Jon Boat Conversion
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Jon Boat Conversion
Sep 11, 2007 8:37 AM

A few years back, I decided to retrofit the Olive Drab Floater (ODF), my trusty 14-foot Tracker® Sportsman jon boat. That boat’s wide beam, 60 inches across the gunwales at the stern, makes it ideal for a decking project. I have fished out of many jon boats with partial or full decks, and I wanted a design that improved on storage space, ease of access, and usable deck space.

[Note: for the full text with illustrations, photos, components and costs chart, go to]

The Tracker Sportsman has two bench seats: one in the center with a livewell and another in the stern. There is also a small elevated deck in the bow, which is really too small to serve as a casting platform. My plan was to add a deck that spanned between the middle bench seat and front deck and then build a deck that covered the fuel tank/battery compartment behind the rear bench.

First, I carefully measured every dimension of the Tracker and drew top and side views using a computer drafting program. That turned out to be a huge benefit, since I was able to add and refine several ideas without ever touching a piece of wood or hand tool. I was also able to identify all the components I would require to do the job, and I purchased or scrounged everything I needed before I started drilling and sawing. I ordered a boat carpet kit from Bass Pro Shop, but most of the other supplies were already in my workshop or could be found at the Home Depot and a marine supply store.

One problem with previous jon boat upgrades I’d helped with was limited access to under-deck storage. My solution was to make the front deck from three plywood panels, arranged so that two of them could serve as large hatches, enabling me to easily store and retrieve gear. The three panels are hinged at the two joints so that the hatches swing inward, like gull-wings. This has several advantages over positioning the hinges along the gunwales:

When I swing open the hatches, rods and gear roll into the center of the boat rather than over the gunwales and into the lake. Easier access when the boat is on its trailer. I avoid having to get into the boat to get to my gear in storage. Wider opening. If I hinged along the outside, I would have probably attached the hatches to two tapering plywood decking strips, which would have reduced their width. Easier to design and build.

Using the side panels as gull-wing rather than having an opening in the center of the deck also enabled me to create a 6-1/2 foot long rod locker on the starboard side, where I can lay rods with their tips extending under the bow deck.

In an earlier jon boat conversion project, I had used 2 x 4 wood bracing, but it added too much weight to the boat while reducing storage space. For the ODF project, I chose to use 1/8-inch thick, 1x1-inch aluminum L-frame. All aluminum-to-aluminum attachments were made using aluminum pop rivets. For steel- or wood-to-aluminum connections, I used stainless steel bolts or screws.

My middle bench seat was three inches lower than the short, front deck on my Tracker jon boat. I wanted to span between them with plywood decking to create a large casting platform with two hatches that could be opened to access the storage space below deck, and I wanted it flush with the middle bench seat. I had to decide if I wanted to slope the plywood up to the level of the front casting deck or make it parallel to the built-in surfaces, and I settled on the latter.

After I had sealed the plywood with a couple coats of Bondo® polyester fiberglass resin, I cut and glued marine carpet on the three panels as well as the middle bench seat and front deck. I then riveted the aluminum L-frame braces in place. The thickness of my plywood decking plus carpet (wrapped around and glued/stapled on the bottom surface) is 5/8 inch (with carpet compressed). I measured that far down from the top of the bench seat, marked the level, and riveted an inverted aluminum L-frame brace across the entire front of the bench seat.

In order to make the brace at the same height across the back surface of the front deck, I measured down, marked my level line, and then riveted the aluminum L-frame brace in place as a right-side up L.

With the front and back transverse braces in place, I then turned my attention to the four longitudinal braces. I needed two parallel ones in the center, spaced the width of the center deck panel, and two more to attach to the gunwales. I cut the two center ones to length, trimmed the ends, and riveted them to the transverse braces. I then made sure I positioned the outside pair on the same plane as the center longitudinal braces and then riveted them at both ends and to the ribs that extended up the sides of the boat. The aluminum L-frame stock doesn’t flex, of course, so I couldn’t conform it to the bend of the gunwales. That turned out to not be a problem; I just trimmed the aluminum so it fit into place and then riveted everything together. Oh, yes... the “L” was inverted there, too.

To add rigidity, I cut four short studs from my aluminum stock, trimmed the ends, and then riveted them to ribs at the bottom and to the two braces already in place. That done, a 350-pound man could safely walk across my deck without it sagging under his weight. (I weigh only half that, so that’s a pretty safe margin for error.)

Last, I laid my carpeted, three-panel deck in place, drilled holes though the center panel and through the two middle braces, squirted some epoxy into the drilled holes to seal the raw wood edges, and then bolted it down with stainless steel nuts and bolts. I added recessed rings that swivel up to present a handle for lifting the hatch. One of the best features of this design is ease of access to all the under-deck storage while the boat is on the trailer. When afloat, I just reach in from the center bench or fold the hatch flat on the center panel, get what I need, and then close it back.

This configuration has worked out very well, but if I were to do the job differently, I might consider attaching it so I could remove the center bracing and panels as a single unit. That would mean using eight wing nuts: four to attach the vertical braces to the ribs, and four to attach the two center braces to the transverse braces riveted to the bench and casting deck. Simply unbolting and lifting off the panels and bracing would restore the boat to its original configuration if I decided to crouch down low in the boat for duck hunting.

For the back hatch, I decided to use the back inch of the bench as support for the plywood hatch. I screwed aluminum L-frame brackets to the wooden transom and trimmed the plywood panel to fit. After studying on it awhile, I decided to take on some extra weight and added another plywood panel on top of the rear bench seat. It overhangs the front edge by about two inches. That ensured the rear deck was flush all the way across both panels, and it also resulted in a much more secure surface to later anchor my seat pedestal receiver. I’ve had a few heavyweights set the hook on big bass while sitting on that pedestal seat, and the base remains solid feeling, which I doubt would have been the case if I had just anchored it to the thin aluminum sheeting of the bench seat.

As with the front sections, I sealed the plywood with resin and attached carpet before bolting everything in place. The hinges are stainless steel, and the lift handle for the rear hatch is a low-profile aluminum gate handle. Still on my to-do list is to add three locking latches to protect my storage compartment contents while the boat is unattended.

With all the carpentry completed, I ran trolling motor and lights wiring up the port channel and sonar wiring up the starboard channel. By using separate channels I hoped to avoid electrical interference. Gray electric PVC tubing was a snug fit, but it makes a neat job and keeps the wires protected and out of sight.

The red dot you see and the black receptacle underneath that are 12-volt accessory outlets for my spot light and UV light. I also have a receptacle at the stern so I can run two black lights when fishing with a partner at night.

Finishing touches were addition of a circulating pump in the livewell and a bilge pump next to the drain plug. Toggle switches for them are mounted under one of the rear corner deck braces where they won’t be kicked but are easy to reach.

I also used short sections of closed-cell pipe wrap to cover the metal edges around the rod locker to protect my rods’ lacquered finishes. Rod socks prevent tangling and protect the rod tips as well.

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