This Jon boat is rigged with four rod holders, evenly spaced on the starboard side. Point the boat in the right direction, and you can set out a broadside of four baits.
Many saltwater anglers have recently made the switch to aluminum Jon boats after "having a go" with bigger fiberglass boats for many years. Aluminum boats cost very little to operate and can go almost anywhere given the right weather conditions. Jon boats have always been popular, but with today's leaner times, they're even more so. Boat sales may be slow, but in some parts of the country, aluminum is now neck-and-neck with fiberglass boat sales. Why? Fiberglass can't compete with aluminum in the expense column.
Say you've got your eye on one of the all-welded Jon boats or riveted Jon boats over at Trackerboats.com. You're interested in fishing all day on 2 or 3 gallons of gas, and your tow vehicle is small. That Jon boat looks perfect, right? Trailer, tow vehicle and motor issues aside (you could rate them all as small), what sort of boat are we looking at, and can it be rigged to fish saltwater?
Standard length for Jon boats is 14 feet -- at least it was for about 50 years. Today many are built much bigger. You will also see a few small 10- and 12-footers around. Unless you're motoring around on a quiet salt marsh bayou, anything under 14 feet on saltwater is probably too small. Stick with at least 14 feet. If possible, grab a 15-footer. That extra foot is nice; the 15 is normally five feet wide at the top, wide enough to lie down and take a nap. But as three generations of fishermen will attest, even the 14-footers carry a lot of fishing and camping gear.
After owning many fiberglass boats, I've scaled back to a wide, 15-foot long, flat bottom Jon boat. The price was right. (It was given to me by a friend.) It has 20 years on it and will someday be replaced with a heavier-gauge, welded model of 16 feet. It's powered with a brand new 25-horse outboard with a push-button starter, which is nice if you have a stiff lower back. I launch it and run off across the bay for a day of fishing, amazed at the new fiberglass rigs at the boat ramp, whose price tags may flirt or exceed six figures.
Pulling anchor and moving a Jon boat to the next spot. The presence of sharp oyster shell or even jetty rocks is no obstacle to an aluminum boat on a calm day.
If the weather turns rough, I switch to sheltered freshwater lakes with a minimal boat ramp, since light aluminum can be launched almost anywhere. We used to back our rigs into the surf itself in calm summer weather, cruising miles of beach while looking for tarpon. We were too far from any inlet to have competition from other boats. I've even guided people on crappie trips during spring in this Jon boat, tying up to shoreline trees next to flooded forest, with the wind howling, and filled the box with those fine fish. It's all about where and when you go when fishing with aluminum.
Considerations for Rigging a Jon Boat
Electric motors bolt on at the stern where the driver spends most of his time, moving the boat short distances if the wind and current isn't strong. If you have a big, heavy Jon boat, you'll need a bigger electric placed at the bow instead of the stern.
A wood or aluminum push pole, about 10 feet long, will shove your boat along past rocks, oysters and sand, without risking a propeller. If using a wood pole, bolt a couple of wood scraps on the pole's end for more gripping power on the bottom -- especially mushy bottom. In areas with a seriously muddy bottom, a paddle in practiced hands, worked at the bow, will ease a Jon boat along for 20 or 30 yards into that honey hole. You have to take wind and tide direction into account, however.
If you're 40 and over, that lower back can stiffen up by day's end. Attach boat seats where they balance the boat during running speed, and the driver has a clear view of the water ahead. In a pinch, we've used canvas camp chairs for guests, though they tend to sag in the middle (the chairs, I mean), making it difficult to climb out and move around. A throwable flotation cushion is required on every boat, and I always carry one or two for our guests to sit on.
Happy anglers with a 25-pound drum caught from a Jon boat rigged for saltwater.
A fold-down Bimini cavas top is nice when you need it, keeping out rain and sun. However, it's often in the way when folded down on the gunnel and hard to fish around. I've been experimenting with a beach umbrella that the wife can stay under during mid-day. Since our PVC rod holders point out towards the water, I drilled a small holder in the center seat, sticking straight up, where the umbrella throws maximum shade. The back of the boat is still out in the weather, where someone can sit and fish four rods if they want to. The umbrella has a low setting for windy rain, and an extender for tall shade. It fits in a clear plastic sleeve that stows away nicely.
Multiple Rod Holders
You can anticipate where you'll anchor and set out rods, but can't foresee how the day will unfold. Set up all your rod holders on one side of the boat, and another boat will block your casts, the wind will shift or the tide change. My boat now has four primary rod holders on one side, and two on the other. To prevent drilling so many holes in the boat, I rigged a 1x8 inch plank down the side of the boat, drilling in new rod holders wherever desired. And it works: if conditions are right and I'm first to reach the honeyhole, I'll anchor and fire off a broadside of four rods, exactly where I want those baits. If you use circle hooks, you can take your sweet time grabbing a bent rod; the fish will already be hooked.
Since my buddies and I have always used riveted aluminum boats, we protected each boat with 1/2 inch plywood deck boards. Cut them to fit, and double coat with a light beige paint that won't soak up the sun and burn your feet. If a 300-pound guy walks around in your boat, maybe it won't spring the rivets -- or welding, for that matter. Be sure not to use pressure-treated plywood, which contains copper. Why? Copper and aluminum combined have an electrolysis effect, which eats away at aluminum.
If you can find a Jon boat with storage, that's a big plus. There's nothing like clutter in the boat to complicate the day. I prefer lots of gear, which allows for more comfort and fishing options. I'm fortunate to have a hollow seat that holds life jackets, gas tank, paddle, rope and anchor, motor oil, a few small tools and a small fire extinguisher, which is required when your gas tank is enclosed. That storage seat has even held a scuba tank from time to time.
Author Joe Richards running his Jon boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
Portable Navigation Lights easily attach to the boat's bow and stern and can be removed for simple day trips. They run on flashlight batteries, of course. You'll need them for night missions, such as returning from that sunset tarpon trip. If you have storage room, keep a spotlight on the boat; you never know for sure if you'll be kept out there after dark by a big fish.
If stealth is required, such as in shallow-water situations on saltwater flats, keep a small anchor at the stern. Why the stern? The driver can ease it overboard without getting up and making noise. You won't need a noisy anchor chain for this in very shallow water, though you should keep 3 to 4 feet of chain in the storage seat for deeper water. A Jon boat anchored by the stern is far quieter, since even tiny wavelets tend to slap-slap under the bow, spooking fish.
In waves of six inches or higher, it's hazardous to anchor by the stern however; water splashes up and soaks the motor, and winds up inside the boat.
Most water in a Jon boat builds up at the stern. You can pop the drain plug while running, scoop water with a coffee can, or install a small bilge pump. You'll need access to a battery at the stern for power, however. Push-button start motors often have a battery right there, as does mine.
It certainly helps to know your water depth and to be able to mark fish below the boat. In a Jon boat without a center console, mounting anything requires careful consideration, especially a sonar unit. Here's how Mike Meisenburg, a fishing buddy, rigged a sonar unit on his 15-foot open Jon boat:
"I went by a countertop store that had sink cutouts," Mike said. "They give away the scrap. I got some free pieces, and then had a friend trim them on a table saw and round the edges with a router. Then I got some aluminum, bent it in a 90-degree angle, and riveted it to the boat. That gave me both a horizontal and a vertical surface to mount the depth finder. I can read the depth finder real easy -- it's near my right knee -- while driving the boat with a tiller motor.
"I thought about mounting the depth finder to my ice cooler," Meisenburg continues "but you don't want that thing bouncing around. I don't have one, but a center console on these boats adds so many options for mounting electronics. With an open Jon boat, you have to be creative. Of course you run the transducer wire over the transom, and secure it like any other boat. And you need a battery close by, to supply power. I ran the wires through the chines on the side of the boat to keep them out of the way."
If your Jon boat develops a crack, have it heli-arc welded. If you have a small leak or two, put an inch of water in the boat with a garden hose, climb underneath the trailer and watch for a telltale drip. Mark it with a red Magic Marker. Let the boat dry, and then seal the hole with J-B Weld. It's good stuff.
There are tons of shabby-looking Jon boats out there for no other reason than the owners won't put a $15 quart of paint on them every five to 10 years. That's what it took to paint the inside of my 15-footer, though I didn't go below the plywood deck plates. The finished job with two coats looks great. (I used Rust Scat paint and their color code for olive drab is 8405). After that, a half-quart put two coats on the outer hull. Next step is beneath the plywood, to cut down on long-term corrosion, which is admittedly slow with aluminum. I prefer olive drab (OD) on my Jon boat, probably because we hunted ducks for 20 years from these same boats, and that was the standard color. Today you see fancier camo paint jobs on new Jon boats, complete with simulated marsh vegetation.
When you've gotten full use out of that Jon boat, and it just can't be sold to another boat owner, consider recycling. A recycle center will hand you American greenback dollars and convert that worn out aluminum into another shiny new Jon boat...or beer cans. Either way, you've made somebody happy. Discarded Jon boats, especially those crushed or stove in from fallen trees, should be hauled to the scrap yard and reborn.
Joe Richard runs several charter fishing vessels and manages Seafavorites.com, a collection of several thousand fishing images taken during his 40 years of exploring the Gulf of Mexico.