April 02, 2019
By John Fedorka
This story was originally titled, "Chose Wisely: Finding the drift boat that's best for you".
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 2-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’m in the market to buy a new drift boat, and as I’ve researched and rowed just about every model from each manufacturer, I can honesty 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.
*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.
RO Drift Boats
LSG Low Side Guide
Ready to fish weight 395 lbs.
Oarlock height: 25"
Modeled after the very popular Guide model, the LSG has the same hull footprint with modified low-profile sides and upgrades to the interior. The LSG has wider shelves positioned against the gunwales to hold two rods on each side, along with extra room for fly boxes, tippet spools, and other gear. Dry storage is located under the rower’s seat, stern seat, and under the 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 seat for multi-day floats or for 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 a great blend of space and maneuverability, and rowing it feels natural and intuitive. 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. rodriftboats.com
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. Drifting with 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. boulderboatworks.com
Ready to fish weight: 385 lbs.
Oarlock height: 23"
The Eddy evolved from the 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.
I have enjoyed a great deal of time rowing and fishing from the classic ClackaCraft LP, and truthfully, I was skeptical about the improvements of this newer model. However, I was pleasantly surprised with its handling abilities. 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. clacka.com
Hyde Drift Boats
Ready to fish weight: 435 lbs.
Oarlock height: 26"
The first things you notice about the XL Hi/Low 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. Guides love these boats because you never know who you’ll need to load into and out of the boat.
Once you are inside the XL Hi/Low you’ll notice that it’s similar to the other Hydes you’ve rowed or fished from, though it’s fair to say that with all the customizable options, you rarely see two Hydes that are exactly the same. The price you see quoted above is with Yeti cooler seat in the front, a walk-around pedestal seat in the back, a cover, and deluxe trailer, but the options are endless.
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 the water where it’s easy to bail out.
The hull shape makes it easy to row this boat back upstream even in moderate current. 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. hydeoutdoors.com
Ready to fish weight: 440 lbs.
Oarlock height: 22"
I’ve always loved the idea behind the skiff driftboat design. Like a flats skiff in salt water, the thought is that skiffs ride higher and float through shallower water. While the traditional McKenzie River design had a high pointy bow, and was frequently used to transport two anglers in the front with the rower in the back, skiffs don’t have that dramatic taper and are better balanced for fishing, and for flat water. Skiffs weigh about the same as a regular drift boat, but they float higher because they have flatter chines, greater surface area, and therefore a larger displacement.
However, as with most specialty designs there are tradeoffs, and I’ve never seriously considered the efficiencies of a skiff until I stood in the front and rear leg braces of the Adipose Boatworks Flow. This boat gives you the feel of a big boat in terms of interior space and stability. I was just as stable and as comfortable up there as I was in boats designed for heavier water. And because of the hull design, when I was rowing I found myself better able to focus on the fish and the fishing instead of fretting over every gravel bar and submerged rock in the river.
In theory, a higher-floating boat catches the wind and is more difficult to row in breezy conditions, but Adipose seems to have hit a sweet spot in terms of weight and surface area, so this one doesn’t get blown around too badly.
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.
This is a no-nonsense craft created from the ground up by 30-year guide and boat builder Tracy Allen, and it includes a few features that all experienced watermen will appreciate. Most drift boats have an adjustable rower’s seat. But if making the adjustment is a hassle, there’s little benefit. In the Flow, the rower’s seat is truly easy to adjust so when you’re taking turns with your 6'4" buddy, the boat handles better for everyone.
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. adiposeboatworks.com