My first encounter with kickboats came at an idyllic mountain lake somewhere in Colorado. I stopped at a state park to stretch, on my drive back home to the Midwest. A fisherman in a kickboat was fishing the inlet to the park’s lake, quietly working the shoreline’s nooks and crannies.
The angler kicked a few times to remain positioned, placing a fly with pinpoint accuracy in an eddy behind a big rock. He sat comfortably upright, cradled in a mesh seat, which was set atop a metal frame connecting two pontoons. One finned foot rested on the boat’s footrest, the other easily sculled to hold him in position as he cast, or to guide his drift to the next spot.
The longer I watched the better that boat looked for catfishing. Small and lightweight, it would be easy to transport in the bed of my truck and to launch in waters that didn’t have boat ramps. It had virtually no draft, floating easily through water less than a foot deep. And it provided hands-free fishing, even in current. No constant adjusting of a trolling motor, no dropping and retrieving an anchor. The angler’s hands never left his fishing rod, yet his boat control was perfect.
The Kickboat Advantage
When I got home I did some research on kickboats, what the boating industry calls mini-pontoons. The craft range in size from 5-foot, one-person economy models to 13-foot, two-man crafts. Weights range from around 20 pounds for inflatables to nearly 200 pounds for whitewater guide-grade units. Many one-man, consumer-grade kickboats weigh less than 50 pounds. Bare-bones units retail for around $400; high-tech or larger units command more than $1,500.
Most kickboats come with basic accessories: Flipper fins, seat, and footrests. Inflatable kickboats come standard with some sort of hand pump and a patch kit. Options include a transom motor mount, rear cargo deck, side bags to store tackle, upgraded oars, anchor system, and even small livewells.
To learn more, I had to talk to flycasting trout anglers, because kickboats have yet to be discovered by the general fishing community. It took a good ol’ Texas boy to help me fully understand the potential kickboats have for catfish anglers.
Joe Robinson works at Sportsman’s Finest in Austin, Texas, and has fished for trout from Maine to Montana, but started out fishing for catfish from stock tanks (farm ponds) as a boy in west Texas. The 63-year-old is an unabashed devotee of kickboats. “Kickboats are almost a subversive way to fish,” he says. “They’re the exact opposite of the metal-flaked fiberglass, 100-horsepower, takes-a-four-wheel-drive-truck-to-tow big boats everybody thinks they need to fish. Kickboats are for guys like me who take a pocket of fishing tackle and a couple of rods. I belong to a fly-fishing club, one of the largest in the nation, and 70 percent of them use kickboats for most of their fishing. There’s a reason for that—kickboats help them catch trout.
“It might not seem that trout fishermen and catfishermen have much in common, but I’ve done both kinds of fishing, and they’re a lot more alike than trout fishermen would like to admit,” Robinson says. “They both fish a lot of rivers and lakes that don’t have many boat ramps or good shore access. They both like to keep moving, trying new spots as they fish. They both want precise control of their fly or bait placement. And they both tend to keep their tackle simple.”
Robinson, often fishing a local river that has limited access, is especially fond of the accessibility and convenience kickboats provide. On his kickboat, he uses a 2 hp gas outboard mounted on an optional transom to motor up the river, and then drifts and fishes his way back to his truck.
Dave Inks, the inventor of the award-winning WaterStrider kickboat, has taken the idea of portability and easy access to remote waters to an extreme. His inflatable kickboat weighs only 18 to 20 pounds. Three deflated boats fit in the back of his Volkswagen Jetta. The 72-year-old Montanan sometimes lashes a bicycle to the rear cargo deck of his kickboat, fishes a river, then deflates the lightweight boat, folds it into its backpack, and bicycles back to his car.
“I designed this boat for portability,” he says. “It has a three-chamber design that inflates with a hand pump in 3 to 5 minutes. If you’re on a river and come to a shallow spot, you just stand up in the water and fish, and the boat just floats around your legs till you’re ready to move. Fully loaded with a person sitting in it, it floats in 3 inches of water, so you can navigate through shallow water.”
Catfish anglers used to fishing close to snags and riprap shorelines question the durability of inflatable craft. Inks and other manufacturers grin when asked if their boats could stand up to catfishing conditions. “I haven’t done it myself, but a lot of people have taken our boats down Class IV rapids,” he says. “The modern materials we use are extremely puncture-resistant and durable. I drag mine over rocks all the time. If you manage to puncture a chamber, they come with a patch kit; and because there are three inflation chambers, you’ve probably got two chambers left to float you to a sandbar where you can patch the leak.”
While most kickboats on the market are inflatable, Stacy Trimble of Seaworthy Marine in Fulton, Texas, prefers Hobie Float Cat kickboats that have rotomolded polyethylene plastic pontoons that don’t need to be inflated. The assembled boat easily fits into a standard pickup truck bed, or can be quickly disassembled into three pieces for transport in an SUV or full-sized car.
“The frame and the pontoons just sort of snap together, so it’s no big deal to break them down for transport or storage,” Trimble says. “I usually leave mine assembled and haul it in the bed of my pickup. When I get to where I plan to fish, I just stand it up on end, back up to it, then reach up over my shoulders and grab the frame to carry it down to the water on my back. It only weighs 43 pounds. If you need to carry it farther, they make shoulder straps so you can carry it like a backpack.”
Trimble uses her Hobie kickboat to fish for bass, trout, panfish, and catfish and says that the quiet precision and portability plays a major role in hooking and landing fish. “Working at a boat dealership, I have my pick of all sorts of power boats, canoes, and kayaks, but I always grab my kickboat when I’m heading for a small lake or river here in Texas,” she says. “I can outfish people on the same water in canoes or jonboats. While they’re fiddling with moving their big boats around, with setting or moving their anchors, I’m already there and catching fish.”
Trimble, Inks, and Robinson use their kickboats most often on moving water but also launch them on lakes. The stability of pontoons mounted catamaran-style helps the little boats handle wind and waves. There are common-sense restrictions to using small boats on big lakes—speeds even with a gas-powered motor or a battery-powered trolling motor won’t exceed 4 or 5 mph; the relatively high-profile of the angler creates a sail effect in strong winds; and serious waves make for a rough ride.
“As long as I’m fishing the shoreline, in bays and coves on a big lake, I think a kickboat has an advantage over a big boat,” Trimble says. “Instead of launching at a marina, I drive close to the place I want to fish and launch it there. And if there’s no launching ramp, I can still fish from my boat because you can launch a kickboat from just about anywhere.”
Boat registration laws for kickboats vary by state, so check local regulations. In general, boats less than 8 feet in length that aren’t powered by a motor are often exempt. All states require a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device for each occupant, some sort of whistle or horn, and suitable lighting if the vessel is on the water after dark. Local boat retailers can advise buyers on specific rules and regulations.
Filling pontoons on inflatable kickboats requires high volumes of air at low pressure. Be careful when using conventional gas station-type air compressors which supply low volume, high-pressure air. Double-action hand pumps sold with inflatables provide high-volume, low-pressure air and can easily inflate a boat in 5 minutes or less. Some owners use shop vacuums with adapter nozzles to inflate their boats.
Operating kickboats has a slight learning curve. “When you’re using the oars, you can go forwards but mostly you move backwards through the water, and that takes some getting used to if you’ve never used a rowboat,” says Trimble. “Once you’re where you want to fish, use the fins on your feet to make adjustments, or to move a little way one direction or another. If you’re pushing with your fins, you’ll be going backwards, and you have to learn to organize your fishing around that. It takes some practice to learn how to move your feet to go where you want, so I’d practice in a pond or lake before I tried kickboating in a major river.”
Kickboats share the same dangers in moving water as any boat: Submerged snags can grab the boat itself or the dangling feet of the operator. Currents can sweep unwary kickboaters into the upstream sides of logjams, then suck them under or dump the boat. Hydraulics below low-head or roller dams can dump the little boats, despite their whitewater heritage. Trimble and other veteran kickboaters always wear personal flotation devices when they’re on the water and treat the power of moving water with respect.
Portable. Lightweight. Easy to launch. Hauls in a pickup and breaks down or deflates to fit in a car trunk. Able to fish in ponds, lakes, and rivers inaccessible to larger boats. Kickboating makes perfect sense.
Other Portables—Float Tubes and U-Boats
Kickboats aren’t the only unconventional options for stalking catfish. Float tubes and U-boats provide low cost, portable access to catfish in ponds and small lakes.
Float tubes are round, inner-tube-like, and inflatable. Most designs rig a nylon or mesh harness around the inflatable tube, with a sling-type seat in the “donut hole.” Users wear flippers to power and steer float tubes. Float tubes are designed for use in ponds or lakes; they universally carry a warning label against their use in moving water.
U-boats are sometimes called kickboats because they’re powered by flippers on the feet of users. U-boats are inflatable or made of Styrofoam or other buoyant material and shaped like a large U. The user sits in a sling seat between the arms of the U, facing the open end. U-boats are slightly more stable and have more weight capacity than float tubes, offering more room on their arms for storage compartments and accessory bags. Like float tubes, U-boats are not designed or recommended for moving water.
Float tubes weigh from 12 to 20 pounds, depending on the number of storage bags, cup holders, rod holders, and other accessories, and universally come with patch kits and hand pumps. Prices range from $150 to $500. U-boats weigh 15 to 50 pounds, offer all the options available on float tubes, and retail from $200 to more than $500.