Driftboat Notes By Randy Castello

Drift boats, once unique to the Pacific Northwest rivers, are now standard river boats all over the country. A drift boat is designed with a flat bottom chine to chine, a pronounced bow to stern rocker, high sharp angled bow, and a raised flat stern. The design is purposeful in that the flat bottom will allow the boat to float in very little water. The bow to stern rocker makes the boat very maneuverable. The sharp bow will cut through standing waves and whitewater, while the flat stern provides a place to mount a kicker or electric motor and/or an anchor bracket.  

Drift boats are amazingly maneuverable and, with an experienced oarsman, very seaworthy. I think that we all envision or maybe even have experienced the thrill of sliding down a narrow canyon while punching through standing waves and maneuvering around boulders, with the oarsman feverously working the oars. I will admit that the thrill of running white water is infectious, but drift boats are also very versatile.

 

With a motor, a drift boat can be used to crab and fish estuaries. They are an excellent platform for flyfishing, photography, camping, lake fishing, and just taking a leisurely float down some river. Drift boats are an excellent all-around low maintenance boat. They are easy to launch, economical to tow, and towable with a smaller vehicle. Our drift boat has been towed all around California, Oregon, and Washington with no impact on our miles per gallon. 

My drift boating experience has kind of looped back to where it started. I started with an old wooden pig of a craft that floated but was less than maneuverable. I/we typically would launch and drift from one gravel bar to the next. At each gravel bar we would anchor, get out of the boat and drift fish or throw spoons, then move on to the next bar, repeating the process until the takeout. 

With experience, I started exploring different techniques to fish from the drift boat. Pulling plugs quickly became my favorite, and accounted for many Skagit River salmon and steelhead. About the time I really had our local Puget Sound rivers dialed in, I accepted a position in Southern California and thought that my drift boating days were over. 

Eventually, I met a guy with a contagious sense of adventure and more passion for running the rivers than common sense. We fished the Sacramento River and other northern California rivers from his drift boat, and racked up huge numbers of chinook. He had a 16/54 Willie, and that boat could punch through anything and bounce off boulders like no other. While I have since decided that boulders are to be avoided, I learned a lot in that little drift boat. Sadly, my crazy waterman friend passed and, not really thinking about it, so did my days in a drift boat. 

Some years later, I transferred back up to the PNW and my interest in drift boating was reignited. We bought a well-used 16/54 Willie drift boat and have since upgraded to a custom 17/60 Willie drift boat. The boat is our “everything else” boat. We have a bay boat, so our drift boat is our all around nonpowered adventure boat. 

I typically don’t do white water anymore, but enjoy the heck out of a chute or otherwise technical patch of water, and most of our fishing is spent anchoring along a hole or drifting from one gravel bar to the next to drift fish. Unfortunately, my spontaneous days of drift boating the rivers seem to be a relic. 

Between our limited fisheries, time constraints, and lack of security at the ramps, it’s hard to work in a float. Unfortunately, leaving two rigs at a remote launch and takeout for 6-8 hours is asking for trouble these days. We try to arrange for a pick up at the bottom of the drift, but the security of your vehicle at the launch is still an issue. That said, our drift boat spends less time on the river now, but is still a great platform for lake fishing and just spending tranquil time on the water. 

Safely spending time on a river in a drift boat takes a little preplanning and experience. Make sure you have properly fitting PFDs for everybody onboard. The inflatable PFDs are very comfortable and great for river time. An inflatable PFD must be worn in order to be considered readily accessible, and are only Coast Guard approved for ages 16 and older. 

Don’t just splash your boat at the top of a drift and hope for the best. Review satellite photos of the drift and/or talk to someone familiar with your planned drift. Ask about blocking snags and overhangs, waterfalls or weirs, dead-end channels, or skinny water, and ask about your setup for the planned takeout. 

A couple key elements to safe drift boating are knowing a few basic oar strokes and having experience with your boat.  Typically, you’ll be drifting bow with the current while pulling on the oars. When you see a boulder, tree or other hazard, point the bow towards it with the stern about 45 degrees to the current, and pull on the oars to avoid the obstacle. Once you’re past it, turn the bow downstream and continue the float. 

There will be times where you need to speed up. The speed may be required to punch through a wave or to get through a long, slow patch of water. You will need to smoothly push on the oars. There are also times where you will need to either spin the boat or move it sideways. You can scull the oar on one side or the other to move sideways and to spin the boat, or pull one oar and push the other, depending on your need.  Except when sculling, always row with the oar tips, don’t bury the oar blade. Using more than a third of the oar blade is inefficient, and if gets caught on the bottom or in a snag, you could bend an oarlock, break the oar, or even flip your drift boat.

Experience as the oarsman on your boat is critical in safely running a river. Take your boat out on a slow-moving river or lake and practice, practice, and practice some more. Learn your boat, become one with it, and know what your capabilities and limitations are before you try shooting a boulder garden somewhere. 

Personally, I think everyone needs a drift boat. There is nothing like the zen of a float trip. Everybody’s will be set up differently, but there are a few things to consider when purchasing and setting up a drift boat:

Size; is it just you and a fishing buddy, or will the whole family and dog be onboard? A 16’ boat is great for a couple guys, but you may need a longer, wider boat if the whole gang is joining you. Generally, the wider the boat is for a given length, the higher it will float. 

Use; will you primarily be pulling plugs, side drifting, flyfishing, or sightseeing? Will the passengers all be on the front bench, or ahead of and behind the oarsman? Either way, you should be able to balance the boat front to back and side to side. 

Storage; rod management is critical. Rods should always travel with the rod tips upstream, and the rods should be secured if possible. You need to plan for fish and secure gear storage to avoid any loose items from shifting around during a tense moment or two.   

You will want rod holders, an extra oar, a hand bilge pump, a whistle, and some form of dry storage for personal items and phones. 

Fresh or salt? Add an appropriate size kicker or electric motor and batteries, a fish finder, a roller crab pot puller, and a light(s), and you have a great boat for crabbing or fishing the estuaries.

The versatility a drift boat provides is unmatched in the boating world, they are kind of a jack of all trades boat. I am sure that drift boat’n as a subject deserves a book. This was a very high-level introduction to either get you started as an oarsman, or a quick look at other ways to utilize the drift boat you already have. There is nothing more peaceful than becoming one with nature as your boat slides down a river in the early morning mist, or silently glides across your favorite trout lake. Add a motor, and your drift boat makes a formidable estuary crabbing and salmon fishing machine.