You've probably guessed by now that we aren't talking about a Sun Tracker Fishing Barge. A pontoon is a personal fishing craft more closely related to dories or drift boats and feature oars for the primary means of propulsion and maneuvering.
Pontoons are especially suited to floating down rivers and are much more portable and economical than a drift boat. Surprisingly, large rivers can be navigated -- as with a dory -- but pontoons also handle smaller streams, which is something a drift boat will not do. Whether you choose to pursue trout or other species, these adventure-fishing craft will open many miles of water not otherwise accessible.
Dual pontoons are mated to a rigid frame of steel or aluminum. The pontoon shell is usually a rubber coated fabric of some kind with the bladders or "cells" made of heavy-duty vinyl or polyurethane. Anchor systems, trolling motor mounts, storage decks, seat and frame adjustments, drink holders, rod holders and a variety of oars and oarlocks are available.
Frames are made of either painted steel or powder-coated aluminum. Aluminum is lighter and corrosion resistant, but a more expensive option. Steel frames are less expensive, but should be inspected for rust periodically and sprayed with a rust inhibitive agent for extended service.
Multi-piece frames pack down smaller, but are an option you will pay a little more for. Being able to adjust the length of the foot pegs and or the seat position is especially important for taller or shorter anglers.
The pontoon shell will have a "denier" (thickness) rating. You will pay more for the heavier-rated material, but it will be tougher and more puncture resistant. Longer pontoons are more stable and cost more. Larger diameter pontoons provide a higher ride and make the boat more responsive to the oars. Longer pontoons and large diameter pontoons are considered premium features. Urethane bladders cost more than vinyl, but are tougher and lighter weight.
The inflation/deflation valve on the pontoon is important. Your boat should have either a Halkey-Robert valve or Boston valve. This is nothing to mess around with. Note: a slow leak does not necessarily mean you have a real problem. Very often you need only to adjust the valve (this is common with the Halkey-Robert valve). A slow leak isn't a problem since you should carry a pump on your floats anyway.
Oars come in different lengths. Longer oars are more responsive and cost more, but on smaller streams, shorter ones are easier to use. Some oars can be broken down to store more easily.
If you plan on floating large rivers, don't scrimp on oars and oarlocks. The seriousness of a break is magnified exponentially on big water. The best oars have heavy-duty features that are designed after drift-boat oars. These include a beefier diameter, larger oarlocks and longer and heavier gauge blades. Heavy brass oarlocks are a good investment. A little overkill on safety and reliability will minimize the chance of a ruined trip.
One thing you will certainly need is a pump. Another logical add-on from the outset of your purchase is an anchor. Some sort of cargo deck is very handy. Cargo decks are nylon mesh, wire basket or sheet aluminum and ascend in price accordingly. Rod holders, drink holders and trolling motor mounts are available as well. Dry bags pay for themselves quickly, and cam straps are a must if you want to haul the boat fully assembled or secure cargo to the deck.