When floating down the Colorado River we see a variety of water craft used for fly fishermen to access the river. You will notice when float fishing the Roaring Fork River a slightly different mix of vessels. The Gunnison River, Eagle River, Arkansas River, Blue River and the North Platte River again may demand specialized watercraft when it comes to the boats being employed to float fish these rivers. There are reasons why different options may be used on different rivers ranging from water types to personal preference.
There are not quite as many boat options as fly choices but the variety of water craft used to pursue trout in the west has grown exponentially in recent years. Rafts and cata-rafts with a multitude of frame styles, design options, overall size and color choices are all commonly seen on our local trout streams. Drift boats made from wood, metal, fiberglass, plastic and even a new drifty the guides refer to as a “draft” (an inflatable drift boat not a beer) are all rowing down our waterways.
My background is not in boat building but in actual boat use, having logged over 20,000 plus commercial river miles as a fly fishing guide and rowing instructor in the last 30 years. While floating trout rivers here in Colorado in the early eighties, it was rare to see anything but a 12 to 16 foot raft with a rowing frame attached to it coming down the river. The big boats were sluggish, hard to slow down and extremely heavy to trailer.
Modern self-bailing rafts were just arriving to the market and most guide rafts were bucket style boats without flooring or fishing specific frames making it hard to stand and easy to fall. Seating was on the thwart or a piece of 2 by 10 wood with a small tractor seat attached making for some unexpected exits from the boat in the old days.
As time went along design improvements to rafts like the self-bailing safety feature found in most all rubber boats today made it more convenient and safe to use rafts. More improvements were been made when diminishing thwart technology was used to enable the craft to still have the holding capacities of a raft but with the floating characteristics of a kayak. Nowadays rafts have been refined to be thinner and lighter making them easier to row and trailer.
Frames are now advanced and set up to fly cast while standing and some have removable cross bars if sitting is your preference. Floors suspend from frames and make it more comfortable. Anchor systems, line trays, gear bags and drink holders are a few of the amenities found on rafts today.
The main advantage the raft has over a drift boat is that it is capable of hitting against rocks and not damaging the vessel. We try not to hit rocks, but sometimes it is unavoidable and the only safe way down the river in a situation like this may be by raft. Big whitewater demands the use of a raft rather than drift boat and many of the smaller rivers like the Eagle or upper Roaring Fork are unfloatable in heavy, less maneuverable drift boats.
Rafts offer the less experienced boater a more forgiving vessel that will not sink.
They are superior when it comes to storage for overnight trips.
The rubber boats can be trailered in many ways as well as be rolled up and stored.
They can be packed into remote rivers like the Black Canyon section of the Gunnison River.
Priced around 30% less than a drift boat they offer some economic benefits.
Large cata-rafts make for nice safe white water boats but by the time an adequate frame for fishing is added the weight of the boat make it impractical for an everyday fly fishing boat.
Slightly more expensive but definitely more comfortable, the McKenzie style drift boat offers features unavailable in most rafts. In the beginning, the hulls were made from metal or wood. The metal boats we used were very heavy and the wood boats in need of constant maintenance. In a few years, a fiberglass version of the drift boat would come along that was lighter and much more maneuverable and relatively maintenance free.
Plastic drift boats have recently emerged as an option to fiberglass allowing for you to hit some things and not damage the boat. These boats are especially challenged in the wind, offer generally less dexterity than a fiberglass boat’s straight tracking but their foam impregnated hulls are bombproof and will not sink.
The new “Draft” or inflatable drift boat has some of the characteristics of both drift boat and raft but still needs more time to refine the frame inside the boat.
Drift boats offer comfort and plenty of space. Comfortable seats are the norm. Casting is made easier by being able to stand while fishing. A stable platform and leg locks result in balance and safety. Storage space is such that plenty of extra gear can be brought along.
There are lots of options to consider when it comes to a river boat selection. Should you be in the market for a boat or just want to learn how to row a boat safely please do not hesitate to contact us here at Vail Valley Anglers, in Edwards, Colorado. Our fly shop provides rowing certification programs each spring as well as current river conditions and shuttle information for private boaters.
Guide and Content Writer