For many anglers, using a boat to fly fish is a must. It opens more fishing opportunities 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.
If you won’t be operating the boat but are going on an upcoming float fishing trip be sure to check out the article, Float Fishing for Beginners – 10 Tips for Fly Fishing from a Raft or Drift Boat.
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 an excellent resource for all boaters to review before a day on the water. I highly recommend following this link for more information.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As stated above understanding basic whitewater safety is above all. A few points to reiterate is understand 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!
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 the Boat 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.
The oarsman is the captain of the boat that helps anglers get into fish, a highly-skilled captain can get anglers into even more fish. While it may take years and years of experience to get there, below are some intermediate to advanced rowing techniques that will make you become a better rower for fly fishing.
One key thing to remember is that rowing for fly fishing is completely different than your traditional river running techniques where you constantly push forward. While the base foundation and fundamentals of rowing are the same, rowing for fly fishing is a whole different ball game and remember the fundamental rule to “row backwards”. In this next section we will cover more advance rowing for fly fishing techniques.
Understanding and assessing the water you have to row is paramount to be efficient. You have to see and visualize how you want to fish a specific piece of water. If you see a juicy boulder garden on the river left, slowing the boat down to effectively fish is key.
A few tips to abide by out there when looking for good water is to slow that boat down in fast water currents to give anglers a chance to fish the water and the opposite goes for slow water. You don’t have to work as hard, so take a breather and let your anglers casually fish the slow water. Don’t over milk or spend too much time working the slow water unless of course you’re getting into fish.
One tip is as you familiarize yourself with a section of water watch how other boats work the water and take notes, especially from the guides. Also, remember the areas of water that you caught fish as next time you float through there will probably be more fish.
Tip 2.2: Holding Your Line
Holding your line can separate beginner oarsmen from intermediate to advance oarsmen. Holding your line has nothing to do with your fly line rather it means holding and navigating the boat at a stable distance from the bank. Beginners have challenges with holding lines as we have all been there when the oarsmen is 10 feet from the bank than 30 feet and just zig zagging down the river. It makes it challenging to effectively fly fish the water.
So making sure that you are maintaining a constant distance from the bank or fishable water will provide anglers with more opportunities to effectively fish. The typical progression to achieving this is first to focus on keeping the boat at a slow pace where you can control the boat, then making micro movements to adjust the preferred distance from the bank. The next step is making simple fluid oar strokes to pace the boat and then the last step is to assess the upcoming water to make necessary oar strokes to keep the boat in line.
Tip 2.3: Know the Angler/s
So now you have an idea of how to assess the water for rowing and can hold a line down the river, well understanding the skill level of your anglers in the boat plays a huge factor in knowing where to position the boat. For example, if you have an angler upfront that can cast 40 feet comfortably and one in the back that has never held a fly rod and can maybe get 20 feet out. The boat will need to be positioned based on these skill level. When you’re coming up on good water, making sure that you have set up the angler in the back for success where he/she can make a 20 foot cast and their flies will be fishing is key.
Another huge tip and fundamental to every float trip is to communicate with the anglers in the boat. “Is this a good distance from the bank?” “Do you want me a little closer?” Having open communication on the boat between the anglers and oarsmen makes the experience a lot more enjoyable for everyone. Everyone likes to fish a little different so even if you are an experienced rower, specific anglers may like to fish a certain piece of water a little different. And hey maybe you will learn something new.
Tip 2.4: Row to Match the Fishing Techniques
Along with Tip 2.3: Know the Angler/s, oarsmen needs to take into account the specific techniques that the anglers are fishing. Are they throwing streamers, nymphing, or dry flies? Each technique means different rowing techniques.
Nymphing: focus on deeper pools and riffles. Avoid shallow banks. No need for long casting, those fish are feeding below the surface, get the boat closer to the water so an angler can have an easy cast. Make sure the anglers have their rigs ahead of the pace of the boat in case of a snag.
Streamers: typically anglers can fish all types of water with streamers. Keep the boat at a nice pace and a good casting distance from the bank. Make sure the angler has enough time to strip perpendicular across the water to present the fly.
Dry Flies: Keep the boat a decent distance from the holding water to not put the fish down with the boat. Make sure your caster can reach the water you are targeting. It is very important to keep the boat at pace with the flies to achieve a long drag free drift.
Tip 2.5: Time Management
Time management is not necessarily a technical rowing tip but an important one for anyone captaining a boat. When planning your fishing day take into account the miles you have to row and the amount of time you would like to spend or get to spend on the water. From there you can create a rough plan of the pace you would like to maintain. If you are “milking” or going slow on certain stretch this will allow you to pull over and work some water over and over. When you’re going faster you have less time to go slower, so adjusting your fishing techniques might need to be altered. Also, take into account pressure from other anglers, private water, and your favorite water when planning your float. A good captain has a rough plan of where and when they want to be hitting specific water.
Tip 2.6: Learn and Master the Crawl or Crab Stroke
The Crab or Crawl stroke is by far the most useful rowing technique for rowing for fishing. It allows the boat to maintain a smooth line without disrupting the fishable water. So what is it? The stroke is a combination of back rowing and sweeping. You will take one oar and push it forward so it’s vertical facing forward by the bow. This oar almost works like a motor tiller, by making strokes it controls whether the boat will move to the left or right. The other oar remains in the normal position, where you will just maintain a simple back row to maintain your pace. The result of the two oars working together is a system where you can have complete control to hold lines and make micro adjustments to move left and right based on the water you are fishing.
This technique can be very effective when you have disruptions like rocks, trees, the bank, and other structures in way of your oar stroke. By using the vertical oar stroke to control the line of the boat you can fish a lot of water that many other boats cannot.
Tip 2.7: Micro Movements with Your Hands – Feathering the Oars
One key to holding a constant line in your boat is making micro movements with your hands to control the boat. What this means is when making an oar stroke you can change the angle of the oar blade in order to have a different result on the stroke. So if you need a small adjustment, moving your oar blade sideways a little bit will reduce the surface area of the oar blade in the water and result in a smaller movement. This is also called “feather the oars”. The techniques can also be useful in general rowing when you have to adjust to current speed, wind and other factors. By feathering the oars you can subtle movements to result in a better line and more enjoyable experience for the anglers in the boat.
Tip 2.8: Master Rowing in Shallow Water
Being able to slow the boat down in shallow water is a skill every oarsmen should strive for. A lot of time near or around shallow riffles or gravel bars there is some great water to fish. So being able to slow the boat down in there is key for anglers to get some good drifts through this water.
The technique to slowing the boat down in shallow water involves short shallow back strokes to slow the boat down. Don’t be afraid to knock a few rocks with your oars. Be comfortable with taking short shallow strokes to control the boat. Another tip is to get the speed of the boat down before floating down the shallow riffle so you don’t have to work as hard.
Tip 2.9: Master Rowing in Fast Water
Very similar to Tip 8: Master Rowing in Shallow Water, fast water like rapids can hold some great water that often is overlooked and under-fished. Look ahead and get the pace of the boat down before entering the fast water, strong aggressive strokes are typically needed to slow the boat down. Look for big boulders with soft water, when passing by the soft water you can get a nice strong oar stroke in this soft water. It is also important to communicate to the anglers to pick and choose the water they plan to fish as the boat will be moving fast so hitting all the water will be near impossible.
Tip 2.10: Proper Anchoring and Boat Stabilization
Being able to anchor in tricky places is a boating skill that is often overlooked, it can result in a quick pit stop to hit some quality water or an emergency re-rig resulting in no lost water. Some techniques and tricks to anchor and stabilize the boat in tricky spots is to utilize back eddies and slow water. Look for boulders rocks or big eddies that you will be able to slow the boat down. Once the anchor is down be sure to let out 5-6 feet of anchor rope, this excess rope will provide a bit of a buffer from the strong current. If you keep moving keep letting out anchor line until your anchor catches. Mastering how to properly stabilize and anchor the boat is essential to rowing for float fly fishing.
Pro tip: When back rowing up to a bank to anchor, right before you pull up on land stand up (reduces the weight in the boat), then sit down once you’ve hit the bank. It almost works as an anchor and will get you farther on to land.
This list of tips and techniques is only a start to the endless learning process of rowing a boat for fly fishing. One big takeaway is that everyone has their secrets and certain techniques that work for their specific rivers, boats and fishing techniques. With that observing others on the water and talking with other oarsmen and anglers in your boat will only make you a better rower. As always safety is a priority out there on the waterways, along with being respectful to the others out there.
If you want to brush up on skills or learn how to row a boat, Vail Valley Anglers offers Oar Certification Classes every spring. They involve five days of 10 hours 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.
Article by former Vail Valley Anglers float fishing guide and Editor of Flylords Mag Patrick Perry (@patperry).