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Mountain Home Magazine

What Is a Trout Boat?

Apr 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Chris Espenshade

From the mid-nineteenth century to this very day, the business of the Finger Lakes has been recreation. People flocked to the pristine, deep lakes to fish for lake trout. To row. To court. To breathe the crisp, fresh air. To relish the calm and quiet, interrupted only by an occasional steamboat. As watermen throughout the Finger Lakes saw a growing need for stable yet swift crafts, the trout boat was born. In Keuka, Keuka Park, Branchport, Hammondsport, Penn Yan, Dresden, Seneca Falls, and elsewhere, craftsmen built up to thirty trout boats per year per craftsman to supply sportspersons, guides, commercial fishers, and resort hotel fleets. The trout boat era was essentially complete by the early 1940s, as inexpensive motors revolutionized personal watercraft, and the trout boats were left to rot in boat houses and barns.

But, a collection of trout boats survived, in large part due to the efforts of the history-minded members of the Finger Lakes Boating Museum in Hammondsport. The museum interprets all aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century boating on the lakes, but it is best known among antique boat enthusiasts for its incredible collection of trout boats. They currently have more than twenty-five on display, with additional examples among their 117 boats waiting to be restored before presentation to the public.

The museum does not display just the empty boats. Instead, the period rods, reels, net, bait lanterns, oars, and tackle boxes are included to provide a better understanding of the context.

Clouding the boundary between craftsmanship and artistry, each boat represents an individual’s concept of the ideal rowing craft from which to pursue the lake trout lurking in deep waters. Although there are overall similarities—twelve to fourteen feet long, two to three seats, one or two pairs of oar locks, cedar or cypress planks placed edge-to-edge on oak ribs—each boat shows differences in materials, design, construction techniques, and aesthetics. From the beginning, trout fishermen had to troll deep to effectively catch large trout. The sportspersons would release a heavily weighted baseline, from which a series of auxiliary lines placed live bait or artificial spoons at various depths. None of this worked, of course, unless the boat was moving, and the person was the power source. Trolling was a different game from what we see today.

The boat-builders are thoroughly researched and well documented. One of my favorites is Seymour Smith. A carpenter, fisherman, and waterfowl hunter, Smith apparently began boatbuilding circa 1920 to augment his income as a commercial fisherman supplying the resort restaurants. These person-powered vessels made on the Finger Lakes combined aesthetically pleasing and practical design, and an unrivaled mastery of materials, methods, and hand tools. In addition to his trout boats, he carved waterfowl decoys, today highly collectible.

But, the inexpensive outboard motor, cheap fiberglass, and the post-WWII spread of aluminum manufacturing sounded the death knell for trout boats.

The museum is not just row boats. It’s situated on an eighteen-acre campus, formerly the Taylor Wine works. In addition to the trout boats, it has locally made examples of sailboats, canoes, early inboard and outboard boats, and a variety of classic outboard motors. The steamboat history of the lakes is addressed through a series of scale models. The museum is expanding its display spaces, with exhibits planned on competitive racing sculls, and the underwater archaeology of the Finger Lakes.

The museum also maintains workshops for renovating/restoring historical crafts, or building replicas using traditional tools, materials, and methods. Boat-building classes are offered to the public, generally occurring one weekend monthly over a six-month span. The class is currently about halfway through the construction of a replica Penn Yan Aerodinghy, a nine-foot rowing dinghy. The boat-building class is full, but you can watch canvassing on April 27, painting and oar-making on May 25 and 26, lumbering the boat on June 29 and 30, and varnishing on August 3 and 4. The museum also offers classes in paddle-carving and oar-making.

When good weather arrives, the museum will renew operation of the tour boat, Pat II. This boat has been renovated as a completely electric vessel. It provides hour-long cruises in Keuka Lake, and the craft and crew can be rented for special functions. May 18 will be the 100th birthday of Pat II, with a public celebration.

Looking to the heavens rather than the waters, the museum will host a total eclipse party on April 8. June 8 marks ten years since the museum moved to its present location. There will be an antique motor swap meet on June 15, a motor restoration workshop on October 19, and a motor winterization workshop on November 9. In July, the museum sponsors the two-day Wine Country Classic Boat Show and Regatta on the Hammondsport lakefront (dates to be announced). The museum will offer several eight-hour boater safety classes from April through August. During the boating season, the museum supports the FLBM Keuka Dragon Boat Club, through which the public can participate in the growing sport of dragon boating. (They are canoe-like vessels made to look like dragons.)

As Ratty observed in Wind in the Willows, “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” Please embrace that sentiment broadly and spend some time messing about in the boats of the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. Invest in a membership, stroll the grounds, take a class, and get out on the water. And if you happen to have an old trout boat in the back corner of your barn, call me. Just kidding; please call the museum. Find FLBM at 8231 Pleasant Valley Road, Hammondsport. Call (607) 569-2222, or visit for more information.

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