Rowing for Fly Fishing 101

Rowing for Fly Fishing – Basics for Safely Running Drift Boats or Rafts

For many anglers, using a boat to fly fish is a must. It opens more fishing opportunity whether it’s the ability to cover more water, avoid the crowds, or even utilize effective techniques to catch more fish with the boat. But, one thing is clear if the person rowing the boat has no idea what they are doing it can almost be impossible to effectively fish a certain stretch of water. The rower is a lot like the offensive lineman of the football team, without a good offensive lineman, the quarterback or running back can’t score. Same goes for the angler, if you don’t have someone with some skills at oars, you’re not going to have much success on the water. So with that said, here are some basic guidelines to follow for the novice oarsman to get you up to speed on safely running a drift boat or raft.

Float Preparation:

So you bought a new boat and you want to try it out on a mellow section of water to get used to it. First things first, check in on current water levels, put in and take out points, call your local fly shop for fishing conditions, set up a shuttle and prepare all gear. When arriving at the boat ramp be sure to pull off out of the way to prepare your vessel for launch. This means taking all straps off, loading all gear into the boat.

If you have a raft, pumping it up or if you have a drift boat making sure to put those boat plugs in (I know most of us have forgotten this step at least once before). Upon launching be sure to have practiced backing up your trailer prior to the boat ramp. Typically, you will be in the limelight of many to prove your trailer backing skills. If you are having trouble, one quick trick is pop open the tailgate. This allows for a visual of the boat as you put in. Once the boat is launched, quickly move it out of the way of the ramp and prepare for the river.

One rule that is often only learned the hard way, “Rig and strap down everything in the boat so if King Kong grabbed it and shook it nothing would fall out”. Pretty self explanatory as to why you do this. Upon departing onto the river be sure to make sure everyone on the boat is familiar with the basic safety of running a river.

The American White Water Association Safety Code is a great resource for all boaters to review before a day on the water. I highly recommend following this link for more information.

Rowing 101 – Tips and Techniques

Tip 1: Row Backwards

Seems straight forward right..? It’s not when you are rowing for fishing you need to be constantly rowing backward to slow the boat down. All this means is constantly pulling back on the oars to slow the boat down. By slowing the boat down it gives you control over the boat to make the moves necessary to navigate the waterway.

There are two types of fly fishing rowers, lazy ones and not lazy ones. The ones that are not lazy are constantly rowing backward to slow the boat down so that the anglers have enough time to work a piece of water. Do yourself a favor and work hard on the oars and the anglers will thank you later.

Tip 2: Point the Front of the Boat Away From Trouble

Now that you are rowing backward, you’ll notice that by pointing the front or bow of the boat in the direction that you do not want to go and pulling back you can avoid the danger. So hypothetically speaking lets say you are floating down the middle of the river and there is a rock coming up on river left. To avoid this rock, point the front of the boat at the rock to the left and pull backward. The boat will then move away from this rock and to river right. Straighten out the boat and if you are now too far on river right then point the front of the boat to river right and pull away. Just point the bow into the obstacle and the stern 45° to the flow and pull away from it.

Tip 3: Proper Oar Strokes

Similar to the fly cast, the oar stroke doesn’t have to be powered with all your muscle. An efficient and effective oar stroke involves a simple oar movement where the blade of the oar is just about completely submerged in the water. Don’t dig deep where the blade of the oar is deep in the water as this is not an efficient stroke.

A proper oar stroke engages the whole body, not just the arm muscles. It starts with a strong core, leg and back power, and a little bit of arm muscle. One secret to getting more power in your stroke is to utilize your legs by placing them out in front of you and almost squatting to power through a stroke. Rowing a boat can be a good workout so be sure to pace yourself throughout the float and understand that fatigue can play a factor when running more technical water later in the float.

Tip 4: Stay Centered, Don’t Go Sideways

Boats are meant to go down rivers straight, when they are sideways they can be susceptible to flipping and other dangers. When going through whitewater staying centered is key. If you are going to run into an obstacle try to be centered upon hitting it as it can do less damage to the boat and can be easier to maneuver off of.

Another point to make is when the boat is sideways it can be very challenging for anglers to fish. So do your best to keep the boat straight unless repositioning.

Tip 5: Be Aware of the Oars

One rule to follow when rowing the boat is to never drop the oars in the water. When the oars are in the water they are susceptible to getting bumped, snagged, broken, or lost. Try putting the oars underneath your knees or inside the boat when you cannot have you hands on the oars.

One very common mishap happens when the downstream oar is in the water and it hits a rock or river bottom. The oar can shoot up with a lot of power and hit the rower. Some people have been knocked unconscious by this danger. The boat can also flip or can knock out other anglers in the boat. So take extra precaution with the downstream oar.

Tip 6: Understand the Anchor

For beginner oarsmen, I personally don’t recommend using an anchor as it can result in a variety of safety hazards. The biggest hazard is to never let the anchor go in fast water. When the anchor drops in fast water it can pull your boat into waves and cause it to flip. So take extra precaution with your anchor and make sure it is up when running technical water. And if it does somehow go down, cutting it loose can be the quick solution to getting out of a sticky situation. The anchor will become a tool for you to use to operate the boat and can result in more fish caught. Understanding the capabilities are key.

Also do note that anchoring in private land in the state of Colorado is illegal. Be sure to have maps of private and public land for knowing where to anchor and pull over when re-rigging is necessary.

Tip 7: High-side, Strainers, Throw-bags, and Life Jackets

As stated above understanding the basic whitewater safety is above all. A few points to reiterate is understand a terms high side, strainers, and throw-bags.

A high side is when the boat becomes pinned on an obstacle, all people in the boat should move to the high side of the boat as quickly as possible. The weight will dislodge the boat from the obstacle.

A strainer is an obstacle in the water like a tree, stump, or branch. They can be very dangerous and very easy to be caught up and trapped in a strainer. So make sure to use extra precaution when you spot a strainer.

A throw-bag is a safety tool on board of every boat that can be thrown to rescue someone danger. When using a throw-bag, throw the bag like a football. If you are being rescued be sure to grab the rope, not the bag.

Always have a life jacket or PFD’s  (personal flotation device) onboard for everyone at all times. Life Jackets saves lives it’s as simple as that. Put one on!

Tip 8: Adjust the Boat to Fit You

Boats can be customized a million different ways and can be set up to accommodate shorter, taller, wider, skinner people. So take a second to adjust the boat or familiarize yourself with the boat so you can be confident in rowing it. Every boat rows and feels different. Some things to look out for that can be adjusted to make it easier to row would be adjusting the seat, adjusting the foot brace, adjusting the oar placement. Know where the anchor is and how to operate it. Understand the type of oars and if they are using an Oar rite or rubber stopper. If you don’t feel confident rowing someone else’s boat because it just doesn’t fit you, don’t row it. Not all boats are built the same so understanding that is essential to properly rowing a specific boat.

Taking Out:

After the float is done, proper boat ramp etiquette is key to being a steward out on the water. Make sure your boat is anchored properly off the ramp as you get your vehicle. Other boats, gusts of wind and other unforeseeable dangers can dislodge your boat. So be sure to have it properly anchored and secured. When loading the boat make sure the oars are stowed correctly. Proper boat ramp etiquette is to be fast on the ramp and pull forward once the boat is loaded so others can access the ramp. Then you can unload and strap down your boat.

Learning how to row for fishing can take years and years of practice to be a master of the water ways. Hopefully, these basic tips will get you off the ground and into water running rivers. Be sure to check out the next feature for more intermediate to advanced techniques for rowing for fly fishing.

If you want a jump start to learning how to row a boat, Vail Valley Anglers offers Oar Certification Classes every spring. They involve Five 10 hours days of on the water training with certified instructors. The class gives you the rowing certification needed to commercially float guide in the state of Colorado. For more information click the link here or call the fly shop today.

If you are looking to purchase a boat and don’t know where to start check out this blog that breaks it down.

Patrick Perry, Former Guide, and Content Contributor, @patperry