Drift Boats vs Wading
May 19, 2014
Some of my best friends row drift boats. I have nothing against getting downstream under oar power, and it's tough to get away from floating rivers because after many years in the fishing industry I have a lot of close friends who guide for a living. But it seems whenever I get a fishing invitation, it's not "come on out and go fishing," it's "I'd love to row you down the river this summer." I've learned that most guides truly love rowing and would rather row than fish. It's just like fishing, really—mastering a skill that changes every day and takes years to become an expert, and in the end getting pleasure from a feeling of accomplishment.
I also understand why many clients prefer to float. You get to drift slowly through miles of tasty runs and riffles, and quickly float past the frog water. You see dramatic changes in scenery around every bend, and you get cracks at fish in places that wading fly fishers could never reach. And in states with restrictive access laws like Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah (duh, guys, do you ever wonder why Montana gets more fishing tourists?) where public access on foot can be completely and legally eliminated, drift boats can float through private water and fish—as long as they don't anchor up. If you're into racking up the numbers on your fishing trip, get a talented guide on the oars who makes sure every cast lands in prime water.
Walking and wading is the hard way to fish a big river, but it also may be the most satisfying way to get to know it on more intimate terms.
You don't see as much scenery when you walk a big river, but you get a better look at streamside wildlife, like frogs and snakes and turtles and warblers. You don't see as much of the big picture, but you get to revel in the details. You don't waste 20 minutes on either end of your trip dealing with put-ins and takeouts, thumbs in your wader belt as the guide waits his turn at the boat ramp.
One advantage of wade fishing is the ability to walk back to the car and drive upstream or downstream or even to another river if the water doesn't look promising. It's hard to do that when you're committed to long float.
But what gives me the most fulfillment is knowing that I've done it all on my own. I've found the fish, I've decided my own strategy, I've decoded the right fly, and I've planned the presentation.
To many people, stalking a fish is what fly fishing is all about, and it's difficult to get the same sense of stalking when you float past your targets so quickly. Yes, a guide can pull on the oars and keep you in position with a drift boat, but I always feel like I'm on the clock in those circumstances.
The old clichÃ© about "fishing a big river by dividing it up into a bunch of small streams" is pure crap. The bigger the river, the spottier the fish are distributed—unless you're fishing a wildly productive river like the Bighorn or San Juan where you can conceivably find fish anywhere.
The reality is that you have to look at big swaths of river before you can figure out where to get your waders wet. Fish will be found in very discrete places. Every river is different, and although getting food and finding protective shelter are the primary concerns when fishing big rivers, you won't know where the food is and what cover they prefer without some trial and error.
In some rivers, fish prefer to live close to the banks, but in others, they use the center of the channel, in deep water below riffles, more than the banks. But, happily, where you find one fish you will likely find others because trout are not strictly territorial, and they often gang up in tiny spots if the current is just right, and there is a constant supply of drifting food.
It's really tough to figure out a big river on foot in a single day. Try to spend at least two days on big water, more if time and travel finances allow. You'll invariably spend the first day wearing a lot of rubber off the soles of your wading shoes, hiking up and down the banks, looking for signs of feeding fish, or just plugging away at a riffle with a nymph, not only trying to find what stretch of the river the fish prefer, but also what discrete spots they like.
Try to stay until dark, because in most big rivers, more insects hatch at that time, and more fish feed during low light. Not only will you have decent fishing, you'll have a much better idea of where to find fish tomorrow.
I often find that fish in giant pools are scattered in pods, sometimes with hundreds of yards of totally dead water between them. Trying to decipher just what combination of cover and hydraulics makes these places havens for trout is an equation with too many variables, at least for my brain. But with empirical evidence I can get back to the same places the next day, and even begin to pick up a pattern to use in other parts of the river.
Start in the riffles and faster water first. If it's morning, try a nymph or swing a wet fly first. Insects are still finishing up their nightly diurnal drift, where they lose their grip on the bottom and drift for a distance, recolonizing water below where their eggs were laid. This happens every night to one degree or another, and trout retain this drift-feeding mode until bright sun hits the water.
From late morning to evening, when insects get more active, you can also try blind-fishing with a dry fly. If it's spring, try a high-floating mayfly or caddis imitation. As summer arrives, try a dry stonefly or a terrestrial like a beetle or hopper. Strip or dead-drift a streamer through deeper runs.
Although I said trout won't be everywhere, during the summer they are always in the riffles. Riffles carry the most oxygen, it's where most insects live and emerge, and riffles offer protection from predators as good as a rock pile or log, because predators can't see fish in riffles as well as they can in water with a smooth surface.
In fast flows, even big trout are in very shallow water on the inside of a seam, especially if boat traffic is light. Large trout actually prefer to feed here because it's easier to capture food from the drift in shallow water with a moderate current.
Fish always feed where a riffle shelves into deeper water, because the water below the shelf is calm and fish don't have to fight the current, yet the water above provides a constant supply of food.
Try in the middle of the riffles. Try the slow side and try the fast side. Don't rule out anything, including the shallowest parts of a riffle.
The cutthroats in the South Fork of the Snake in Idaho are notorious for moving up from the deep shelf below a riffle into water so shallow it barely covers their backs. They respond to hatching insects by moving closer and closer to the top of the riffle, perhaps because it's easier to feed there, but also because they don't like other fish feeding ahead of them. A big trout does not like to draft a smaller one.
Spend a lot of time staring at riffles before you fish them. Trout don't always make a big splash when feeding in a riffle, especially as the season progresses and flows slow down.
A riffle might look fast because of the broken surface, but the water is often deceptively slow, and I can't tell you the number of times I've stared at a "lifeless" riffle, only to spot one, then two, then a half dozen trout barely pushing bubbles of foam aside as they break the surface. Look for winks or subtle, circular waves that go against the flow of the current.
If I suspect I've seen a trout rising in a riffle, I've found that it's a good idea to trust my senses. Your brain has a way of relating a movement in your peripheral vision and evaluating it as a rise even without immediate conscious recognition. Most drift boats float right by these fish without
noticing them—in fact even if you're on foot and studying the water carefully, you may have to be within 40 feet to see these rises. It pays to spend much of your time evaluating riffles.
To find fish in the slower water in a pool, first look at flow. It's pretty easy to gauge flow—if the water is moving fast and throwing up some standing waves, the fish will likely be feeding off to one side of the main flow, where it's easier to maintain their position.
This is true not only for freestone rivers in the first part of the season, but also tailwaters through the late summer. Heavily appropriated rivers may exhibit a direct opposite to the typical high spring flow/low summer flow of freestone rivers. When downstream water rights call for additional irrigation flows, a Western tailwater can be at full flow even in the middle of a drought.
If the river is low, or if the river is a low-gradient type and most of the flow is pretty tame, then you have to pay attention to the thalweg. The thalweg is a line that indicates the main current flow where the deepest part of the river is, and you can count on it to offer the most food in a slow-moving river. The bubble or debris line that floats down through a pool indicates the thalweg, and in slower water the fish are almost always concentrated very close to it.
In both fast and slower rivers, a great method to stalk fish on foot is to find a foamy back eddy. If fish are rising anywhere at all in a river, it is usually where currents swirl backwards and around, and accumulate foam, debris, and lots of spent or crippled insects.
Legendary Montana guide Paul Roos calls back eddies "collectors," and my friend Pat Timmons, who runs a fishing ranch in northern Colorado, calls them "Rocky Mountain speed bumps."
Whatever you choose to call them, these places dramatically reduce the velocity of the current while collecting food, and trout can hang just below the surface, plucking snacks from the film all day long.
It also pays to observe these areas from a distance before you make your first cast. Fish may face downstream (but upcurrent), they may hover in the calm eye of the whirlpool (and you don't know what direction they're facing), or they may move around and suddenly appear in a place where they are looking right at you.
I was on a Utah tailwater recently when I saw a large, spotted back hump the water in a back eddy. The fish was facing away from me, but I decided to hang back, almost out of casting range. I'm glad I did because the next few times the trout fed, it crossed the center of the whirlpool, and fed facing me. The fish stayed that way for quite a while, and I couldn't get around to its downcurrent side so I took a risk and made a long downstream slack-line presentation. The trout ended up refusing the fly, but at least I got a shot at it without spooking it.
Don't Play in Traffic
Drift boats spook fish, if only temporarily, and it's no fun to have boats float through your water when you're wading. At the same time, wading fly fishers often get in the way of drift boats, and a good guide will try to steer his boat as far as possible from wading anglers, and will ask his clients not to fish through a spot where a wading angler is already fishing.
There are some things you can do to avoid these types of conflicts. One is to fish just upstream of major boat launches. The boats starting there drift downstream, and boats that put in well above will not be drifting through any time soon.
Another tactic is to fish downstream of major takeouts at the end of the day. By getting a half mile downstream of a major takeout in the evening, you'll likely have the water to yourself until dark—especially if the next takeout is many miles below.
I love side channels that are too bony to permit passage by drift boats. One of my favorite spots on the Delaware River is a tiny side channel protected at its head by a 6-inch-deep riffle. The channel quickly drops into a deep slot loaded with big, unmolested brown trout. Once I get around a little bend, I'm even out of sight of anyone drifting through, so they can't see the bend in my rod as they float by on the other side of the island.
In fact, if you're fishing a new river on foot, one of the best scouting expeditions you can make is with a map before you ever get into your car. Look for places where the river braids into many channels. Not only are these places easier to wade because the force of the current is divided, they may also hold more surface-feeding fish because the reduced flow in side channels makes it easier for fish to feed from the surface film.
Don't rule out tributaries and irrigation ditches if fishing in the main river isn't productive. Bigger fish use these tributaries to spawn, and to get away from warmer summer water temperatures, but bigger fish also reside in feeder streams all season long.
Every drift boat that passes will throw into the slick below a tributary, but most don't stop and walk upstream. Since you have all day, skip the first 50 yards of a tributary where every yahoo takes a few casts. Hoof it overland for a few hundred yards. The water might be shallow and ugly, but it might also slip into big, deep plunge pools full of gullible trout.
Even irrigation ditches can offer superb fishing. One early September day I was not having much luck nymphing the deeper runs in a large Colorado river. I saw an irrigation ditch dumping into the river on the opposite bank, so I crossed and peeked over the bank of the ditch and spotted a decent brown trout that had just sucked in a hopper.
I switched to a hopper pattern and caught him, and for the next couple of hours I worked my way up through a hayfield, tossing hoppers along the banks and hooking enough nice trout to make up for my failures nymphing the bigger river.
Even though all kinds of techniques work in large rivers, you may find these tips helpful when trying to fish big water on foot.
–Streamers are great fish locators for big water. Cast as far as you can with each presentation, and move constantly. There are only certain fish in each pool that will chase a streamer, and to find them you have to cover a lot of water.
–If you fish dry flies, either look for feeding fish or restrict your casts to the very best-looking water. You'll kill yourself if you try to cover all the water with a dry because each float has only a limited range of effectiveness. Drag invariably sets in, and once your fly floats over the place your fly line landed, the fish under that spot are likely spooked. Spend a lot of time walking the banks until you find feeding fish or a great-looking riffle.
–If you fish nymphs, restrict your casts to riffles and well-defined runs. Blind-fishing over slower water is typically a low-percentage option unless you know exactly where a pod of fish lives.
–You can cover a lot of water by swinging a traditional wet fly or soft-hackle. Unlike a dry fly, a wet fly is productive through its drift, from the time it hits the water until it hangs directly below you. And even then you might pick up a fish by stripping it back. Don't worry about drag—trout probably take wet flies for swimming mayfly nymphs or caddis pupae, or tiny minnows.
–Skating a caddis dry fly is an effective way to cover lots of water and to draw trout from many feet away. It works best in the smooth tails of pools when you see at least a few caddisflies in the water, even if you don't see rises.
–Try to get on the same side of the main current as feeding fish. In a big river, multiple currents often come into play, and drag is a major problem when casting to the far side of the river. Getting in the same current as the fish gives you longer floats. Find a shallow place to cross—even if it takes you a half mile downstream—then work up to the fish from below.
–Practice casting with your off hand. You'll often find yourself tight to the bank in deep rivers, and being a right-handed caster on the right bank forces you to fish downstream, which is not always the best way to get a drift. Proficiency with both hands gives you more options in tight places.