How to Fly Fish from a Drift Boat

How to Fly Fish from a Drift Boat

A drift boat is a beautiful example of design and function, an excellent watercraft for fly fishing. It is designed to drift down the river with the current with the rower or guide controlling the speed. Generally, when you row a boat on flat water you face backward and pull the oars to propel the boat forward. In the case of a drift boat the guide or rower faces forward and pulls on the oars to regulate speed and guide the boat through and away from all the potential hazards that a river may offer up, from fallen trees to big rocks and even rapids. Rowing a drift boat down a fast river is a far cry from rowing a rowboat across a placid lake and it takes skill and a great deal of practice.

Drift boats are beautifully designed and evolved from the large, open dories fished in the North Atlantic on the Grand Banks. They were first brought to Oregon by Atlantic fishermen who moved west and modified the deep hulls to wide, flat-bottom hulls for running rivers during the salmon runs, and the McKenzie River designs were born. From these designs the modern drift boat has evolved.

Today anywhere you find big, fast rivers that hold fish, you’ll find drift boats, but it is in the trout rivers of the American West where they truly flourish, given the nature and abundance of the big, fast-moving waters that dominate the western landscape. Drift boats are as ubiquitous in the Rockies as are flats boats in the Florida Keys. Design follows function.

Booking a fly-fishing trip with a guide in a drift boat is one of the great angling experiences for a number of reasons: you’re going to cover a lot of water, you’re going to see a lot of beautiful country that you wouldn’t see otherwise, and you’re going to experience some great and varied fishing over the course of the day depending on the time of year. You may find yourself casting and drifting dry flies along the edge of the river, throwing big streamers at the banks, stopping and getting out and wading certain sections of the river. The drift boat is your access to fishing you could never otherwise get to.

Rules for Drift Boat Fishing

Fishing in a drift boat is really fairly simple if you pay attention to a few rules. There are three stations on a normal drift boat with the guide in the center on the oars, an angler in the forward position and an angler behind the guide in the rear position.

  1. The forward angler is going to have the advantage as he or she will get to the fish first and they are in the sight line of the guide. The guide will be able to direct the forward angler with greater ease simply because they are in front of them. Determine who is going to fish from the front and for how long, and then switch back and forth over the course of the trip. There will be a number of times when the boat is stopped for either wading a stretch of water or having lunch. It is easy to switch then, never while the boat is moving.
  2. Each angler gets 180 degrees of fishing area with the oars essentially being the dividing line. If you stuck the oars straight out from the boat, the front angler would be able to fish everything in front of them and the rear angler everything behind them. If you cast past that line or allow a drift to go back past that imaginary line, you are poaching as well as creating opportunities for the line to get caught on the oars.
  3. Be aware of your cast and where the fly line is going on the back cast. If you’re fishing the left bank, you’re in the rear, and you’re right handed, then you’re going to have to adjust your cast to directly over your head or turn and cast backwards. A normal cast will have that fly whipping right by the guide’s head. Pay attention. The same applies in the front if you’re fishing the right bank and you’re right handed. The guide will always do his best to put you in a good position, but you need to be smart and pay attention as well. Your cast, your responsibility.
  4. Depending on your level of expertise, your guide is going to be communicating with you. Listen to what they say. Sometimes it will be about fishing, sometimes about the natural surroundings and what you’re seeing, and other times it may be about safety. Pay attention. You may learn something or you may survive. Both good reasons to listen.
  5. If the guide is stopping the boat for lunch or to fish a stretch of river, don’t go jumping out of the boat until he tells you to. Allow him or her to do their job and take the precautions necessary to keep all of you safe on the river.
  6. Once on the river, there is no turning back. Bring rain gear and dry clothes in a waterproof pack just in case you fall in while wading and/or getting in and out of the boat. It happens. It’s a long trip down the river in wet clothes. Make sure you have the appropriate clothes if the weather is cold. Bring a spare rod and reel outfit in case of an accident. Generally, the guide will have fly-fishing gear, but it’s better to have two than one.
  7. You’re going to be wearing waders, as you will probably be getting out to fish. Even if you’re wet wading you’re going to be wearing a wader boot of some sort. Felt is now being outlawed in many parts of the country, but rubber-soled wading shoes are very prevalent now as a result.

NOTE: Do not wear rubber-soled wading shoes with studs. Your guide is not going to be happy with studs scratching up the floor of his boat. If you feel the need for extra traction when you get out there are many devices you can slide onto your boot once you’re out of the boat.


A fly-fishing trip down a big, fast, and sometimes tumbling river in a drift boat is a great experience that every angler should have on their bucket list. Floating down some of the iconic and legendary western rivers with a knowledgeable guide will offer you access not only to great scenery, but great fishing as well, in places that many anglers will never get to see. Names like Madison, Yellowstone, Deschutes, Rogue, Green, Henry’s Fork, Snake, and Big Horn are the domain of the drift boat and it is the best way to experience these magnificent rivers.

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