Inflatable Watercraft Guide2018-09-18T12:53:00+00:00

The Inflatable Watercraft Guide

Best Inflatable Watercraft - Fly Fishing Atlas

The customary aluminum hulled fishing boats, with rumbling motor and riveted hull have their useful applications. But the noisiness of fishing in them can counteract the peace and quiet that many anglers hope to enjoy while fishing.

For that reason, the quiet simplicity of inflatable watercraft can provide for the needs of anglers, while also offering many other benefits as well.  No single inflatable boat will be sufficient in every application.  So how can you know which boat will be the most helpful for your approach to fishing?

That’s why Fly Fishing atlas brings you our guide to inflatable watercraft.

For most anglers fishing is about relaxing and removing distractions so we can focus on catching fish.  From the best whitewater fishing rafts to finding the best float tube, we want to help you get into an inflatable watercraft that you can enjoy for years to come.

What Is A Float Tube?

Caddis High Sierra II - Fly Fishing Atlas

Caddis High Sierra II

Float tubes are not new as they have been around for a long time in one form or another. They began as nothing more than an inner tube with a colorful nylon covering.  Modern float tubes have come a long way since then.  You can read about our top picks for best float tubes here.  But the original round tube designs are still seen on the water today.

The Caddis High Sierra II is an example of a round-tube design.  The original inner tube designs were quite popular and effective. But the availability of more accessorized and inexpensive models have somewhat displaced the popularity of original designs.

Some folks dislike how difficult it is to get in and out of the circular design with fins on their feet. Because it is all but impossible to get fins on after being seated in the tube.  But other folks have always fished in these round float tubes, and plan on continuing to do so.

The round tube designs feature a nylon sling-style seat.  Certain accessories are essential in all float tubes. Waders will be necessary if you plan on staying warm and dry. Flippers are also needed to propel yourself around. But the most crucial element will be patience. Flipper-driven float tubes are anything but fast.

What Is A U-boat?

Classic Accessories Teton - Fly Fishing Atlas

Classic Accessories Teton

The U-boat leaves leaves an opening at the front of the U-shaped boat, and makes sitting down just as easy as sitting in a chair. The seat in U-boat is also a flat nylon sling. It works but it’s not exactly the pinnacle of long term comfort.  The sling-seat also places the angler in the water from the waist down. Low center of gravity produces substantial stability, but also makes long casts more difficult.

The U-boat design does have its benefits. One of the benefits being cost. U-boats are very inexpensive. Another asset is the ability to store and fold up the unit. And if you need to walk to a back country fishing hole they fit in a mid-sized hiking pack. Those of us looking to shed the demands of civilization can appreciate this feature.

Modern Float Tube Designs

Classic Accessories Cumberland - Fly Fishing Atlas

Classic Accessories Cumberland

Inflatable or dense foam seats combined with good back support turn a float tube into a floating lazy-boy. Newer float tube designs have sought to enhance comfort with little  sacrifice of portability. Truly, the enjoyment factor is remarkable. But the bulkiness of the foam seat hinders the ability to be placed in a pack for long hikes. Fortunately many designers have incorporated connectors for backpack straps.

While the comfort level rises so does the price tag, but not significantly so. Fortunately very comfortable models with excellent features are available for around $200.  Modern float tube designs nearly all incorporate zippered storage compartments on both sides. Some are larger than others but most provide ample room for tackle and snacks.  Check out more great float tube designs and our top picks for best float tubes here.

What Is A Pontoon Boat?

Outcast Stealth Pro - Fly Fishing Atlas

Outcast Stealth Pro

You might ask, what differentiates float tubes from pontoon boats?  Many of the larger float tube models almost have a hybrid look.  Boats like the Outcast Stealth Pro include oars, but the look of the boat isn’t vastly different from a modern float tube.  So what is the difference?

Well honestly, the dividing line between the two is very hazy.  Generally speaking, a pontoon-style boat is going to be much more capable in moving water than a float tube.  Pontoon boats are larger, have separated pontoons, raised seating, and possibly a motor mount, and some do not.

In the end how a manufacturer refers to their boat is less important than finding the features you want to have for an enjoyable fishing experience.  Take a look at our top pontoon boat choices for more information on their varieties and features

Framed Pontoon boats

Classic Accessories Colorado - Fly Fishing Atlas

Classic Accessories Colorado

Framed pontoon boats are very popular and for good reason.  They are a clear step up from a float tube.  But carrying a boat of this size for miles into the backcountry simply is not practical. Comfort now becomes the primary focus over portability.

Framed pontoon boats are pretty stable boats.  Anglers often use basic pontoon boats for slower moving rivers, but they are not safe for rapids and whitewater.  Pontoon boats provide a great deal of comfort and they also can keep an angler entire out of the water.

Seating in a pontoon boat provides more rigid support for those with back pain.  Anglers with knee injuries will prefer the option of using oars over kicking around with fins.  The pontoons sit the angler a little higher than float tubes while still keeping the water within reach if an angler want to use fins.  Gear can be stored in pockets and bags that are attached to the pontoons much like a float tube.

The ability to row a pontoon boat makes covering water much faster than kicking around in a float tube.  But most framed pontoon boats don’t come equipped with tracking fins and can tend to drift in windy conditions.  A lack of tracking fins can make rowing in a straight direction more challenging.  Some framed pontoon boats are approved for electric trolling motors and have motor mounts.

Though framed pontoon boats are bigger than float tubes, they are not designed to carry big loads.  They can quickly become overloaded and start feeling out of balance.  But if comfort is what you are looking for, a framed pontoon boat is worth considering.

Frameless Pontoon Boats

Sea Eagle 285 Pro - Fly Fishing Atlas

Sea Eagle 285 Pro

Frameless pontoon boats are every bit as comfortable as their framed counterparts. There are some added benefits of frameless models as well.

Maximum load carrying capability is greater than that of framed models. Gear-heavy trips are better accommodated by frameless boats.  And both gas and electric motors are often approved for these boats.

Frameless pontoon boats are also very stable.  The ability to stand in a boat while fly casting adds distance to your casting range, and it also lets you stretch your legs.  The rigid floor makes an excellent standing surface.

Many designs are also rated for moving water.  Class 2 rivers are now fair game!  Frameless pontoon boats can open access to significant areas that were not accessible previously.

What About Inflatable Kayaks?

Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler - Fly Fishing Atlas

Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler

Like float tubes, inflatable kayaks are primarily fabric and some models can be packed into a large hiking pack.  Since kayaks are so much faster than float tubes this can be a tempting pursuit. But inflatable kayaks designed for fishing weigh-in around 40 pounds so keep that in mind if you are planning a long hike.

My first impression with a kayak was probably similar to a lot of other folks.  The sense of being close to the water was realized in short order, because the boat overturned.  Thankfully fishing kayaks typically have a wider and more stable design.

If you want to be able to stand up to cast then you’ll need to look for a wide kayak with good stability, and a good sense of balance never hurts either.  Take a look at our fishing kayak review for some good pointers.  Kayaks have two general designs: Sit on Top and Sit Inside.

Sit On Top Kayaks

Sevylor QuickPak Coverless Kayak - Fly Fishing Atlas

Sevylor QuickPak Coverless Kayak

Sit On Top kayaks have a closed-top design.  Some designs are basically shaped for sitting only, while others are stable enough for standing and are decked out with multiple features for fishing.  These boats are particularly ideal for summer fishing, when a little splash of water is a welcome surprise.  Good quality sit on top kayaks will have scupper holes to allow splashing water from paddling or rain to drainage out through the bottom of the boat.

The higher center of gravity can increase the risk of accidentally capsizing.  Thinner kayaks make standing quite risky as well, and difficult as any wave could test just how good your balance is.  Sit on top kayaks are wonderful boats for recreation, but fishing kayaks are often loaded with features that tournament anglers and hardcore anglers will love.

Sit Inside Kayaks

Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler Pro - Fly Fishing Atlas

Advanced Elements StraightEdge Angler Pro

Sit inside inflatable kayaks are very similar to a frameless pontoon boat.  They have a rigid floor board that is conducive to standing, and the low center of gravity also adds to the overall stability.

The floor space provides ample space for gear-heavy trips. The seat is in a fixed position facing forward.  So swiveling to cast in different positions won’t be an option.  Depending on the design, the floor of an inflatable kayak might accumulate water.  But our favorite designs are those with self-bailing floors that quickly drain water away.

Storage Benefits

Since inflatable kayaks have few rigid parts and framework they store incredibly well.  For those living in apartments or homes that do not have extra storage space, these boats pack away conveniently.  And maybe you live in an area where you have concerns that a boat stored outdoors might be stolen.  With inflatable kayaks storage indoors becomes a non-issue.

Bargain Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks come in all price ranges, but beware, most cheap models will not resist puncture in the least.  Fishing hooks and cheap vinyl are not a good combination.  These boats wont have rod holders either.  Bargain kayaks also have pinch valves reminiscent of pool toys, rather than spring and boston valves.

A tracking fin is a must as well. Otherwise paddling will have you zigging and zagging across the water.  Advanced Elements and NRS both have models specifically designed for fishing.

What About Fishing Rafts?

NRS Otter - Fly Fishing Atlas

The NRS Otter and Fishing Frame

Rafts are the big-boys in the world of inflatables. Fishing rafts can be the answer if you are looking to fish those deep gorges and mid-river runs.  Or maybe you are a guide who wants to provide a safe and fun experience to your sports.  You can find our top picks for best whitewater fishing rafts here.

With all the options out there, fishing rafts get the stamp of approval from the safety department. Rafts are incredibly difficult to sink.  Even if they are swamped, suffer a puncture, or flip over, rafts stay afloat.  If you want to fish rivers, there is no getting around the fact that the right raft can make an excellent whitewater boat.

Fishing rafts provide access to areas that cannot be accessed by other boats, or even by foot.  A fishing raft allows you to tackle rough river conditions that would destroy other boats.  A good raft can prove indispensable in these locations.  Rafts also displace very little water and sit very high as a result.  That characteristic allows rafts to float right through shallows and rocky water that other watercraft, like drift boats, cannot pass.

How Do Raft Frames Work?

Raft frame dimensions vary widely and are made to fit a variety of rafts.  Some designs are adjustable to allow for modifications, and some have fixed dimensions that cannot be adjusted.  Raft makers have integrated helpful fishing accessories like anchor systems, supportive seats, casting floors, leaning bars and leg braces into their frame designs.

Outcast PAC 1300 - Fly Fishing Atlas

The Outcast PAC 1300 and Fishing Frame

The fishing frame goes hand and hand with the raft it is designed for.  Buyers are able to customize frames to fit their rafts and to provide for their exact needs.  Whether you need a simple raft frame with little more than a rowers seat, or if you want to add extra seats, lean bars, and anchor lines, the sky is the limit.  Fishing frames are usually held together with cotter pins or U-bolts which makes assembly a snap. And when needs for storage and accessories change, it makes for easy adjustment.  NRS frames are one that is very well known for their modular ability.

NRS Bighorn II Raft Frame - Fly Fishing Atlas

The NRS Bighorn Frame


Raft frames are made from aluminum tubing to provide the lightest and strongest frame possible.  The NRS frame comes highly recommended  among river guides, and is manufactured to fit a wide variety of rafts.  The ability to add or take away seats, floors, anchor systems, and lean bars is a feature many enjoy.  The seat positions can be adjusted to provide a better fitting rowing compartment for guides, and braces can be added or removed when gear requirements change.  The wide selection of modular accessories make the NRS frames very versatile and comfortable.  Customization is almost entirely unrestricted.

What Size Raft Do I Need? NRS Frame Stern Seat - Fly Fishing Atlas

The size of the raft you will need is going to depend on how many people you intend to have in the boat.  The amount of gear you need to carry will also be a consideration. Removable seats can provide for additional gear storage if your frame allows.  As is the case with other inflatables, rafts are manufactured in all price points. Cheap set ups can be done, but they may not last, or carry a warranty for very long. If you are fishing around whitewater, bargain rafts are not a gamble worth taking.

Outcast PAC 1400 - Fly Fishing Atlas

The Outcast PAC 1400

Guides, raft owners and end users tend to find a sweet spot in the 12-14 foot range and most manufacturers say their 13 foot models are their most popular boats. Many companies produce their top tier and outfitter grade models in 13 and 14 feet.

The 13-14 foot raft is large enough to comfortably fish two or three people.  This arrangement places one in front of the rower and one behind. But remember, a 14 foot raft will sit slightly deeper than a 13 footer.  The raft in 13 feet may then have the edge when the water gets shallow and rocky.  But in less technical whitewater, where more gear carrying capacity is needed, a larger raft will shine.

The 13 foot raft will also have the edge in trailering the boat.  It’s amazing that an extra foot of length can make moving a raft that much more difficult.  It is possible to avoid the trailer and haul a 13 foot boat on a truck. But that is contingent on the truck as well as the frame on the raft.  A trailer may be needed depending on your particular situation.  Check out our recommended gear section for our top whitewater fishing raft recommendations.