December 21, 2022
By Ross Purnell
Fly fishing is supposed to reduce aggravation and frustration, not create them. But sometimes waiting at a boat launch; dealing with broken trailer lights or ball bearings; arranging for two friends to skip work, church, or a birthday; or floating behind a parade of other boats can be real organizational or social hassles.
Dialing it back a notch—from a three-person craft to a two-person inflatable—seems like just a small step, but it offers huge advantages. The new generation of two-person “micro rafts” don’t need a trailer. They weigh around 100 pounds, and they are about 10 feet long, so you and your buddy can easily throw it in the back of a truck, or cartop it with any vehicle with a roof rack. That way, you don’t have to deal with the expense and constant upkeep of a trailer, and you don’t have to back a trailer down the boat ramp with a gaggle of onlookers.
Heck, with these little two-seaters, you don’t even need a boat ramp. Any bridge crossing or spot where the road gets close to a river or lake is all you need. In the summer of 2022, Fly Fisherman created a short film called Over the Guardrail, and our camera crew captured my buddy Josh and me pushing our raft down steep embankments, carrying it to spots where normally only canoes and kayaks can launch, and ramming it through riverside underbrush to launch basically wherever we had legal access. No boat ramp required.
Avoiding the concrete ramp has other advantages. Not just sociological advantages—piscatorial advantages. You don’t just miss everyone at the ramp, you get ahead of them, so you get first crack at all those shoreline seams, back eddies, and cross-channel drop-offs. Alternatively, you can start well behind everyone else . . . when you finally get to the improved boat launch a few hours later, the water is well rested and the fish are often just turning on after they sense the daily flotilla has passed. A small inflatable releases you from the crowds.
More important, there are a lot of creeks and streams where drift boats or large rafts just aren’t functional. At the end of summer, even larger rivers and streams can turn into trickles. The water is clear, the fish are condensed—perfect fishing conditions—but the boat is too big. You scare the fish before you can even get in casting range, and you end up spending too much of the day getting stuck and dragging the boat through the shallows. These are the times and the places where a two-person raft shines. You can get into very small creeks in the spring and summer, places that most people don’t even think about floating. And in the fall when the air is crisp and the big rivers are running at seasonal lows, you can float and find fish while everyone else is walking.
Accessories can make fishing in a small raft much more pleasant. If you’re in a drift boat, there is already a place for you to stack your line. In a raft you’ll need to add a stripping basket. The best I’ve found is the new ECOastal Stripping Basket available from Scientific Anglers ($99). It has an open front, and flexible spikes to retain the line and prevent tangles. It’s made from a super-light biodegradable foam, so it’s easy to transport. It attaches to a Velcro belt, and you can strap the belt pretty much anywhere you want on the raft.
You’ll also need oars, and if you plan on tackling shallow water you’ll want something with skinny-water blades. Large, symmetrical blades are too much when you are dealing with water 6 inches deep or less. I use carbon fiber Cataract Oars with Cutthroat shallow-water oar blades. They are skinny on one side for shallow water, and full on the other for heavier pulling. My buddy has Sawyer Dynalite Shoal oar blades for his small raft—I’ve rowed them—and they are just as effective.
One last thing, an anchor is essential both for fishing and for safety. You don’t want the raft floating away from you when you’re not in it. Choose a raft with an effective internal anchor system as you will use it all the time, and get a good anchor. I use a lead-free Tornado Anchor made from a stack of a dozen heavy square plates that spin on an axis. The advantage is that the Tornado Anchor is like a heavy amorphous blob that changes its shape to adapt to the contour of the river bottom. It sticks and grabs quickly.
NRS Fishing Slipstream 96
Before every MMA or boxing match, viewers are informed of “the tale of the tape” because although the two fighters are supposed to weigh approximately the same, there are height and reach differences that can predict important advantages. The tale of the tape also tells a lot about this 9'6" raft, which is sized to easily fit in the bed of a pickup truck. The tube size of the air chambers is 17" which means more displacement than a raft with 12" tubes. Displacement gives you a boat that sits higher, is more maneuverable, and floats over more rocks. Most importantly, bigger tubes carry more weight, an important consideration if you want to squeeze two big dudes into a smaller raft. The only downside is that the 17" tubes catch more air, making it slightly more difficult to row in slow water on windy days. The raft width is 53" but much of that is tube space. The inside center space is 29".
The self-bailing raft has an inflatable 4" drop-stitch floor—basically a rigid inflatable SUP that is strapped in place to provide a stable, secure place to stand. There’s an EVA foam pad on top to protect it from boots, grit, and gravel.
While the raft construction is important, the “rubber” is less important than this stellar NRS frame, which has a genealogy of countless descents through the roughest whitewater in the world. The 15/8" (outside diameter) NRS frame tubes are the backbone of this fishing machine, and they lock together with NRS LoPro fittings and U-bolts. It’s the same hardware you’d see on NRS rafts running Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon. It’s quick and easy to assemble and provides the strongest, most rigid frame in the small-raft universe. Rigidity means that when you pull on the oars, the frame does not flex and absorb energy, it responds sharply and easily to your input. Your fishing comfort and effectiveness are all built around this light, unbreakable frame, which includes an internally routed anchor with a 2:1 pulley system, two aluminum rod holders (deluxe version), and a C-shaped thigh hook that keeps you upright and fishing in even the roughest water.
Starting at $3,500 | nrs.com
Outcast Sporting Gear Striker
Outcast Sporting Gear (OSG) introduced their innovative Striker two-person inflatable fishing raft just a few years ago. This lightweight, portable boat was a huge hit in the marketplace and became so popular, so fast, that even now you might have trouble finding one. But it’s definitely worth the effort to try.
The Striker raft is small—just 9'6" long and 5' wide—and extremely easy to transport, so no trailer is required to carry it. It has 16" tubes so you can ride higher in the water, and tangle with some wilder rapids. It has handles front and back so you can slide the Striker quickly into the back of a pickup. And because of the Striker’s light weight (only 102 pounds), you and your angling companion can carry and launch the boat just about anywhere you want, with minimal hassle and no need for a boat ramp.
Built of tough, durable, 1,100-denier PVC and urethane, the Striker is unlike the other two-person rafts featured here, in that the oarlocks are not attached to a frame. Each seat also has its own independent frame component so there is very little to assemble. OSG offers optional attachment plates, so you can add a small motor and/or anchor system—either would make the Striker even more versatile.
$3,350 | outcastboats.com
SmithFly Little Shoals
The SmithFly Little Shoals is a maneuverable, two-person inflatable, ideal for fishing small or difficult-to-access waters that might be hard to navigate in larger watercraft. The Little Shoals is basically a scaled-down version of SmithFly’s popular Big Shoals three-person raft, but retains the features that have made the larger model such a hit. Weighing just 95 pounds, and only 12' long x 4' wide inflated, it’s ideal for a pair of anglers to launch on waters that otherwise receive limited fishing pressure.
For ease of transport and launching, the Little Shoals raft has five inflatable air chambers, heavy-duty carry handles, and eight sturdy D-rings. The Little Shoals raft is packed with practical features, including a five-piece frame made from 15/16" outside diameter aluminum tubing; 1mm-thick PVC wear layers at both top and bottom, for durability; an adjustable front casting brace that lays flat when you’re not using it; a rear gear rack on a swivel; a padded rowing seat; Sawyer SST two-piece oars; and a drop-stitched, high-pressure, self-bailing floor with scuppers. The floor holds a little bit of water underneath, between the bottom fabric of the raft body and the floor. This acts like ballast to help the raft stick to the water’s surface and avoid tipping or flipping. SmithFly also manufactures the Shoal Tent and Cabana rafts, both of which went viral on social media recently, and became wildly popular. As a result of limited production capacity, the Little Shoals raft has sometimes been hard to get.
Starting at $4,499 | smithfly.com
Flycraft Stealth 2.0
The new Stealth 2.0 is a substantial advancement over the original Flycraft two-person raft. This new version has a self-bailing floor—not that you are going to do Class IV rapids with it, but when it rains hard, it’s important to have water continually flowing out of the craft. The Stealth 2.0 also has a more rockered shape for improved maneuverability and a smoother, drier ride through rapids when you do decide to run them. A high-pressure 5" drop-stitch floor provides a stable standing platform, and keeps the bottom inside the boat high and dry.
The newly designed front lean bar smartly raises and lowers using a tethered pin mechanism to lock it into an upright or flat position. It’s nice to lie the bar flat when you are getting in or out of the boat or when you are netting a fish.
The raft is 140" long, with an outside width of 51", and the base model weighs 103 pounds. It has five air chambers including the floor. The seven-piece frame is built from 1¼" aluminum tubing, supports two 360-degree swivel seats with back support, an internal pulley/camcleat anchor system, an optional Flycraft Gear Rack ($300), and can also accommodate a small gas or electric motor.
Fly Fisherman contributor Landon Mayer has a 30-pound, 2.3-horsepower Honda outboard motor on his Flycraft 2.0 and uses it to get around on Colorado stillwaters. He finds enormous trout in shallow bays where V-hull boats can’t go. These little micro rafts aren’t just for rivers, they are for “taking the road less traveled” on streams, lakes, and saltwater flats and estuaries.
Starting at $3,760 | flycraftusa.com
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.