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The Lure of Drift Boats

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That said, I confess that I belong to the ranks of drift-boat-owner wannabes. In spite of having rowed and fished from drift boats on California’s Eel River and Idaho’s Snake, Boise, and Salmon Rivers, I have never owned one. I have excuses—some valid, most weak. Compared to a bass boat, drift boats are fairly affordable. Drawing six inches of water, they can clear shallow bars and yet still negotiate class three rapids. The real reason I don’t own a drift boat, however, has nothing to do with cost or access, but has a lot to do with the loss of my sons to the University of Idaho and the Air Force Academy. As much as I believe in higher education, their studies have deprived me of live-in fishing partners who can both lay a fly beneath an overhanging willow and row through a bone yard of boulders.

While his daughters slept, he sanded, shaped and sealed, dreaming of fighting trout from the bow.

You don’t fish alone from a drift boat. One fisherman traditionally works the oars while the other stands in the bow and casts. The oarsman points the bow at deep holes or turns the boat so the line and trailing fly are downwind, preventing the barbless hook from blowing back into the fisherman’s vest or hat, hand or ear.

Steve Lentz of Far and Away Adventures has run Idaho’s rivers for 25 years. In that time, he has collected a warehouse full of kayaks, rubber rafts, canoes, and Grand Canyon dories. And yet, more often than not, his craft of choice is a drift boat.

“If you judge a drift boat on aesthetics alone,” Lentz reasons, “it’s the finest way to float a running river. And a wooden drift boat makes such a connection with the water. It feels like you’re in slow motion and allows you to move across the current and slide between the boulders. Drift boats can slip water to catch the soft surf and eddies where the fish feed.”

Standing in the bow of Todd’s boat, I cast a variegated leech trailing a red iridescent worm into the head of the first deep pool. I felt the tiny trailer slide across granite ledges and bounce over basalt boulders until my luck faded, the hook snagging a rock, the rod tip bending, and the reel shedding line. The tippet parted and, not wanting to waste the next deep hole, Todd pulled to the bank while I replaced everything from the leader down.

Other boats followed the current that day. Newer boats—some, like Todd’s, made from wood; others, such as the aluminum-and-fiberglass Hydes built in Idaho Falls— offer broad beams and low gunnels, shallow drafts that slide easily over submerged boulders without scraping. Todd’s boat was designed in a colder era, before the snows ebbed and the rivers lost volume. Its deep draft is at odds with the multi-year drought that has exposed boulders normally drowned beneath two feet of water.

Todd rowed while I cast a leech cross current. The low water had put the fish down. A few rose to my imitation, but turned away at the last instant. The fishing was slow, and during the first miles Todd scrutinized my casts and held the bow to one side of the deep holes. In sections where rocks choked the river and the current slowed, he slipped over the stern and walked the boat. I hooked a trout in a hole where the current cascaded over a ledge, a bright rainbow sixteen inches long that fought with a wild strength derived from living in the cold, fast-moving water.

We switched places after I released the fish. Todd, an experienced fisherman, worked the seams and eddies behind the boulders until a twelve-inch trout took his Wooly Worm. He fought it to the boat and then, as he released it, asked me if I wanted to switch. Enjoying the focus and challenge of the oars, I told him to continue fishing. As the river slipped beneath the cliffs, Todd placed the fly against fallen trees and upstream of deep holes. Three hours into the float, with the water level continuing to drop, he picked up another rainbow in a channel between two rows of black boulders.
 

It is impossible to miss all of the river’s sharp basalt teeth. Todd winced as the boat shuddered against a submerged boulder, knowing, almost to the minute, how long it takes to patch a crack or fiberglass a deep gouge. And although I was being doubly careful, our progress downstream was marked by a rough, circuitous course, dodging one rock, sliding off another, each
collision raking a fresh white scratch into the blue hull.

Mending the line as the fly drifted downstream, Todd mentioned another river that emerges below a reservoir. The problem is, the river is dotted with irrigation heads and islands that split the current. The take-out is difficult to find among the braided channels, and if you miss it, it’s ten miles to the next boat ramp. More than one fly fisherman has lost his way among the maze of tributary courses, islands and diversions, and found himself beached high and dry in a thousand-acre wheat field.

We saw a bald eagle skim above the canyon, and an otter slide off the bank into the river. Around a bend, a cow moose, her yearling calf, and a young bull were standing in the river. The moose barely lifted their heads from the lush green plants as we slipped past against the opposite bank.
 

It took roughly five hours to navigate the river. In that time, as we drifted above thousands of trout, it became clear that we had purchased far more flies than we would use. A few rainbows rose to our Muddler Minnows, Wooly Worms, and Bead-Eyed Nymph patterns. While none were huge, all fought well and were returned to the river unharmed. I didn’t blame the local guide for overestimating the unknowable habits of trout. What moves one large rainbow one day, one hour, or one minute, or why it cannot resist one color and yet refuses another, is a mystery.

And any day of fishing must be judged on more than simply numbers, sizes, and weights. When we floated out onto the flats near the highway, other than a dozen new scars on the old drift boat, we had no regrets.

The sun was tinting the distant mountains pale rose when Todd backed the trailer into the river. We had just started to winch the bow onto the rear rollers when the crank fractured. Lifting and pushing on the heavy hull failed to budge it, and in the end, we had to disconnect the trailer, block the tires with rocks, and drag the boat onto it with the truck. It was a brute, inelegant solution, but—considering the years spent sitting idle in a hayfield and the months devoted to resurrecting it with glue, fiberglass, epoxy, and paint—one that seemed to suit the old boat.

 

In between writing for a variety of national magazines, Andy Slough drifts for trout, sturgeon, salmon and chukar. While he insists he is not by definition drifty, he does admit to a fixation on double-ended boats and the big fish that haunt Idaho’s rivers.

 

 

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