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 www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!