How to Pick the Best Shallow Water River Boat For You


best shallow water river boat

Whether it’s for sports or for recreation, navigating shallow rivers requires a specific type of boat. Riverboats are specifically designed to navigate both the deep and shallow areas of rivers, lakes and artificial waterways like canals. If you are a lover of river boating but unsure which particular boat you need then this guide will help you decide which boat is the best fit for you.

The best shallow river boat for you will depend on the activities you plan to engage in on the water. Although all river boats will have a shallow draft there are different boat designs that suit different activities. The best shallow river boat for fishing may not be the best boat for leisure or hunting. The most popular shallow water river boats are Jon boats and skiffs.

Below I have picked the best shallow river boats for specific activities.

Best shallow water boat for fishing

When it comes to fishing in the shallows, some boats are better than others by design. Some take the capability of shallow water navigation to extremes and professional anglers can tell you that there are boats that can float on water surfaces which are only a few inches deep, like a Jon boat.

Jon boats are by far the best shallow water personal watercraft that you can buy because they are versatile, easily customized and they are cheap. For a full rundown of what a Jon boat can be used for read this article.

Jon boats are very easy to set-up for fishing and work well for shallow water bass fishing. In fact you can even convert a Jon boat into a bass boat for a fraction of the cost of buying a bass boat.

Although a Jon boat is a great choice for fishing many anglers who prefer a bigger boat, or navigate larger deeper waters that are more turbulent, will opt for a flat-bottomed skiff.

A technical poling skiff is a shallow water boat that is used in large water bodies when you are fishing for super sensitive fish, like bonefish or bass fish or when you are crab hunting in the shallows. Every angler knows that there are some great fish to be found in very shallow waters but to get to them without scaring them away requires a boat with stealth.

A technical poling skiff or a Jon boat (which can be paddled, poled or even rowed) will be a great boat for solo fishing or even for two anglers working in tandem. One angler will be poling through the shallows while the other is casting the rod towards the fish from a distance.

Using a pole to move the boat keeps noise to a minimum and also allows the boat access to much shallower waters – as the propeller from an outboard motor increases the draft of the boat.

Poling skiffs and Jon boats have good wind resistance and a low profile that also makes them less visible to the fish.

Technical poling skiffs are all about human power when fishing and your poling skills should be developed enough that you can quickly move the boat about without scaring the fish in the process. Poling does take a little getting used to but most technical skiffs owners acquire the skill pretty quickly.

Both skiffs and Jon boats can be fitted with a fish finder.

Our top picks

Below are our choices for the top 3 poling skiffs for shallow water rivers based on size.

Best micro skiff

Hell’s Bay makes some of the very best small stealth skiffs for fishing in the shallows.

Their Whipray is a 16 foot 4″ long stealth poling skiff with a 70″ beam that performs excellently in shallow waters. The Whipray is very easy to pole against both the wind and the tide. It handles exceptionally well even in the shallowest of waters.

It has an exceptionally shallow draft of just 3.5″ when fully fitted.

Sandy Moret described the Hell’s Bay Whipray as “the finest bonefish skiff ever made.”

This boat also offers an exceptionally smooth and fast ride at speed via its 70 HP outboard engine.

Best big water skiff

It’s pretty much a toss-up between the Beavertail Strike and the East Cape Fury. Both of these boats are awesome and we couldn’t decide which one was better, so we included both with a quick comparison bullet list at the end to show you their strengths and weaknesses.

Beavertail Strike

For our choice of big water poling skiff we first looked to Beavertail skiffs and were not disappointed. Their 17 foot 6″ long Strike is a fantastic medium sized poling skiff with a beam of 73″.

It has a respectably shallow draft of 6″.

We love the fact that this skiff has large storage compartments. All hatches have deep gutters, are lipped and fitted with gaskets.

Its aluminum fuel tank can hold up to 20 gallons of fuel.

It has rod racks with fly rod tubes up to 10’ allowing for 4 rods per side. The anodized poling platform is sturdy.

It has flush-mounted stainless steel hardware, an 8-gallon crab well and hydraulic steering comes as standard.

The trim tabs and 4″ set back jack plate are also standard and the 15” gunnels create a very stable platform.

This skiff handles just as well in choppy waters as it does in shallow waters.

East Cape Fury Scooter

When it comes to big water fishing poling skiffs they don’t come much better than the 18 foot East Cape Fury.

The Fury has a 72″ beam and offers a real quality build.

Although the suggested outboard motor is 30 – 90 HP most Fury’s will come equipped with a 60.

It has a draft of 4”to 8” when fully rigged.

Pros and cons of each boat

East Cape Fury

  • Great deck layout.
  • Superior quality.
  • Better trailer than the Strike.
  • Quieter when poling.
  • More expensive than the Strike.
  • Although East Cape state the Fury can hang a 90 it isn’t really practical to go above 70 especially if you want to keep your draft at a respectable level.

Beavertail Strike

  • Much smoother ride.
  • Beavertail have much better customer service.
  • Recorded data available on the motor.
  • Much cheaper than the Fury even when fitted out the same.
  • Not as much storage as the Fury.

Hopefully this quick comparison between the two bigger skiffs will give you an idea of which one is the best fit for you or at least help you identify the attributes you need to look for in an alternative boat.

Best shallow water boat for hunting

As a water boat hunter, exploring more and bigger hunting areas gives you an advantage and thus obviously improves your chances of success. So, for hunting you will probably need a boat that is a good water traveler. However the boat must be equally as good in shallows and in marsh areas as well as being able to offer stealth.

A good duck hunting shallow water riverboat is one that can go over any obstacle, including logs and marsh grass, while also having both speed and is easy maneuverability as well. For this type of performance you need either a standard flat-bottomed Jon boat or one with a modified v-hull.

Our top pick

The Excel F4 Pro Hull shallow water aluminum boat is specifically built for duck hunting though is a great shallow water all-rounder.

The F4 comes in 2 different sizes either 17 foot or 18 foot. There are currently only 2 models available but Excel Marine are in the process of rolling out 3 additional models to add to the range.

The F4 Pro Hull 17 foot has a max HP of 50 while the 18 foot is capable of hanging a 60. This is all you need to power this lightweight flat-bottomed boat.

The 18 foot has a weight capacity of 700 lbs while the 17 foot has a capacity of 560 lbs.

When it comes to basic hull design both the 17 foot and 18 foot models have similar specs as follows:

  • Beam: 69″.
  • Bottom: 54″.
  • Persons: 4.
  • Transom height: 20″.
  • Gunwale Height: 25″.
  • Material: Aluminum.

This boat has a variety of floor plans to choose from with the option of having a single or dual gun storage unit.

For stealth and camouflage (you can camouflage any Jon boat yourself though), you can pick different colors to match your environment.

And, when duck hunting gets monotonous, you can rely on the F4 shallow for backwater fishing as well.

Best shallow water boat for utility work

A utility river boat should be able to do just about everything. It should be one that can be used in every shallow water environment be it rivers, creeks, lakes, canals or water reservoirs. As such the design should be one that highly focuses on storage, weight capacity, stability and easy maneuverability.

Utility boats have a variety of uses that go beyond water-based maintenance and which include; fishing, hunting, camping, cargo and passenger transport, as well as first responder rescue.

Although a Jon boat works exceptionally well as a utility boat, see our Jon boat buyer’s guide, a great example of a superior shallow water river utility boat is the Inlander Workboat & Barge by Elastec.

The Inlander is a hybrid boat that takes its designs from a blend of different hull types mainly from the skiff, sled, and Jon. This hybrid design makes it a great multi-purpose boat with a wide variety of unique capabilities.

This excellent river boat has a modified v-hull, and a wide stance for increased payload, along with a blunt bow and high sides.

Working off the side of the boat is easy because of the 36″ tall sides and the boat’s exceptional stability.

You get both superior comfort and high speed with this utility vessel even when compared to a flat bottom skiff or Jon boat.

The Elastec Inlander has speeds of up to 46 mph and can be paired with a mini-barge if you want more capacity. The barge is an essential cargo area that can be used to haul even the heaviest of materials.

The boat is capable of carrying an impressive 4,000 lbs.

Best shallow water boat for leisure

The idea of how to have fun on the water varies from person to person. There are wave riders, anglers, and cruisers, whitewater lovers and those we prefer calm water. There are canoers, Jon boat lovers and kayak enthusiasts. So which type of boat is best for shallow river leisure use?

Well, apart from your budget, it is your passion which will determine the kind of watercraft that would suit you best.

Water sports lovers are thrilled by the speed and high-performance motorboats offer while cruising down a river for occasional fishing may require a Jon boat or flat-bottomed skiff. For leisurely cruises down a calm river, lake or even in the ocean a canoe or kayak could also be a good choice.

Although we have included a great skiff below I urge you to read the articles that look at the differences between a jon boat vs canoe and a kayak vs jon boat so you can see which one of these style of vessels is a better fit for you.

If you prefer a skiff then you’ll love our choice for best leisure shallow water river boat.

We choose the Carolina Skiff 18 JVX CC because it is built with luxury in mind, and because its 70 HP motor offers speed and just because it is a very fun boat.

Although it was designed for the angler with an economy budget it has become very popular with recreational boaters because its economy price doesn’t come at the expense of comfort.

It is 17 foot 9″ in length with a 78″ beam. It has a 4″ shallow draft so it’s perfect for shallow waters. It also has lots of storage space and a very respectable weight capacity of 1652 lbs.

The boat is very light, weighing in at only 1073 lbs, and is super easy to handle with cushioned seats that can be removed to create more space for gear.

Although Carolina Skiff claim the 18 JVX can accommodate up to 7 persons with that amount of people onboard it would be a tight squeeze even with the seats removed.

Best shallow water boat for rocky rivers

Rivers can often be quite treacherous to navigate especially if they are rocky. Not just recreational and utility boats encounter this problem but rescue boats also need to go over rocks and very shallow surfaces.

The best shallow water boat designs, therefore, are built to avoid obstacles as much as possible (by having a shallow draft) while also being able to withstand heavy knocks on rocky surfaces. This is one reason for fitting canoes with keels.

If you like to run rivers in style then a drift boat is an excellent shallow water river boat choice.

Military grade water tech

There are very many boats that can handle sliding over rocky riverbeds and some of the best are built by ReconCraft. ReconCraft build boats for the military so you know their craft are among the best in the world.

Ok, so we’ve added this for a bit of fun as these boats are military grade and unlikely to be see any civilian use but they are just too cool not to mention. I’ve included a much more affordable option below.

However, if you have the budget and can get one of these shallow water river boats then it’d be like buying a Humvee for the water!

These extreme shallow water boats are built to be tough but lightweight enough to be able to maneuver shallow river waters and lakes with speed and ease. They can go over any shoal or rocks easily and without taking damage. Nothing can stand in the way of the reinforced aluminum on these watercraft vessels.

A ReconCraft boat has a unique hull shape that funnels water for its jet intake giving it a very minimal draw as it sucks up the water it needs for propulsion.

Cheaper alternative

If military style craft are not your bat (seriously?) or your budget is a little more realistic (more likely) then a good aluminum modified v-hull boat is what you need for shallow rocky river beds.

The River Rocket by RockProof Boats does exactly what the name of the manufacturer implies. This boat is rock proof!

This boat is a serious bit of kit as you can see from its specs below.

The River Rocket specs:

  • 18 ft mod v-hull.
  • Available with 60″, 66″, or 72″ bottom.
  • .190 one-piece tempered aluminum hull.
  • .190 custom one-piece transom with a diamond plated 2 ft rear deck extension.
  • All welds inside and outside.
  • Custom center console design for weight distribution and better visibility.
  • ¼ inch interior continuous channels running bow to stern.
  • 5.0 ft front casting deck and 5.5 ft rear deck.
  • Custom designed hinged engine shroud and rear deck, bow and stern.
  • Stern navigational lights.
  • Bilge pumps.
  • Bow mounted trolling motor brackets.
  • .125” complete floor.
  • Six built-in pedestal seat mounts.
  • Helm and steering wheel.
  • Mercury cables and control box.
  • Complete with wiring and breakers.
  • 25 gallon rear fuel tank.
  • RPM, Fuel and Volt gauges.
  • Console controlled panel switch.
  • Fully rigged with a 200 hp Mercury Optimax inboard sport jet.
  • River Rocket decals.
  • Built-in trolling motor and starter battery trays.
  • All stainless steel hardware.

Closing thoughts

Hopefully the above information will better equip you to make the best choice from the many different shallow water river boats available,

Remember that getting a good shallow water river boat will ultimately depend on how you plan to use it.

There are many different models that you can pick from with the separating factor often being your budget.

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