January 04, 2024
This story was originally titled, "Chose Wisely: Finding the drift boat that's best for you." It was posted to flyfisherman.com as "Top Drift Boats of 2019" and has now been updated as the "Top Drift Boats of 2024," with current models and features.
Author's Note: With advances in technology and manufacturing things change. And in a world that seems to be going faster, here’s an updated review of drift boat manufacturers. You’ll want to keep up to speed for that critical decision of a lifelong investment for when you want to slow life down on the water.
With two swift oar strokes, the whole world slows down, cueing your fishing companions to hit that subtle seam, pocket, drop-off, or take the time to look for that discreet lie. Your partner executes the perfect cast, and it all comes together. With rod held high, the world is right.
Trout test the skills of both the rower and the angler as you slide left to right through a maze of boulders, rocking through the rapids, and into the calm of the next pool where you see a sleek speckled package of wildness slide to your net. Releasing it back to the cool depths, you crack an ice-cold can of SweetWater 420. Cheers to your mates: the trout that lured you to this remote and otherwise unreachable stretch, and to the ultimate fishing craft that afforded it all to you, the drift boat.
When tracing the roots of the modern-day drift boat, it’s generally agreed among historians and trout bums that it is distinctly from Oregon. However, there is some debate about its older influences, which some believe to be the eastern Grand Banks dory.
Like most rowboats, dories were intended for escapades in the bay, calm seas, lakes, and casual flowing rivers. Although they were stable for these pursuits, they had shortcomings when it came to safely and comfortably floating and fishing whitewater rivers like the McKenzie and Rogue.
Scotland native Donald McKenzie of the Pacific Fur Company was one of the first documented white men to explore and float his namesake river around April of 1812. Following the fur traders, settlers began migrating into the McKenzie River area in the mid-1800s. The first cattle drive along the McKenzie River Trail took place in 1859, the first wagon road opened in 1862, and the first resort hosted guests in 1886.
It didn’t take long for the river and its wild trout to capture the attention of anglers. Carey Thompson Sr. in 1909 is thought to be the first person to take a fisherman for hire down the McKenzie.
Carey used flat-bottom wide-planked rowboats 18 to 22 feet in length, and about 3 feet wide on the bottom. The interior was modified to accommodate one and sometimes two anglers. These boats served their purpose, but the excessive weight and limited rocker required constant work on the oars, often leading oarsmen to refer to them as “old scows.”
In 1920, 19-year-old John Shirley West began guiding on the McKenzie using a similar flat-bottom planked boat. West desired a boat that was easier to manage, one that two anglers could carry, and was more stable and less prone to swamping. This led John and his brother Roy to build the first boat with a bottom length less than 16 feet.
The West design remained the guide preference in the region from the 1920s through the 1950s and was often referred to as a “bathtub with oarlocks.”
In the decades that followed, Veltie Pruitt and Tom Kaarhus modified and improved the West design. Pruitt shortened the boat, adding thinner, lighter planks running the entire length of the vessel.
Kaarhus used plywood to improve maneuverability and durability, and began selling kits in addition to his finely crafted finished boats, making the boats more accessible than ever.
With Woodie Hindman’s final design of the “double ender,” (both a pointed bow and stern) the McKenzie River drift boat as we know it today was finally birthed. It’s not clear exactly when we started calling them drift boats, but these stable boats with wide, flat bottoms, flared sides, a narrow, pointed bow, and a pointed stern have long been the favored craft of fly fishers.
The shape and constant rocker from stern to bow allows rowers to slowly navigate rapids (or pause for rising trout), you can spin the boat with ease, and carve effortlessly through the biggest of waves. Most important, these boats provide a stable platform for casting, and for fishing while standing.
And though it is hard to beat the romanticism associated with wooden boats, it is impossible to ignore the practicality of modern polymer, fiberglass, or aluminum construction. With these modern materials and technology we have lighter, more durable, and better-handling boats than our predecessors, with variations that can accommodate any situation.
I like to compare drift boats to motor vehicles. For example, a traditional high-side drift boat might be comparable to an extended-cab pickup truck—a jack of all trades, but master of none. They have plenty of space for cargo, and are maneuverable enough to handle every situation adequately.
A low-profile design is comparable to a 4-door luxury sedan, less wind resistance, comfortable/spacious amenities, quick and maneuverable with some get-up-and-go, but less able bodied for the off-road conditions that are Class IV rapids.
A skiff style is comparable to a two-seater convertible, impervious to wind, highly maneuverable, but without the space of the pickup or sedan. You wouldn’t want to take these on overnight camping/fishing excursions.
And recently manufacturers have created hybrids that I’d compare to an SUV, blending the best attributes of the high side and low side for a craft that is more stable, with slightly better handling characteristics, and plenty of interior space for gear, dogs, and friends.
Most manufacturers offer these styles of drift boats with their own variations on dimensions, hull design, and interior appointments. And like fly rods, angler preference for boat models and styles is a highly personal thing.
I was in the market to buy a new drift boat, and as I researched and rowed just about every model from each manufacturer, I can honestly say I’ve never rowed a boat I didn’t find at least one reason to love. Like my father always says, there’s a right tool for the job whether it’s carpentry, golf, cars, or catching trout.
Before you can decide on the best drift boat for you, you’ll need to forecast where you’ll use the boat most frequently. Is the wind challenging? How daunting are the rapids? What cargo will you be carrying? Is your fishing buddy 250 pounds or heavier?
Before you take the plunge, carefully assess how and where you’ll be using your new boat, and carefully review the strengths and weaknesses of what I consider the top drift boat models on the market today, detailed below.
RO Drift Boats: Low Side Guide
MSRP: Contact RO
Ready to fish weight: 395 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 25”
RO is known as an industry-standard in its southwest Montana home and rivers across the world. Pulling into McAtee Bridge access during the peak of the salmonfly hatch, it’s hard not to notice the number of RO boats dunking into the Upper Madison.
The Low Side Guide (LSG) has become very popular with the same hull footprint of the RO Pro-Guide model, low-profile sides similar to its Deville, and upgrades to the interior. What sets this boat interior apart is the add-on of the upgraded built-in Big Sky Rod Box which can be added to one or both sides. The latter provides exceptionally secure storage for expensive rods and reels along with extra room for fly boxes, tippet spools, and other gear. Additional storage is under the rower’s seat, stern seat, and bow.
The Nomad design leaves space and a clean path for anglers to move around the boat without stepping on or over anything and accentuates RO’s already clean interior. The front seat is an easily removable pedestal for multi-day floats or a waterproof dog bed. The LSG provides the spacious design and the stability of a high side and also lets you run big wave trains without that hint of anxiety you feel in some other low-profile or skiff designs.
The LSG has found that sweet spot of maneuverability and stability. Rowing it feels natural and intuitive, stalling out in moderate to heavy current is almost effortless. One of my favorite features from RO is the double roller on the trailer, making the already light boat seem feathery even at the unofficial boat accesses you find on every good stretch of river.
Boulder Boat Works: Pro Guide Low Profile
Ready to fish weight: 375-400 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 20”
With their modern VHMW-PE (very high molecular weight-polyethylene) hull design, Boulder Boat Works drift boats are designed to be indestructible. But with classic ash wood trim, you also feel classy when sitting in the rope seats of a Pro Guide Low Profile. It has all of the aesthetics of a classic wood boat, and functionality to spare for hardworking fly-fishing guides.
With the lightweight hull, these boats are designed to provide the comfort and amenities of a hard-side drift boat, but skim through shallow riffles like a raft. This is quickly evident when you row this boat, and it also translates to responsiveness and maneuverability in deeper water. In moderate to heavy current, the boat tracks effortlessly while ferrying from bank to bank.
Aside from its inherent durability, my favorite result of the hull material is its silent nature when bumping against boulders and sleeper rocks. Floating with my friend and Colorado guide Brandon Sousie on the Roaring Fork, he insisted that I ram a few rocks for demonstration purposes. The boat refused to stick or get high-centered, even with three big guys and a Lab on board.
Pro Guide boats are available in either a low-side or a high-side design and come equipped with a YETI cooler for the rear angler seat base, dry storage under the rower’s bench and bow bench, and quick-access storage for four rods. The standard galvanized trailer comes with a secure seat for the anchor, and when guiding 100 days a year, saving that extra 20 feet from vehicle to carabiner is a nice touch.
Hyde: XL Low Profile
MSRP: $13,500 (Fully loaded as seen: $19,100)
Ready to fish weight: 395 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 25”
The first things you notice about Hyde’s XL Low Profile are the conspicuous dips in the gunwales of this “extra-long, easy entry & exit” Hyde drift boat. These low points midway up the bow and midway down the stern create attractive lines and make it easier to get in and out of the boat.
Once you are inside the XL Hi/Low you’ll notice that it’s similar to the other Hyde’s you’ve rowed or fished from, though it’s fair to say that with all the customizable options, you rarely see two Hyde’s that are exactly the same (which accounts for the variance in price).
Because of Hyde’s aluminum rail system, you can organize and adjust your boat for any adventure. The rear leg brace is easy to remove, leaving just a flush baseplate and providing more storage space. And by popping out the pedestal seat, you can fill the boat with enough gear to outfit a multi-night trip. The raised floor in the center of the boat gives you a dry area to operate and collects water where it’s easy to bail out.
The hull’s bottom design and rigidity make it easy to row this boat back upstream even in moderate current. Blitzbound Guide Service’s owner Jason Dapra also pointed out to me how the rigid design is noticeably quieter than flexible bottom designs in that you do not hear that distinctive water slap on the bottom of the boat. This became more evident to me when creeping up on snobby late season trout.
A jack of all trades, the boat is tougher to handle in slow water with windy conditions, but the storage and stability in heavy water make it a good choice to push through those Class IV rapids.
See more at hydeoutdoors.com.
Cajune Boats: Recurve
MSRP: Custom builds start at $35,000 including trailer, cover, and oars
Ready to fish weight: 350 lbs
Oarlock Height: 21”
In one word after stepping foot in a Cajune drift boat: Craftmanship.
Cajune boats (formerly Montana Boat Builders) are fully custom-designed-to-specification hybrid wood/modern material drift boats. The company was founded in 1988 in Livingston, Montana by guide Jason Cajune whose first client was Lady Bird Johnson.
The Recurve is his most popular model. Its flowing lines are pure elegance, while its low sides make for easy entrance and exit. Jason makes a handful of these fully custom builds annually. They take between 300 and 500 hours to build and the price reflects that. No attention to detail is spared including the in-shop hand pouring and molding of pure bronze oarlocks and anchor pully arm.
The hull is a Kevlar composite and is reinforced by carbon fiber which is both stable and durable. It is available in any color. The floors are made of shiny ash or mahogany wood and easily removable for maintenance.
If you’ve bought or shopped around for a boat, you know the modern narrative is that glass or high-density polyethylene or other materials are superior, and wood is obsolete being heavier and requiring maintenance. And while these materials certainly have their place, Jason has been able to develop a boat with the same handling capabilities of modern boats in comparable size-for-weight models in fully custom boats with the functionality of modern materials and beauty and aesthetics of wood.
Angling brings us to some of the most pristine and beautiful places in the world and Jason’s craftmanship complements this nicely. The one downside of floating in this boat is when you’re looking for solitude you’ll notice, fellow anglers cannot help but converse and compliment your boat when they pass by.
Check out cajuneboats.com for more information.
Ready to fish weight: 385 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 23”
The Eddy evolved from the wildly popular LP model, with key differences being a wider transom and shorter beam. This translates into more stability and better weight-carrying capacity in the rear of the boat.
The rower’s seat has a cubby for dry storage as do both other seats, and there is a cubby under the bow. The thigh braces in the front and back are minimalist but sturdy, leaving a clean interior to further complement the free and open 360-degree design. There is storage for three rods on each side.
Stalling out in heavy flows with a full boat is surprisingly easy. Ferrying from bank to bank was quick and faultless, and I was impressed at the boat’s ability to slither down gravel bars with its flexible bottom.
Noted Upper Delaware Outfitter and Busy Beaver Lodge owner Steve Taggart spent over 25 years guiding out of his previous Clackacraft so I asked him why he chose the Eddy when upgrading to a new boat.
“Great handling and versatile,” was his response. When someone has spent that much time on the water you pay attention. This has become Clackcraft’s most popular model across the country and for good reason.
Click here to go to clacka.com.
Ready to fish weight: 390 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 22”
Originally utilized in the flats skiff industry and new to the drift boat industry, Adipose has upped the ante on the manufacturing end by being the first major drift boat company to implement “Resin Infusion” technology into their hull production.
This process is cleaner for the builder but also provides a critical consistency in resin application by utilizing a heavy-duty bag around the hull and vacuum that provides constant pressure during application. This is significant in that it effectively shaves 50 pounds off of the hull making boats lighter, stiffer, and more durable. Fifty pounds may not sound significant but when you’re a full-time guide putting 150-plus days a year on the water, you’ll notice the difference.
From the rower’s seat, there didn’t seem to be any downside in the boat’s handling ability in just about any kind of normal fishing terrain. If you are a skilled oarsman, you should have no trouble with the Adipose Flow in Class III rapids and easier. The Springfield Power Pedestal seats are easy to move up and down, and because the seats move way up to almost standing height, this is truly the only boat you’d ever want to fish out of while sitting down–in most drift boats the bow and gunwales are just too high in the front to fish while sitting.
There is plenty of walk-around space, two-way 10-foot rod trays on either side to fit more than enough rods for three anglers fishing assorted rigs, and the line keeper for the front angler is the best on any boat I tried. One of the downsides is the lack of built-in dry storage, but on my last trip in the Adipose Flow we comfortably fit three anglers, a dog, YETI 45 cooler, Patagonia boat bag, and a large dry bag without issues. It didn’t seem like storage space was an issue.
I think they’ve hit a sweet spot here in a comfortable, balanced fishing craft for day-tripping on many great trout rivers like the Missouri, Bighorn, and the Delaware.
Blue Ridge Boat Works: King Fisher Skiff
Ready to fish weight: 460 lbs.
Oarlock Height: 21”
The King Fisher Skiff, designed by 25-year veteran guide Brownie Liles, was built for guides and hardcore fishermen which is evident in every facet of its design. The hull is made of welded VHMW (very high molecular weight polyethylene) which can handle a lifetime of serious abuse. Like the Boulder Boat Works hull, rock strikes are near silent compared to your fiberglass-hulled boats.
One thing that sets this skiff apart is that you can take some decent-sized rapids without taking on water. With its wide footprint this boat is exceedingly stable in heavy water or even when you’re standing on the gunwales trying to get that extra few feet cast to distant rising trout.
The cut-away handles in the bow are a nice touch if you’re guiding on a river that is prone to low flows and gives you the leverage needed to pull the skiff through un-floatable sections. Weighing about the same as a regular drift boat, skiffs float higher because they have flatter chines, greater surface area, and therefore a larger displacement. That said, this model draws just 3.5 inches of water with no anglers and roughly 5.5 to 6 inches with three anglers.
This interior is very minimalist and likely the cleanest design I’ve ever been in which is nice for preventing dreaded line snags and irritated clients if you’re a guide. The front has a cargo net to secure dry bags and various accessories. Rod storage is open and minimalist–secured by a bungee–but ample enough to handle rough roads and a bouncing trailer. The seats are manufactured by Millennium Marine and are comfortable and maintenance free being composed of aluminum and nylon. The rower’s seat is atop an Orion Cooler which is removeable for cleaning and convenience.
Looking for a no-frills, maintenance-free, bomb-proof guide boat for low water? This boat is for you.
All parts, options, and accessories are made and manufactured in the USA.
Go to Blue Ridge Boatworks for more.
John Fedorka lived for nine years in Montana where he attended Montana State University and worked at the Bozeman Angler. He currently lives in Shohola, Pennsylvania, near the Upper Delaware River.