For the last twelve years, I have spent over 100 days a year on fly fishing boats because they are a lot of fun and they are a great way to get me and my clients to water that we can’t get to by foot. I have had the opportunity to try many different boats and get good feedback from anglers, clients, and other guides about their fly fishing boats.
These are my tips for anglers that want to know how to fish any river with fly fishing boats whether you are by yourself or with a partner and which fly fishing boats are best for what you want to do.
What Are Fly Fishing Boats?
Fly fishing boats are small boats that allow anglers to fly fish on rivers, lakes, and ponds. The best fly fishing boats are stand-up pontoon boats because they are motorless, lightweight, durable, and are the easiest to fish from. There are also other great boat options to consider.
Fly Fishing boats can be used by any angler that wants to fish a river, pond, or lake, not just fly anglers. Boats are a lot of fun and they are a great way to see and fish a river or lake.
There are a few different types of fly fishing boats from $500 to over $5000 and I will discuss the pros and cons of each one.
Safe Fly Fishing Boats
I bought my river fishing boats specifically for guiding purposes and I needed boats that were durable and safe in fast and slow rivers. I also needed boats that were light enough that I could take them almost anywhere.
Safety is always my top priority and it should be yours too which is why you should know that not all boats are safe.
I have tried both sit-down and stand-up river fishing boats that weigh anywhere from 20 pounds to about 150 pounds and even fished out of some 400-pound drift boats.
Are Float Tubes Good For River Fishing
The only boats I do not recommend for river fishing are what is know as fishing float tubes. Even though they are made for fishing, float tubes like the Wistar Inflatable Fishing Pontoon Float Tube and the Goplus Inflatable Fishing Float Tube are better for pond and lake fishing.
The issue I have with them in rivers is that with these types of boats your feet are dangling in the water and in fast current, it’s possible that a foot or leg could get caught on a rock or log and pull you under. These boats also often do not come with a paddle to maneuver and that makes them dangerous in moving rivers.
Take it from a guy that spends over 100 days in a river boat, these are not what you want for river fishing.
I will discuss much better options below.
Advantages To Fly Fishing Boats
Let’s talk a little about why you should get a fly fishing boat and why you will likely be able to catch more fish with one.
There are a few advantages to fly fishing boats that make them a worthwhile investment but there are also a few downsides to boats that you should consider and I will get into that below.
No Walking Involved
The first advantage is simply that there is no walking involved when you’re in a boat and that is good for many reasons.
Some rivers have high banks and or steep slopes that can’t be walked very easily, especially for anglers that are not so sturdy on their feet.
Some rivers have miles of very thick bush that are very difficult to get through with a rod and I have seen anglers break rods in the bush or when getting up and down the high banks. With fly fishing boats you won’t need to worry about this.
Older anglers will find that the boat makes it easy for them to see tons of water with very little effort.
I will also tell you that rivers that are very hard to walk along tend to get fished the least which often means there is a lot more fish to catch and the boat will get you to these spots easier.
Cover Miles Of Water
Another advantage to fly fishing boats is that you can cover a lot more water in a day. You might only cover half a mile of water by foot, but to cover 3 to 5 miles is easy to do when you are in a boat.
The more water you can cover and fish in a day usually the more fish you are likely to catch. There is no better water to cover the water than by a good fly fishing boat.
Get Away From The Crowds
You may have also heard this tip before, for more fish, you should walk 5 to 10 minutes away from the bridge before you even start fishing.
Since most anglers will fish near the bridge, it often means there is more fish way up or way down the river for those anglers that are not afraid to go for a 10-minute hike before they make their first cast.
Fly fishing boats can easily get you 20 minutes or more down the river with very little effort and you never have to worry about walking back.
Getting away from the crowds is actually one of my tips on my page How To Catch Trout In A Stream: 19 Best Guide Tips which is a good read for anyone looking to catch more trout.
Access Private Waters
Another major advantage of fly fishing boats is that you can get into sections of the river or around a pond or a lake where the land is all private property.
These private sections of the river or shoreline often have untouched big fish that nobody ever fishes for. With a boat, they are all yours.
Having a good fly fishing boat is like having your own private water and that makes for some great fishing.
You just need to make sure you know the laws in your area. You might be able to drift through private property and either stay in the boat and only fish from the boat, or you might be able to get out and keep your feet in the river while you fish, and then get back in and go.
As a bonus, I have found that landowners that normally get angry with people walking through their land are often fine with you coming through by boat as long as you stay in the river and you don’t litter.
Many of the landowners I meet never see boats so they are often curious about the boat and will talk to you and ask questions. I have got to know a lot of landowners this way and have gained access to a lot of private water that nobody else gets to fish.
The number 1 complaint I hear from landowners and the reason why they don’t let anglers in to fish on their properties is the garbage, and trust me, I have talked to hundreds of landowners along the river.
In some parts of North America, even the river bottom is private but in many cases, you can still get through the river as long as you do not get out of the boat and that is where stand-up boats are the best option.
One thing you need to worry about on a smaller river is log jams where you may need to get out and onto the private property just to get your boat through. Inflatable lightweight boats are best for this.
I have taken my big 15 foot boats through rivers that were about 15 feet wide on average and I could even squeeze through sections of the river that were only 6 feet wide.
As long as I had enough room for my oars on both sides I could run the river.
I could also get through shallow spots that were only 4 inches deep and if I needed to on some boats like the pontoon boat in the picture I could stand up and just walk the boat through or around tight spots and shallow water.
Tips When Using Fly Fishing Boats
The main disadvantage of going down the river in fly fishing boats is that it requires a little more work and a little more planning.
Once you go down the river you will need to get back to your vehicle somehow, and this can be the biggest problem with fly fishing boats, but it’s not as much work as it sounds and the benefits of fly fishing boats outweigh the negatives.
Many guys that I know do their boat trips with a buddy or two. They take two vehicles and one vehicle stays up where you put your boat in and the other stays down where you pull your boats out.
The way I do it is I meet my buddy where we take the boats out.
Then we throw all his gear and his boat (if we are running two boats) in my vehicle and then we head up to where we launch. We drop both boats or the one two-man boat in the river and then we head down the river for a great day of fishing.
At the end of the day, we pack everything into his vehicle and we head back to my vehicle. Done and it’s easy!
Single Man Method
Single man pontoon boats are great for getting anglers into untouched water with great scenery and big fish. Single man boats can weigh less than 25 pounds and can go anywhere you can walk.
Single man pontoon boats are the most popular boats and are well worth looking into.
I have done single-man pontoon boot trips using three different methods and this is how I do it easily.
Walk Back Method
On public lands where I can walk, I will use my lightweight packable pontoon boat like the 2022 Raptor Lite Speed X that weighs under 25 pounds for this method, or the Roanoke Pontoon Boat that weighs about 43 pounds.
I will drift and fish my way down the river for a mile or two and then at the end of the day I will pack up my boat and gear in a backpack and I will walk back up the river to the vehicle.
This walk-back method is only for guys that can walk 2 miles with 20 to 45 pounds of gear on their backs.
The advantage to the walk-back method is that a guy that walks a mile down the river then has to walk back and he will end up walking two miles but only fishing one mile of water.
With the walk back method you can effortlessly fish 2 miles of river by boat then walk back to the car and you still walk the same 2 miles that the other guy did, but you get to fish twice as much water and that should mean more fish.
Shuttle Back Method
The other method that I do more than the first method is the shuttle back method with small boats. I launch my boat and fish and drift down the river. Sometimes I will cover 3 to 6 miles of river in a day with this method.
Once I get down to the end of the river where I pull my boat out, I simply deflate the boat and then pack everything up into a duffel bag or two, (a hockey bag work great), and then I call an Uber or a cab or maybe get someone I know to pick me up to take me back to my vehicle.
I have to say that Uber has made using fly fishing boats far easier to do than ever before.
The fact that some fly fishing boats weigh less than 25 pounds and can easily be packed up has also made it extremely easy to do.
Just make sure ahead of time that you can get an Uber or a cab if you are in a remote area where cell reception might be spotty, and that your phone battery lasts all day so you can call your ride.
You might even be able to pre-schedule a pick-up for a certain time so you know they will be there when you arrive, just don’t be late.
I have used Uber, taxis, and shuttle services to get me back to my vehicle and with the right fly fishing boat, this is super easy to do.
Lock The Boat Method
With bigger pontoon boats that can’t be packed and thrown into the trunk of an Uber or a cab, I will park my vehicle at the launch spot and then drift down the river and when I get to the end I will hide my boat in the bush or just lock it to a tree or post with a heavy chain.
I will then call an Uber or a cab to take me and all my gear except for my boat back to my vehicle. I will then return back to get my boat.
This is not ideal but in remote areas but since most guys don’t carry heavy bolt cutters I have never had a problem, and often I’m only gone for 5 to 10 minutes. Use this method at your own risk.
Now you know how to do it, let’s talk about the best fly fishing boats.
The Best Fly Fishing Boats To Consider
There are a number of different types of boats to consider. Some will be better and easier than others for you and your situation.
I prefer to use the inflatable pontoon boats and inflatable rafts but look these other boats over and see what works best for you.
Inflatable Pontoon Boats
Inflatable pontoon boats are my favorite type of fly fishing boat because they are lightweight, durable, comfortable to sit in, and can go just about anywhere you can walk.
Some of the higher quality boats are more durable than the cheaper ones so for your safety get one that isn’t going to tear and pop when you hit rocks.
The cheapest I would go would be the Classic Accessories Colorado XT Pontoon Boat from Bass Pro Shops for around $600.00. From what I have seen and tried, anything below this price point of around $600.00 and you are risking your safety.
Recently the $790.00 Classic Accessories Colorado Pontoon Boat has been on special and seen as low as $552.00.
My boats have hit thousands of rocks, stumps, and have been dragged across the bottom with 3 heavy guys, and I have even rammed them into the bank a few times, and they still barely have a scratch on them. This is the kind of durability that you want to be as safe as possible.
Good pontoon boats will ride higher than some of the cheaper boats, and with little gear and one guy on them, you can get through water that is less than 6 inches deep.
The wider and longer boats are more stable and will float higher.
There are two types of pontoon boats that you should consider, the sit-down only pontoon boat, and the stand-up pontoon boat.
Stand Up fly Fishing Pontoon Boats
In my opinion, unless you need a super lightweight and packable boat, the stand-up boats are the best fly fishing boats for river, pond, and lake fishing. With stand-up boats, you paddle sitting down but then stand up to fish.
Cheaper stand-up pontoon boats will tilt too much but the better ones won’t tilt as much unless you are a very heavy angler. Longer and wider boats are best if you want a stand-up boat. Check the weight rating on the boat before you buy.
The primary advantage of a stand-up pontoon boat is that you don’t even need to get out of the boat and you can go for miles without getting your feet wet.
Some of my clients don’t even wear their wader anymore because my boat gets them to all the spots and they don’t get their feet wet.
On rivers with lots of private property and on rivers where the river bottom is private you will never need to trespass because you never need to get out of the boat.
You can even set up a drag anchor that slowly drags down the river so you can slowly fish as you go.
The main reason that I prefer stand-up fly fishing boats is that it is much easier to fly fish when you are standing up.
Casting is also easier when standing, and fighting the fish is easier when standing, and standing a foot off the water gives you a better view compared to sitting down.
The 3-man 15-foot boat in the picture is about 130 pounds and it can be taken apart and put into a goalie-sized hockey bag and thrown into the trunk of a car.
Sit-Down Pontoon Boats
If you need a super light boat that is packable or you are the type of angler that likes to get out at each spot, then sit-down pontoon boats are your best option.
With sit-down pontoon boats, you can simply stop the boat, anchor it where you are, stand in the water, and start fishing.
At the end of the day, these boats pack down so small that some can fit in a backpack and the bigger ones will easily fit in a normal sized hockey bag.
These are also great boats to travel with and can be checked in when flying. The 3 models above are good options because they are stable, durable, pack down into a bag, and can be carried in and out of the river easily.
The 4 boats I recommend are the Outcast Osg Commander, OrangePredator Lo Pro X which weighs about 10 pounds, the Outlaw Challenger which weighs about 45 pounds and the 2022 Raptor Lite Speed X which is just under 25 pounds.
The downside to a sit-down-only boat is that it’s much harder to fly fish when you are sitting down. This only matters if you are on rivers or lakes where you can’t get out.
I always recommend boats that you can put your feet up.
Having your feet dangling in the water is dangerous and is why I never recommend what they call float tubes for rivers.
Float tubes are the round donut-type boat that you wear flippers to get yourself around.
Some pontoon boats are also made so you need to drag your feet in the water while you paddle. In a lake this is OK, but in a river, if you are shooting down through rapids and your leg gets caught on a branch or a rock you could be in serious danger.
Trust me, I have come close and almost broke or twisted my leg when it got wedged between the bottom and the weight of the water pushing on the boat.
The other advantage to boats that you can put your feet up is that you can get through much shallower water because your feet aren’t dragging on the bottom.
Inflatable fly fishing rafts are another type of fly fishing boat and these are a great option for anglers that fish rivers, lakes, and ponds.
Fly fishing rafts come in all sizes, weights as well as stand-up and sit-down models.
I do find that some fly fishing rafts are a little harder to maneuver, and they tend to drag a little more due to more surface area on the water than a pontoon boat, and they are harder to get in and out of.
Parking your boat near the bank to get out can be a little tougher in faster moving water. Stabilizing yourself in the middle of the river in a faster current can also be difficult since the rafts have a lot of drag on the bottom and many anchors won’t hold well.
With my pontoon boat, I can get close to the bank where I want to get out and then just stand up and walk the boat to the bank. Being able to stand and hold the boat against the bank makes it easier and safer for my passenger to get on and off the boat.
I also find that there is more surface area that can get caught on rocks and sticks with a raft and that could cause more damage to the bottom of the boat. Pontoon boats take up less surface space on the water.
The single-man rafts can’t be used to stand on a fish out of like the stand-up pontoon boats can because they aren’t as stable.
However, inflatable rafts are still a good option and they are lots of fun and are a great way to get you into water that not many guys can fish.
Just make sure you get a good one that is super durable and not meant for a swimming pool or a lake.
You want one that can withstand being dragged over rocks and logs and dragged to and from the vehicle.
Dinghy boats can be good fly fishing boats but remember that they are meant for lakes and not rivers and that could mean that they are not durable enough for rivers where you are hitting rocks and bottom often.
I would say that the advantage to dinghies is that you can put a gas-powered motor on it but you can also do that with some of the inflatable pontoon boats and rafts above.
Kayaks can be a lot of fun and a great way to travel the river but they can also be dangerous for new and unskilled boaters.
If you are interested in a Kayak as a fly fishing boat, get one that is designed for fishing. These ones will make fishing easier with all the features and pockets for your gear and rods.
A good fishing Kayak to consider is the Ascend 12T Sit-On-Top Kayak or for maximum stability, the Bonafide SS127 Sit-On-Top Fishing Kayak is a great option.
If you are looking for a two-person option check out the BKC TK122U 12′ 6″ Tandem Kayak.
Kayaks are unstable and can easily roll over easily if you do not know how to use them.
You do not want to be in a kayak in fast and shallow rapids when it rolls over on you. You could smash your face or your head and drown.
Kayak fishing in very cold water is also dangerous and fly fishing from them and fighting big fish can be challenging.
I have had some fun in Kayaks but I don’t normally recommend kayaks for safety reasons, especially when the rafts and the pontoon boats are much better fly fishing boats in the rivers.
Canoes can be used as fly fishing boats but when you hit rocks they bang hard so you will need to get a durable one.
Canoes are best used on lakes, ponds, and on slower moving rivers that are deeper than 8 inches.
Canoes can be unstable and hard to fish from which is why I do not recommend them on fast-flowing rivers. You can get some decent canoes shipped right to your door from Bass Pro Shops.
Hard Bottom Boats
Hard bottom fly fishing boats include Jon boats, drift boats, and rowboats. You could also use a basic aluminum boat that you would find on a lake.
All of these could be used as fly fishing boats.
They hit hard and you can damage the boat on rocks so keep that in mind on fast flowing and shallow rivers.
If you want a boat like this a couple of good options are the Pelican Predator 103 Fishing Boat which weighs around 150 pounds
One of my guide tips to catch more steelhead on my page Steelhead Fishing – What You Need To Know is to use boats like these to get you away from crowded waters.
These boats are also great when fishing crowded salmon rivers which I discuss on my page Fishing For Salmon: Best Tactics For More Fish.
Got A Question About Fly Fishing Boats
If you have a question, comment or you have some tips and advice on fly fishing boats or other riverboats, just let me know in the comments section below.