What Is A Jon Boat?

A jon boat is a small fishing boat designed for small lakes, rivers, and other calmer waters. Their flat bottomed design makes them ideal for navigating shallow waters, so they can get very close to shore and travel farther upstream than boats with a deeper draft.

Jon boats first became popular in the Ozarks during the late 1800s. This region is known for its many shallow lakes and rivers, making it prime territory for a jon boat. But since that time, these versatile little boats have become popular throughout the United States and beyond.

Here’s everything you need to know about jon boats.

Jon Boat: Basics

There are many models of jon boats, each with its respective benefits and drawbacks. That said, there are a few key characteristics that jon boats have in common:

  • They are small, no longer than 20 feet, and sometimes as short as 8 feet.
  • They have a small capacity, with seating for five or fewer people.
  • They are lightweight. Plus, nearly all jon boats are made of aluminum. Although, there are a small number of polyethylene and even fiberglass models.
  • Jon boats have a flat bottom and square bow.
  • They have very few amenities. Usually, they are little more than a hull with a pair of bench seats.

Jon Boat: Advantages

The advantages of a jon boat are all centered around its small size. For starters, a small boat is easy to transport. You can tow a jon boat with pretty much any car, so you don’t need to buy a full-sized pickup just to transport your fishing boat. In fact, some smaller jon boats can even be transported in a truck bed or on a roof rack, negating the need for a trailer entirely.

Jon boats are also easy to propel. You can row them if you like, although that will limit your speed capabilities. A small electric motor will get you around a bit faster, and it is a very popular method of propulsion. And with even a low-horsepower gas motor, you will have no trouble getting a jon boat onboard a plane.

Their small size and flat bottoms make these boats a perfect choice for fishing in shallow water. Simply put, you will be able to fish in more places and cover a much larger area when trolling than you can with a keeled boat. 

Because of their bare-bones design, there is virtually zero maintenance required. However, you will need to winterize the motor and keep the hull clean. Doing so will allow you to spend your weekends fishing instead of working on your boat.

Finally, jon boats are affordable! You can buy a premium model for a few thousand dollars, and there are perfectly serviceable models in the high hundreds of dollars. Compared to the cost of many other boats, you can see why so many anglers opt for a jon boat instead.

Jon Boat: Disadvantages

It’s always best to keep top of mind that no one type of boat is perfect. In turn, jon boats have their share of downsides like any other water vessel.

To begin with, the same small size that makes a jon boat so portable also makes it unstable. On smaller models, you may not be able to stand up without upsetting the balance. That said, this isn’t typically a problem on lengthier models.

The flat bottom can also be as much of a drawback as a benefit. It is excellent for getting onboard a plane and for navigating shallow water. However, the boat won’t ride as well in choppy water, so you will be in for a bumpy ride on windy days.

Along the same lines, you can also have trouble keeping the boat in place on a windy day. Instead of sitting relatively still, an idle jon boat can easily get blown across the water. This is a pain if you are trying to fish at a particular spot. In addition, it can even get you in trouble if you are fishing near an obstacle like a dock.

Anglers, in particular, sometimes have trouble with the bare aluminum hulls. Drop a lure on the bottom of the boat, and you can easily spook any fish in the vicinity. Thankfully, this can be alleviated by carpeting the boat with a cheap outdoor carpet.

When docking a jon boat, you will need to be careful. Most models aren’t self-bailing and will eventually swamp if left unattended. Instead, you should leave a bilge pump in place or bail out the boat every day or two. Alternatively, because jon boats are so light, you can simply remove it from the water when it is not in use.

Finally, the jon boats’ bare-bones design leaves you high and dry in the amenities department. If you want fishing mounts, bucket seats, carpets, or onboard storage, you will have to install everything yourself. But, on the other hand, you will only pay for the amenities you actually want.

Why Is It Called A Jon Boat?

Nobody knows for sure how jon boats got their name, but there are a couple of theories. One theory goes that early jon boats were made of jack pine timber. Over time, these became “jon” boats since Jack is just a nickname for John. This theory is unsatisfying, though. Why not just call them “Jack boats”?

Another theory states that the word originates with the Scandanavian name Jon. Most of the early Ozark settlers were Scandanavian, and Jon is a common Scandanavian name. Since many of the first jon boat operators would have been named Jon, it may be the case that the name simply stuck.

A third theory indicates the term came from the old American slang term “yawn.” Yawn simply referred to something with no designated purpose or no other name. So these new, unnamed boats were first called “yawn boats,” which reverted to “jon boats” over the course of generations.

Interestingly enough, the Scandanavian name Jon is pronounced “yawn.” So it may be the case that the last two theories are true. The boats were originally “yawn boats” due to the Scandanavian name, not derived from the American slang term.