Get on the water, without breaking the bank A Guide To Alternative Watercraft

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Photo Smithfly

Photo Smithfly

By Ethan Smith

Are you’re tired of pounding the same water as everyone else?

Tired of public wade fishing access points, and want to get to those spots that have a chance of being slightly less pressured but you don’t have a ton of money to drop on a crazy tricked-out top of the line boat?

You are so in luck! There has never been a better time to be in the market for a boat or watercraft that isn’t considered mainstream or typical. There are plenty of incredibly cool vessels out there to suit any angling need and you can, in most cases, hook them up on a shoestring budget when compared to the prices commanded by some of the top manufacturers’ boats in brand new condition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking top-dollar boats, they are in fact in many cases superior, and offer some great features. If I could afford a complete stable of specialty boats from the big names I wouldn’t hesitate to find a place in my life for most of them. Boats are sexy and I haven’t met many that I don’t like. There’s a reason that historically boats are referred to in the feminine. They have curves, they can be fussy, high maintenance, and require care and love to maintain a solid relationship. But there isn’t anything more wonderful than taking one out for a little while, and generally just being around them makes me happy.

Over the years I’ve studied hull designs and boat building extensively and even restored boats or various types. I’ve lofted my own plans from scale drawings, then built a wooden strip canoe from those plans. I’ve restored a small Lyman skiff from the mid-1950s, helped my dad restore a ’63 Chris Craft Sea Skiff and am currently helping him restore a Chris Craft Cabin Cruiser.

I have BAS — Boat Acquisition Syndrome — probably more than most, the advent of Craigslist hasn’t helped the situation at all. It’s arguable that the time I’ve spent restoring and working on these boats is more valuable than the money I would have spent if I just bought them in good condition. I have some time to give, but I don’t have much money.

My main ride now is a Towee Rivermaster Calusa.

Photo Steve Seinberg

Photo Steve Seinberg

I also have my wooden double-paddle Wee Lassie Canoe that I built. I have a one-man inflatable pontoon boat, I currently sell my own line of paddle boards and recently became a local dealer for Diablo Paddlesports. All these specialize in getting into water that other boats probably can’t reach, each is unique in it’s abilities as a fishing platform and not one has a price tag over $5000.

Starting on the low end of the price and time spectrum is the paddle board. At $899 it’s ready to go out of the box and is a pretty good deal. I chose inflatable because of rocky rivers and the abuse that modern inflatables are able to endure when compared the more speed friendly foam and glass boards. Traditional surf board construction is certainly more sexy (and they do paddle faster) but in our rivers, the beating epoxy and glass takes means they are in need of constant dent repair. There are some recreational poly paddle boards available from big box stores for even less money than the inflatables.

20150330_105641Those poly boards are an ok option if you have a stationary base of operation like a cabin on a lake, especially if you are seriously strapped for cash, but I prefer the portability of rolling up my paddle board and stuffing it in a backpack. I can hike into waters not accessible to those with rigid heavier boards. There is no need for a roof rack, ours rolls up and stashes in the back of any car. I love putting my board in the backpack and carrying into the backcountry ponds and skinny creeks that do not have boat access and are only traditionally accessible to float tubers. In these out-of-the way places I prefer to have my feet dry standing on a paddleboard than hanging off of a float tube. A few seasons ago I thought I was going to lose a foot to a GIANT snapping turtle (head like a grapefruit) when I floated over him with my feet dangling in the water off of my one-man pontoon. My paddle board keeps me high and dry now and away from those big snappers.

The wooden double paddle canoe that I built, I mainly hang on my wall. When I do get it out, I use it for transportation between holes. I don’t normally fish out of it directly because you sit so low on the water like a kayak. It does look cool and it only cost me a total of about $300 in materials. It took me nearly 3 years to complete. Granted, much of that time it was just sitting there waiting on me to work on it. You could in fact make a boat much cheaper than that. A simple plywood skiff can be built for quite a bit less than $300. A quick google search for the Lumber Yard Skiff will point you in the right direction.

It’s on my list of projects to build at some point but has fallen down the priority list for the time being in favor of other projects. Don’t be fooled by all the pricey all-inclusive kits and fancy ways to take your money in the boat building world. Wood is wood and epoxy and is epoxy and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to build a decent boat that will take you down the river. In fact, the original John Boats were built to float lumber rafts down the river and they were banged together from boards just laying around the sawmills. Seriously, you don’t NEED $1000 worth of glass and epoxy to make wood float, it does it all on its own. In fact on a simple wooden skiff, the most expensive part is the hardware like oar locks cleats, and the anchor system.

STRAWNMost people are aware of Diablo Paddlesports and I probably don’t need to go into much detail on how or why these things are amazing. They are the perfect hybrid between stand up paddle and kayak. The flat W hull design has a high level of initial stability that you can stand on. They are supremely customizable and paddle quite quickly. The thermoformed Chupecabra model is my favorite. The Chupe’s short enough to get into to tighter creek water and it weighs in at a mere 50 pounds. It’s price tag of $1499 gets you a whole lot of bang for your buck.

Now that my kids are old enough to go along I find myself needing a bigger platform though so the whole family can go along. I looked around and found some Gheenoes available in my neck of the woods. There are always a couple available, but the freeboard they offered and initial stability just wasn’t there for me. Luckily I found the Towee Rivermaster Calusa, a super stable super versatile fishing platform that literally does it all. This is really the swiss army knife of small boats and I’ve grown to really love it. (Full disclosure: I’m NOT on Towee pro-staff, I paid full price for mine and I have no financial interest in touting them, beyond the fact that I love mine) There isn’t a more versatile boat on the water. Like all things that are versatile it might not be THE BEST at certain things (like being a full-on drift boat) but it does everything well enough to get the job done in style.

Photo Steve Seinberg

Photo Steve Seinberg

After four years of Towee ownership (which is a cult of sorts) I’ve fished out of mine on Beaver Island on the big water of Lake Michigan as well as the inland lakes located on the island. I’ve used it in the Florida Keys, on smallmouth rivers, in lakes and ponds around home, chased musky, chased redfish in South Carolina marshes and found it to be amazing in all conditions. I’ve used it with a 9.9 HP motor, I’ve rowed it. I’ve stand-up paddled it with a custom laminated cedar hybrid paddle pole designed to pole the skinny stuff and paddle the deeper water. I even built my own laminated cedar rowing frame and pair of 9’ long ash oars to row it in the river.

I’ve found it to be the perfect combo of characteristics to get me into all kinds of great water. The nice thing is that it’s coast guard rated for floatation, something drift boat makers can rarely say. I’ve poled this thing across flats with 3 inches of water, where even the lobster’s antennae were sticking out of the water and we just floated on past.

If you have any weight in the front the hull it is as quiet as any skiff out there. It’s a ninja’s sword slicing through the chop with complete silence. There is NO HULL SLAP whatsoever. Its less that 60” beam will sneak into places only a kayaker can go. And when I get home from the Keys I can drop into the river and row from the rowing platform to chase smallies. You probably can’t do that in any of the flats skiffs out there and you certainly can’t take your drift boat to the Keys. All this and I have less than $5000 invested in the whole outfit including trailer and motor.

All of these lovely watercraft in my life I use for one thing, to take me into places that hold fish. I don’t have a ton of money but I have a nice arsenal of boats to suit any situation, whether it’s just me by myself for a couple hours or my whole family out for the day. And the best part is, I didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to obtain any or all of them. None of them are what you would call “typical boats” or fall into any normal class of boats. So don’t be afraid to look around for some alternatives to the big names. You might be surprised by what you find.


Ethan Smith
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Get on the water, without breaking the bank A Guide To Alternative Watercraft

  1. Great post. I too have BAS (among many other maladies). I like those paddle boards you make. There is a spot I fish in an estuary where we walk in for 15 minutes and then wade out with the tide. An inflatable paddle board would be perfect to vastly increase where we fish

    I have done a lot of kayak fishing and it truly is a way to make boat fishing accessible to almost everyone

  2. good article, I’ve fished from several Towees, they are nice boats. I’ve owned three Gheenoes and loved them all. I can stand on the gunwale of my current Gheenoe highsider and it won’t flip, stability is its strong point. I would never conider trading my Gheenoe for a Towee. Two of my Gheenoes were classics, great boats if you want faster-heavier boat, I’ve also owned a Gheenoe knock off with 30 horse, stick steer, jack plate, etc – too heavy for fishing alone on gravel choked rivers alone. Can’t beat a 15’4″ high sider for all around fishing in less than 3″ of water- less than $3000 with motor. Just my two cents…..

  3. I drove from TN to coastal GA about a month ago to buy my first “real” boat… a gently-used Towee Rivermaster – I’m totally in love with it so far. The big, rocky tailwaters here in East TN are my usual target – but I’ve got a huge lake and boat ramp across the street from my house. The Towee plays well in either environment. Can’t wait to get a rowing frame and oars for it.

    • Hey Todd, long shot here but thought I’d try. I’m in Asheville. Looking closely at a Towee. Are you in tri-cities area? I’d love to come fish it with you one day. Cheers!

      • Hi Neil – I realize it’s MONTHS since you posted. But I just now saw this for the first time today. If you are still on the hunt, I’m in Knoxville and I’d be totally cool with having you come down so we can hit one of the rivers here. Sorry about the delay!

  4. Pingback: Budget Floating: How to get on the water and still afford groceries | The Frugal Flyfisherman

  5. Pingback: 7 Reasons Why SUP Fly Fishing Is Here to Stay | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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