struck and when he dropped me off that evening, he also left a 2004 Clackacraft WF16!
The Clacka was a dream to row. I never realized what a pig the Riken was until I had the Clacka. It was SO smooth! It had legit dry storage and rod tubes. It had comfy seats and a nice trailer. I could even throw a motor on if I wanted to get back to my roots and chase some bass on the lake. Hello compromise. If you’ve never motored a drift boat, let me save you the trouble. You can’t get out of your own way. They kind of push, but never really get on step. If you’re trolling around a pond, this is fine. If you’re trying to cover water, it’s almost comical. Don’t get me wrong now. I’m not hating on drifters. They can’t be touched when it comes to floating downstream. We weren’t really fishing lakes much anyway. Just floating tailwaters and such. Then I had an idea…
What if we sold the Clacka and got a boat that could do more than just drift well. What if we had a boat that could fish lakes, rivers, tailwaters, or even the occasional inshore salt run? I started looking at boats. Lots of boats. The Clacka was sold and the hunt was on! I stumbled into an older semi-v Alumacraft and we used it for a year or so. It had oarlocks and a shallow draft, but in the long run it was too much compromise. While fine on the lake, it struggled with shallow rivers due to the outboard prop. What we needed was a jet!
My search for a jet taught me several things:
Number one: Jet outboards are not very common near me.
Number two: Everyone selling a jet outboard thinks it has been dipped in gold.
Number three: It was going to be a process to do this.
Our goal was to put together a flat bottom jet sled similar to those found in Alaska. We wanted something that could run up skinny, rocky rivers, be rowed well enough to fish, and accommodate the kids and us comfortably. After months of stalking Craigslist, I found a 1448 Rhino locally and the build began! The Rhino is heavy gauge aluminum and has a carpet and vinyl interior to make it comfy for the kiddos. Aluminum gets stupid hot in the summer and will burn the dog snot out of you when you least expect it!
My next call was to my buddy in Nashville. He is like an Outboard Jedi. The man can find anything! Within a few weeks, he had located a pristine 1999 Yamaha 40hp two-stroke. The 40 gives me 30hp at the pump and the two-stroke provides a much better holeshot and lighter weight. I sold the motor that came with the Rhino and ordered a pump from Outboard Jets in CA. The Jedi found an Outboard Jets jack plate on eBay and we set a date to put it together. In the mean time, I installed a set of oarlock mounts and repurposed a roof top carrier for rod protection.
What the Rhino lacked was storage. Remember that part about loving gear that excels in more than one application? My Orion coolers pull double duty. One works as a cooler and the other for dry storage. Both are lashed down to the benches and can be moved and reconfigured if needed. They have built-in gear tracks from YakAttack, which give us multiple mounting points for cameras, GPS, or just drink holders. On top of all that awesomeness (pun intended) are the included traction pads. These are invaluable when using the cooler for a poling or casting platform (reference previous busting ass in winter scenario). I recycled the floor mats from my Clacka to level out the floor and make it easier to move about. One challenge I did encounter was having the oarlocks high enough without being obtrusive. I wanted the mounts to be flush and out of the way when not in use. My solution was taller oarlocks from Regal Engineering. They seem to be similar quality to the NRS oarlocks I’ve used in the past, only three inches taller. These let me sit on the bench or a cooler to row without banging my knees with the oars.
The sled allows us to cover a lot of water. We can drift tailwaters, run upstream from take-outs and float back, fish lakes, and even take the kids swimming in the summer. One of my favorite aspects is being able to fish sections more than once without anchoring. Is it perfect? Nope. Will we outgrow it? Certainly. It serves its purpose very well for now, and that’s all I can ask. The thing with boats is they aren’t perfect and there isn’t one that can do it all. You just have to be willing to suffer the cost of the “pit” to enjoy its perks. In the words of the Outboard Jedi, “You gotta pay to play.” So while no boat is perfect, some can come close. I still see a few more in my future though… Sorry neighbors.
– Nathan Ball
Quick video here: