Fly fishing from a drift boat or a raft, or “float fishing”, might look like a challenging proposition, but with the right guide and the right approach, it’s a great way to chase trout or even bass in big water that’s just too deep or too fast to wade.

float fishing in fast water

Float fishing is also a great way to cover a lot of water and give anglers better opportunities to tie into more fish. Drift boats, for non-motorized craft, are fairly maneuverable, and good guides with a lot of experience can put fly anglers in ideal situations to be successful. Rafts, too, can be excellent fly-fishing crafts, and, under the right guidance, they can take anglers on waters no other craft can reasonably navigate. Rafts are great for heavy water — they’re able to navigate rapids and chew up river miles when the water is fast. 

That said, there are some general rules to follow, both for the anglers on board and for the pilot of the craft who takes the oars. And there are some unwritten guidelines all on board should follow — boat etiquette if you will. These helpful little suggestions can keep everyone in sync, prevent tangled lines or stray flies from hooking earlobes or hats, and up the chances of a productive outing for everyone involved. 

float fishing in a raft

This article is made possible by our friends at onWater. onWater is an excellent tool for anyone who enjoys spending time on the water, and offers users a plethora of tools such as real-time water data, public and private property borders, boat ramp info, and much much more. To learn more about onWater, click HERE.

finding a boat ramp after float fishing

Disclaimer: There has been a constant back and forth in regard to proper terminology, and what the term “float fishing” actually implies. Yes, for most conventional anglers, “float fishing” often refers to the method of fishing which involves suspending a bait in mid-water underneath a float, meaning that anglers are constantly watching the float waiting for it to dip under the surface when a fish takes the bait (via: British Sea Fishing). However, our definition of float fishing is in reference to the aforementioned association, which has become more than common vernacular within the fly fishing community.

Float Fishing – Before you Go: 

No, you can’t just show up and go and hope everything goes off without a hitch. Boaters and anglers need to iron out a few details first, and take others into account to ensure the trip is done safely, and, hopefully, successfully. 

For instance, before the trailer is even attached to the truck, those organizing the trip need to know a few things. Everyone involved needs to know the “plan of attack” for the trip — what the weather might be like when the trip gets underway, what the river might hold in store for them, and any regulations they need to plan for. 

driving to go float fishing

Planning a Float Fishing Trip:

  • Everyone needs to know the weather forecast and plan for it. If it’s going to be clear an sunny, floppy hats and sunscreen might trump a waterproof puffy jacket. Rain and wind? Bring the necessary equipment and stay safe in the elements.
  • early morning float fishing tripWhen does the float start? Everyone should either know when the boat will shove off from the put-in, or be there when it does. It’s rude to make others wait, and, on some floats, timing is very important.
  • What does the river look like in real-time. Using flow data from onWater, most boaters can get up-to-date information on river flows and river conditions. This should give those organizing the float-fishing trip an idea of what certain river features — like rapids, side channels, or irrigation diversions — will look like when they’re encountered on the trip. 
  • Finally, everybody aboard needs to know the rules of the river, which can include everything from the need to haul out waste (yes, especially that waste) to making sure any needed permits are purchased and valid to simple safety rules, like making sure there are enough life preservers on board for each passenger.

For all of this information and more right at your fingertips, check out the onWater app, HERE.

onwater app features
Save onWater maps offline so they’re always available, regardless of signal.

Important Gear for Float Fishing:

The crew heading out for the day (or days) on the water also needs to make sure they’re equipped with the appropriate gear, both for fishing and to make sure everyone gets through the day safely. Consider the following:

float fishing in the morning

  • Everyone on the trip should have some familiarity with the craft, be it a drift boat or raft. From a fishing perspective, they work similarly, but the person behind the oars is always in charge.
  • For most drift-boat or raft trips down American rivers, from the Delaware to the Henry’s Fork, fly gear is pretty straightforward. A moderate-action 9-foot, 5-weight rod with a corresponding reel and line is kind of the “universal” setup. Some anglers go heavier — up to a 7-weight — if they’re going to cast big streamers or big dry flies. Depending on the time of year, anglers might consider a sinking line or, at the very least, a sink-tip line, to help get the fly down. But, generally speaking, a floating line is the standard. 

casting a 7 weight rod from a drift boat

  • On every river trip, safety gear is important. Obviously, life preservers are a must, but a good first-aid kit comes in handy more than most might believe. And extra oar, particularly on raft trips that might push over Class III or bigger rapids, is a good idea. 
  • Never leave home without good rain gear — even if it’s just a light shell that can stuff into a dry bag. On cold-water floats, waders, and wading boots are a good idea, particularly in the shoulder months when the weather is less predictable. 
  • Finally, make sure everyone brings enough to eat and drink — even for a short float. Water is important, but, especially during colder months when the body is expending calories just to stay warm, good energy bars or snacks to replenish spent fuel are important, too. It’s always nice to have a few cold beers in the cooler, alongside the water and energy drinks, and fresh fruit is almost always a good idea, too. 

having a drink on a raft

Positions During Float Fishing

Behind the Oars

The maestro of the float fishing symphony is the man or woman on the oars in the middle of the craft. It takes some practice to row drift boats and rafts, particularly with anglers both fore and aft. But it’s not rocket science. The oarsman/oarswoman should know and follow some basic rules, all while working to position the boat so both anglers on board can get solid opportunities to cast over good holding water or directly to rising fish.

managing a raft behind the oars

The captain of the boat is responsible for the safety of his or her passengers, first and foremost. This means that downstream obstacles must be identified well ahead of time, and steps must be taken to avoid them at all costs. Throw in the fact that the oars person is also being counted on to position anglers for their best possible cast, keep an eye out for rising or working fish, and read the approaching water, and the guide behind the oars needs to be a master at multitasking.

For new rowers or first-time drift-boat or raft captains, it can be overwhelming. But just like anything else, practice makes perfect. And, there are some tools that can shorten, or at least help flatten, the learning curve. Knowing the river you’re floating is perhaps the best way to achieve competency behind the oars. But we don’t always fish in familiar water. That’s where seeking a bit of help from outside sources comes in. A conversation at the local fly shop is a good idea, as is a bit of polite Q&A with fellow rowers at any river put-in. 

Regardless of how you get to know a river, here are some basic guidelines to follow if you’re going to take the oars on any stretch of water

navigating inside a drift boat

  • Keep dangerous obstacles in front of you. Point the bow of the boat at things like rocks, downed trees, or fast-water sections — it’s much easier to maneuver around these obstacles when you can back-row and steer the boat with the obstacles in your line of sight.
  • Generally speaking, when rowing anglers downriver, communicate with your passengers using the dependable “clock” system. The bow of the boat is 12 o’clock. To the left a few degrees is 11, then 10 and finally 9. To the right a few degrees is 1 o’clock, then 2 and finally 3. Don’t worry about 8 o’clock or 4 o’clock — those “time slots” are in the rearview mirror, and you don’t want anglers cast behind the boat. 
  • When you can, position the boat at a 45-degree angle to the bank (or to the target of the lead angler’s cast), and instruct the angler to cast at an angle, but ahead of the boat. Instruct the angler in the stern of the boat to cast at the same angle — the rear angler will have a longer cast to make, so it often makes sense to have the stronger caster in the back of the boat. This angle gives you the best chance to avoid obstacles that are more common closer to the banks where the fish will likely be holding.

float facing towards the bank

  • Keep an eye on the river at all times. You’re looking for two things: rising fish and upcoming obstacles you’ll need to avoid. 
  • You’re in charge. Don’t be afraid to coach anglers on their casts (or remind them of the need to cast ahead of the boat — this prevents the two casters from getting tangled up with each other). When you approach obstacles, remember … safety first. Communicate with your anglers. For instance, you might say,  “Hey guys, let’s sit down while I push us through this rapid.” 
  • Generally speaking, you want the boat to travel at the speed of the river, or just a hair slower. This means you’ll need to backpaddle. A lot. But this gives your anglers the best shots at quality drifts and increases their chance at success.

Float Fishing From the Front of the Boat

The front of a drift boat or a raft is the prime casting location. Not only will anglers in the bow have the first cast at quality holding water, they’ll also be closer to the target and able to pull off a shorter, more accurate cast. But riding in the front of the boat has its responsibilities. Here are a few of them:

float fishing from the front of the boat

  • Listen to the person rowing the boat. They’re watching for obstacles and they’re watching for rising fish, quality holding water, etc. Your job is to pay attention to what they’re saying. 
  • Follow the 45- and 90-degree rule. Generally speaking, you want to be casting ahead of the boat in order to give yourself the best possible drift. When your fly is at 90 degrees to the boat (3 o’clock), lift your line and recast. 
  • Don’t cast at fish behind you. First, you had your shot. Now, it’s the angler in the stern who gets a chance. Second, you’ll increase the likelihood of getting tangled up with your fishing partner. When this happens everything comes to a standstill. 

cast at fish in front when float fishing

  • Lock into the knee locks, which are common on drift boats and often present on rafts. If you’re in a raft without a standing frame, you’re better off casting from a sitting position. This ensures two things: first, you’ll be safer should the boat hit some unseen underwater structure. Second, you’ll force yourself to look ahead to where you should be casting. 

Float Fishing From the Back of the Boat

Congratulations. Your guide has likely put you in the back of the boat because he or she has identified you as the better caster. Or, you might just weigh less — often, guides will put heavier anglers in the front of the boat to keep the craft’s nose from rising too high and impeding both vision and maneuverability. But let’s just assume you’re the stronger cast of the two anglers in the boat. What does this mean for you?

float fishing from the back of the boat

  • First, you’ll likely have to cast a bit farther than your fishing buddy in the bow. But don’t fret — good guides are good behind the oars. Even your longer cast should be doable. float fishing from the back of the boat
  • Since you can see both the guide and the angler in the front of the boat, you are responsible for the “timing” of the symphony. Generally speaking, you want to be casting on a timer that’s opposite of that of your partner. When your partner is casting, you want your fly in or on the water. It’s not a huge tragedy to be on the same casting clock as your fishing buddy, but since he or she can’t see you and they don’t know when you’re casting, this just takes a bit of chance out of the equation and cuts down on the tangles. 
  • You need to listen to the guide. He or she will be primarily communicating with the lead angler, but the instructions are for you, too. For instance, “You’ve got a riser at 1 o’clock,” means you, too, need to be ready to hit that target. Your buddy’s fly might drift by the target unmolested — be ready to put your fly on target once the lead fly is lifted off the water. 
  • Just like the lead angler, it’s much safer if you’re either locked into the knee locks or casting from a seated position. If you choose to do the latter, just let your guide and your fellow angler know. 

Know your role

Regardless of where you are in the drift boat or raft, safety should always be top-of-mind. Know where the lifejackets are stowed and be ready to reach one should your guide ask you to do so. When you stow gear in the boat, always keep the maneuverability of the guide in mind. You don’t want to plop your vest or boat bag at the feet of the rower, for instance. And, if you’re in a raft, you’ll likely want to keep your gear in a dry bag, and keep it securely stowed.

fishing in a boat

Key Take Aways for Float Fishing:

Finally, it’s all about communication. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the guide about everything from where to cast to when to cast, and don’t be afraid to let your fellow angler know what you’re doing. For instance, if you’re switching things up and putting on a streamer while the fly fisher in the bow is sticking with a dry fly, let both the guide and your fishing partner know you’re out of commission for a bit. Then, when you start fishing again, let them know that, too. 

holding a trout infront of a raft
Click HERE to learn more about how NRS and onWater are teaming up to optimize your experience on the water.

In time, these little tips and rules will become second nature, and you’ll start to enjoy the benefits of fishing from a drift boat or a raft. It can be a very effective way to cover water, handle bigger rivers, and put anglers in the best position to catch fish. 

Thank you to onWater for making this article possible, and for being an essential tool for us on all of our float fishing trips and more. To learn more about the onWater app, as well as all of the tools it offers, Click HERE.

the onwater app in use

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