By Diana Rupp
Floating down a wide, fast-moving river in a drift boat, standing and casting your fly line into seams and riffles as your guide leans on the oars and steers, is a classic way to fish the big rivers of the American West. The traditional drift boat is a unique type of boat rarely seen outside of Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and other Western states. If you didn’t grow up fishing in the American West, you might wonder what a drift boat is, and why it has become so iconic.
Drift boats were designed for one thing: fly fishing in big rivers. The design of these boats is characterized by a wide, flat bottom, flared sides, shallow draft, and a pointed stern. A rocker along the bottom from bow to stern allows the boat to turn easily around its axis, making it very maneuverable in rapids. Expert drift boat oarsmen can run moderate rapids of up to Class III in these boats; you may remember the famous scene in the movie A River Runs Through It, where the characters, Norman and Paul, run a wooden drift boat through a series of rapids in Montana.
Drift boats have many other advantages over traditional pontoons or rafts. In addition to being maneuverable and able to handle fast water, they allow a fly fisherman to stand up in both the bow and stern to cast, something not possible out of an inflatable boat. Drift boats are comfortable and roomy, very stable in calm water, and easy to row. Traditionally, drift boats were made out of plywood, but now most are aluminum or fiberglass, which requires little or no maintenance. However, interest in wooden drift boats has re-emerged in recent years because of their traditional look.
Drift boats were originally called “dories,” but eventually “drift boat” became the preferred term for any boat on which you can only drift from point to point in a downstream direction. This, of course, is the main drawback of a drift boat. Because you must launch at point A and take out at point B, you need to hire a shuttle to bring you back to the launch point or someone to move your truck and trailer to the take-out point.
According to Roger Fletcher, author of the book “Drift Boats & River Dories,” the drift boat originated in the mid-1920s on the MacKenzie and Rogue Rivers in Oregon, where several tourist lodges catered to clients who liked to fly-fish. Then as now, big Western rivers were typically too deep to wade, had frequent rapids, and were often surrounded by private land or wilderness areas that restricted access to the shoreline, so floating from point to point was the best way to fish them.
One of the first known professional fishing guides on the MacKenzie River was Milo Thomson, who took clients down the river in something resembling the standard rowboat or dory then used in bays and along shorelines. The client would stand on a platform and cast, which was dangerous in fast water, and steering the boat was difficult and fatiguing for rower. Eventually, guides started building boats with modifications such as rockers and flared sides that made them safer and easier to maneuver, and that also gave them the ability to float and fish rivers that were previously inaccessible.
One of the biggest influences on drift boats was boat builder Woodie Hindman, who was instrumental in creating what is known as the MacKenzie-style drift boat. In the late 1930s, he built a boat with a pointed hull on either end (known as a double-ender), which allowed it to navigate rapids either stern-first or bow-first; these became popular types of drift boats for rivers with lots of whitewater. But by the 1940s, drift boats with one pointed end and one square end became more common, because they allowed guides to attach a motor if they desired.
Today there are many variations on the traditional drift boat, including models known as Montana skiffs and drift prams. Drift boats are still in common use by fishing guides and individual anglers on the big rivers of the American West, despite the increasing use and arguably greater utility of jet boats. A trip downriver in a drift boat is a peaceful, quiet, and exceptionally comfortable way to fish, and it evokes the traditions and appeal of a simpler, wilder, and more adventurous time.