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Tom Ross Punt
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The St. Mary’s Riverboat

Right: These colourful punts on the St. Mary’s River, Nova Scotia, are used in the upriver reaches and pools. Fitted with outboard brackets, they are shorter than the riverboats found near Sherbrooke. A 20-foot long plywood riverboat waits along the bank of the St. Mary’s in Stillwater. The punting pole and the bailer are inside. All the angler needs to do is bring his rod and cast off.

Punting is an ancient art. Briefly, the pole is pushed to the riverbed and used as a lever to force the craft forward. It is a subtle combination of leg, arm and trunk co-ordination. This angler makes it look easy as he poles to a better location.

Salmon Anglers on eastern Nova Scotia’s St. Mary’s River cast their flies with artistic flourishes, testing their skills as they sit or stand in long, slender, shallow punts called “riverboats.” These deceptively simple craft have been used for a long as anyone can remember. St. Mary’s River settlers probably began building punts when they found enough time for recreational fishing and boat building. For example, there was a punt like ferry at Sherbrooke in 1819, when Lord Dalhousie visited the area: military artist Major J.E. Woolford, Lord Dalhousie’s companion, sketched the craft at that time.

Before sawmills supplied planks, settlers made dugouts from logs. The long, narrow shape of the dugouts was well suited to the shallow, swift waters of the St. Mary’s River. Therefore, when settlers began building riverboats, they imitated the shape. Subtle changes are continually made to traditional craft, though boats appear to remain static in form. As boats grow old and are replaced, owners tend to incorporate small, imperceptible alterations based on experience or observation. These changes no doubt make boats safer. In the case of riverboats, anglers have less chance of tipping overboard than their predecessors.

The type of riverboat seen today is much wider and has less-vertical sides. It was first built from two long spruce side planks with ramps cut on each side end, the fore ramp being about two times longer than the aft ramp. The bottom was then cross-planked with pine boards, sometimes tongue-and-groove flooring planks. Local spruce, used for the sides, provided strength, while the pine, used for the bottom withstood the wet and dry conditions encountered seasonally.

The bow of the riverboat is wider than the stern, as anglers believe that a narrow bow will yaw in swift currents. The relatively wide bow and the long ramp also allow for easier entry. Stern widths, on the other hand, are usually determined by the weight of the owner: he needs the correct amount of buoyancy to support him while keeping the punt balanced on an even trim. He always stands near the stern when poling upriver, and when fly casting, he usually stands or sits near the centre.

Used in various parts of the world, punts are propelled with a long pole thrust into the river bottom and used as a lever for the angler to push against. This skill is learned and practised to perfection, as the pole may stick to the bottom and pull the operator overboard, or may get lost. Expert anglers, in fact, can actually hold a riverboat still with the pole under their arm while casting. Some anglers now paddle their punts, while some others have fitted theirs with small transoms for outboard motors.

Riverboats, about 20 to 22 feet long on the lower stretches of the St. Mary’s are also held stationary by an unusual anchor made from a small bundle of iron chain. Flexible, the bunch conforms to the rocky river bottom without snagging like a traditional fluked anchor. The anchor is held over the bow of the punt on a tiny davit and pulley. The anchor rope is attached to the stern, where the angler poles, so that he can loosen the rope from its cleat and drop anchor with the least amount of movement.

Note: The St. Mary's River Association website features an article "Punts of The St. Mary's River", by David A. Walker. Click here to view.

A new riverboat! Click here for the story of the TaraCarol!

Bill Carpan's River Punt - Built by Ray Buckland

Arch MacIntosh fishes the Bridge Pool