Perhaps nothing has expanded my fly fishing game more than the purchase of my raft. Fish in deep runs and big rivers that were once inaccessible are now at my finger tips. Enjoy Chad Agy Presents: Lessons From the Rower’s Seat.
The arcane river use laws of Utah and Wyoming can be circumnavigated, as I float over private land, leaving it undisturbed. I can approach fish with different techniques, making my days more productive. I now approach stillwater fisheries much more efficiently. Quite simply, I can explore areas that would not be an option otherwise, and the possibilities seem endless. But despite not even pushing the boundaries on whitewater, I’ve been a part of a number close calls on the river, which could have resulted in anything from inconveniences to potentially deadly outcomes. After buying the raft, the learning curve was steep, and many lessons were obtained the hard way; through experiences.
Top 10 tips to enjoy a safe and productive day on the water in a raft or drift boat.
10.) Care for the oars –
The boat will not make it down the river without the oars. The oars need to be treated like what they are: the most valuable part of the boat. Whenever I pull over, I make sure the oars are secured well to the boat. Usually with them angled in such a way that they are actually in the boat. It only takes a few inches of movement if the anchor gives way for an oar left angled out of the boat to break free. This precise thing happened to me on one of the more inaccessible sections of the South Fork of the Snake River. If my buddy Brian had missed on his heroic cast to hook the oar as it floated by, we would have been stranded on a gravel bar in the middle of a very large river. Incredibly, his streamer hooked the nylon wrap on the oar, and we had our most important catch of the day. With low gradient rivers, or those with a parallel road, a lost or broken oar may not spell disaster. But on remote streams or those with swift current, a spare oar in the boat may be a smart idea.
9.) Sweepers and strainers –
Perhaps the most infamous of river obstacles, sweepers and strainers must be avoided while rowing. Sweepers are trees that have fallen in to the river on the outside bend of eroding river banks. Strainers are trees or other obstacles in the middle of the river, which can be incredibly dangerous to boats. Think about it, I don’t think “getting strained” is something any human body wants to experience. Last year, I was on a trip in remote, western Alaska, when one of our rafts got stuck on a strainer. With the glare of a setting sun and a west-flowing river, my friend was unable to spot a strainer before steering right in to it. After hour of white-knuckle efforts at freeing the raft, they were finally free. Despite the good outcome, it was an uncomfortable experience for all involved.
8.) The takeout is probably further than you think it is –
I’ll never forget the first time I took out my new raft. I roped my unsuspecting friend, Jamal, in to a 23 mile float on a small river at the nadir of late summer flows. To a clueless newbie, it sounded like a reasonable plan. Unsurprisingly, we spent the last two hours of the float in the dark, nervously making our way down an unfamiliar river. I have since learned that when in doubt, I should choose the shorter float. There is always more than enough water to pick through if I’m running ahead of schedule.
7.) Respect bridges –
This is another tip I’ve learned the hard way. I cannot emphasize the following point more strongly: pull over if a bridge has any chance of being too low or impassible in any way! Pinned up against a bridge on Wyoming’s Salt River after it turned out to be a little lower than it originally looked. We ended up losing an iPhone, but it could have been much worse. Additionally, bridge pilons are notorious boat-sinkers. Bridges deserve the utmost respect from all rowers.
6.) Know your boat –
And better yet, consider the water you want to float before buying your boat. Five years ago, when considering the type of boat I wanted, I imagined the rivers I saw myself floating. More than anything, I wanted to float several rivers that are fairly small and low for much of the year. There are few true rapids, and I didn’t have plans to float much big water (I live in Utah, where there isn’t much of that anyway). Therefore I bought the perfect tool for that situation, a Flycraft raft. Add in the fact that I can load it on top of my car without help, and I can put in and take out wherever I want and without a boat ramp, and it was the perfect tool for my plans. But every type of boat has drawbacks. A healthy gust of wind can send my Flycraft skittering across the water like a paper boat. Anything more than a Class II rapid, and things get spicy VERY quickly. Every boat has its pros and cons, and these are important to consider before you make the boat purchase.
5.) Beware of eddys –
They say that if you row a boat long enough you are bound to flip at some point. I have flipped only once so far, and it was due to an eddy. During an idyllic summer day on a Wyoming stream, I briefly lost focus. Literally out of nowhere, the Wyoming wind decided to blow. A strong gust pushed my raft halfway in to a swift eddy. Suddenly, the front of half of the boat was moving upstream while the back half was moving down, in to the water we went. We were on a small and fairly safe river, so the consequences were minimal. But every year this situation claims lives on bigger, more dangerous water.
4.) Help your angler –
Maintain a good distance with the angler’s intended target. Manipulate the speed of the boat to prolong drifts. And most importantly, the rower needs to communicate with the angler! The angler standing in the front of the boat can often see promising water or dangerous obstacles before the seated rower, so communication can go a long way toward more effective fishing. One of my favorite parts of fishing from a boat is that every fish caught feels like a team effort. A good rower makes a huge difference on the success of the angler.
3.) Hit obstacles straight on –
Every rower will find themselves in this unenviable position at some point during their rowing career. Whether it’s an unexpected boulder, a strange current pushing the boat toward a bridge pilon, or a rapid that turned out to be a bit more than expected, boats perform much better during adversity if the bow of the boat hits the obstacle rather than hitting it broadside. I was recently floating an unfamiliar stretch of stream. Despite scouting a rapid beforehand, the river funneled my raft directly toward a large, unavoidable boulder. I intentionally hit the boulder straight on, and the current pushed the raft up on the boulder. Thankfully I was able to spin off of it. We would have been wet and missing some gear if I had hit the boulder broadside.
2.) Maintain contact with the water –
Things happen quickly on the water. Obstacles appear out of nowhere. Fishy spots flash by. Conditions change unexpectedly. When I started my rowing career, I found myself frequently unfocused, surprised, and caught unaware. I successfully rid myself of this problem by emphasizing contact with the water. I do this by never dropping the oars. I never stop back rowing. Even if my strokes are short, slow, and inconsequential, the simple act of constant rowing keeps my head in the game.
1.) Always back row –
Back-rowing is the most important tip on this entire list. At this point, I’ve taught quite a few friends how to row. Nearly all of them had an initial tendency to forward-row to maneuver down the river. Eventually, everyone learns that back-rowing Is key to safe and effective maneuvering of the boat. Pointing the stern of the boat at an angle toward the side of the river and rowing backwards has several advantages. First and foremost, by rowing backwards and against the current, it buys more time to maneuver. When people try to maneuver by forward rowing with the current, they often whiz right past the intended target. Second, most people can produce much more power with a back-row than a forward-row. Finally, back-rowing also buys time for the angler to fish good water.