15 Tips For Effective Fly-Fishing From A Drift Boat

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

It’s easy to become spoiled to fly-fishing from a drift boat.

A good drift boat is a perfect fly fishing machine. It offers anglers a tactical advantage over the fish in just about every situation. I’ve owned a drift boat for some time. Every time I hook my Adipose up behind the truck, I get a warm feeling. I might love that boat too much. 

Still, I remember when all of my trout fishing was done on foot and I remember how alien the drift boat felt the first time I stepped aboard. I see it even now, when I invite new anglers out on the boat. I figured it was past time for me to do something about it.

Here’s my 15 tips for more effective fly-fishing from a drift boat.

Know your right from left

If you are not familiar with the terms, river-right and river-left, you may struggle with your guide’s instruction. River right and left are always oriented from the perspective of looking downstream. If you are looking downstream, river-right is to your right. If you are looking upstream, river-right is on your left.

Don’t cast over the boat 

This seems obvious but I see anglers struggle with it all the time. There are times when you just have to adapt your casting to boat position and conditions. If you’re a right hand caster fishing from the front of the boat, to river right, you are going to have to make some accommodations. I prefer to present my fly with a back cast in this situation but there are other options, like a comb cast.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to cast over the boat. You will inevitably end up hooking someone. You might pull it off for a couple of casts, but soon you’ll get lazy or throw a bad loop or catch a gust of wind and there will be blood. Practice your back cast presentation. It will pay off.

Your water is downstream

_DSF8805-8Probably the most common mistake I see is anglers fishing behind the boat. It’s human nature to want a second chance at water that looks fishy, but as you start taking that second shot, you find yourself casting further toward the back of the boat.

There are several big problems with this. First off, if you are fishing from the front, you are fishing your partner’s water. That’s not cool. Secondly, you can’t get a good drift. It makes for poor fishing for everyone. Remember, your water is downstream. Try to fish at about a 45 degree angle downstream from the boat. 

Watch the oars

Another problem with fishing too far back is keeping your line and fly out of the oars. The oarsman is driving and it’s not always possible to stop rowing and deal with your fly that’s hung up on the oar. Pay attention and keep your line clear.

Look downstream

As you are fishing, it pays to keep an eye out for what’s ahead. find the best water before you can actually cast to it and plan your fishing so you get the best possible shot. It’s a terrible feeling to spot some great holding water and have to rush your presentation because you didn’t see it in time. Think of it like driving. Always know what’s coming up.

Use a fast rod

One of the biggest advantages of fishing from a boat is covering a lot of water. To cover that water effectively, you may need to make casts quickly or fish missing good spots. A fast action rod is a real advantage for covering water effectively from a moving boat.

Accuracy matters

Whether you are fishing a likely seam or casting to a rising fish, the ability to deliver your fly on target the first try is a huge asset. Often, boat anglers are targeting banks where the fly must be within inches of structure. A little time spent practicing accurate casting will pay off.

Maximize your drift

edit-2105Fishing from a moving boat offers you the chance to make really long drag-free drifts. You can maximize this advantage by making reach casts, mending your line early and often, and keeping as much line off the water as possible. More fishing and less casting raises your odds of a hookup.

Target holding water

It’s easy to get lazy and and let a bad drift ride. Like any fishing, success depends on putting the fly where the fish are. A foot from the seam is not on the seam. Take time to read the water and put your fly where the fish are.

Pay attention to your partner’s fishing

When fishing from a boat, you are by definition, sharing the water. It makes no sense to float the same fly across the same water, unless you see a good reason. When I fish from the back of the boat, I keep a close eye on what my buddy is doing and try to exploit opportunities they miss. A tasty pocket that went unfished or an inch closer to the bank. If he gets a look, you can bet that fish is going to see my fly, too.

Timing matters

Two anglers casting, a moving boat, a bit of wind…mayhem ensues. It’s a good idea to try and hit a rhythm where one fly is in the air at a time. It’s on the angler in the back to make this happen. Remember, the angler up front can’t see what you’re up to back there.

Don’t ignore the middle of the river

Most of the time anglers fishing from boats target fish on the bank. That’s often the most effective tactic, but don’t forget all of those fish you’ve caught wading and fishing to the middle of the river. There is often good holding water midstream and sometimes the biggest fish are holding there.

Manage your line

You can make your fishing miserable and do serious damage to your fly line by dumping it in the floor of the boat. You’ll end up standing on it, which isn’t good for your line, or your casting. Most boats have a place to stack line; if not, your seat will do. Keep excess line on your reel, not the floor.

Be courteous 

DSCF2042-25Boat fishing is a team sport. Share the water fairly with your partner. Don’t hog the bow of the boat. Everyone deserves a good fishing experience. If you are competitive by nature, know when it’s fun and appropriate and when you’re just being an ass. 

Be safe

When things go wrong on a boat, they go wrong quickly. Pay attention when you are in rough water. Use the leaning braces and sit down when things get sketchy. Above all remember, on any boat there is only one captain and what they say goes. 

Whether you are booking a trip with a guide, fishing with friends, or thinking about a boat of your own, I hope these tips will help you catch more fish on your next float. If you have boat experiences you’d like to share, leave a comment below. 

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “15 Tips For Effective Fly-Fishing From A Drift Boat

  1. The advice in this piece is solid gold.

    However, the guy cranking the fly rod with with his upper hand halfway up the butt section (last photo) is making a bad choice. Sooner or later, that practice will lead to a shattered fly rod.

    If extra levetage is needed, its better to use the line hand below the reel (that’s why some rods are made with “fighting butts”).

    Keep it reel,

    Jim D

  2. Good advice, especially on sharing the bow and sharing the water. Don’t expect your clients to always be aware of this. Sometimes the guide needs to remind their clients.ie “let’s rotate time on the bow today.” or to the bow fisherman, “fish out in front of the boat and watch letting your line drift back into your buddy’s water.” but thanks for the tips.

  3. Be Courteous: To other boaters and fishermen at the launch and along the river. Give them time and space- relax- don’t push people, crowd them or cut in front of them. It’s about having a good time and with that mindset you’ll be more effective.

    Be Safe:
    Always wear a life jacket when on the river. Period. Think of it like a seat belt–you’re not putting it on just before you crash.

  4. You got my attention when you said that you must pay attention and keep your line clear since it is not always possible to stop rowing and deal with your fly that’s hung up on the oar. This is something that I will remember because I am interested in a fly fishing trip with my husband as we have decided to try exciting water activities. We both don’t have an idea about the safety tips as beginners, so it would make sense for us to consider a guided trip.

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