Fishing New Waters – Fly fishing from a drift boat: Part 2

Fishing New Waters – Fly fishing from a drift boat: Part 2

So, you’re at the boat launch with your guide, hopefully from our shop, or maybe you’re there with your friend who was kind enough to take you. You have your 2nd or 3rd favorite rod, your extra gear, your dry bag, etc. You’re ready to rock and roll. Now, I’m going to discuss the mechanics of fly fishing from a drift boat including where to stand, how to cast, where to cast, and how to play a fish among some other topics.

DRIFT BOAT LAYOUT AND DYNAMICS

Most drift boats and rafts have a very similar layout. With the exception of drift boats set up for plugging on the West Coast, most drift boats and rafts have a seat for one angler in the front and one angler in the rear. The captain’s chair and oars are roughly in the middle of the boat. Most drift boats, but definitely not all, have a bow (front) that is higher than the stern (rear). All seats face forward and the captain will row backwards. He or she won’t be able to row completely upstream, usually, but this is done to take the edge off the current so that you can have more shots at more fish.

Just so you are aware, there are often boat-wide benches, bars, storage, etc. throughout the boat. Most drift boats, unless you look at something like the Clackacraft Eddy 360 don’t have walk-through interiors, so be prepared to step over things. Most modern drift boats and raft frames also have something called casting braces. These are designed so that you can wedge your legs into them and remain mostly stable as you float down the river. As I mentioned in Part 1, storage and space are limited, so don’t plan to bring everything. Only bring what you need.

GETTING IN AND OUT AND WHERE TO STAND

Getting in and out of drift boats isn’t too difficult, but there are a few tips and tricks that will keep you and your guide or buddy happy. Always let your boots or shoes drain before you just jump in the boat. Neil Corvino, our Senior Advisor at the Lone Tree shop, is always great about this. If you don’t drain your boots and get in and out of the boat several times throughout the day, you’re filling that boat up with water.

A little bit of water can make a boat harder to row and ride lower. This isn’t needed in a raft that is self-bailing, however. Also, dry to shake your boots off in the water so that you’re not bringing in any gravel or sand. It’s never perfect, but, again, a boat is so small that keeping a clean space to fish makes for a more enjoyable place to fish.

Generally, you aren’t going to want to stand on the gunnels (top of the sides of the boat) or on the rubber/frame of a raft. Some rafts actually have step platforms which is nice. Also, don’t step on seats or benches if you can help it. Before you get in, ask your guide as they may want to push the boat out a little bit or have the front angler get in first.

When it’s time to stand and fish, usually your guide will tell you, to stand in the center of the boat and put at least one of your legs in the leg lock if the boat is so equipped. Although it’ll matter slightly less in a raft, staying in the center of the boat while fishing is really important for the rower. When a boat lists (leans to one side), the rower has to counteract that list with different rowing tactics or force. Either way, it makes it harder to row.

The captain / rower may tell you to “center up” from time to time because you are leaning too far or have stepped out of the leg locks. If you’re netting a fish, the rower can anticipate this and will counteract you going to the side of the boat with oar strokes or their own weight.

If you have to switch spots with the rower or the person on the other end of the boat, communicate and plan to go in opposite directions at the same time on opposite sides of the boat to keep the boat stable. Also, do it during a calm section of the river because . . . well . . . I’m sure you can imagine that wouldn’t go well through some rapids.

CASTING

Casting is a bit different in a drift boat. Sure, you can still cast the same as if you were wading, but you may not want to.

One of the biggest considerations when casting and setting in a drift boat is that you have two other people within about 10′ of you. Understand that the average drift boat is 16′ long. That’s not a lot of space for three people. Due to the tight space, a good rule of thumb, at least generally, is that the angler in the front of the boat gets everything from the oars forward and the rear angler gets everything from the oars back.

This will make it so each angler has their own space while also keeping tangles to a minimum. The rear angler, since they can see the front angler, is responsible for timing their casts so as to not cross the front angler.

There are times, in gin clear water with spooky fish for example, that both the front and rear angler will cast out in front of the boat. This is done so that the fish see your flies before they see the boat. This requires the front angler to cast first while being slightly closer to the boat while the rear angler casts second with their flies slightly farther away towards the bank outside of the front angler’s flies.

Whether you’re throwing dries or nymph rigs, each angler should be conscious of the others in the boat. Again, the rear angler is generally responsible for watching the front angler. Both anglers need to watch out for the guide / rower. Keep your casts high and away from the boat.

As a side note, one of the coolest things about fly fishing from a drift boat is that you can get EXTREMELY long drifts. A 50 or 100-yard drift is not impossible and is actually common on a lot of rivers. You can also “pop” your rig right behind rocks and be right there for when that fish strikes.

Fishing New Waters - Fly fishing from a drift boat: Part 2, men in a drift boat fly fishing in a natural river with mountains

SETTING

Again, you can set the hook the same as you would if you were wading, but you probably won’t be able to as you won’t always be able to reach and set downstream. Most float guides will tell you to set straight up towards the sky. This is done for a few reasons, one being that your angles are harder to control in a drift boat (setting downstream or to the bank).

The other and more helpful reason is that if there’s no fish on the end of your line, you can either bring your right back down to the water or let it land on the other side of the boat. All of this can happen with you staying on your side of the oars thereby staying out of the other angler’s way. Pretty sweet.

Setting like this may take some getting used to, but it can make for a pretty successful day on the water. Just make sure that you switch back to appropriate sets when you’re wading again.

 

 

 

 

 

PLAYING FISH

Playing fish from a drift boat is easier in part and harder in part. It’s easier because when that trout runs downstream, you’re going with it. It’s harder because there’s more river to think about. Either way, you’ll like playing a fish from a drift boat.

There are two things to think about when it comes to playing that buttery brown trout that are different than wade fishing. The first is that you’re on a boat. What? Yes, you’re on a boat and that boat is a giant piece of cover for that fish. This means that a fish will often run to get under the boat.

You’ll want to keep the fish away from the boat if you can, but especially the line. I hooked a truly massive trout on the North Platte in Wyoming and it charged the boat. I wasn’t fast enough and it raked the like down the boat catching it on the lip of a screw. It destroyed my leader and I lost that monster trout. If a fish charges the boat, stay tight on the fish and point your rod tip out and away from the boat to keep a good angle that pulls the fish away from the point.

Second, you will often take the fish downstream with you quite a ways. This means that you need to be conscious of obstacles in the river including rocks and rapids. Usually, if you were wade fishing and the fish went over a fall or rapids, you’d throw a bunch of slack in the line and see if it was still on your fly when you got down there. Not so with float fishing. You’ll need to keep tension and just lift that rod tip up and hope for the best.

One more tip here relating to the point about the boat acting as a form of cover. Sometimes when you go to net the fish, it’ll make one last charge for the boat. That’s why if you can get the fish to slide across the top of the water, or at least keep its head up, you’ll eliminate this possibility. Also, you’re not going to be able to dig as deep in the water with your net for that fish as you could if you were wading.

LANDING YOUR FISH

This isn’t a big one, but there are some important things to think about. If you’re with a guide, they will likely land your fish for you with their net. Sometimes they can’t, however, or your buddy is rowing and the 12-pack of Natty Light wasn’t enough for him to want to do that for you. If you’re in a low-profile boat such as a skiff, you’ll want to make sure you don’t push the gunnel (side of the boat) under the water line or under a wave. Just be conscious of how far over you’re leaning for that reason and also, again, it can make it harder for the rower to keep the boat straight.

The last tip here is to make sure you keep your fish wet. This should go without saying, but try to keep your fish in the water, unhook them quickly, take a picture if you have to, get them back in the net, make sure the fish is good to go, and then dump the net. If you release a fish that is struggling, it’s harder to get it back in the net from the boat.

LISTEN TO YOUR GUIDE

This is probably the most important aspect of fly fishing from a drift boat. Whether it’s one of our excellent float guides at Minturn Anglers or it’s just your buddy, you need to listen to your guide. It’s their job to put you on fish and get you down the river safely. The rower is constantly looking downstream so they are not only going to see great fishing opportunities, but they are also going to see hazards.

When I row my friends or family, I’ll call out good runs as I see them coming. I might yell out, “Cast after the big boulder, right!” I do this because I know the anglers front and back are looking at their rig and not usually downriver. I might also yell, “Fish rising on river left just past the down tree. Three feet off the bank.” I’ll usually tell my friends and family to “center up” or that rapids are coming, and I need them to sit down. Maybe there’s a rock garden and they can keep fishing, but I need them to sit so I can see those sleeper rocks easier.

Guides will also often tell their anglers to “bring it in” or “hold it” meaning that the lines need to be brought in for a moment to pass some obstacle like rapids, a low bridge, or even another boat. As a quick note, even if your guide doesn’t say so, if you float past any other angler who is actively fishing, lift up your rig and don’t fish.

This goes for whether they’re in a boat or wading. They were there first, and you have the whole rest of the river to fish. You don’t need those 20 feet. Also “river right” and “river left” refer to the right and left sides of the river as you are facing downstream.

Even if you fancy yourself a good angler, listen to your guide whether it is about safety or fly fishing from a drift boat. Even as a fly fishing guide myself, I don’t even tell float guides that I am a guide. I let them tell me what they want me to do and I want them to feel free to do so.

Usually, about an hour in, I get some comment saying, “Oh, you can fish.” They might tell me to do fewer things throughout the day, but they still often tell me when and where to cast as well as when to sit down. Their boat, their territory, their domain. I still ask questions, too; we should always keep learning.

THE LAST CAST

I probably should have started Part 1 of this blog with a warning. Once you fly fish from a drift boat, it’s “reel” hard to go back to wading. You have access to so much more water and therefore so many more fish. Even if 20 boats have been through a run before you, there is still an excellent shot at fish because those other boats are usually moving through as well. My first float experience was epic. This led to me paying for several more.

Then I bought my first fly fishing raft. Then a drift boat. Then more rafts. I’m building a giant rack right now so I can fit them all in my garage. It can become an addiction. But hey, wouldn’t you rather be addicted to floating down a river than all the other vices in the world? That line doesn’t really work on wives, just FYI.

If you want to enjoy a great float trip, give us a call at Minturn Anglers. Most of our float trips are out of our shop in Minturn, CO – (970)827-9500. We have excellent guides that will be sure to show you a great time on some of Colorado’s best rivers including the Eagle, Colorado, and Roaring Fork.

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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