'Toons Are Not Looney Pontoons look funny but offer plenty of fishing space, cheap

They're big, slow and ugly, it's true. But when it comes to providing space, stability, comfort and family-friendliness, you can't beat a pontoon boat. You get all the amenities of home: a couch to stretch out on for a late-morning nap, a top for shade and a dinette table for eating lunch. In many cases, there's even a portable head and shower. In addition to all this, you can't beat the price; most pontoons sell for less than half the cost of a tricked-out, V-6--powered bass or walleye boat. An 18-footer, complete with a 25-horsepower outboard, can go for as little as $9,000.

GET READY TO FISH

The one drawback is that some pontoons are not designed for fishing. You need swivel seats at the bow for comfortable angling. Make sure there's room for an electric trolling motor on the bow, too; with a railing all the way forward, that space won't be available unless there's a removable door front and center. An aerated baitwell is also a must, and rod storage under the couches is a nice extra to maintain an uncluttered deck.

Spend the extra money for a pop-up head enclosure; your family will love it. A Bimini top is a great addition to keep you out of the sun. A motor with a charging system is another nice plus, since you'll be using battery power to run the radio, television, lights and other things.

PERFORMANCE

You won't win any boat races in a pontoon. Speeds for most vary from 12 mph with a 15-horsepower outboard to 25-30 mph with a 75. If your family wants to ski a lot, you'll need the 75. Some boats with tri-toons or flattened sponsons get into the low 40s with V-6 power; if you want to go faster than that, you're probably not a pontoon kind of person.

'Toons can be a handful to dock in strong winds or currents. You have to learn to check the drift before you get close to the dock, and try to take advantage of it rather than fight it. Casting from the back seats is not an option--the couches and the top make it too tough. Trolling is very comfortable, however, as is everything else on these boats. Odds are your whole crew will love a pontoon boat, once they get over how funny-looking it is.

Quick Tip

HULL OPTIONS Pontoon boats built on two cylindrical sponsons are inexpensive but slow. Faster boats use U-shaped pontoons, which have flat bottoms to improve planing. Or you might opt for a "tri-toon" model, which has a center sponson to provide planing lift. These boats cost more but offer great increases in performance with larger outboards or stern drives.

Solar Battery Charger You'll use a good bit of battery power on your pontoon rig. Your little kicker might have no alternator or one that's too small. Add a solar-powered battery charger like the ICP Battery Saver Pro, and your batteries will top themselves off daily, without any attention from you. (About $70 for the 5-watt model; www.icpglobal.com)