Jon Boats in Saltwater? You Bet!

News & Tips: Jon Boats in Saltwater? You Bet!

offshore angler fishing tackleMany saltwater anglers have made the switch back to aluminum Jon boats after "having a go" with bigger fiberglass vessels in previous years. Aluminum costs very little to operate and can go almost anywhere, given the right weather conditions. They’ve always been popular, but with today's leaner times, they're even more so. National boat sales can slow, but in some parts of the country, aluminum is neck-and-neck with fiberglass sales. Why? Fiberglass can't begin to compete with aluminum in the expense column.

Full disclosure, I’ve owned aluminum boats for 49 years. Along with a slew of fiberglass boats that have come and gone. Today, I’m guiding from a new 16-foot jonboat on the Florida coast and loving it. And we catch plenty of fish, mostly seatrout, while burning less than three gallons of fuel each day. For me it’s a return to the past; many of us started out with aluminum before or during high school, when we first learned to handle boats. Including all sorts of weather on the Gulf Coast, while hunting ducks.

Say you've got your eye on one of the all-welded Jon boats or riveted Jon boats over at You're interested in fishing all day on 2 or 3 gallons of gas, and your tow vehicle is small. A Jon boat looks perfect, right? Trailer, tow vehicle and motor issues aside (you could rate them all as light), what sort of boat are we looking at, and can it be rigged to fish saltwater? Standard length is 14 feet — at least it was for about 50 years.

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Pass Fishing: A 15-foot jon boat at the beach, rigged with four rod holders on the starboard side.

Today many jon boats are built bigger, more sturdy, longer and wider. 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. And if possible, consider a 15- or 16-footer. Why? That extra space is crucial for carrying more equipment. The larger models are wide enough to lay down across a bench seat and take a nap. But as three generations of fishermen will attest, even the 14-footers carry a lot of fishing and camping gear. The old car-topper models from the 1950s were built like tanks and some are still around.

My current 16-footer, semi-V model is something of a beast, compared to my previous models and sizes. It's powered with a 25-horse, two-stroke outboard that still scoots along at about 30 knots with three of us on board. We launch it and run off across the bay for a day of fishing, amazed at modern fiberglass rigs whose price tags may flirt with or exceed six figures.

If the weather turns rough, I switch to sheltered saltwater marsh with winding creeks and bayous, accessible from minimal boat ramps, since light aluminum can be launched almost anywhere. We even used to back these rigs into the Gulf surf itself in calm summer weather, cruising miles of beachfront while looking for tarpon. We were far from any inlet and seldom saw another boat. Sometimes we’d run out six or eight miles and fish around the Gulf platforms.    

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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.

Considerations for Rigging a Jon Boat  

Electric Boat Motors  

Electric boat motors bolt onto the stern where a tiller- 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 on the bow instead of the stern.  

Push Pole  

A wood or aluminum push pole,12 feet long, will shove your boat along past rocks, oysters and sand, without risking the motor’s 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 boggy 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 consideration, however. 

boat seat molded BPS
Bass Pro Shops boat seat

Boat Seats

If you're 40 and over, that lower back can stiffen up by day's end. Attach swivel boat seats where they balance the boat and the driver has a clear view of the water ahead. There are many confortable styles of boat seats some padded, some molded and some that have a high back. A throwable flotation cushion is required on every boat, and I always carry one for a guest to sit on the bow seat, so we can spread out and cast lures without getting snagged.

Bimini Boat Top  

Hefty trout landed on Rapala lure, aboard a jonboat.

A fold-down Bimini cavas top is nice when you need it, keeping out rain and sun. When raised it will prevent casting, however, and when down is more clutter in the boat, but during summer, shade can be a precious thing. We’ve also experimented with a removable beach umbrella, mounted in a vertical, 2-inch diameter PVC pipe, mounted on the middle seat for those desperate for shade The umbrella has a low setting for rain, and an extender for tall shade. It fits in a clear plastic sleeve that stows away nicely. These umbrellas will rust fast if they wind up in saltwater, however. Most often we just dress for heavy sun exposure, with long pants, shirts, hat, Buff face wrap and fishing gloves. That cuts down on the boat clutter.

Multiple Fishing Rod Holders  

You can anticipate where you'll anchor and set out rods, but can't foresee how the day’s wind and tide will unfold.

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Bass Pro Shops 3-Position Rod Holders

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; that fish will already be hooked. Last summer I landed 19 tournament-sized redfish during two afternoon tides, by myself, using this arrangement.

1 arrow pointTIP: Check out the wide assortment of fishing rod holders (saltwater and freshwater) at Bass Pro Shops.


Deck Boards  

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. My new boat has 3/4-inch plywood, which is much stronger.

Boat Storage

If you can find a Jon boat with a hollow seat that provides storage, that's a big plus. There's nothing like clutter in the boat to complicate the day. I need 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, boat paddle, rope and boat 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.

Navigation Lights for Boats

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Author Joe Richards running his Jon boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

Portable navigation boat 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 if you'll be kept out there after dark, fighting a big fish.

Anchoring Your Jon Boat

If stealth is required, such as in shallow-water situations on saltwater flats, keep a small boat 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 in 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, because water splashes the motor and winds up inside the boat

Boat Bilge Pump  

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.

Depth Fish Finder  

shop marine electronicsIt certainly helps to know your water depth and to be able to mark fish down below. 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 marine 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 a center console, but doing so would add 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." 

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J-B Wled® Waterweld will plug or seal leaks.

Patching Your Jon Boat 

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 Waterweld or  J-B Weld sealant. It's good stuff.

Painting Your Jon Boat 

There are lots of shabby-looking Jon boats out there that lost the paint long ago, for no other reason than the owners won't put a quart of paint on them every five to 10 years. You can find highly rated great aluminum boat paints such as Pettit paint, Bottom Shield or Rust-Oleum on the market. I decided 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 Coronado Rust Scat paint and their color code for olive drab is 8405). After that, a half-quart spread did the job for two coats on the outer hull. Next step is painting beneath the deckboards, 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.

1 arrow pointTIP: How to paint an Aluminum Jon boat


Recycle Your Jon Boat

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 scrapyard and reborn. That can’t happen, with fiberglass.