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The Lure of Drift Boats

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We launched Todd Avison’s drift boat into the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a warm, mid-August morning. The lush, fading-summer finery of cottonwood trees, red willows, and lodgepole pines shadowed the moving water. To the north and miles upriver, behind an earthen dam, the river has flooded what were once rolling hills, deep canyons, and broad meadows. Water skiers, bass boats, and jet skis stir the water there until, when it re-emerges below the spillway, it is slightly off color—a sage-green ribbon sliding through a labyrinth of black basalt boulders. Loaded with freshwater shrimp, worms and insect pupae, the river becomes a rich smorgasbord for the thousands of trout that haunt the canyon below the dam, just where we were entering the current with fishing gear and high hopes.

Most of the drift boat’s history was lost long before Todd and his friends Scott Castle and Mark Cole discovered it on a farm near Gannett, Idaho. From a distance, it appeared to be a write-off—a camouflaged hull surrounded by rusting tractors, bent harrows, and abandoned cars. For many falls the boat had been swept by blowing leaves, and in January, year after year, filled with snow. By spring the snow was gone, melted by the hot Gannett sun that bleached its seats, gunnels, and gearboxes chalk white.

A traveling envelope that places one in the water as well as comforably on top of it Silently gliding along in the sun, watching eagles float on invisible currents above, it’s easy to be distracted from the purpose of being there. . .fishing.

Wiser, wealthier men may wonder why Todd, Mark, and Scott coveted the old hull. The simple answer is that for fly fishermen, a drift boat is as much a wood sculpture as a means to pursue trout. The graceful uplift of the bow, the funnel-shaped stern, the wooden gunnels, and the long oars lifting like wings amidships . . . her graceful lines called to the smitten trio, revealing the way she would shadow an undercut bank where big trout sheltered. The old boat beckoned irresistibly.

A dozen years had passed since Cal Wagstaff had parked the drift boat out in the field, awaiting the day when he could coax her beauty and innate purpose back to life. Cal did not know who the boat’s original builder was, or how many fishermen had called her theirs. When new, she was a brilliant yellow. Later on someone, perhaps a duck hunter, had painted her in a camouflage mix of green, brown, and beige. When Todd and Scott asked if he cared to sell, Cal wasn’t sure he was ready to give up his dreams of floating Idaho’s rivers; and, well, if he sold the boat, that would pretty much decide the issue. In the small talk necessary to such transactions, Cal allowed that he still would like to fish the South Fork of the Boise, the South Fork of the Snake, and maybe, if he could find the time, the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Scott countered that before he could trust it to the Middle Fork, he’d have to put a month, maybe two, into refinishing the hull. In the end, Cal agreed to let her go for $800.

With new boats typically commanding from $3,500 to $6,000 (not counting trailer, oars, or gearboxes), the three men figured the old boat was a screamingly good deal. Todd ran a hand over the scarred hull, then hitched the boat trailer to his pickup and started north toward Hailey. The rearview reflection of the faded boat soon began nagging him with buyer’s remorse, and somewhere out among the Gannett Triangle’s yellow barley fields, he wondered who had hustled whom.

Following years of neglect, the drift boat needed months of sanding, fabricating, and refinishing before it could withstand a river’s waves and boulders. Todd was working sixty-hour weeks at the time. And, just as important, even with the cost split three ways, what would his wife, Lisa, say when she learned he’d dumped $266 into a boat without a motor? As he turned into his driveway, worrying what value, if any, Lisa would place on the faded hull he was towing, Todd was also fairly certain that his two young daughters would not trade a day in daddy’s drift boat for a ride on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.”

Glancing at the splintered gunnels and two layers of peeling paint, Lisa noted the leaf stains, rusted trailer, and worn tires. In the way of a wife who sees too little of her husband as it is, she calmly observed, “Todd, you don’t have time for another project. Especially this old boat! When will you ever find the time to work on it?”

When Todd looked at the hull, though, he hardly saw the scars or bruises. Instead, he imagined how the boat would slide downriver. He saw large hair patterns floating in the shadows beneath overhanging willows, and the dark, blue-black backs of huge rainbows rising out of the depths. Caught in the grip of these fantasies, he promised, “At night, after the girls are in bed.”

Lisa watched Todd crawl under the trailer to inventory the scarred bottom. She noticed how he caressed the gunnels and tested the stern for signs of damage or hidden blight. Deciding he could have more dangerous obsessions than a peeling drift boat, she shrugged off the cost. It was clearly a guy thing, a passion rooted in male chromosomes—those complex, unknowable chemical bonds that compel men to hunt, build fires, and cast flies at trout.

After Todd had power-washed the leaves and dirt out, he discovered that, while river rocks had raked long scratches from stem to stern, the hull was sound. Two fresh sheets of Kevlar erased the ancient gouges and strengthened the bottom. In the weeks that followed, he used Australian cypress to replace the splintered oak gunnels, broken seats, and gearbox. (Cypress resembles white pine, but the exotic wood’s close grain is water resistant.) Todd bent it into the gunnel’s flowing arc, then sealed it with varnish. True to his word, after ten hours at his day job, he worked nights on the boat. While his daughters slept, he sanded, shaped and sealed, dreaming of fighting trout from the bow.

After two months of hard work, Todd finally sprayed the hull a dark navy blue. The color wasn’t chosen for any real or imagined benefit: even silhouetted against a summer sky, it was doubtful the blue hull would fool fish. The pragmatic reason was that Todd, Mark, and Scott had exceeded their budget for repairs. The blue paint was made for boat hulls and, just as important, happened to be on sale.

Before Todd and I launched the boat that August morning, a local fishing guide advised us that salmon fly imitations were attracting trout in the river’s deep holes. As we inspected the store’s myriad drawers filled with exotic combinations of rare feathers and scarce hair, he estimated that the hundred-dollars’ worth of flies we placed on the counter probably wouldn’t be enough. By the time we reached the take-out, he said, we would wish we had another two dozen . . . at least.

I love the near solitude of a drift boat as much as I love the chance to cast to big trout. Except for the occasional hollow slap of water against the wooden hull, the bump of an oar against a shallow rock, the muted splash of small rapids, or the oarsman’s quiet advice on where to lay the fly, a drift boat is a silent, private place. >>>


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