Years ago while I was bank fishing on the Madison River a light went on in my head. I had been fishing all day along the banks when drift boat after drift boat came cruising by. Many of the anglers in these boats were hooked up with Trout. I on the other hand was spending more time busting brush and hopping rocks than catching Trout. It was then that I decided that the future for me had to be drift boat fishing. So I spent the next couple of years pricing and dreaming about owning my own drift boat.
My problem was the price. It seems drift boat aren’t like buying a new float tube. They come in all different sized and prices ranging from $6000.00 to $15000.00 and from 13 feet to 17 feet. Just what kind of drift boat I needed was anyone’s guess let alone mine. The problem was I didn’t know anyone who owned a drift boat or any dealers in town to help me learn about them. I finally decided to purchase a used one thinking I could learn the ropes without spending a lot of money and then decide what I needed or wanted.
After a few months of reading the classified section of the local newspaper and other research I found an interesting ad in the classified that advertised a wooden drift boat and trailer for only $900.00. Was it too good to be true or a piece of junk? I planned to see the boat with the seller and arrived to what he called a homemade drift boat. It was only 13 feet long and barely wider than a large canoe. It had water stains all over the inside of the boat and was way over build. It must have weight a ton. But he assured me that he had used it for years and had very little trouble with it. After mulling it around awhile I made him a ridiculous offer of $600.00 thinking he wouldn’t take it but he accepted.
Now I’m a college educated, highly logic minded fly fisherman hell bent on owning a drift boat. So I towed the boat home and called my buddy who happens to be a professional boat builder over to give me an assessment. It didn’t take him long to tell me I had just bought a piece of crap. Oh well, my logic clicked in again and to salvage the project I reasoned that the trailer alone is at least $600.00 and I could get my money back anytime I wanted and at the least I could fix the wooden wonder up enough to do a little drift boat 101 fishing at the same time.
If nothing else I could at least sell it to some other sucker out there wanting to start their drift boat career. So with about $300.00 in supplies I spent the next month trying to make a Model T into a Clackacraft. Well I have to tell you the boat looked pretty good when I was done. It’s amazing how much a little sand blasting and paint can do to a worn out ill-conceived drift boat. To me she looked like the Queen Mary. Little did I know she would really be like the Titanic.
Finally the day came when all the repairs and painting was finished and after an hour of trying to explain to the Department of Motor Vehicles that what I was registering was not some sort of terrorist bomb but a drift boat, I was ready for my maiden voyage. In order to convince my buddies to come with me I had to promise that we would not float down the river but just row around the boat ramp. I knew they felt fear when they were both wearing life jackets before boarding the boat. But I had bought this boat and made it sea worthy and was bound and determined to make my dream happen.
When I put my first step into the boat I knew I was boarding a disaster waiting to happen instead of my dream drift boat. It was like I was in a log rolling contest instead of just boarding a boat. I knew after looking at the fear in the eyes of the other guys that I had just boarded a piece of junk. But I could not let the other guys think that I was going to row them out into the Snake River at 9000cfs in a piece of crap so I looked at them and said, “Nice boat guys, huh”.
Trying not to disappoint me to much their response was somewhat softened by a “ It’s a little tipsy “ and “ I don’t know Mike what do you think” Well they put the ball back in my court and I said “ We’re here so let’s at least do a little fishing:. Now I’ve been around boats all my life and I’m a good oarsman in any boat but this one took all I had to make it look like it was sea worthy. The two things I couldn’t hide were that the boat was inherently unstable and it rowed like a wet log. Like good friends will sometimes do they kept their own opinions and fears to themselves and at the end of the day said thanks for the ride.
Weeks later when the dust had settled from my maiden voyage I felt like I had a drift boat that would get me down most rivers. I had let my dream of owning a drift boat no matter what cloud my best judgment. I knew I had a piece of crap but I just kept rationalizing away all the negatives. But just to play it safe I thought a real float trip was needed to make the final decision. So I got my buddy Bill the boat builder to come along with me down the Snake River that late spring for a short three mile float where we could get into some Smallmouth Bass.
The float went well and the fishing was good up until the last half mile of the float. At that point the river changed from a slow moving lake to a fast moving river. Large waves surrounded my little drift boat and it took all I had to keep the boat tracking through the waves. Hard withering work on the oars and luck got me through and across the river safely. It was at this point that I gave out and needed a spell on the oars. So Bill and I decided to switch on the oar’s mid river. I have already mentioned how unstable the little wooden boat was and it didn’t take but a little trip while making the switch to bring the boat on its side.
It all seemed in slow motion as the side rails became parallel to the water. “No, stop, shift your weight,” to late the boat started filling with water. If you’ve ever been in a swamping little wooden boat, once the water starts coming over the sides there is no stopping it. The more the water came in the more the boat wanted to turn over. Eventually I gave up and just floated over the side. Bill on the other hand was stuck and the boat just flipped over on top of him. As I floated by the boat everything was silent. I reached out and grabbed the boat then yelled for Bill. Seconds later Bill swam out from under the boat with the “What the hell just happened” look on his face.
We managed to swim the boat a short distance to where I could finally touch the bottom enough to walk the boat, what little equipment we had left and ourselves to the bank of the river safely. Once we reached the shore we walked up the bank and looked at each other and just started laughing. We had nearly lost our lives, stared death in the face and lived to laugh about it. We were lucky and new it. Bill looked at me and said, “that’s it for me buddy’ and I replied “I’m done too let’s get rid of this piece of crap”
Needless to say we never floated that boat again but the dream of drift boat fishing never dulled. In fact the dream only grew bigger in my mind and the decision to have Bill build a new modern old style drift boat was born. After our experience on the Snake River Bill and I decided to design a drift boat that would be able to float any type of river or water safely and smoothly. After about a year of hard work and long hours there stood in my driveway the most beautiful wooden drift boat any fly fisherman would be proud of. My three year dream of drift boat fly fishing was about to begin. All the bad decisions and uneducated guesses on what to do was over, I now had my drift boat.
Unlike most everything in fly fishing where you can get all the answers via books, library, and internet or from other fly fishermen, drift boat fishing is another story. Although there are a lot of drift boat fishermen out there very little is known on who, what, where and when. What rivers to float, where to put in, where to take out? What kind of conditions are you going to float?, How do I get my truck and trailer to the take out?. These are all questions that I just couldn’t find any information on.
So I just started getting the information by going to the rivers on my list and pretty much surveying the whole river by car. I would talk to the owners of fly shops and soak up all the information they could give me about their river, the best floats and where to float. I did this type of research for a year solid before I took my first fly fishing float on my own. Since that time information on drift boat fishing is a little easier to get. Most fly shops will shuttle your truck for a small fee and will most often answer any questions you may have on their river via e-mail. But nothing beats experience.
Years later and after drift boat fishing many rivers I can say that owning a drift boat and drift boat fishing has allowed me to fish places I never would have been able to fish from the bank. It has allowed me to add a little bit of adventure in my fly fishing and of all the bad decisions I’ve made in my life, building a drift boat was not one of them. In fact it’s made me a better fly fisherman and given be a reason to fish some of the world’s best trout waters. There is something about floating down one of America’s beautiful rivers through a sweet pine forest with friends or family with a 20 inch Rainbow on the end of your line that can only be experienced in a drift boat.
Drift boat fly fishing does require some equipment changes that you should consider. These suggestions are based on years of practice and countless trips down some of America’s best drift boat rivers.
1. Try using a 9ft. 7wt. Nymph or Streamer rod for your sub surface fishing. The extra backbone and weight will help you when you get stuck on the bottom or when casting large streamers or heavy leaded leaders all day
2. Having CO2 charged life jackets are really a nice alternative to wearing the old style life jackets all day. Also they really compact down for storage when you want them out of the way. That makes a difference when space is at a premium.
3. You should store your extra cloths or valuables in a water proof bag or pack after all you are in a boat.
4. Oar rights on your oars will save you tons of trouble on the water. Rowing the boat with oar rights keeps your paddles aligned perfectly with the water all day long. In tough situations when you really need to dig in and move the boat oar right allow you to do that.
5. Wading sandals are a big help when you have to get in and out of the boat all day. Regular wading boots when wet become heavy and sometimes will hang up on the sides of the boat when entering or exiting the boat. Make sure the wading sandals you buy will fit comfortably with your waders. Nobody likes to wade wet in freezing water.
6. Keep a small assortment of tools on board such a screw driver, Leatherman, Phillips head, and channel locks as well as about 60 feet of good rope.
7. An extra oar and spare oar locks are required on many rivers and you shouldn’t go down any water without them anyway.
8. A small first aid kit with sun screen and insect repellent will be worth it and I can tell you it will be used.
9. Fingerless bike gloves are a great help if you are spending a lot of time on the oars. It makes all the difference in having blisters and not.
Now I know there are pros and cons about everything in life and that certainly hold true for drift boats. There are plenty of fly fishermen who are quite content with their rafts, Catarafts and other floating boats.
They can float any river a drift boat can and have the same experience’s you can in a drift boat. The list of suggestions above still hold true for any fishing flotation craft you prefer. I have seen some pretty nifty Cats and Pontoons out there and their biggest asset is the price.
Price is the biggest flaw when it comes to deciding as to whether or not you should purchase a drift boat. I was lucky to have a good friend who just happened to be a boat builder help me design and build a beautiful and functional drift boat for around $2000.00 with a trailer. That’s still more expensive than the specially designed for fly fishing big river Pontoons. Cat’s and Pontoons are also lighter and most often don’t require a trailer.
However, you don’t get your feet wet in a drift boat and they are slower and row easier down most rivers. Drift boats also have plenty of room on board where you can walk around and help out when other anglers are hooked up on Trout. The ability to stand up and cast down to fish gives the angler better observation and casting from any side of the boat. Cat’s and Pontoon’s don’t have a bottom were a drift boat has a solid bottom where line and gear can’t fall through.
So I could go on and on about the good and the bad about any boat and not accomplish a thing. As long as you enjoy the experiences that fly fishing brings to you it doesn’t matter what water craft you use. What’s important is to float the rivers you like as safely as possible. Never take chances and learn as much as you can about the river or section of river you plan to float. Rivers change from year to year or if you are on a tail water river, from flow to flow so be prepared for any change the river presents to you.
I’ve come a long way since those early days on the Snake River. My drift boat is now enjoyed by all my family and friends. Some of my best memories of fly fishing where experienced in a drift boat. As I get a little older and the old knees wobble a little bit more each year I and my knees have come to appreciate how some dreams do come true. Mike Sandifer