Learn How To Row, Row, Row A Drift Boat!

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Louis Cahill Photography

Louis Cahill Photography

By Justin Pickett

I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I have zero experience behind the sticks of a drift boat.

Nope. Zero. Nada. None.

It’s been nineteen years since I picked up my first fly rod and laid out an ugly cast across Fightingtown Creek, and in nearly two decades I’ve never learned how to row a drift boat. It almost seems sacrilegious to think about it. I’ve been in my fair share of drift boats and rafts along the way, but mainly as a guest or client, so it’s never really been expected of me to take my turn on the oars. I’ve also never owned my own boat or raft so learning to row has never been a necessity. Put my ass in a john boat on a farm pond and I’m good to go, but I’d fare better dropped off in Germany looking for a pair of left-handed chopsticks than rowing a boat down a western river! And we haven’t even thrown fishermen in the boat yet!

On our recent venture to the South Holston River, Louis and Chase Pritchett of American Made Flies were determined to take on the undeniable liability of teaching me how to row down a damn river in the G&G Adipose Flow.

On the second day, during some of the prettiest snow I’ve seen in a long time, we stopped to release a feisty brown trout near the bank. The plan was to fish a particular section of the bank and once we were done, then it would be my turn to get on the oars. A little catch, photo, and release and it was time to shuffle around the Flow so that I could take my place in the middle seat. As intimidating as it was being on a boat that A) isn’t mine and B) with two other anglers and friends that know what they are doing when it comes to drift boats, it was only a few minutes into my maiden voyage that I began to feel how the boat responded to different strokes with the oars, and different currents. Yes, there were some trials and tribulations. Mistakes were made, but It was a great experience. I had two great friends that were patient, and gave me several tips and constructive feedback on how to correct my mistakes. It was a truly awesome day. I was by no means what you would call “proficient” with those oars when my time was done, but I sure do feel more confident in stepping up and getting on the sticks next time around. It’s just one of those things you have to just go and do, and learn from experience. I honestly didn’t put a bend in my rod that day. Those browns weren’t diggin’ what I was throwing down that day, but it didn’t even matter. I could have rowed that boat all day. It was one of those days on the water I’ll never forget.

Thinking about learning how to row a drift boat? Here are a few tips that I took from my first experience last week that might help you on your first drift with oars in hand.

Don’t Crash The Boat – This one is important and Numero Uno and pretty obvious! Chances are you will be learning to row on someone else’s boat. That boat owner is taking a big risk, so don’t let your ego get in the way and write checks your ass can’t cash!

Your Water Is Downstream – This was a hard one for me to grasp. I’m so used to being the fisherman and wanting to see others fish that the boat would start wondering either too close to the bank, or too far away. My ADD doesn’t help either! You have to follow the current that is in front of you and row accordingly to keep your anglers in good position and to keep the boat out of danger. Keep the nose of the boat pointed downstream in the middle of the current while you’re on your drift.

Steer With The Ass Of The Boat – So another principle that’s different from the usual driving we’re used to… The back of the boat will steer you down river. Kick the ass end out to the right and the current will push you towards the right and vice versa. I likened it to sailing my yacht down to Bimini on my off weekends. Not! Just kidding. But seriously, it’s almost the same principal as a sailboat except the back of the boat is your sail, and the water is the wind. Might sound a little complicated at first, but the first time you experience it on the water, you’ll get it.

Get A Good Feel For The Boat – Undoubtedly, all boats are different. Some row more easily than others. Get a good feel for how much effort it takes in order to get the boat to do what you want it to do. There will be some scenarios where you will have to put your heart and soul into your strokes in order to get the drift boat into position, and others where it will only take a few short strokes. You almost have to develop a relationship with the boat. You have to know what it likes, what it doesn’t likes and how it will react in various currents and conditions. Try using small corrections while drifting in the current. There were several times where I only needed a couple of flips of the oars to keep me on track and out of trouble, but instead I took strokes that would’ve made the U.S. Olympic Rowing team proud. Doing so actually ended up either pushing me out of position and out of reach for my anglers, or putting me into trouble (i.e. trees and rocks). It’s much easier to correct small mistakes than it is big ones, so start small while you’re learning.

Use Your Legs – When the time comes to get the hell outta dodge and put some crank on the oars, make sure to use your legs! I’m a bigger guy, but I’m certainly no match for Mother Nature and 2500cfs. Try back-rowing with just your upper body strength. You might be able to do it, but you’ll eventually regret the hell out of it. Use those larger muscles in that ass and those legs and it will take much less effort to move the boat when it comes time to hump it. You’ll be way less fatigued at the end of the day.

Sideways = Bad Days – Losing total control of your boat can be bad news. Especially on high water flows and rivers with numerous obstacles. You just about always want to keep the nose of your boat pointed down the middle of the current, except when repositioning. What you don’t want to do is end up floating into potentially hazardous water sideways, or backwards. You have very little control in these scenarios and it can become a dangerous situation in an instant. Water is a very powerful thing and is nothing to scoff at.

Take Cues From Your Anglers – During my time in the middle seat I constantly found myself worrying about being in the best position for the anglers on the boat. So concerned to the point that I kept asking, “Is this far enough/close enough for you guys?” Both Louis and Chase made great points and left me with an easy way to determine whether I was in their “sweet spot” while I was rowing. Chase pointed out that the best thing to do is to take cues from your anglers. Are they struggling with making their cast to the target water? If so get closer. He added that if you have more experienced anglers that are having to haul several times during their cast, then you’re probably a little too far off the target water. Louis also added that with more experienced anglers, they’ll get their fly there if they want to. Both of these observations hold truth and are great ways to keep your anglers in the strike zone. It’s funny how I was so worried about it while I was rowing, but when I’m the one slinging flies I could honestly care less about where the boat is. I’m just throwing my flies where I want them, making adjustments along the way. So don’t stress over this. Your priority is rowing the boat. Let the anglers do the fishing!

Ask Questions – One of the best traits of a good student is one that asks questions. You’re learning a new skill, so you should have tons of questions! Don’t be cavalier and just assume that you’ll figure it out lickity split. That can get you in some serious trouble and you might not make it past the first point I mentioned above. Someone that is taking the time and risk to let you learn to row on their boat should expect you to ask several questions, and also be encouraging and take enjoyment out of answering your questions and showing you the ropes.

I know that there are probably a ton of other tips and tricks and guide-sworn techniques for rowing a drift boat or raft, and I welcome any suggestions or information that will help me in the future.

I by no means think that I’ve covered everything under the sun when it comes to rowing down a river, but hopefully I’ve answered a few questions, or maybe given someone some encouragement to get out on the water and give it a go. It truly is a fun way to enjoy the river. I’ll definitely never forget my first time as an oarsman. I was lucky to have Chase and Louis on the water with me that day, and hopefully those of you itching to learn also have some knowledgeable friends that enjoy teaching others as well. Now get there and get to learning! Your friends that own drift boats might invite to fish you more often!!!


Justin Pickett
Gink & Gasoline
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23 thoughts on “Learn How To Row, Row, Row A Drift Boat!

  1. One other thing. If your anchor gets stuck, be very careful. If you move to the very back of the boat, and the stern gets low in the water, it might start the boat “fishtailing,” or worse, if you pull really hard on the anchor rope you might pull the stern under. After a few pulling tries, better to just cut the anchor rope and call it good.

    • A huge issue that people have is tying a knot in the end of their anchor rope. It’s better to just let that puppy go and buy a new anchor than lose your boat.

      • Good point. The free end of the anchor rope is called that for a reason. Have that 30 pound baby get loose in fast water and the rope is now free to zip out of the boat. Never fix your anchor rope.

    • Another insurance policy is to always carry a sharp knife next you in the tray. If needed you can quickly cut the anchor rope just beyond the holding bracket at the back of the boat. I have only had to do it once, but it saved the boat and the multi-day camp trip.

  2. When I was just learning I watched Hyde’s DVD on how to row…excellent resource and pretty humorous. My buddy who owned the boat insisted I watch this at least twice before I got on the sticks. Always remember – BOW TO DANGER!

  3. Except when you are making small adjustment strokes, try to keep your elbows out of the rowing stroke by locking your elbows and pushing and pulling with your core, especially on flat water. It’s more efficient, less likely to destroy your shoulders, elbows, and wrists, and offers an under-the-radar workout.

  4. Another angler cue I use is mending frequency. If it seems the angler is mending too often then I need to check my drift speed or the number of currents they’re having to lay across.

  5. Rule #1 that was taught to me when I started rowing is “point your bow towards the danger and back row to get away from it.” Never row forward to escape an obstacle that you are approaching.

    One othe piece of advice I would give, is to make sure your fishing buddies know how to row and will take their time at the oars if you ever consider buying a boat. If not, you’ll spend all your time rowing so that others can fish, but never get a chance to fish for yourself….

  6. The #1 tip I can give new rowers is to always back row. I see new rowers thinking they can point the bow where they want to go and front row toward it. All this accomplishes is hitting a hazard at ramming speed. Back row, back row, back row!

  7. Good tip I learned in Alaska, “Point the nose of the boat towards the problem and back row away from it.” Not so much rowing, but you would be surprised how often you can jump out of the boat and “walk the dog” with the line ropes. Good way of slowing the boat in smaller, calmer sections of water and allowing the people in the boat multiple casting opportunities

  8. Learning to row on eastern rivers sounds like a breeze. Have to use your legs and core against 2,500 CFS? Try 25,000 on the Skagit on a low water day. And that’s easy, sure you have have to work your ass off and you’re moving at the speed of a log flume ride, but the river is wide and easy to read. It’s the elbow rapids and tigh, shallow boulder gardens that make the western oarsman go white knuckled.

    Still some good points in the article and comments. Another one: Always keep and eye on what’s right below you AND what’s 100 yards downstream. If you wait to line up a rapid or start gaining momentum against an angled chute until you are right on top of it, you’re gonna have a very bad day.

  9. Good post Justin.
    Even if you never plan on owning a boat but are a frequent floater, you should know and understand the basic principals of rowing a drift boat.
    When it’s your turn to sit in the back, pay attention to the man on the sticks. Like Yogi said, “you can learn a lot by watching”

    IF the day ever comes when your guide takes a header and the only way out is still down river, you might be called upon to take control of the middle seat

  10. Justin-

    All good points. Glad you had a fun first day in the middle seat.

    I’ve taught a lot of people to row a boat over the years and another big one for me is “never quit rowing”. Like you mentioned, you can certainly crank too hard on the oars and do more harm than help (particularly on mellow sections of a river) but in my opinion it is a good idea to always be making oar strokes- no matter how slight they may be. This will ensure you are always in control of the river and not the other way around. As soon as you quit making oar strokes you’ll start picking up speed and then have to work twice as hard to get the boat back into the speed/position you want.

  11. The drift boat discussion , and specifically Luke Coffey’s comment on roping a boat in shallow water, got me thinking about how handling a boat can be more than just staying out of trouble.

    In Oregon, particularly on small coastal streams, the following takes place. If you come to a person fishing from the bank, and the stream is wide enough, you move to the far side of the drift and pass by. If the stream is too narrow to avoid the casting area, you pass as close to the person/bank as you can, often just a couple of feet out. In either case you are trying to avoid passing through a person’s fishing drift. And, in any case, folks in your boat do not cast while passing the bank fisherman. If the water is tricky as are the four class four rapids in the Lower Deschutes in Oregon, all bets are off and the “bankies” just appreciate you are doing the best you can in that water.

    The above behavior was brought home to me when bank fishing below Idlewild Dam, at the start of Box Canyon, on the Henry’s Fork, in Idaho. The stream is small and my mouth must have been hanging open as the first morning contingent of guides walked their boats, hanging onto the transom, some even stopping, right through my drift. A few of the clients were obviously embarrassed as I had to stop casting while they went by, but most just followed the guides instructions and continued casting to both banks, including at my feet. It really does take all kinds.

  12. Rule #1 in moving water – ALWAYS wear a life jacket!
    Great comments provided previously on maneuvering, particularly regarding the “near/far scan” – make sure to pay attention to river features farther downstream so you will have sufficient time and maneuvering space to avoid “difficulties”.
    Also, never fixate on where you don’t want to go. If you lock your attention on on a danger (such as a sweeper or a nasty hole), you risk getting drawn into it. Instead, focus your attention on where you want the boat to go. Sounds ridiculously simple, but it works.

  13. Pingback: A Review of Streamer Fly Boxes for Big Flies - Guide Recommended

  14. I can’t possibly say enough good things about the rowing course given by Arkanglers out of Salida, Colorado. They teach you the basics on rafts, but the principles of river navigation are applicable to drift boats. I may not have been the best student, but they were the best teachers.

  15. Thanks for the very informative article on learning how to row a drift boat. I would like to know if after viewing DVD’s and YouTube would it be permitted to ask a guide for a day of rowing instruction instead of a day of fishing? I bought a used drift boat and now have the time to learn how to row, tow, equip and what to pack on a float trip. Any help would be appreciated

    • It wouldn’t hurt to ask. Some guides are funny about doing anything to help you be an independent angler but, in my opinion, you don’t want to be fishing with those guys anyway. Good luck!

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