I remember the first time I got in a boat and began float fishing down the river, it seemed foreign, like I was learning how to fly fish again. I was confused with where to cast, how to mend, which way to set the hook. The river moved fast and I wasn’t prepared for the life of me to make the correct cast. But, as the day went on it began to click and I realized, exactly how effective float fishing is and the best part is you are able to spend the day fishing along with the people in the boat. It’s a ton of fun. It makes sense why a lot of anglers have boats and pay to go out in boats with guides, it opens up a ton of fishing opportunity.
For all the skiers and snowboarders out there, I like to compare resort skiing as wade fishing and float fishing to backcountry skiing/snowboarding. Typically the progression of an angler or skier/snowboarder starts with the basis of wade fishing or resort skiing. After some time enjoying the activities, the person will progress into a backcountry skier/snowboarder or float fishermen. Both take some investment to get the right gear and usually some sort of safety training. Both open up endless opportunities and fun for that matter.
Over the years, float fishing has become my preferred method to fish. By all means, the techniques and tactics of float fishing are far different than wade fishing. I’ve learned various techniques and different tips from guides alike. So here are some fundamental tips that every angler should look to abide by out on the river when your fly fishing from a raft or drift boat.
1. Cast Downstream
This one seems like a no brainer. It’s not, train yourself to fish the water that is upcoming. More often than not a beginner float angler will be consistently casting perpendicular or behind the boat, resulting in a shorter drift. Look ahead, take your time and make a cast downstream, and enjoy the nice long drift. Engrain this in your head, “Cast Downstream.”
2. Use Heavier Tippet
The rigging for float fishing should be slightly different than wade fishing. Step up your breaking strength for tippet. So if you typically use 5X, try 4X. Of course, a lot of this depends on fishing conditions. But more often than not, use heavier tippet when your float fishing. It will result in fewer flies lost to the bank and more fish to the boat. The best part is it’s better on the fish. They don’t get overworked like they do sometimes when fishing thin diameter tippets.
3. Use a Longer Rod
The industry standard rod length is 9 feet. For float fishing step up your rod length to a 9.5 foot or 10 foot rod. The extra length gives you control, mending, setting the hook and punching that cast becomes that much easier. It may seem weird at first, but trust me you will be switching over your wade fishing rods to 9.5 or 10 footers in no time.
4. Observe the Speed of the River
Most trout streams vary in different types of water from rapids, riffles, deep pools, to stagnant lakes. Every part of the river has different speeds. As a float angler, take a mental note of the speed of the water as you come upon it. If you are fishing slower water you know you will probably have more time to pick apart the water with multiple drifts. When the water is faster, the boat will be moving through the water more quickly. So cast a little more downstream and focus on hitting that one quality pocket than trying to cover all the water. Quality over quantity.
5. Save The Glory Casts for the Practice Pond
You’re not going to catch fish with your flies overhead. Get them in the water and fishing! Instead of focusing your efforts on making that perfect cast to hit that juicy small pocket with snags all around it, just make that cast right off your rod tip. It’s surprising how many fish can be caught under your rod tip.
6. Learn the Reach Mend Cast
Float fishing is fast paced, one way to get more hookups is to utilize the reach mend cast. What it does is allows your line to lay down onto the water so you don’t have to mend, so your fly is fishing as soon as it hits the water. To dial in the reach mend cast, as you cast across the current and power forward with your cast begin to reach the rod upstream. The reach will put your line upstream from the fly and you will have “pre-mended” your flies. It’s that easy.
7. Line Management – Assess the Boat for Snags
Think of the boat as a giant stump and it is easy to get a snag on. A few areas to always make a mental note to avoid are, the oars, the anchor or front of the boat. Take a look around your feet and the edges of the boat and familiarize yourself with any potential snags from your slack line. This plays a huge factor when fishing streamers due to the excess of slack line. It is also important to strip your line in when you are not paying attention so your flies don’t snag when you’re not looking.
8. Adapt Your Fly Patterns and Rigging
Fly selection plays a huge factor in float fishing. Typically, the super technical rigs with multiple split shots and tiny midges or dries aren’t “float proof.” Adjust your rigs to be more friendly to float fishing. I use heavier tungsten nymphs and bigger brighter dries that float well. The ideal rig would be a 7.5 foot 2x leader with size #6 Chubby Chernobyl and 2 feet of 3X tippet and a tungsten jig pheasant tail. This is what I consider “float proof”. The rig is highly visible and the stronger strength of the tippet and leader mean fewer tangles and re-rigging. Resulting in more time with the flies in the water. Tippet Rings are also an awesome addition to every float anglers rig, as they reduce rigging time in the boat. Fish flies that are easy to fish, don’t get too technical.
9. Work as a Team
My favorite part about fly fishing from a boat is it is a team effort. The oarsmen’s skills matter just as much as the angler. Open communication between the boat members is the key to success. The general rule of the boat is the water in front of the oars is for the front angler and the water behind the oars is for the angler in the back. Making sure everyone is on the same page will result in less tangles and more hookups. If you are fishing in the back feel free to poach the juicy water up front, just communicate to the boat that you’re going to. Be vocal, if you snag on the bottom be sure to let the oarsmen know.
10. Safety First
Float fishing can be dangerous and the rivers claim lives of anglers every year. Always put safety first and fishing second. One simple way to always be safe out on the water is to always wear a life jacket. Make sure to have it buckled and tight. Make sure you are familiar with the waterways and up to date on any stream changes and flows. You never know when danger may strike or when you can lend a hand to save someone else in danger. It’s important every angler understand the basics of whitewater safety. Spend a few minutes talking about some safety points like “high sides” or “strainers.”
Fly fishing from a boat is a highly effective method to target trout. It can open up endless new areas to fish and can be a great way to spend some time on the water with friends. Hopefully, these tips will help in gaining a better understanding of fly fishing from a drift boat or raft. To experience world class trout fishing from a boat, Vail Valley Anglers offers half day and full day float trips year round in the Central Rockies of Colorado. Feel free to call the shop or shoot us an email to learn more about these guided trips.
Patrick Perry Content Contributor and Former Guide @patperry