Tactics and Techniques

To Drift Or Not To Drift, That Is The Question.

There was a time when drift boats were mysterious and distant to me.  If I could one day “get a drift boat”, trout beneath magical rivers that were once unreachable would finally be within my grasp.  In short — all would be right with the world.  Now, I fish from a drift boat often, and I realize how wrong — and how right I was.

When I began fly fishing, I thought drift boats were for guides.  I stood on the banks of many a river in envy of elite fly fishermen.  They drifted by catching fish I never would.  A drift boat belonged on legends like the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Snake, or the Green.  I imagined myself on these historic and famous trout rivers beneath silver mountains, glinting against a blue sky.  Slowly floating along a river littered with rising fish, like rain hitting the wide water with hundreds of slurping giant rainbows.  Casting a magnificent cast, on a magnificent river, to magnificent trout. 

Now, a drift boat is not so far away.  I fish from them often.  The place, that was a dream of my youth as I trekked along the banks is now a reality for me.  I have fished from a drift boat many times, and I realize there are aspects of drifting a river that meet my dramatic expectations and things that I still love about wading a river. 

Drift Boat Pros:

  1. Comradery.  The thing that I enjoy most about fly fishing in a drift boat is that it keeps me close to the people I fish with.  If my feet step out of the boat, they quickly take me exploring the river in search of fish.  It is my roots, and I love it.  A drift boat keeps me closer.  I enjoy the laughing and visiting as we fish together.
  2. Cover more water.  The biggest strength of the drift boat is that you can cover more water and reach places that sometimes are difficult or impossible to wade.  Suddenly, the other side of the river and stretches along steep canyons are not out of reach.  You can fish along banks and avoid trees and brush that can make casting more difficult from the shore.   
  3. Great drifts.  A drift boat provides the opportunity to have some excellent drifts.  Because the current is always moving with the boat at roughly the same speed, you can drift through stretches of river with extremely natural presentations.
  4. Fish big water.  Many rivers are just hard to wade.  They are wide and deep.  It can be hard to reach places where fish would hole up.  Also, access is just plain impossible sometimes inside canyons or without roads.
  5. The challenge.  Fishing from a drift boat is a great change of pace.  If you are used to wade fishing, a drift boat provides another opportunity to learn another aspect of fly fishing.  It is a way to challenge yourself.  Learning to row, find seams, and when and where to set anchor can take time, but it is great fun.

Drift Boat Cons:

  1. More expensive.  A drift boat will cost you.  From buying to borrowing, the money spent on drift boats will always be more than wading.  If you go with a guide, you will pay as well.
  2. Logistical difficulties.  Not everywhere you go has drift boats that you can easily rent, and sometimes they can sell out of boats if it is busy.  You may have to delay getting on the river depending on when the shop opens, in order to get your boat reserved.
  3. Less casts at the same fish.  Often, I see an amazing spot on the river from a drift boat.  As we float by, fish are rising everywhere.  I watch my fly drift right past — and then it’s over.  You continue downstream.  Unless you drop anchor, your chance at a unique trout is fleeting.  You don’t have a chance to cast to the same spot or try a different fly in that area. 
  4. Rowing expertise can limit you.  There are some places a drift boat will take you that you might not want to go.  If you are a beginner in a drift boat, you want to avoid class 3 and 4 rapids.  This can rule out some rivers altogether.  Although it is not super complicated to row a drift boat, being good at it does not come right away.

Wading Pros:

  1. It’s good for the soul?  It is — good for the soul.  In some ways I cannot tell if I want to be on the river to fly fish, or if I want to fly fish to be on the river.  Wading the river keeps me closer to the place I fell in love with fly fishing.  Alone, and moving through moving water, searching for trout.
  2. Save money.  Does not cost anything to wade a river.
  3. More drifts.  You get more than one shot at a spot where the fish may be.  You can fish a different fly, try a different seam, or just attempt a better drift.
  4. Fish smaller rivers.  If you commit to fishing from a drift boat, you are excluding certain rivers that just can’t be floated.  Wading allows for crawling around on boulders and fishing pools below rough water.

Wading Cons:

Most of the cons of wading a river can be summarized by stating that while wading, you deprive yourself of the benefits of drifting. 

Beyond that, it can be nicer to fish from the comfort of a solid floored boat than walking around on slippery rocks and against currents.  Sometimes wading can be tougher as people get up in age.

Other Considerations:

Whether you wade or drift the next time you go fly fishing, there are some things to keep in mind that would help with the decision. 

One is understanding that some states make it harder to wade a river than others due to public land access and private property laws.  For example, Montana will allow wading along the river that flows through private land if you stay below the high-water mark.  Colorado does not.  The following link to Livewaterproperties has a good summary of some popular fly fishing states water rights: https://www.livewaterproperties.com/how-stream-access-laws-affect-landowner/.  It is a good idea to know the rules for the state you will be fishing. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Deschutes river in Oregon.  Here you can float the river in a drift boat, but you cannot fish from it.  The boat is for access only.  Get out and wade if you want to catch trout.

Next, shuttle services are making drift boats more and more convenient.  Most rivers’ guide shops will put the boat in for you and take it out exactly where you ask.  You don’t even need a truck if you are going to rent from them.  This is a good way to see how much you enjoy a drift boat before you buy, and it usually costs between $20-40 per day.

You can switch between wading and drifting as well.  Sometimes, it is nice to wade one day and float the next.  Or wade for half the day and float the rest. 

Finally, keep in mind that fishing from a drift boat is going to split up larger groups of people.  Some places will allow you to put three fishermen in the boat, but I think this would be too crowded.  One reason I don’t fish with guides much is that my father, brother and I would have to split up. 

Drift or wade — there is no right or wrong answer as far as I am concerned.  It all depends on what you want to do.  Either way, if your catching fish, having fun, and learning, then you are doing it right.  Enjoy the river.  Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

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  • Reply
    Fish One River - WADEOUTTHERE
    August 27, 2019 at 1:33 pm

    […] READ: WADEOUTTHERE | To Drift Or Not To Drift, That Is The Question […]

  • Reply
    October 16, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    Very well explained. Enjoyed reading.

  • Reply
    Josh Loy
    October 29, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Great article. I have been a wader for over 20 years and now that my 16-year-old son is really getting into fly fishing, I am considering a drift boat. It’s an exciting and scary feeling at the same time. To me, wading is the way to go but, there are spots that only a boat would allow us to wade. The only boat I have ever oared was a small lake boat so, the river is a little intimidating. The last thing I want to do is put someone in danger.

    • Reply
      Jason Shemchuk
      October 29, 2020 at 11:29 am

      I love wading as well. Moving along the river is a dynamic environment and it’s own unique process. But being in the boat with my family or a close friend is also a very enjoyable way to fish. And you can always stop and wade. Thanks for reading! Cheers.

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