Whether you’re a freshwater angler or a saltwater fishing fanatic, if you enjoy fishing the shallows there’s a good chance you’ll need a shallow draft boat with a flat-bottom hull, like a Jon boat or a flats boat.
If you’ve been searching for the perfect fishing machine and have checked out our Fishing Boats Guide, you may have noticed that there are specific types of boats designed for specific fishing situations. Fishing the shallows is one tactic that garners a lot of attention because it’s popular throughout the fishing world in both freshwater and saltwater venues from coast-to-coast. Fishing the shallows requires shallow draft boats – quite often flat-bottom boats or boats with hulls similarly designed to access those skinny water hotspots without running aground.
There are many different types of shallow water boats for anglers to choose from. So how are you supposed to know which fishing boat is going to be best for your own personal needs and fishing styles? This Jon Boats and Flats Boats Guide will help.
Types of Jon Boats
The term “Jon Boat” encompasses a huge number of makes and models, and is often used more or less as a catch-all to include small boats that are open and have a flat (or nearly flat) hull bottom. There are other forms of flat-bottom boats that aren’t necessarily Jon boats (such as some skiffs, rowboats, and houseboats), but most Jon boats are by definition also flat-bottom boats.
Some Jon boats are simple utilitarian platforms that can be used for everything from clamming to construction work, while others are designed specifically for fishing. Many can be used in both freshwater and saltwater environments, though certain varieties are more commonly found in one or the other and some select models are made with hardware specifically designed for the marine environment while some others are not.
Taking these features into account, we can break Jon boats down into three basic types:
- Freshwater Jon Boats
- Saltwater Jon Boats
- Utility Jon Boats
Looking at Jon boats designed to fit specifically into one of these categories or another, most models where share a lot of commonalities. Although they aren’t the most luxurious boats in the world, there’s a lot to love about their overall simplicity. Since they’re far from fancy they tend to be quite affordable, and in comparison to many other types of boats, are downright cheap.
Almost all Jon Boats utilize outboard power plants, so they’re reliable, easy to operate, and easy to maintain. And most Jon boats are also portable. Small ones can fit right in the bed of a pickup truck and even large Jon boats are usually easy to trailer, so you can head for distant waterways and test your fishing skills in a wide range of lakes, rivers, and bays.
In addition to these broad categories, we can also break down Jon boats by characteristics like use-specific designs and construction materials.
Here are a few of the more popular types you might run across:
Many outdoorsmen who enjoy both fishing and hunting opt for Jon boats, since one that’s rigged for hunting can also be used for fishing. Their flat bottom makes it easy to not only pull the boat up on a bank and brush into a waterfowl blind, but also to fish the shallows. Jon boats enjoy excellent stability for staking out in a cove or setting and retrieving goose and duck decoys. And their adaptable nature makes them perfect for mounting items like pop-up blinds, gun racks, and shell holders.
The vast majority of Jons used for hunting are aluminum boats, since they tend to be much lighter than fiberglass boats, and can be easily pushed through the marsh or dragged up on a bank. They can also be poled through shallow water, making them excellent swamp boats. Plus, many aluminum Jon boat models are available in camo-painted patterns that seem to disappear in the brush.
One rather specialized form of the Jon boat that’s popular in inland waterways is the jet jon. In most cases, the hull and interior of the boat is no different than any other, but the outboard mounted on the transom has a jet drive instead of a propeller. These are ideal for running through boulder-strewn rivers, where prop-strikes on rocks are a common occurrence. Some unique models even have tunnels built into the hull, while allows the jet drive to be mounted at the hull’s level to reduce the chances of smacking the lower unit into a rock.
Why is the use of jet Jons mostly limited to rocky rivers? Because jet drives do not have fragile moving parts below the waterline. Jet drives create thrust by spinning an impeller and blasting water through a nozzle, which is less efficient than spinning a propeller directly through the water – in some cases, by up to 25- or even 30-percent. So jet drives require larger, heavier power heads to create an equivalent amount of thrust. They burn more fuel to attain similar cruising speeds and generally have lower cruising and top-end speeds when comparing them to propeller-equipped drive units powered by equivalent horsepower ratings. So it only makes sense to own a jet Jon if you regularly run through those risky rapids.
Aluminum Flat Boats
Aluminum flat-bottom boats are without question the most popular type of Jon boat around, and in fact, this is one of the most popular types of boats in general. Aluminum boats hold a number of advantages over those made with fiberglass, wood, or even plastic (yes, there are a number of roto-molded plastic Jon boats on the market, too). Their light weight is the key – it makes them trailerable with relatively small tow vehicles, easy to move around by hand at the dock or in the marsh, and lowers power requirements to attain the same performance benchmarks as heavier boats.
Aluminum boats are also inexpensive as compared to most boats built with other construction materials. And aluminum boats are incredibly rugged. They tend to dent or simply bounce off docks, logs, or rocks, in case of impact. Fiberglass, on the other hand, can shatter, and repairs are often far more expensive than they would be for aluminum boats.
If aluminum is so great, why aren’t all Jon boats made with it? There are some down-sides to consider. That advantageous light weight also means aluminum boats are easily influenced by the wind and waves, so fiberglass boats tend to ride better and drift slower. You can’t easily mold aluminum into complex forms, as you can with fiberglass, so many aluminum Jon boats have fewer integrated features. And bare aluminum is excellent at transmitting noises and vibrations. Some hulls sound like a drum when running through waves, and others broadcast fish-spooking sounds right into the water. That’s why many anglers who fish the shallows – where stealth is important – get a boat with a vinyl-lined or carpeted interior.
Fiberglass Jon Boats
Flat-bottom boats, in general, are not known for riding smoothly through rough seas, which is why many are usually used in relatively calm water. But if you want the best ride possible for a Jon boat, then a fiberglass hull is a good choice because the extra heft helps them shove waves out of the way. And there’s an added bonus: while flat-bottom boats, as a rule, are very stable platforms regardless of construction material, the extra weight of fiberglass certainly makes them more stable than an aluminum model of the same length and beam. Remember, however, that the additional weight comes with a penalty. Especially in the case of larger models, trailer-ability and portability can both become problematic.
Wooden Flats Boats
Setting aside those of historic nature, wooden boats of any type are mostly limited to custom builds in this day and age. There are certainly benefits of wood boat construction, but unless it’s wrapped in fiberglass and resin, the extra maintenance that wood boats require can soak up more time then you actually spend out on the water. Owning a wooden boat is a labor of love for people who enjoy the extra effort they require, and often these boats can be considered works of art.
Aside from custom rigs, if you’re looking at used boats you may run across an older wood boat that’s been fiberglassed over, or a wooden Jon boat someone built in their garage. In fact, many people who decide to build a wood boat of their own stick with the Jon boat design simply because it’s simple and doesn’t require creating compound curves with the wood.
Jon Boat Equipment
Every Jon boat, no matter what it’s made of or how large or small it may be, will need some equipment to go along with it. Obviously, the number-one issue is making sure you have all the required safety gear. You can find a full accounting on what you should have aboard in our Boat Safety Guide.
In addition to safety gear, what you equip your Jon boat with depends entirely upon how you plan to use it. Hunters, for example, may want to get a pop-up blind that mounts on eye-bolts which can be added to the bow and stern. Anglers will obviously consider adding fish-finding electronics, a net, a livewell, and fishing rod holders. And everyone will need things like navigational equipment, a cooler for drinks and food, and cupholders. While many of these items can be integrated into fiberglass boats, much of it will need to be added to aluminum rigs. Fortunately, many of these have built-in track-mounting systems along the gunwales, which make it easy to purchase aftermarket add-ons and lock them in place.
Overall, again thanks to their simplicity, equipping a Jon boat is usually much less expensive than equipping many other types of boats. In fact, many people who own Jon boats which have nothing more than bench seats built-in don’t do any equipping beyond carrying aboard whatever they may want for a single outing on the water.
Flats boats are a unique breed of fishing boat, not to be confused with “flat boats,” a type of barge-like flat-bottom cargo carrier used in years past. Rather, flats boats are relatively small, lightweight fishing boats used for probing the flats and shallows of southern waterways, mostly in Florida. These boats are sometimes, but not always, flat-bottom or nearly flat-bottom in nature. However, they’re always designed and built to minimize draft. They’re designed to be “poled” (guided along with a long push-pole) from an elevated platform located on the stern, while anglers sight-cast to individual fish from a raised bowdeck.
Unlike Jon boats, flats boats are commonly high-tech (and often high-dollar) fishing machines. They’re often outfitted with the latest electronics, as well as features ranging from integrated livewells to outrageously large outboards – many flats boats are capable of speeds in the 60-mph-plus range.
Few flats boats are constructed from aluminum, yet many go beyond mere fiberglass construction as well; the use of advanced composites like carbon fiber and Kevlar are common in this breed. In fact, the closest comparison to flats boats would likely be modern high-end bass boats, which are also usually designed and built for maximum high-speed performance and the ultimate in highly-specific forms of fishing.
What all of these boats share in common – Jon boats, flat-bottom boats, and flats boats alike – is their effectiveness for shallow-water fishing. Your average center console boats with a deep-V hull might be excellent for open-water angling out on the Bay, but it can’t compare with a flat-bottom boat for sneaking around those shallow creeks and shoals where certain species thrive. And while a dual console boat may add to the family fun with activities like watersports, when it’s time for fishing it’ll never serve quite as well as a dedicated fishing platform.
Shallow Draft Fishing Boats
The bottom line i: for serious shallow-water anglers, in many cases a Jon boat, flat-bottom boat, or a flats boat is going to be the ultimate pick. If that’s the type of fishing you enjoy the most, there’s a good chance that ultimately, you’ll have one of the above sitting on a trailer in your own driveway.