Peninsula Fly Fishers

Drift Boat Fishing

Tactics and Etiquette

by  Mary Nishioka

March 2007

First let me say that the most fun fly fishing from a boat was on a bass boat in Oregon. Brett Dennis with Central Oregon Flyfishing takes you out on the lakes and reservoirs around Bend, Oregon. The boat is anchored and you stand on the platforms, in bare feet when it's warm, and have this big casting stage with no obstructions or current. This isn't about that.

Fishing from a drift boat is often the best way to cover the most water on bigger rivers. It should be fun and give you the opportunity to catch a lot of fish.
It surprises me how often people make simple mistakes that end up in a frustrating day and few fish. I blame the guides because, if you haven't been told, you don't know. You think you are making all of the right moves but you are tangled and missing fish. In my experience, most guides will tell you three times and then let you figure it out. They want you to have a good time and they want you to come back. If you keep messing up, they figure you aren't used to catching many fish anyway so don't know the difference. In my experience, if the guide stops correcting me, I think I'm doing ok. I now tell my guides to stay on my case, don't stop with the corrections until I am actually doing what I am supposed to be doing. Yes, this can be tough, but, as Dr. Phil says, "You can't change what you don't acknowledge." It's amazing how many more fish and bigger fish I am now catching with just a few additional improvements.

One of the best books on this subject is Dennis Breer's, "Utah's Green River: A Fly Fishers Guide to the Flaming Gorge Tailwater". What I am going to list below are the more obvious general principles. Denny's book gives expert and in-depth information and I really recommend it.

Most of what I have learned about drift boat fishing is from my guides on the Green River, Doug Burton and Darren Bowcutt. They know that I like to catch fish and that I expect to be corrected. The Green River below Flaming Gorge has been rated as one of the top 10 fly fishing rivers in the world by Orvis. It holds a lot a fish and a large variety of fish and people go there expecting to catch them. If the guide is spending his day untangling your bird's nest or if you aren't fishing the sweet spots, you are not going to be catching as many fish and will be disappointed.

Thepurpose of the following guidelines is so you spend more time fishing in good water. These guidelines assume 3 people in the boat, one fisherman in front, the guide rowing in the center, and a fisherman in the back. Most of the principles would also be applicable if you fish from a side-by-side boat. And, of course, if the guide gives you different instructions, do what the guide says. Once you have demonstrated that you can manage your line and casting, you will have a lot more latitude. And, before I start; yes, I still tangle and yes, I still miss spots. But I'm getting better.

Umbrella Principle:

When the other person has a fish on, get your line out of the way and reel in, fast.
ometimes the guide will tell you to keep fishing, but don't wait if he doesn't, reel.

Principle #1:

The Person In The Front Of The Boat Casts First
Sometimes the guide will tell you different because of the line of the drift, but unless you are told, this is Rule One.
If you are in the front of the boat, your job is:

- Be ready to cast when the guide says to.
That means you are standing up with fly and line in control and ready to cast before the sweet spot.
It does not mean that you stand up after getting to the spot and cast back up stream.
It does not mean that you stand and ask permission to cast or look at the person in the back of the boat to see what they are doing.
Cast and get your fly out there.

- Get the fly where the guide tells you.
If you can't, let him or her know, but he will have figured it out and will have adjusted his drift to accommodate your skills or lack thereof.

- General rule is to cast at a 45 degree angle in front of the boat.
This gets your fly up front where the fish haven't seen you yet, the guide can watch the fly, and
The person in the back of the boat has somewhere to cast.
If you are casting beside the boat or upstream, the fish has already seen the boat and the person in the back has no where to cast.
This is one where you need to follow your guide's advice because there are lots of variations depending on ability, current speed, boat drift, etc.
This is a General Rule and not an Absolute.

- Limit your false casts and when the fly is in the water, let it go.
The person in the back of the boat can't cast until your fly is in the water.
To re-cast, depending on your ability, wait for the person in the back to get their fly in the water.
Otherwise, wait until the person in the back is stripping their line back in.

-Re-cast when the person in the back is stripping in their line.
The fish isn't going to take the fly on the strip and you can cast over their line and get your fly back in the water faster.
Advantages to being in the front of the boat:
- You will get more attention from the guide.
Usually the less experienced person should be in the front so they can get more help.
This can mean that you are an expert fly fisher but have never fished from a drift boat before so don't get your waders in a twist.

- Your drifts will be better as the guide will be maneuvering the boat for your ability.

- Fish sees your fly first.
The only time I think this is a real advantage is with experienced fishermen with dry flies.
If the back person has a better presentation, they are going to catch the fish.
For nymphs and streamers, I have never noticed a difference on who is in front.
Sometimes, I think the front person is the attractor and the fish bites the next fly they see.

Principle #2:

The Person In The Back Of The Boat Casts Second

- You cannot cast until the front person's fly is on the water and drifting.
If you are both expert at drift boat fishing, you aren't reading this article anyway.
If you are reading this article, Principle 2 applies.

- You are in charge of the success of the trip.
You can see the person in the front of the boat, they can't see you without turning around.
Turning around is going to cause them to step on their line, hook their line on something or tangle.
Remember, they are less experienced and have less line management skill.
By following these rules, you are going to be the one who eliminates the chance of tangles.
You are the one who will dramatically improve the quality of the day.
You're better, that's why you are in the back of the boat.

- Cast parallel to the front fly but short distance apart.
You're better you can do this.

Advantages to being in the back of the boat:
- You will develop enormous amounts of patience.
- You will really improve your line management skills.
- You will build huge amounts of positive Fish Karma points.

Good Manners:
When the person in the front is skilled enough, you switch places at either lunch or each day.
If you are fishing with a Front-Of-The-Boat Hog, they will have bad Fish Karma and don't fish with them anymore.
But if you are fishing with children or beginners, let them have the front and your day will also improve.

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