Johnboat delivers exceptional dose of deja vu
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 6, 2013
Of the dozens of boats in my past, the most memorable was a tiny but tanklike 12-foot olive drab Ouachita. This Lilliputian aluminum johnboat helped me challenge everything from bass and bluegill to snook, redfish and ultimately Wyoming trout.
Little has changed these days aboard the renovated 14-foot Alumacraft we’re wrangling around mid-Florida. Our scraped-up steed produces endless entertainment that includes occasional boat ramp snickers from sleek fishing machine techies.
John- or jonboats (take your pick) began life as slender, locally built wooden drifters for limestone-bedded Ozark rivers. My introduction to aluminum johnboats began with hard paddling to avoid snaggy brush piles, water moccasins, whirlpools, rapids and rocks on Missouri’s Niangua River near Bennett Springs. We often float-fished with a marvelous local named Tom McCormick outside Lebanon, Mo., in the mid-1960s.
After I left the Air Force in 1969, my first acquisition was the little Ouachita and 9.9-horsepower Evinrude from Johnson Kirby Marine in South Miami. Not only were johnboats popular in the Midwest and the South, these sturdy metal platforms from early fabricators like Appleby, Arkansas Traveler, Ouachita, Mark Twain and MonArk soon made their way to station wagon and International Harvester Travelall rooftops and the pickup truck beds of Montana and Wyoming drift fishermen. I first remember seeing Dan Bailey and well-known guides such as Don Williams, Chester Marion and Ray Hurley sporting dented-up Applebys, Lowe Lines and Arkansas Travelers around Montana’s Yellowstone River during the early 1970s. Noted fly-fishing pioneer Joe Brooks used an Appleby, too.
Not fancy but handy
In 1973 my Ouachita was unceremoniously trailered to Jackson, where we crossed Jackson Lake on some frightening expeditions from Colter Bay to Moran, Waterfall and Elk Islands for lakers, browns and cutthroats. It survived the Salt, Teton and Green before being traded in Rexburg, Idaho, for a more seaworthy and roomier 14-foot Lowe Line.
Johnboats lacked comfortably padded seats, anchor systems and the stand-up casting yokes of the wooden, aluminum and ultimately fiberglass drift boats and modern rafts that replaced them. Johns were handy on small streams with low bridges and other impasses where short portages and tricky launches were mandatory. A 14-foot aluminum johnboat accesses shallower water and maneuvers easier than inflatables. Being lighter, johnboats hold in the current. A rooftop rack suits most johnboats, altogether eliminating trailers, a boater’s biggest headache.
Snake River veterans John Simms and Tom Montgomery both guided successfully in aluminum johnboats for years on local rivers. John trailered his 14-foot Sea Nymph, while Tom carefully fitted his Lowe Line on the roof rack of a compact Datsun station wagon and later a Subaru.
When you’re rowing a johnboat in current, handling improves with the stern downstream. The rower sits in the middle and keeps the slightly narrower bow facing upstream or into a wind on stillwater. Sturdier oarlocks are necessary, and their mounts and surrounding gunwale areas need strengthening.
Rowing torque generated during river navigation is too much for standard riveted oarlocks to survive for long. Patching aluminum, especially the lighter gauge 0.07- and 0.08-inch material in johnboats, remains tricky and requires special skill and care.
I owned at least four johnboats before Ralph Headrick encouraged me to help create the South Fork Skiff that transferred many positive johnboat aspects to a sturdy, hand-laid fiberglass, low-profile drift boat during the early 1980s.
My Ouachita was a constant Everglades interloper, both day and night. A prime benefit in many South Florida Water Management Area canals was being able to portage the lightweight craft over levies and launch in powerboat-inaccessible waters where bass fishing pressure was light to nonexistent. Only an occasional air boater or canoe might be found in these waterways. Otherwise, I was all alone.
From the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), that johnboat often slid into the Turner River. Lying down and pulling myself beneath mangrove canopies into the creeks and bays surrounding Everglades City and Chokoloskee, Fla., was a mosquito- and spider-collecting maneuver. The reward was being towed around by monster jack crevalle and the occasional tarpon, and fishing for bass and snook in obscure spots that few people ever reached.
Open bays develop heavy waves that johnboats don’t appreciate, resulting in wet, rough rides. Otherwise, these lightweight aluminum craft serve as inexpensive backcountry fishing platforms. Skilled fabricators and garage handymen produce beautiful shallow-water craft seen regularly between Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. Forrest Wood, Ranger bass boat pioneer, began his guiding career in a wooden johnboat on Arkansas’ White River. Forrest disobeyed his father and bought an outboard motor, which he hid in a hollowed-out tree he fitted with a carefully camouflaged handmade door.
Johnboat bug bites again
Again infected by the johnboat bug two years ago, we shipped the 9.9-horsepower Evinrude gathering dust in our garage to my Keys guide pal, Mark Chesser. Through one of his contacts, Mark obtained a minimally maintained 14-foot Alumacraft whose silly owner had mounted everything from an electric trolling motor to a Bimini top (why?) and bolted launching rollers through the bottom (wow!). Mark’s careful craftsmanship cleaned and rejuvenated this Swiss cheeselike craft. He then loaded it on another project: a worn-out trailer that is now suitable for a $50,000 Hells Bay skiff.
Our current Evinrude-powered Alumacraft planes down selected South Florida freshwater canals fast enough to reach preferred peacock and largemouth bass locations in 15 minutes. We eagerly tackle lakes and moving water sections of the St. John’s as well as canals and flooded water management impoundments. We quietly row into snook and bass-filled pockets along the North Fork of the St. Lucie River and cast fly-rod poppers along Lake Okeechobee’s extensive Rim Canal.
One challenge is avoiding towering wakes of handsome sport-fishing game boats encountered when operating near the Intracoastal Waterway in the middle of the Indian River around Fort Pierce. As a rule, we select grass flats behind the many dredged spoil islands in order to avoid giant cruiser wakes.
Protected seawalls and mangrove labyrinths demand attention.
Experienced johnboaters plan their trips with a careful watch on current and weather conditions. Locations offering protection from unfriendly breezes are important. The best aspect of johnboat ownership is not worrying about collecting a new scratch or dent or getting sand and mud inside. Such trophies define an exceptional johnboat.
Fetch your retriever
Longtime activist friend Thomas “Wink” Miller sends news that Jackson Hole Ducks Unlimited is gearing up for its annual banquet on March 16. He says another fine retriever puppy will be available. Email him at email@example.com for tickets, donations and corporate table info.
Tom mentions a worthwhile article link that emphatically discourages shock-collar dog training. Find it at ShotgunLife.com.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.