You’ve decided you need to reach the pinnacle of fly fishing prowess. You already have all the expensive rods, the Abel nippers to go with your Abel reel, and you can find the word “guide” on all of your fly fishing apparel. It’s time for you to buy a boat, but not just any boat, one that floats downriver and is a float fishing machine so you can get away from the crowds.

Where do you start? What kind of boat should you get? How much should you spend? The struggle is real my friends! You’ve come to the right place. I, too, have been through these struggles and have emerged with wisdom and a lighter bank account, but I don’t see myself without some sort of rivercraft ever again.

Your Goals

We’re going to assume for the purposes of this article that you’ve decided that you “need” a rivercraft of some kind. I feel like I should give an obligatory statement that no one needs a fly fishing vessel. To be fair, there isn’t much we really need in the fly fishing world. However, when need is this burning part of our core and our passion for this hobby, then sure, you need a rivercraft.

Also, why do I use the word “rivercraft?” Well, I’ve seen some pretty good arguments online about what constitutes a “driftboat” and whether that can be inflatable, whether it can have a motor, and whether it has to have a certain shape or hold a certain amount of people. Thus, the “rivercraft” or simply a boat. If it floats and it moves you down a river, we’ll call it a rivercraft or a boat.

Back to your goals. When choosing a rivercraft, you really need to think about where you live, what you want to do, and who you want to do it with. One type of boat may work great in one area or circumstance and not in others. This doesn’t mean that you need paralysis by analysis, but you really need to think about these questions. Let’s take each of them separately.

Where you live, or where you are going to float fish, is a big part of choosing your first rivercraft. I live in Colorado, so we have fast rocky rivers that are okay for some boats and not others. You may live in Montana, Wyoming, North Carolina, or Washington State. Each of these states has slightly different waterways with different boat requirements. I can’t tell you what is right for the state you live in or visit, but I can give you some general considerations.

If you live in an area with very rocky rivers, fiberglass is generally not your friend. Fiberglass doesn’t like rocks that much. For fast and rocky rivers, you may want an HDPE (high-density polyethylene) boat or an inflatable. You’ll want a hard boat that has some rocker to it to ride the waves easier or, again, one that inflates so you can plow through those drops.

If you live somewhere with fewer rapids and more wind, a fiberglass boat is awesome, especially one with a low bow and low lines like a skiff. These boats are also easier to get in and out of and weigh less than the boats with higher bows. You can find some rafts that have low rocker to them as well. Some manufacturers make “high-low” boats to attempt to give you the best of both worlds.

If you’re on big rivers, you may want a bigger boat that is wider. If you’re salmon plugging, you may want two seats up front. If you’re on smaller calmer streams a low raft or smaller boat might work well. If you have terrible put-ins and take-puts, you’re going to need one that you can move by hand or on a small trolly.

No rivercraft is perfect, so you’re going to have to compromise, but ask yourself where you will float fish primarily. If you will primarily be on slow flat rivers, you may want a motor mount, for example. Again, you will never have a perfect boat, but you can have a boat that is perfect for what you do, primarily. Sit down and really think about when, where, and how you will use your new boat. P.S., you’re realistically not going to be in this rivercraft more than a few times a year, but a guy can dream, right?!

The different sizes and how you’ll use them.

I see that there are 4 different sizes of rivercraft that you might be interested in. First is a single-person raft or pontoon. Second is a smaller 2-person raft or hard boat. Third is a “full size” driftboat or raft around 16’. Fourth and last is a large boat that can include a very large raft, driftboat, or even a jet boat. I’m going to focus more on sizes one through three as those are the boats I know best here in Colorado.

A small one-person craft is just that. These boats, such as the Watermaster, Outcast Fishcat, Outcast Clearwater, or Dave Scadden Assault X are designed to get you and some light gear down the river or out on the lake. “Chris, are these belly boats or float tubes?” No, even though those glorified pool floaties have their place, you don’t really ever want to take them down a river. Dangling legs are not usually a good thing. These one-person rivercrafts, usually in a length of 7’ to 9’, generally have small oars and allow you to row from spot to spot.

They can come in a “raft” shape or a “u” shape. The former will allow you to take on waves easier and the latter are easier to land fish with and get in and out of. These boats generally collapse into the trunk of a sedan and are very easy to portage on your own, although I’ll say that some of the framed pontoon boats can get pretty heavy for one person to sling around.

The two-person rivercraft is just that. It’s obviously a little bigger than the one person and can range from about 9’ to 12’. These are also usually inflatable, although some of drift boat manufacturers like Hyde and Stealthcraft make hard boats for two people. Some of the other inflatable boats include the Dave Scadden Assult XX, the Outcast Striker, Stealthcraft Hooligan, Flycraft Stealth, and the NRS Slipstream.

If they are inflatable, some are “framed,” meaning they have frames similar to whitewater rafts to which you attach seats, lean braces, etc., while others are frameless. Frames are nice on rafts because they make the boat suffer and easier to row, but it also make the boat heavier and harder to break down. Boats this size may or may not need a trailer and can generally be brought to the river by two people and don’t really need a boat ramp.

The full-size three-person fishing boat is what you see the most when you float down any of our major western rivers. The rower is in the middle with an angler in the front and back (although there are a few on the west coast that have no one in the back and two up front). These can be rafts, pontoons, or hard boats.

The rafts of this size will have a rowing frame and anchor mounts. The hard boats will be made from aluminum, HDPE, plastic, fiberglass, or wood if you’re old school. These river crafts generally have casting braces for you to wedge your legs into while you stand and cast. The hard boats will have seats and anchor mounts of course. You’ll need a trailer for these and generally a boat ramp of some kind.

The large boats are for those bigger rivers and can include very large rafts, drift boats which tend to be longer and wider and usually have motor mounts, and even jet boats that will allow you to motor up a river and drift back down. These boats can get pretty elaborate with speaker systems, multiple battery-powered anchor systems, motors, and even heaters.

I’m sure some of you reading this would like to parse out the boat sizes even further. You can definitely do that, but this is just intended to give you a general idea of sizes as you start your shopping.

Hard vs. Inflatable – the great debate.

I’ve read many, many forums on this exact topic, and, man, there is ZERO consensus on this one. If you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you’ve read those forums as well and you know that people are brand loyal and boat specific regardless of where they live. Try asking a group of truck owners if Ram, Chevy, Ford, or Toyota is better and watch friendships be destroyed by the end of the night. Inflatable vs. hard boats are not much different. With that said, I’ve had both and I currently own both. I’ll give you the pros and cons of each and how, if you had to pick just one, which one might be right for you.

If you’re new to rowing and you have a chance of hitting some sharp objects in the river, I’m just going to say that an inflatable is probably the best way to go. They don’t sink completely because they have multiple air chambers, and they generally bounce. So, if you’re new to rowing and rivercraft and there is a potential for some rocky river bottoms in your future, a raft is a great place to start. Simply, they are more forgiving.

Let’s dive into more pros and cons for each of these rivercrafts. In addition to rafts being nearly impossible to sink, they can be repaired at home or even on the river bank. Rafts can also hold a ton of gear since they are displacing water with air-filled chambers which also lends to a shallower draft so you can generally go more places for float fishing.

Some people will say that rafts are also lighter than hard boats. This may be true, but may not. It totally depends on the frame and how many “accessories” you have to have in the boat. Rafts can actually get pretty heavy. Another advantage to rafts is that they can easily be converted into family cruisers with a few quick changes to the frame or removal of the frame altogether. Another thought, which actually cuts both ways, is that most rafts are self-bailing.

This means that there are a bunch of holes in the bottom of the boat that allow water to pass through, which, in turn, won’t allow you to swamp your boat when you nose into a standing wave. One last thing worth mentioning is that most rafts and their frames can completely break down and fit in the bed of a truck or large SUV. This can mean you don’t need a trailer. However, most serious anglers with a raft will have a trailer because they don’t want to spend 5 hours assembling and disassembling everything. Maybe that’s a bit excessive. Call it 4.5 hours. Seriously though, it can take a while depending on your rivercraft.

Now for the cons to the inflatables. The first is pretty obvious, they can pop. They can pop because you rammed it into a sharp rock or because you overinflated it and burst a seam or a valve. These are almost always repairable. Rafts are flat-out more maintenance than a hard boat in both immediate use and long-term use. In the immediate use, you’ll have to inflate and deflate your boat throughout the day and before you even launch in the morning.

There were many mornings when my buddies were already on the water with their driftboats and I was still at the staging area checking the pressure of the five chambers on my raft. Long term, you’ll need to wash out the debris more because those stream-side pebbles can wear holes in the rubber.

It’s also recommended that you treat your boat with a cleaner and protectant at least a few times a year which, for me, required removal of the floor, a complete washout, and maybe even a loosening or removal of the frame. Not a big deal, but it’s still something you should do. I recommend 303 Cleaner and Protectant and Down River Equipment’s Boat Cleaner.

A few other considerations for rafts. You’re going to need some extra gear like pumps and patches. Since rafts are generally not designed as strictly float fishing machines, you often have to add things to the frame like anchors, floors, and lean bars. Rafts are generally slower in the water and tend to “stick” to the water itself.

This is neither good nor bad. It’s just a consideration as it can make it easier to ride waves but harder to cut through the wind. Riversmith has recently figured out a good solution, but generally speaking fly rod storage on rafts is either nonexistent or poorly designed. You will also have to be conscious of what shoes and boots people wear in your boat if you have a drop-stitch or other inflatable floor in your raft. Studs on wading boots are a no-go.

Onto hard boats. What makes hard boats so awesome is exactly what makes them problematic as well. Let’s first dive into the pros. Most hard boats, also called drift boats, are fishing machines. They are purpose-built for fishing and not really anything else. Drift Boats have lean bars built into the frames of the boat, rod storage, seats, coolers, fly patches, gear storage, internal anchor systems, and so much more to make your float fishing experience a great one.

They are designed to row backward up a river so the rowing is easier throughout the day. The “hard” bottom and sides are also awesome because you can walk around in the boat itself and don’t have the pontoons of the raft reaching into the boat cabin. Driftboats are also very easy to clean out and have less maintenance. Driftboats also tend to slide over rocks that you will inevitably hit in the river while rafts, because of their composition can stick to them.

I said there was no perfect boat, right? Well, hard driftboats are no exception. Many driftboats can get very heavy, especially once you start loading them with gear. You will absolutely need a trailer which means that you’ll need decent boat ramps unless you want to belay the boat down a rocky mountainside as can be seen in some YouTube videos. Drift boats can also be swamped and, since there is no internal floatation, they can sink. If they sink, they can be down there for months until the flows drop a bit. Driftboats also generally don’t like rocks.

Rocks, if they’re hit hard enough, can crack or punch a hole in a boat no matter what the boat is made of. I personally own a Boulder Boat Works Guide Boat which is made of HDPE, the same stuff your kitchen cutting board is made of. This makes for a boat that can crash over rocks quite a bit easier, but the interior leaves something to be desired because it’s not formed in a fiberglass mold. I still love that boat, but I digress.

In driftboats, you also have to worry about the chines (the bottom side corners of the boat) because if you hit a rock hard or sideways, they are easily cracked or damaged. Ask me how I know this. Chad, I’m still sorry.

As you can see, there are several pros and cons to each type of rivercraft, and I have to tell you that there is no right or wrong answer in choosing either. Why, you ask? Any type of boat is better than no boat in my opinion because it will get you on the water and allow you to float fish and see places you couldn’t otherwise.

What else are you going to do with it?

This is a good question. If you want a boat that you really want as a family truckster, but you want to float fish out of it sometimes, you may not want a dedicated fishing rig. A raft with comfy seats and a bimini top may be the best for you. With my drift boat, I knew I’d use it primarily for fishing with the periodic family float trip. So, my kids have a big comfy seat up front with a huge Yeti 65 cooler to keep their drinks and snacks cold as well as my wife’s “mom beverages.”

Float Fishing Gear Guide Part 1 - The Boat, man taking selfie with wife, two sons, and dog on float fishing trip

I even built a dog deck for the back of the boat for our dog to stand on, and it holds fishing packs pretty well. Either way, I chose my most recent boat based on what I was going to do with it, and I’d suggest you do the same. If you have 4 kids and a spouse, a driftboat isn’t going to work for you. If it’s just you and a buddy, you may not even need a 3-person drift boat or raft. Are you going to hit some lakes or very slow and flat rivers? Then you probably want a boat with a motor mount.

A word from the wise, your dreams about a rivercraft and what happens in reality are often very different. Don’t be upset when you use your new riverboat once a year.

Storage

This is something that a lot of people seem to overlook. Where are you going to store this thing and how are you going to store it? Do you only have a small storage loft in your garage or do you have a barn with nearly unlimited space? Can you only put something in the elements on the side of your house? Do you have to pay to store it somewhere?

I’m just going to say this upfront that the sun and other elements are your enemies when it comes to storage. If you can store your “investment” inside, that’s the best. If you have to store it outside, invest in a nice cover and then even a tarp over that.

Maybe you live in an apartment or a townhome. You’ll probably want something that will break down. A hard drift boat is not in your future, but a rivercraft like the Outcast Striker or Flycraft Stealth might work nicely. Remember, that the larger rafts and driftboats will need a trailer and you’ll have to find a place to store the whole setup.

I’d probably have a raft in each size and two different types of driftboats if I had the storage for them, but I don’t. Maybe that’s God’s way of helping us all with this addiction.

Used vs. New

Ah, yes, do you go used or new? That is another great question. I’m sure as I write this, several forum commentators are going at it about this very issue. I’m going to give you the best and most correct answer who’s is it depends. Used vs. new depends on a lot. If you want a full-size driftboat with a trailer but you only have $2,000, a very used setup is in your future. If money is no object and you want to pick every little customization and detail, you may want to go new. I will tell you that I bought my first raft new, and my current driftboat used.

I bought my first raft, a Stealthcraft Hooligan XL, new because they were not very common and the used Hooligans were selling for almost as much as the new ones. For an extra $1000, I got a better trailer and a boat that had not been dragged or even seen a day of sun. On the other hand, I got a great deal on a used Boulder Boat Works driftboat because it needed a little TLC and a new one was twice the cost.

When deciding for yourself, your budget is number one. Number two is how a boat was cared for. If you’re looking at a raft that’s 15 years old and has sat out in the sun every day, it’s probably nearing, or even past, its serviceable life. The same could be true for a driftboat or with a driftboat it would cost you so much to have it refinished that you might as well buy new or find a nicer one. If, on the other hand, you’ve found a raft or driftboat that was used a handful of times, well taken care of, and stored correctly, the savings might be well worth it regardless of the age.

Therefore, the answer to the used vs. new is really situational.

Best strategies for beginners

I might write an entire article about this in the future, but I just wanted to throw a few thoughts out there about this topic now. As a beginner, getting into rowing can be very intimidating. If it’s not, you should be even more worried because overconfidence can lead to your boat being on the bottom of the river along your brand-new Scott rod.

Try to learn from someone who knows how to row and is willing to sit behind you and correct your mistakes. I had two good friends do this for me, Levi and Chad. I genuinely appreciate their willingness to do this and they both told me they were happy to do it because it meant more float fishing for them. It was a win-win I suppose and now we all row together and share boats around. It’s a good deal.

If you don’t have anyone willing to shout at you sarcastically about rolling over the fish they were fishing to or softly saying, “Well, I don’t know that I would have gone over the rapid quite that way, let’s keep the boat forward next time,” then you’ll need to pick up some books and watch as many youtube videos as you can. There are some great instructional videos out there on YouTube where you will learn the correct techniques and strategies for rowing on your float fishing endeavors. However, you’ll want to practice these on a lake before you practice them on a raging river.

The last piece of advice I will give to beginners is to push yourself past being uncomfortable. I’ve had a few instances where I scared myself on the river. Even this year, I hit a “sleeper” or a “growler” rock (depending on who you ask). These are rocks that are an inch or two below the surface, but make little to no noticeable disturbance.

You don’t know they are there until you hit them. I hit this rock with two friends and a dog in my boat which caused to boat to launch violently to the right. I thought we were going in. We didn’t and I straightened the boat out for the next set of obstacles, but I genuinely considered not floating that section again the next day.

Had we dumped the boat in that section, it would have been bad as there was no river access for at least 2 miles. I was uncomfortable with the idea of floating, to say the least, but I went and did that section again without touching a single rock. My confidence was back, but I still had a very healthy respect for the river.

So, be safe, but don’t be afraid to work past being uncomfortable.

A quick note on oars

This is probably better reserved for Part 2 of this article when we talk about gear and accessories, but I do want to touch on oars very quickly. Oars are quite literally your connection to the boat and the water. Crappy oars can make for a crappy day on the water and yet, good oars you almost entirely forget about. That’s the way it should be. I run both Cataract and Sawyer oars and both are great.

I currently have the Sawyer Square Top V-Lam Shoal Cuts on my Boulder Boat and the Cataract KBO with Cutthroat Blades on two of my inflatables. A quality oar will be counterbalanced and light in my opinion. Heavy oars make for a long day. Know that you may have to put some money into your oars and that good used oars are often very similarly priced to good new oars.

The Last Drift

Well, although this was a long article, this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to float fishing gear and picking out a boat. I jokingly said that you may only use your boat once a year and that’s okay. I guarantee you have fly rods in your quiver that you haven’t even used this year at all. You buy a raft or a driftboat to make some memories and to bring this hobby of ours to a whole other level. The memories I’ve made on a raft or driftboat are some of my absolute favorites, so get out there and make your own.

One final request. Please be safe and respectful on the river when you’re float fishing. Get out and scout a run if you need to. Wear a life jacket if required. Make sure your kids and pets always have a life jacket regardless of the water type. Be respectful to other anglers as you float by.

Now go and buy something that will float you down a river!

Not ready to buy your own boat? Call us now to book a float trip down one of Colorado’s epic rivers.

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

About the Author

Chris Opfer

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