Hog Island launches drift boats on market

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John St. John is optimistic that after fighting through several years of adversity, Hog Island will soon be in fat city.

Hog Island Boat Works is a small Steamboat Springs company named after an island in Wyoming's Snake River. Principal John St. John specializes in custom built watercraft that are ideal for anglers. His drift boats are like no other -- they are the only ones on the market made from foam-injected, roto-mold plastic. Other drift boats are made of fiberglass, aluminum or good old-fashioned wood.

However, St. John is determined to be an innovator.

Two years ago, after much hard work, he thought he was ready to move beyond prototypes and deliver drift boats to the demanding world of fishing guides and hard-core anglers. But the sudden realization that the boats needed refinements set him back. Now, there are encouraging signs that St. John will be able to keep his company afloat.

"We broke even for the first time this spring. We've delivered 29 boats and when I turn three more over to a dealer in Eugene, Ore., today, it will be 32." St. John said. "I think we can get to 70 this year."

Drift boats, recognizable by their high bow and stern, are the sports cars of rowboats. Fishermen on Western rivers favor them for their maneuverability. Because they have a very shallow draft, a flick of the oars allows them to be spun on their axes. And they are so light, they can be rowed upstream.

That kind of agility makes it easier for fishing guides to put their clients in prime casting position along the eddies and current seams where trout lie in wait. Fishing guides can even row back upstream to give their clients a second chance at particularly promising water.

Recreational anglers quickly find out that it's almost as much fun to row the boat as it is to stand in the bow and cast a fly rod.

St. John, who was a professional whitewater and fishing guide in Jackson, Wyo., for eight years, knows what the pros want. He thinks his plastic boats outperform other types of drift boats.

"The plastic boat acts more like a kayak when you're trying to move in and out of eddies, or hold onto a seam," St. John said.

He touts the Hog Island boats for being as durable as their aluminum counterparts. Their sound-deadening qualities are also a big plus, he said.

If someone drops a drink can in the bottom of an aluminum boat, or even sets a rod down abruptly, trout are apt to zoom off in all directions. Plastic and foam boats are much more forgiving in that regard. And if a boatman dings his Hog Island Boat on a rock, the plastic skin can be patched in much the same way ski technicians repair the sintered base of an Alpine ski.

Hog Island has 14 private investors who own shares in the company. Their patience has allowed him to persevere, St. John said.

Two years ago, St. John had produced a half-dozen prototypes in pleasing forest green and coffee colors. What he discovered, to his chagrin, was that the colors made the boats almost too hot to sit on. He also realized he needed to refine the "casting braces" that allow anglers to stand safely and comfortably in the front of the boat while casting a fly rod. In the interim, St. John has made the transition from a California manufacturing company to one in Denver called RMI. He also has formed a relationship with a company in Longmont that custom manufactures his boat trailers.

Hog Island picks the boat "blanks" up on the Front Range, then returns them to a small shop on Twentymile Road in Steamboat. St. John and colleagues Kelly Nelson and David McGuire finish the boats by installing oar locks, seats, the anchor system, a fly deck and rod storage tubes on the boat. Hog Island offers the advantage of being able to customize the accessories on a boat to customer specifications.

The boats are meant to retail for $6,700, which includes the trailer and all accessories except oars. Oars are a very personal choice among river rats, St. John said.

In the Yampa Valley, St. John is selling the boats at the wholesale price of $5,600.

He is so eager to have Yampa Valley residents try his boats that he will loan a demo boat to anyone with a little experience and a trailer hitch on his or her truck. Just call him at 870-1660 or stop by the shop. It's just east of Weston Oil and next door to the LIFT-UP store.

St. John acknowledges that the market for drift boats is not huge, and the competition is keen. The American market for 16-foot boats is between 600 and 700 a year, and a half-dozen companies vie for those sales. Aside from large guiding outfitters, there aren't many repeat customers.

St. John said he'll be in good shape if he can average selling 125 boats a year, and he's set his sites on the southeastern United States, where people are just beginning to discover the advantages of the nimble boats.

If it works out the way he's planned, Hog Island will be in hog heaven.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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