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Drift Boat Fly Fishing

 Why Float?

One my favourite things to do in the summertime is to take a couple of friends and go for a float down the Bow River. We rotate rowing and fishing and always have a good time regardless of how good, or bad, the fishing is. Floating and fishing from a drift boat or a raft with rowing frame has many advantages, and a few disadvantages over walking and wading. It has become increasingly popular on waters that are large enough to float. Drift boats are the most popular on rivers such as the Bow, Elk and Ontario’s Grand River. Rafts or “soft boats” can be used on these waters as well as on smaller floatable waters like Alberta’s Castle and Oldman Rivers. Anglers can cover more water with less work, there’s no treacherous wading involved and the whole river becomes accessible. Also “fishy” sections of water can be fished longer and “dead” water can be skipped over while sitting back and enjoying the scenery. A good oarsman can put anglers in position to cast onto likely looking spots, or rising fish and the boat can usually be held in position for several attempts. Occasionally whole runs can be fished numerous times by rowing the boat back upstream in slacker currents. Anglers can also get out and wade fish these spots.


Enjoying lunch IN the river on a hot afternoon float.

Boat Fishing Basics

While fishing from a floating boat is a fun and effective way to fish a river, it also takes team work between the rower and the anglers to make it go smoothly. Snags, tangles, hooks penetrating flesh and broken equipment can all result from simple miscommunication. When two anglers are casting from a moving boat their casts should be parallel to each other’s to avoid crossed and tangled lines. I prefer to have both anglers fishing out of the same side of the boat whenever possible and fortunately that is the case most of the time. The angler in the stern of the boat has the advantage of seeing what’s going on most of the time. The bow angler and the oarsman are generally looking downstream, away from the rear angler and he should therefore adjust his casts based what the bow angler is doing. Sometimes when a particularly good looking piece of water or a rising fish is coming up commonsense goes out the window. At times like this communicating with each other becomes very important. The front angler must resist the urge to become what I call a “poacher” by not leaving enough water for the stern angler to effectively fish. If the bow angler casts downstream and lets his fly float back past 45 degrees the stern angler has no opportunity for a cast or a drift. On good streams the next good looking spot will be coming along soon so get ready for it instead of beating the one you have past allowing the angler in the stern have a shot at it. If a spot is worth a little more attention get the rower to pull over and wade fish the area. The other obstacle that the anglers have to contend with are the oars and inevitably at some point during the day a line and or flies will end up wrapped around the oars. When this happens it’s best to let the oarsman adjust his oar to facilitate the untangling, either by twisting his oar or by pulling it in. In some situations he may be busy rowing past obstacles in the water and it is best to relax, put a little slack into the line and wait for a more opportune time to get unhooked.


Getting out of the boat and fishing the best water is another advantage of float fishing.

Tactics and Tackle

Casting flies from a moving boat is a totally different ballgame from walk and wade fishing. Other than your partner in the boat and the oarsman there is usually nothing to interfere with your back cast. Getting your fly onto the water in the right general area is a little easier because of this, however, keeping it floating naturally, without drag, can be a real problem. The usual scenario is that the fly is cast towards the bank where the current is slower while the line ends ups in the faster water between the boat and the bank. If left unattended the current will pull the line, in a belly, downstream causing the fly to pull away from the shore. Mending is the art of lifting the flyline, between the rod and the leader moving it in the direction of the faster currents. In this scenario the angler would mend the fly line upstream to slow it down and keep pace with the fly. If the current happens to be slower in between the angler and the path of the fly then the line would be mended in a downstream direction to help the line keep pace with the fly. If there are currents of various speeds the angler can wave his rod from side to side during the delivery of the fly causing the line to land in a series of esses that act as both upstream and downstream mends. Keeping the fly drifting at the same speed as the current, whether it is a dry or a nymph is important. The only fly you want to impart any action to are streamers while nymphs and dries are best fished on a dead drift with the speed of the current.
Floating a western river.

Faster action fly rods are your best bet for fishing from drift boats as they tend to pick up the fly better than slower rods. You can achieve quicker, higher pickups and get the fly back on the water quicker. As you move past good looking water you may only get one or two casts so you don’t want to spend your time stripping in line and false casting. By getting a higher pick up these rods will also help eliminate tangles and hitting the oarsman or your partner with the fly. Many anglers get nervous about their back cast going over top of the oarsman so the cast needs to be high enough to avoid problems. Most drift boats are set up so that anglers can have more than one rod rigged. I usually rig a 5 weight rod with either a dry or nymph depending on conditions and then have an eight weight with a sink tip line rigged and ready to fish streamers.


Access to otherwise inaccessible waters is of the many advantages of float fishing.

Fighting and Netting Fish

Once a fish is hooked the fun begins and all sorts of things can go wrong but an experienced oarsman will help with the landing of the fish. A fish hooked from the boat while fishing the banks will heeds it’s natural instinct to head for deeper water which is directly towards your position in the boat! The angler must be ready to take up the slack quickly and try to keep the fish from swimming under the boat. If the oarsman has the opportunity, he should at this point row the boat to the opposite bank. This holds the fish on the same side as it was hooked, keeping the pressure on the fly in the same direction as it was when the strike took place.


The results from successful teamwork

Sometimes fighting the fish from shore is the best way to go but for this to happen successfully the angler must have the fish under control and be able to exit the boat smoothly while keeping pressure on the fish. Some situations will call for the oarsman to get out of the boat and perform the netting duty. Your partner can also perform the honours with the net from within the boat and in most cases this is easier and more effective than going through the exercise of getting into the water.
Sometimes it’s easier for the guide to net the fish from outside the boat

Drift fishing rivers is a great way to spend a day and will often result in wonderful memories of good fish and great camaraderie. I would highly recommend it and suggest whether you have to hire a guide or find someone with a drift boat you give it a try this summer, you’ll be hooked!


Previous Fishing Articles

(1) In The Walleye Zone

(2) Zoo Trout

(3) Fly Selection for Beginners

(4) Fly Fisher's Christmas

(5) New Waters

(6) Big Bad Burbot

(7) Looking Back

(8) Out of Africa

(9) Finding Success on Crowded Trout Streams

(10) Mountain Peaks, Fast Streams, Fall Colours And Rocky Mountain Whitefish

(11) The Browns of Autumn

(12) Fly-Fishing Pike Through The Seasons

(13) Walleye Town

(14) River Fun - One Bite At A Time

(15) Fly Fishing Larger Rivers

(16) Going With The Flow

(17) Becoming A Better Fly Fisherman

(18) Swinging The Fences

(19) A View From The Aerie

(20) Dixieland Delight

(21) Atlantic Salmon - The Fish of 1000 Casts

(22) Do It Yourself Pink Salmon

(23) Montana's Cool Missouri

(24) Pretty Is As Pretty Does

(25) Toothy Critters

(26) Hard Water Lakers at Cold Lake

(27) Top Ten Flies

(28) Northern Exposure

(29) Home Water Lessons

(30) Chicken Of The Sea

(31) Sealing the Deal – How to Ensure You Land More Fish

(32) Deep In The Heart Of Texas

(33) Keep It Up!

(34) River Fishing for Fall Walleye

(35) After the Flood - A look at Southern Alberta rivers and streams one year after the flood

(36) Reindeer Lake - A Diversity of Opportunity

(37) Hawg Holes

(38) Saltwater Salmon

(39) Early Season Dry Fly Fishing

(40) Down a Lazy River –
A Fly-rodding Adventure on the Lower North Saskatchewan

(41) The Fly Fishing Season Ahead

(42) IN SEARCH OF SPECKLED FOOTBALLS

(43) FISHING CANADA'S PRAIRIE CITIES

(44) Bright Fish from the Land of Silver

(45) Canada's "Other" Salmon

(46) Fall Walleye

(47) Wet Flies

(48) Versatility the Key to Success

(49) Grayling of the Boreal

(50) Teaching Kids To Fly Fish

(51) Size Matters

(52) Fly Fishing Small Streams

(53) Chasing Winter Whites One Lake At A Time

(54) Manitoba's Fishing Jewel

(55) The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas

(56) The Point Of It All

(57) Fishing With Friends-Big Weather Seizing The Day

(58) Fall Fly Fishing

(59) Personal Pontoon Boats 101

(60) Big River, Big Fish

(61) Bottom Bonanza

(62) Fishing Small Flies

(63) So Many Choices, So Little Time

(64) Four Seasons of the Bow

(65) Favourite Lakes - Some Like it Hot

(66) GEARING UP FOR SMALL STREAM TROUT

(67) Trout Hunting - New Zealand-style

(68) Don’t Leave Home Without Them –
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(69) Edge Walleye

(70) FLY FISHING STRATEGIES FOR HIGH WATER

(71) Smallmouth Bass – An Oft Overlooked Challenge

(72) Four Corners – Four Waters

(73) Chasing Pothole Trout

(74) Springtime Stoneflies

(75) The Torrents of Spring

(76) Drift Boat Fly Fishing

(77) Bust Them With Bait

(78) Cure the Winter Blues with a Good Book

(79) Hot Strategies for the Cold Months

(80) Cutthroat: The Angler's Trout

(81) Terrestrials

(82) Fly In For Fishing Fun

(83) Rocky Mountain High

(84) Reading the clues

(85) Where the Trout Are
The art of locating feeding trout
in rivers and streams.

(86) K.I.S.S. and Tell Fly-fishin

(87) Fly Fishing 101

(88) To Catch a Big Halibut, or Ling Cod

(89) The Bountiful Bones of Ascension Bay

(90) Grayling in the Eye of the Beholder

(91) Fly Fishing for South Fork Clearwater Steelhead

(92) Manitoba's Red River - North America's Catfish Capital

(93) Eliminating the Spook Factor

(94) Trust Your Electronics

(95) The Most Important Hatch of the Year

(96) Early Season Nymph Fishing for Trout

(97) Finding Success for Ice Trout

(98) Walleye can be Humbling

(99) The Secret to Landing the Big One Finally Revealed

(100) Winter Flyfishing

(101) North Saskatchewan River - An Underutilized Gem

(102) Hot Fall Pike Action

(103) Tips and Tricks to Save the Summer Slow Down

(104) Reading Trout Stream Waters

(105) Frequently Asked Questions

(106) Streamer Fishing for Larger Trout

(107) The Lure of Big Walleye at Last Ice

(108) Deep Water Perch

(109) Post Spawn Brookies

(110) A Fisher's Life

(111) The River's Last Stand

(112) The Big Ones Come out at Night

(113) Coho on the Coast

(114) Chasing and Catching Halibut

(115) Summer in the Mountains

(116) Peak Walleye Season

(117) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

(118) Last Ice Rainbows

(119) The Burbot Event

(120) Tackle Matching

(121) Ice Fishing Strategy #2 - Going Light

(122) Ice Fishing Strategy #1 - Location

(123) The Lure of Brook Trout

(124) The Shallow Water Hunt is On

(125) Hot Backswimmer Action Happening Right Now

(126) Fishing Among Giants-Pursuing Lake Sturgeon on the Prairies

(127) Adventure at Davin Lake Lodge, Northern Saskatchewan

(128) The Vesatile Plug

(129) Bead Head Flies, Plugs and Shot and other Spring Favorites for Pothole Trout

(130) Planning your Upcoming Angling Adventures

(131) Good Fishing at Last Ice

(132) Maximize the Odds - Use Multiple Presentations

(133) Daily Fish Migrations

(134) Fish Migrations - Following the Spawn

(135) Lake Whitefish - An Ice Fishing All Star

(136) Pick Your Favorite Brook Trout Lake...and Go Fishing

(137) A Look Ahead to Great Trout Fishing

(138) Wrestling White Sturgeon on the Fraser

(139) The Fun in Ultra Light

(140) Flyfishing and Leadcore Lines

(141) Embrace the Spirit of Adventure

(142) Never Stop Learning

(143) Ice Fishing is Getting Hot

(144) Jigging through the Ice

(145) An Ice Fishing Unsung Hero – The Setline

(146) Rainbows on Ice

(147) The Season of Ice Begins

(148) Red Hot Fall Pike Action

(149) Hitting it Right with Water Boatman

(150) Facts On Cats

(151) West Coast Adventure

(152) June Walleye Frenzy

(153) Aerated Lakes are Big Trout Factories

(154) "First Fish of the Year - Pothole Rainbows and Browns"

(155) "Northern Exposure"

(156) Sometimes There is More to Fishing Than Catching Fish

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(158) Man Overboard