The Versatile Drift Boat

by Jason Brooks

If you ask me what is the most versatile watercraft to pursuit salmon and steelhead I would have to say it’s the drift boat. With its distinctive up curved ends and flat bottom designed and built to float in skinny northwest rivers it also handles bigger waters such as mainstream rivers, estuaries, and bays. Add in the fact that they are extremely economical with very little maintenance and it’s no wonder that their popularity is making a huge comeback.

A drift boat is a great way to enjoy a relaxing  day of fishing -Jason Brooks

A drift boat is a great way to enjoy a relaxing day of fishing -Jason Brooks

It all started on the McKenzie River in Oregon, or at least that is the legend of where the drift boat originated. In fact some people still call them McKenzie drifters, or just plain McKenzie boats. First made of wood the early boats proved to be useful for getting down a river. If you hit a rock or damaged the hull you could patch it with some basic hand tools, back when most people actually still used hand tools and made a lot of their own boats. Nowadays with modern fabrications the wooden boat is all but gone, though you can still find them for sale on Craigslist. They are more for nostalgia as wood boats are a bit heavier and tend to not row as easy. So the modern argument for this old design is fiberglass or metal when it comes to hull materials.

Aluminum boats are thought to be "cold" -Jason Brooks

Aluminum boats are thought to be “cold” -Jason Brooks

I see it posted several times on internet forums, usually around the time the Outdoor Trade Shows or Boat Shows start up. Someone will get the itch to buy a drift boat and ask fellow fishers what they should get, a “glass” or metal boat. I sit back and read the replies from the internet experts until I can’t take it anymore and chime in my opinion. I start by saying that if the person who is thinking about buying a drift boat has never rowed one to first take a guided trip. It is well worth the money to see if you really want to invest in one of these boats. This usually leads to my next bit of advice, take it or leave it, but I think anyone who wants to get into their first drift boat should buy a used one. Now, before the advertisers of this site get too mad, I am only advocating this for the first time buyer, as soon enough the person will want to upgrade and look to have a boat manufacturer make a custom boat for them.

The fiberglass boat can be lighter than aluminum -Jason Brooks

The fiberglass boat can be lighter than aluminum -Jason Brooks

Here is my reasons why you should consider used for your first drift boat and why a guided trip is a must prior to the purchase. If you have patience and look at sale sites for any length of time you will find those ads by people who offer up a practically new boat for half the cost. Ones where the person decided to get a drift boat and spent the money only to float a river and find out that rowing can be harder than it looks. Either it scared them to have no control over the fact you have to go down the river, or they were too sore to care to row ever again. Also, drift boats hold up pretty well, even boats that have some road rash or a few dents float just fine. You can find really good deals on boats that are 10 years old or older, and really the design of the boat hasn’t changed in 50 years so age isn’t much of a factor. The main difference between a new boat and a used one are options. When buying used you are stuck with what the previous owner purchased. This can work in your favor as a bare bones boat is lighter and easier to row than one that has lots of bells and whistles.

New boats are nice and once you own a drift boat and become proficient at rowing one you will get the itch to order your own boat. This is mostly because each person is slightly different when it comes to fishing styles. I like to drift fish and float eggs under a bobber, but another buddy of mine likes pulling plugs and throwing hardware. So for me multiple rod holders, bait trays, motor mount, and other accessories are a must. For the guy who likes to pull plugs you want it set up with pole holders, a heater for those cold days where the front passengers are just sitting idle watching the rod tips thump.

Heaters make for a comfortable day when it's cold -Jason Brooks

Heaters make for a comfortable day when it’s cold -Jason Brooks

This brings us back to the argument of “glass” versus metal. I really don’t have a preference but I do own a metal boat and one of my buddies owns a fiberglass boat. Both are great boats and ironically my boat actually floats higher in the water than his does. Most think that the material matters, and to some degree it does, but so does design. His is a 16 foot by 48 inch bottom. Mine is a 16 foot by 54 inch bottom. That extra width at the bottom of the boat is what allows mine to float or draft higher and slip through in shallower waters and makes it react to rowing a bit quicker. His is “warmer” as my metal boat becomes an ice bucket during those early spring steelhead trips.

Being able to row around debris and in skinny water make the drift boat versatile -Jason Brooks

Being able to row around debris and in skinny water make the drift boat versatile -Jason Brooks

Okay, if you just read all of this and are scratching your head at what the heck I am talking about; “how it rows, reacts faster, floats higher”. Here is what drift boaters are talking about. The boat is designed to float with very little displacement, or otherwise known to float high in the water by its flat bottom design. With the stern and bow raised is allows the water to push the boat up as the water flows underneath. As you row backwards you pull the boat up and away from where the bow is pointed. If the boat is heavy or narrow and sits lower in the water there is more drag or resistance and you need to row harder, either faster or by digging you oars deeper into the water. Fiberglass boats are slick and have less coefficient of friction on the bottom because of the materials they are made from. Fiberglass that is coated with a gel coat has very little resistance in the water, where metal boats have tiny grooves or pores which tend to cause more friction in the water. To overcome this metal boat owners put a coating on the bottom of the boat and with new Kevlar materials these coatings can stand up to a few years of use. But they must be up kept, one of the downfalls of a metal boat. Fiberglass boats do wear out and can have soft spots or leaks from hitting rocks or gouges from sliding over gravel bars.

Drift boats require very little maintenance -Jason Brooks

Drift boats require very little maintenance -Jason Brooks

All drift boats have some basic maintenance requirements, but not many. This is another bonus for owning one these boats. If you put a motor on one you must also license it. Keep the motor off and stay away from Federal or navigable waters defined by the Coast Guard and there is no need to license it in Washington (check your local laws). With the motor you can easily fish close to shore in bays and estuaries and also motor up the deep holes and slot in rivers to float them again. But one of my favorite reasons to own this versatile boat is that it is quiet and allows you to really pay attention to fishing and relax while floating down a river.

Jason Brooks
Northwest Outdoor Writer

 

Successful Steelhead Fishing

By Jason Brooks

The cold days of January creates clear waters on the drop and for the steelhead angler it is time to hit the rivers. This time of year brings in fresh fish that are nickel sided and black backed ready to bite. Mixed in the bag are hatchery brats and wild fish, both are a quarry anglers dream about and prepare for. It is this preparation that makes the difference from a day spent on the river hoping to hook a fish and a day on the river catching a lot of fish. Here are a few tips and pointers to rekindle the winter steelhead excitement and help you put more fish on the bank.

Steelhead Fishing in the Snow, photo by Jason Brooks

Steelhead fishing in the winter means fishing in extreme elements. (photo by Jason Brooks)

A guided trip is always worth the money. Not only do you get to use the industries top equipment but also learn from those that have already been out fishing the rivers. A prime example is Eli Liske of E&S Sportfishing (www.essportfishing.com or 253-332-1240) who’s been out fishing for several weeks now and lately has been catching steelhead on just about every coastal river he can get his drift boat down.

This brings up another point and that is with each rain the rivers change. Guides have a network of information on which rivers are fishable, which ones have hazards, and which ones are not worth your time. Eli had a day off this last weekend so he took his son, Aiden, out to yet another river known for big wild fish and they were rewarded with a few nice fish including one that took a plug. If you want to learn a new technique or just improve your fishing by learning advanced methods then hiring a guide will increase your knowledge in quick order.

Aiden Liske with a plug caught winter steelhead, Photo by Eli Liske

Aiden Liske with a plug caught winter steelhead. (Photo by Eli Liske, E&S Guide Service)

The internet is friend and foe all in one stroke of the keypad. If you like to frequent fishing websites and chase internet reports then you might become a little frustrated. But if you use the internet for things such as river flows, google earth maps for access, and recipes on bait cures then you will be rewarded with more time to fish and success on the river. The thing to remember on using the internet is to use it as a tool to learn as well as for entertainment, such as YouTube videos, scenic photography, and post of other angler’s adventures. More than once I have had a hateful reply to a blog I wrote because it gave away someone’s “secret” fishing hole, yet if I wrote about it then it wasn’t a secret because obviously I found it. If you do have a true secret spot then don’t share it, not even the photos.

J.R. Hall with a southern Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead. (Photo by JR Hall)

J.R. Hall with a southern Olympic Peninsula winter steelhead. (Photo by JR Hall)

Bank bound anglers are fairly restricted to both access to the river as well as techniques used. If you are a bankie then learn to fish smarter. Know the river by exploring it and all the access points and know which techniques will work and which ones won’t. This can be due to several limiting factors such as water conditions, bank conditions like overhangs or boulders to stand on, and even other anglers in the area. Reiter Ponds and Blue Creek are good examples. These areas are mostly fished by anglers floating jigs tipped with prawns, and a few drift fisherman. Don’t go there expecting to swing spoons or spey cast streamers.

Another friend, JR Hall of JR’s Steelheading Adventures (www.steelheadnwynoochee.com or 253-320-8806) on his days away from guiding is often found walking the banks of one my favorite rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. We both own drift boats and I asked him one day why he was bank fishing. He simply stated that sometimes he just likes to not worry about a shuttle and the hike along the river, spey rod in hand, allows him some solitude. This river has great bank access and he lands multiple big fish each trip with nobody even knowing he is fishing as his rig doesn’t have a trailer and there are day hikers in the area accessing the National Park.

Photo 4 by Jason Brooks

To truly be successful as a steelhead angler you must understand that winter steelheading is more than just filling the freezer. Yes, there are terminal and hatchery fisheries like those on the Wynoochee and Humptulips (both are doing well since the New Year began by the way) where you can catch a few steelhead and more than likely take home a limit for the smoker or barbecue.

But as our winter starts to warm into spring and the big wild steelhead enter the waters take a time to reflect back on this fish’s life. A journey full of challenges that it must overcome to make it back to the spawning grounds. If you are honored to land such a fish then take care of it with proper handling and releasing of the fish. It will return yet another year and reward the successful steelheader once again.

Jason Brooks
Northwest Outdoor Writer