Guide to Drift Boats

by Jason Brooks, December 09, 2019

It is hard to beat a slow float down a northwest river and the drift boat is one of the best ways to get down the waterways where we like to fish. From low water summertime steelhead, Fall Chinook and Coho to winter run steelies, the drift boat is as about as versatile as the fish we seek. Keep in mind there are several factors when it comes to rowing a drift boat. When you decide to buy one you need to know a few things that can make a big difference.

The drift boat is as simple as you want to make it, or complicated with the more you add to it. Basic in design from a century ago; the upturned bow and stern allow water to slip underneath with ease and the convex shaped bottom makes it easy to row. When it comes to fishing a river the drift boat is a must but there are a few things you might want to consider before you make the purchase.

“Row-ability” is the first and most important thing to think about. This is how easy it is to row and maneuver the boat and there are several things that affect it. When it comes to safely navigating down a river the rower is the motor and one of the hardest things to learn is that when you come to an obstacle or hazard is to point your bow at the object and pull the oars backwards. The idea is to use the current of the river and pull your boat around the hazard. Forward rowing will only get you into more trouble and so you need a boat that you can easily and quickly pull away from an obstacle.

What affects the ability to steer or pull the boat away from a rock or log is how well the boat floats, or displaces water. The first factor is the bottom width of the boat. My boat has a 54-inch bottom while one of my angling friends has a 48-inch bottom. Both are 16 feet in length but my boat “rows” better because of the width which allows it to sit higher in the water. Some boats have 60-inch, 72-inch and even wider bottoms but length becomes a factor when you get too wide of a draft. This is because of the “yaw” factor. Yawing is simply the ability to turn in place, or spin on its axis, in water. If you have a short boat that is really wide it will tend to yaw, or even sway back and forth, and this affects steering especially in calm waters or when pulling plugs.

Back to my friend’s boat, with the 48-inch bottom. It sits low in the water and is hard to row but it tracks well and stays in-line which is good for side drifting and fishing on anchor. There is virtually no sway or yaw so when you line up for your drift it stays true and even the angler on the oars can fish a cast or two while floating down river. My boat often needs constant oar attention to stay on track but pulling on the oars is much easier. Ironically my boat is made of aluminum and his is made from fiberglass which has the reputation of being lighter and “easier to row”. This is a falsehood if you don’t take into account how the boat is built and what your intended use is for the boat.

Bottom construction is important for the rivers you fish. Those that are often on calm rivers with a shallow gradient have less worry on how the bottom of the boat is designed but those that run steep rivers with rocky runs and boulder gardens need to think about the design under their feet. Fiberglass boats have the ability to build in tunnels, dimples, and other features that reduce the drag of water as it goes under the boat. The aluminum boat is pretty much flush with just the rocker design to allow the water to slip under. UHMV bottoms have been added to aluminum boats to reduce the friction but they add weight which can cause the boat to sit deeper into the water. Do some research and keep in mind which type of water you are likely to be fishing.

Aluminum versus Fiberglass is always a debate between anglers. I purposely did not start with this as how the boat is shaped can make up for some of those variances and need to be taken into account over the materials of the boat. Don’t get too hung up on which material the boat is made out of if it means giving up other options or your intended use of the boat. Fiberglass is lightweight and often easy to row but again think of my friend’s boat and how it is a “tank” compared to my aluminum boat. They are quieter as there is no echo as it hits rocks or if you drop something in the boat as fiberglass dampers the sounds. Some anglers think they are “warmer” meaning the metal boats take on the water and surrounding air temperature while the fiberglass boat acts as an insulator. However, fiberglass is made from layers of epoxy and fiberglass, both of which are extremely flammable. Some boat makers offer a heater option but those heaters are often mounted with a buffer space from the fiberglass and that means you can come into contact with the heater. Anglers can put the heater on a stand inside the boat but this is a serious hazard for many reasons. Aluminum allows for you to use a mounted heater which is nice during cold winter fishing trips.

The metal boat might be heavier but that doesn’t mean it rows harder. Where it mostly comes into play is when you have to portage the boat across a gravel bar or pull it up from a river bank. Fiberglass slides easily and if you have to drag it down a shallow rifle it can be done by one angler. Aluminum can handle the dings of rocks without worry of damage but it literally sticks to rocks, both in the river and out of water. Moving an aluminum drift boat by hand is hard work so if you tend to fish rivers that are low then fiberglass might be your best option even though it is prone to chipping and cracking.

Storing the boat is part of owning a drift boat. This is where there is little debate on which boat is best if it is to be kept outside. An aluminum boat can withstand harsh weather, sunlight, and mildew. A quick rinse with a pressure washer and it’s clean as well as ready to go. When storing the aluminum boat it is best to put the tongue of the trailer on a stand and take the drain plug out. This allows the boat to drain when it rains. Fiberglass boat should be kept under a roof, either in a garage or carport of some sort. This is because water can get into small scratches and cracks in the gel coat or in the fiberglass itself and if it freezes then it will start to separate the layers and “rot” the boat.

Along with storing the fiberglass boat a little maintenance helps keep it protected such as waxing the gel coat. Both boats need basic maintenance like keeping the oar locks lubricated, as well as any pulley’s, and replace the anchor rope when it starts to fray. If you have to keep a boat outside when it is not being used then aluminum might be your best choice.

Options can make a difference. My boat is basic, as in absolutely no frills or additional options and I prefer it this way. The weight is lighter than those with pizza ovens, heaters, storage boxes and other options. It cleans up easily and maintenance is minimal. But there are a few options that make your trip much more enjoyable. Starting with the “oven”, which is only offered in aluminum boats. It is simply a shelf in the bow that is above the mounted propane heater. You can put your lunch in there and it will warm it up nicely. If you don’t use the heater then it’s another storage area.

Storage can be difficult in a drift boat. Storage boxes under the seat-offered in both fiberglass and aluminum boats-are nice to have. They add weight to the boat but also offer a place to keep things dry and out of the way. The bow of the boat has a shelf and the cubby underneath is used for storage. Some fiberglass boats add in a doorway to keep everything dry. Extra rods can be put into trays that run alongside the gunnels of the boat or in a rod rack next to the rower’s bench. The net is often stowed in the back and I added a simple short piece of PVC pipe to hold the net into as we drift along.

Knee braces are a must for the front passenger which allows you to stand up and safely fish. If the boat moves suddenly you can use your knees to keep your balance. Most boats incorporate cup holders into the knee braces which are actually for holding bait or lures in a plastic cup, but it works well for a coffee mug too. Some boats have a removable knee brace for the rear seat and allow three anglers to fish “in line” which is nice for side drifting.

Anchor systems vary from boat to boat with fiberglass boats often offering a “foot” release which is a pedal on the bottom of the boat and when you step on it the anchor drops. This is a great option for anglers that need to hold their boat in a precise location allowing you to row with the oars and drop the anchor at the same time. It also works well for when someone hooks a fish as you can lift your oars to stow them at the same time deploy the anchor to stop the boat. The drawback is that you can accidently drop the anchor if you step on the release when you don’t want or need to put the anchor out. The side release is a good option as it is even with the rower’s waist and grabbing the rope is easy. Some use a rope pinch system that grips the rope and others use a drop block that stops the anchor rope. At the transom of the boat there is an arm that extends out and the anchor rope runs through a pulley. Most boats have this mounted in the middle of the transom but I moved mine to the side so I can use a motor with my drift boat.

Using a motor is often done with a small and lightweight gas motor from 2.5 to 9 horsepower. They are great for going back up river to a run you just fished or to quickly move through slow water or tidal water. You should not use it to steer your boat while going through a stretch of river that has any hazards as they can be tricky to control a boat with. An aluminum boat is best for a gas motor as you can simply attach it to the boat by either using the clamps or even hard mount it by drilling into the transom. It is not recommended to drill holes into a fiberglass boat as you can crack the gel coat as well as the fiberglass needs to have a reinforced area to mount the motor, so be sure to ask the boat maker if it can handle a heavy motor on the back. Another option is to use an electric trolling motor. Though they don’t offer the thrust of a gas motor they are much lighter and can be mounted on any boat regardless of what it is made of. The downfall is that you need to store a battery in the boat and once the battery loses its charge your motor is useless.

Regardless of how many options you choose to put on your boat, or the mounting of a motor, you need to balance the boat for the trip. Some boats offer seats on boxes that use a locking system on a raised floor. The raised floor adds weight but is a nice option. Other boats use a rail system and you can adjust the seats by moving them forward or backwards and then slide the seat pedestal along the bench. A bench can be cumbersome as you have to step over it to move around the boat. All of these options should be considered when you are looking at buying a boat.

Modifying the boat to make it yours. Keep in mind that you can add a lot of the options after you purchase the boat. This might be the best way to go, so you can fish your boat a few times and decide what is needed and what is not. Things like a pizza oven can’t be added but a heater can, as well as moving the anchor system and such. I utilize dry bags for storage and added a back seat by attaching it to the anchor nest. Fishing can become complex but a lazy float down a river in a simple drift boat can take all of those stresses away, especially if you do some research and organize the boat to your desires. There is no need to over-complicate a drift boat as long as it floats and gets you down the river like it has for nearly a hundred years.

Sidebar: Wood is a wonderful material and makes some of the most beautiful drift boats on the market. Another plus side is that if you are good at wood working then you can build your own boat. However, if you are wondering why I didn’t mention it as a preferred material it is simply because they are becoming an anomaly. Rare and expensive most drift boat anglers who use a wood boat do so because they want to, not because it is the best material. Wood can break and rocks can damage them. They are for nostalgia use and should be used by experienced rowers as there is no give if you hit a boulder.

Jason Brooks hails from North-Central Washington. The son of a fishing guide, Jason is an avid hunter, angler, outdoor photographer and published writer. He resides in Puyallup with his wife and two boys.


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