Adventure January 14, 2009

The Lure of Drift Boats

We launched Todd Avison’s drift boat into the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River on a warm, mid-August morning. The lush, fading-summer finery of cottonwood trees, red willows, and lodgepole pines shadowed the moving water. To the north and miles upriver, behind an earthen dam, the river has flooded what were once rolling hills, deep canyons, and broad meadows. Water skiers, bass boats, and jet skis stir the water there until, when it re-emerges below the spillway, it is slightly off color—a sage-green ribbon sliding through a labyrinth of black basalt boulders. Loaded with freshwater shrimp, worms and insect pupae, the river becomes a rich smorgasbord for the thousands of trout that haunt the canyon below the dam, just where we were entering the current with fishing gear and high hopes.

Most of the drift boat’s history was lost long before Todd and his friends Scott Castle and Mark Cole discovered it on a farm near Gannett, Idaho. From a distance, it appeared to be a write-off—a camouflaged hull surrounded by rusting tractors, bent harrows, and abandoned cars. For many falls the boat had been swept by blowing leaves, and in January, year after year, filled with snow. By spring the snow was gone, melted by the hot Gannett sun that bleached its seats, gunnels, and gearboxes chalk white.

A traveling envelope that places one in the water as well as comforably on top of it Silently gliding along in the sun, watching eagles float on invisible currents above, it’s easy to be distracted from the purpose of being there. . .fishing.

Wiser, wealthier men may wonder why Todd, Mark, and Scott coveted the old hull. The simple answer is that for fly fishermen, a drift boat is as much a wood sculpture as a means to pursue trout. The graceful uplift of the bow, the funnel-shaped stern, the wooden gunnels, and the long oars lifting like wings amidships . . . her graceful lines called to the smitten trio, revealing the way she would shadow an undercut bank where big trout sheltered. The old boat beckoned irresistibly.

A dozen years had passed since Cal Wagstaff had parked the drift boat out in the field, awaiting the day when he could coax her beauty and innate purpose back to life. Cal did not know who the boat’s original builder was, or how many fishermen had called her theirs. When new, she was a brilliant yellow. Later on someone, perhaps a duck hunter, had painted her in a camouflage mix of green, brown, and beige. When Todd and Scott asked if he cared to sell, Cal wasn’t sure he was ready to give up his dreams of floating Idaho’s rivers; and, well, if he sold the boat, that would pretty much decide the issue. In the small talk necessary to such transactions, Cal allowed that he still would like to fish the South Fork of the Boise, the South Fork of the Snake, and maybe, if he could find the time, the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Scott countered that before he could trust it to the Middle Fork, he’d have to put a month, maybe two, into refinishing the hull. In the end, Cal agreed to let her go for $800.

With new boats typically commanding from $3,500 to $6,000 (not counting trailer, oars, or gearboxes), the three men figured the old boat was a screamingly good deal. Todd ran a hand over the scarred hull, then hitched the boat trailer to his pickup and started north toward Hailey. The rearview reflection of the faded boat soon began nagging him with buyer’s remorse, and somewhere out among the Gannett Triangle’s yellow barley fields, he wondered who had hustled whom.

Following years of neglect, the drift boat needed months of sanding, fabricating, and refinishing before it could withstand a river’s waves and boulders. Todd was working sixty-hour weeks at the time. And, just as important, even with the cost split three ways, what would his wife, Lisa, say when she learned he’d dumped $266 into a boat without a motor? As he turned into his driveway, worrying what value, if any, Lisa would place on the faded hull he was towing, Todd was also fairly certain that his two young daughters would not trade a day in daddy’s drift boat for a ride on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise.”

Glancing at the splintered gunnels and two layers of peeling paint, Lisa noted the leaf stains, rusted trailer, and worn tires. In the way of a wife who sees too little of her husband as it is, she calmly observed, “Todd, you don’t have time for another project. Especially this old boat! When will you ever find the time to work on it?”

When Todd looked at the hull, though, he hardly saw the scars or bruises. Instead, he imagined how the boat would slide downriver. He saw large hair patterns floating in the shadows beneath overhanging willows, and the dark, blue-black backs of huge rainbows rising out of the depths. Caught in the grip of these fantasies, he promised, “At night, after the girls are in bed.”

Lisa watched Todd crawl under the trailer to inventory the scarred bottom. She noticed how he caressed the gunnels and tested the stern for signs of damage or hidden blight. Deciding he could have more dangerous obsessions than a peeling drift boat, she shrugged off the cost. It was clearly a guy thing, a passion rooted in male chromosomes—those complex, unknowable chemical bonds that compel men to hunt, build fires, and cast flies at trout.

After Todd had power-washed the leaves and dirt out, he discovered that, while river rocks had raked long scratches from stem to stern, the hull was sound. Two fresh sheets of Kevlar erased the ancient gouges and strengthened the bottom. In the weeks that followed, he used Australian cypress to replace the splintered oak gunnels, broken seats, and gearbox. (Cypress resembles white pine, but the exotic wood’s close grain is water resistant.) Todd bent it into the gunnel’s flowing arc, then sealed it with varnish. True to his word, after ten hours at his day job, he worked nights on the boat. While his daughters slept, he sanded, shaped and sealed, dreaming of fighting trout from the bow.

After two months of hard work, Todd finally sprayed the hull a dark navy blue. The color wasn’t chosen for any real or imagined benefit: even silhouetted against a summer sky, it was doubtful the blue hull would fool fish. The pragmatic reason was that Todd, Mark, and Scott had exceeded their budget for repairs. The blue paint was made for boat hulls and, just as important, happened to be on sale.

Before Todd and I launched the boat that August morning, a local fishing guide advised us that salmon fly imitations were attracting trout in the river’s deep holes. As we inspected the store’s myriad drawers filled with exotic combinations of rare feathers and scarce hair, he estimated that the hundred-dollars’ worth of flies we placed on the counter probably wouldn’t be enough. By the time we reached the take-out, he said, we would wish we had another two dozen . . . at least.

I love the near solitude of a drift boat as much as I love the chance to cast to big trout. Except for the occasional hollow slap of water against the wooden hull, the bump of an oar against a shallow rock, the muted splash of small rapids, or the oarsman’s quiet advice on where to lay the fly, a drift boat is a silent, private place. >>>



That said, I confess that I belong to the ranks of drift-boat-owner wannabes. In spite of having rowed and fished from drift boats on California’s Eel River and Idaho’s Snake, Boise, and Salmon Rivers, I have never owned one. I have excuses—some valid, most weak. Compared to a bass boat, drift boats are fairly affordable. Drawing six inches of water, they can clear shallow bars and yet still negotiate class three rapids. The real reason I don’t own a drift boat, however, has nothing to do with cost or access, but has a lot to do with the loss of my sons to the University of Idaho and the Air Force Academy. As much as I believe in higher education, their studies have deprived me of live-in fishing partners who can both lay a fly beneath an overhanging willow and row through a bone yard of boulders.

While his daughters slept, he sanded, shaped and sealed, dreaming of fighting trout from the bow.

You don’t fish alone from a drift boat. One fisherman traditionally works the oars while the other stands in the bow and casts. The oarsman points the bow at deep holes or turns the boat so the line and trailing fly are downwind, preventing the barbless hook from blowing back into the fisherman’s vest or hat, hand or ear.

Steve Lentz of Far and Away Adventures has run Idaho’s rivers for 25 years. In that time, he has collected a warehouse full of kayaks, rubber rafts, canoes, and Grand Canyon dories. And yet, more often than not, his craft of choice is a drift boat.

“If you judge a drift boat on aesthetics alone,” Lentz reasons, “it’s the finest way to float a running river. And a wooden drift boat makes such a connection with the water. It feels like you’re in slow motion and allows you to move across the current and slide between the boulders. Drift boats can slip water to catch the soft surf and eddies where the fish feed.”

Standing in the bow of Todd’s boat, I cast a variegated leech trailing a red iridescent worm into the head of the first deep pool. I felt the tiny trailer slide across granite ledges and bounce over basalt boulders until my luck faded, the hook snagging a rock, the rod tip bending, and the reel shedding line. The tippet parted and, not wanting to waste the next deep hole, Todd pulled to the bank while I replaced everything from the leader down.

Other boats followed the current that day. Newer boats—some, like Todd’s, made from wood; others, such as the aluminum-and-fiberglass Hydes built in Idaho Falls— offer broad beams and low gunnels, shallow drafts that slide easily over submerged boulders without scraping. Todd’s boat was designed in a colder era, before the snows ebbed and the rivers lost volume. Its deep draft is at odds with the multi-year drought that has exposed boulders normally drowned beneath two feet of water.

Todd rowed while I cast a leech cross current. The low water had put the fish down. A few rose to my imitation, but turned away at the last instant. The fishing was slow, and during the first miles Todd scrutinized my casts and held the bow to one side of the deep holes. In sections where rocks choked the river and the current slowed, he slipped over the stern and walked the boat. I hooked a trout in a hole where the current cascaded over a ledge, a bright rainbow sixteen inches long that fought with a wild strength derived from living in the cold, fast-moving water.

We switched places after I released the fish. Todd, an experienced fisherman, worked the seams and eddies behind the boulders until a twelve-inch trout took his Wooly Worm. He fought it to the boat and then, as he released it, asked me if I wanted to switch. Enjoying the focus and challenge of the oars, I told him to continue fishing. As the river slipped beneath the cliffs, Todd placed the fly against fallen trees and upstream of deep holes. Three hours into the float, with the water level continuing to drop, he picked up another rainbow in a channel between two rows of black boulders.

It is impossible to miss all of the river’s sharp basalt teeth. Todd winced as the boat shuddered against a submerged boulder, knowing, almost to the minute, how long it takes to patch a crack or fiberglass a deep gouge. And although I was being doubly careful, our progress downstream was marked by a rough, circuitous course, dodging one rock, sliding off another, each
collision raking a fresh white scratch into the blue hull.

Mending the line as the fly drifted downstream, Todd mentioned another river that emerges below a reservoir. The problem is, the river is dotted with irrigation heads and islands that split the current. The take-out is difficult to find among the braided channels, and if you miss it, it’s ten miles to the next boat ramp. More than one fly fisherman has lost his way among the maze of tributary courses, islands and diversions, and found himself beached high and dry in a thousand-acre wheat field.

We saw a bald eagle skim above the canyon, and an otter slide off the bank into the river. Around a bend, a cow moose, her yearling calf, and a young bull were standing in the river. The moose barely lifted their heads from the lush green plants as we slipped past against the opposite bank.

It took roughly five hours to navigate the river. In that time, as we drifted above thousands of trout, it became clear that we had purchased far more flies than we would use. A few rainbows rose to our Muddler Minnows, Wooly Worms, and Bead-Eyed Nymph patterns. While none were huge, all fought well and were returned to the river unharmed. I didn’t blame the local guide for overestimating the unknowable habits of trout. What moves one large rainbow one day, one hour, or one minute, or why it cannot resist one color and yet refuses another, is a mystery.

And any day of fishing must be judged on more than simply numbers, sizes, and weights. When we floated out onto the flats near the highway, other than a dozen new scars on the old drift boat, we had no regrets.

The sun was tinting the distant mountains pale rose when Todd backed the trailer into the river. We had just started to winch the bow onto the rear rollers when the crank fractured. Lifting and pushing on the heavy hull failed to budge it, and in the end, we had to disconnect the trailer, block the tires with rocks, and drag the boat onto it with the truck. It was a brute, inelegant solution, but—considering the years spent sitting idle in a hayfield and the months devoted to resurrecting it with glue, fiberglass, epoxy, and paint—one that seemed to suit the old boat.


In between writing for a variety of national magazines, Andy Slough drifts for trout, sturgeon, salmon and chukar. While he insists he is not by definition drifty, he does admit to a fixation on double-ended boats and the big fish that haunt Idaho’s rivers.



This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.