The Secrets to Drift Boat Success

The last place you want to be is in the back seat of a drift boat when Jim McLennan is in the front. Jim’s a master when it comes to fly fishing from a drift boat, and in this article he shares a few of his secrets.

by Jim McLennan (photography Chris Bird)

Two guys are fishing a big river from a drift boat. One is seasoned and experienced, the other is new to this specialized type of fly fishing. The veteran (angler A) is a picture of efficiency: casting accurately to targets ahead of the boat, making few false casts, creating no tangles, every now and then raising and hooking a fish. The newbie (angler B) is more or less the opposite: he makes dozens of false casts; pitches desperate casts toward, but short of, targets upstream of the boat; tangles around something every second cast, mutters quiet curses, and dances around the boat to get his feet free of endless loops of fly line. 

Question: How did Angler A get that way? Answer: By doing all the things Angler B is doing and learning from them. 

This piece is about fishing from a drift boat or inflatable raft while it’s moving down a river. We’re making the assumption that it’s controlled by a rower who knows how to handle the boat properly and safely, and also understands the etiquette that’s expected when the boat is in the water and when it’s at the boat ramp. These are important topics that won’t be covered here, but which are addressed nicely in several Youtube videos and a couple of books by veteran Montana guide Neale Streeks. 

The first time you fish a river from a drifting boat your perspective and frame of reference are radically skewed. When fishing a river from your feet (ie wading), you’re stationery, the fish are stationery, but the water is moving. When you’re fishing from a drifting boat, the water is moving and you’re moving, but the fish are stationery. You cast toward targets while you’re drifting past them, which makes it seem that the targets are moving past you. 

What’s important for everybody, and difficult for first-timers, is watching for targets ahead of the boat (that is, downstream of the boat) that you haven’t reached yet. That’s so you can see what’s coming, with plenty of time to plan and execute your casts. This sounds easy but initially your eyes will be dragged upstream by the target you’re moving past. It usually goes something like this: Make a shot at a nice current seam near the bank. Oops, it landed a little short. Ok, try to hit it better with another cast. But now you’ve drifted past the target and it’s 10 feet farther away. Soon you’re casting behind the boat toward a target you’ve already passed (without ever hitting it) and you aren’t ready for the next good spot – one that would be easy to hit if you were looking ahead for it. 

Unless the water is very slow or the rower can stop the boat, you’ll usually get just one chance to make a good shot at each fishy target. So, the basic rules are: look ahead (downstream), make one shot at a target and whether you hit it perfectly or miss it by a mile, forget about it and look for the next one. 

When you see a trout rise, remember that the rise form drifts downstream with the current, but the trout stays back where it rose. Don’t keep casting to the ever-widening rings that conveniently drift along beside you. The fish is still back upstream where the episode started. 

When there are two anglers in the boat, it’s always best if they cast to the same side of the boat, keeping their casts parallel to one another. If the guy in the front of the boat succumbs to temptation and reaches back upstream, he’s “poaching” on his partner’s water, perhaps casting across his line, in which case words will be said and a big mess will follow shortly. 

If both are right-handed or both are left-handed they can cast to either side of the boat comfortably without much danger of tangles. If one is a righty and one a lefty, it’s great when they’re both casting out opposite ends of the boat, but bad when they’re both casting over the inside of the boat. It’s sometimes best to have them change positions when the rower switches sides of the river. 

If you’re standing in a drift boat, use the knee braces for security and stay in the middle of the boat. It makes the rower’s job difficult when one or both fishermen shift from side to side or stand off-centre. Control your slack line as best you can to avoid tangles, and don’t let any more of it flap around the boat than you’re going to use. There are more things for line to hang up on in a boat than just about anywhere else. 

Then there’s the “front-seat advantage,” frequently seized by another regular writer in this publication, who, interestingly enough, also claims the front position in the magazine. There’s a definite advantage to making the first cast to the good water, and the guy in the front always gets it. One thing the back-seat caster can do to minimize the handicap is to fish with a different method. If the person in the front is casting dries, you can try streamers or nymphs. If you’re in the front you won’t want to trade places, but you should offer to do so before too much time goes by. 

Good casting is an asset for this kind of fishing. Being able to shoot a lot of line helps eliminate many false casts and keeps the fly in the water and away from danger zones around your companion’s heads. 

Dry Fly Methods  

It’s not a great way to work over serious rising fish, but casting dries from a drifting boat is a very good way to “pound up” fish with attractors, adult-stonefly imitations or grasshopper patterns. Both anglers should cast ahead of the boat at a nearly 45-degree angle, either using an upstream reach-cast or making an upstream mend as soon as the fly lands. This gives you a ridiculously long drag-free drift. There will be little retrieving; when the fly drifts out of good water or starts to drag, just reposition it with one backcast and one forward cast. Where it’s legal, fishing two dries – a big, visible one like a hopper, and a smaller one, like an ant or beetle – is a very effective approach. Keep the dropper between the two flies short – 12- to 18-inches long – so both flies stay in the same line of current. 

Streamer Methods  

“Bombing the banks” is a favourite way to fish streamers from a drifting boat. The casts are made across and slightly downstream to the target water near the bank, which can be dropoffs, bankside cover or current seams where slow water near the bank meets fast water a little farther out. The fly is retrieved actively back toward the boat with a low rod-tip. The retrieve should be varied according to the depth of the water and the fish’s preferences that day. In shallow water, begin the retrieve immediately; in deeper water try making an immediate upstream mend and letting the fly sink a few seconds before retrieving. If the water is fast all the way from the bank out to the boat, make just a few strips of the fly line to retrieve the fly a few feet, then cast again. If the water is slower, retrieve the fly back until you can see that there isn’t a fish following it. Trout will generally follow farther in slow water than fast.  

You can use a full-floating line or a fast-sinking sink-tip, depending on water depth. Use an upstream reach cast or a conventional upstream mend after the fly lands so that the fly moves across the current during the retrieve rather than turning and racing downstream faster than the current. With streamers the objective is to swim the fly across the lane of good water rather than let it drift down the lane as you would with dries and nymphs. 

Nymph Methods 

You’ll be set up the same way you would to fish nymphs from your feet – a 9-foot rod, 9-or 10-foot leader, floating line, buoyant strike indicator, one or two weighted nymphs and possibly extra weight to get the fly down faster. Put the indicator a couple of feet down the leader from its connection to the fly line to start, but move it up or down as conditions dictate.  

The rower slows the boat slightly and keeps it a comfortable casting distance from the good water, which can be along the banks or at mid-river drop-offs and current seams. The cast is made nearly perpendicular to the current (ie straight across stream), and is followed immediately by a big upstream mend that puts fly line and leader upstream of the indicator. Additional mends are made as required to prevent the fly line from passing the indicator. This allows the nymph to drift near the bottom without drag. Watch the indicator and strike when it seems to do something unusual. 

Be sure you can cast weighted nymphs, extra weight and strike indicators competently from your feet before you try it from a drifting boat. 

Landing and Releasing Fish  

When fish are hooked you have the option of landing and releasing them from the drifting boat or having the rower take the boat to shore to do it. It depends on the size of the fish and the situation. Little fish can be landed and released quickly and easily from the boat. Big fish are a different story. If the fish is hooked in fast water, it’s best to stay in the boat for the first part of the fight until you reach slower water where it’s easy and safe to pull ashore and get out of the boat. Sometimes the best place to go when a big fish is hooked in fast water is straight across the river to the opposite bank where the current is often slower. If possible I prefer to stop and play bigger fish from my feet, partly so I can cover the rest of that good water when I’m done. 

If you fish from a drifting boat, at some point you’ll probably be expected to row. Rowing is a pleasant exercise, but frankly not as much fun as fishing. You’ll be happy to hear that I’ve come up with a 100% effective strategy for maintaining your spot in the fishing seat. You can wait until your friend at the oars says, “Would you mind rowing for awhile?” but it’s better if you’re pro-active and offer to row before he asks. At this point it doesn’t matter whether you know how to row or not. After settling in the middle seat, make five strong strokes with the same oar. The boat will go in a circle. This is when you say something like, “Oops, I can never get that straight; is it left oar-stroke to make a right turn… or left oar-stroke to make a left turn?” Then make five strong strokes with the other oar. The boat will make another circle in the opposite direction. You’ll find yourself back in the casting seat immediately and permanently. You’re welcome. Don’t brag about your day at the take-out ramp.