The Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing from a Drift Boat

fly fishing from a drift boat

Fly fishing from a drift boat was a bit unnerving.

I worried I would snag my friend who was rowing. It turns out that my fear was well-founded. But I didn’t discriminate that day. I snagged myself as well. I also snagged a tree branch on the side of the river. I felt like the drift boat was zooming along at 50 mph even though we were simply drifting the speed of the current.

However, fly fishing from a drift boat can be a terrific experience once you get used to it. It’s easy on your feet, and you can cover a lot of water. Here are a few basics to remember when fly fishing from a drift boat.

1. Thou shalt not rent and row a drift boat with no experience.

Rowing is not something you can learn “on the fly” (no pun intended). I’ve tried rowing a couple of times in friends’ drift boats, and there’s definitely a big learning curve. Usually, you’ll end up in a drift boat for the first time because you’ve hired a guide or because a friend invites you.

By the way, there’s no need to feel bad if you don’t know how to row a drift boat. You’re not missing out on something. The truth is that the rowers are the ones who miss out. They don’t get to fish!

Of course, learn the skill of maneuvering a drift boat if you can. Your fly fishing friends will thank you.

2. Relax and enjoy the ride

I’ll stop with the “Thou Shalt Nots …” for now, but drift boats are set up for your comfort and ease. As long as you’re in the boat, you don’t have to hike or wade or walk on boulders!

Typically, there’s a cushioned swivel seat with a standing platform (into which you can fit your knees) at both the front and the rear of a drift boat. Standing with your knees in the platform is best, although you can sit if you like. In fact, that’s how some vessels work — including rafts and Au Sable River boats (flat-bottomed boats originally used by loggers). They simply have benches.

3. Do not worry about making long casts

A good rower will get you close to the run you want to fish. Usually, that run is up against a bank. I rarely cast more than twenty feet when I’m fishing from a drift boat.

That’s not always true all the time, of course. Last fall, Dave (my podcast partner) and I fished Quake Lake with a guide, and our whole strategy was to stalk rising fish. Often we cast 40 feet or more.

But generally, as you drift down the river, your casts are much shorter.

4. Do get used to casting in a tighter space

To say it bluntly, you need to avoid hooking the rower! This is not a problem if you are right-handed and casting to the left while standing in the front of the boat — or casting to the right when standing in the back of the boat. Otherwise, you need to keep line high and straight over your head when your casting hand/arm is on the side of the rower. It seems a little daunting at first. But you will get used to it.

Guides are (should be) patient people and will help you if it’s your first time.

5. Do keep your line in your zone

The “zone” or space your fishing is in front of you or behind you. If you’re casting from the front of the boat, you can cast directly to your left or right, or even slightly ahead of the boat if you are casting into slower current. If you’re in the back, you need to cast slightly behind the boat.

This minimizes the risk of getting your line tangled in the oars or in the other fly fisher’s line.

6. Do share the front of the boat with the other fly fisher

Most guides will tell you when to switch.

But it’s a good idea to share since the person at the front has a slight advantage. If you’re at the front, the fish in any given run see your fly first.

Second, the guide is focusing on you and is maneuvering the front of the boat to get you into the best position to fish a particular run. However, there are days or moments when the person in the back does as well or better. So you can catch fish from either spot.

7. Do keep your fly in the water

This sounds like another tip from Captain Obvious.

But you only get one shot at a good run unless you’ve got a great rower who is willing to “back up” and let you try it again. In most cases, you can get a good long drift since your fly will travel about the same speed as the drift boat. The more false casting you do, the more fish you will miss — and the greater the chance of snagging the rower.

8. Do not panic if you get snagged

You will get snagged if you’re trying to throw your fly tight up against the bank (which you ordinarily want to do) or if you’re getting your nymphs or streamers deep enough.

Often, your rower will be able to circle back so you can retrieve your fly. Loosen your drag if necessary. If there’s no chance of retrieving your fly, then point your rod directly at the snag so that what breaks is your line — not your rod tip!

9. Do not let the fish go under the boat

My podcast partner, Dave, may or may not have broken a guide’s expensive Orvis rod because he let a monster brown trout run under the boat. However, Dave declined to be interviewed for this article.

When you hook a fish, fight it like you would if you were standing in the river or on the bank. Pull it from side to side. As it gets closer, your guide or fishing buddy will (should) have a long-handled net to net it before it’s too close to the boat.

But beware of that last-second dart for cover.

10. Do stop and wade-fish the most promising runs

One of the benefits of floating a river is the opportunity to stop and fish runs that might otherwise be inaccessible. The hike might be too long, or there may be private property you have to cross before getting to the river.

Let your guide or friend know that you would be happy to stop to fish runs that deserve more than a 30-second, all-or-nothing attempt.

If you want to listen to our episode on fly fishing from a drift boat, listen to this episode

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One thought on “The Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing from a Drift Boat

  1. Your rules are spot on , I never drifted in a boat hopefully one day I will , it sounds like a great alternative for me because arthritis has slammed me good in my lower back and makes wading difficult for me and is painful at fishing days end , so I limit my time on the water to just a few hours ,but in a drift boat movement is minimal and you don’t have to watch for unstable water or jarring from the rocks on your joints or lower back , another concern is does the guide just get up and fish when ever he wants or does his attention stay with the clients and just row the boat and put you onto fish and set up your rig or does this get worked out ahead of time , because your paying him to operate the boat not paying him to fish , am I wrong thinking like this ?