Can You Use a Drift Boat on a Lake?

drift boat on open lake

Drift boats are iconic shallow water boats that are most often found in the turbulent waters of the Rogue and McKenzie rivers in Oregon, were they were born. They are fantastic river runners and great for upstream fishing. But, with its shallow draft and flat bottom can you use a drift boat on a lake?

A drift boat can be used safely on a lake, though it does have its drawbacks. A drift boat will not track as straight on flat water as a traditional rowboat or a skiff. It can also be physically demanding rowing in still water. The high sides of the boat will catch the wind making the boat more difficult to control. A drift boat does give you the option of fishing on moving water and it will handle chop very well.

Can drift boats be used on deep lake waters?

The drift boat, with its flat bottom and shallow draft, may not seem like the ideal boat to be using in deep open water but you would be surprised at the versatility of this unique rowboat.

Traditionally drift boats are used for river running in turbulent waters. They are such effective river runners that they can handle rivers with up to class IV rapids. This makes ideal for use in moving water. But they are more than just a river runner.

Drift boats evolved from the dory boat that was used in deep ocean bays for fishing. Although its flat bottom design caused many problems in ocean waters, and some deaths, its basic design still means it is capable of being used in deep waters. However, the drift boat is designed to be used in moving water and therefore does have some drawbacks in large bodies of flat water.

Let’s take a look at the the pros and cons a drift boat offers the boater. We will first look at the drawbacks of using a drift boat in the deep waters of a lake before we touch on its benefits.


Drift boats may have a flat bottom but they actually handle flat water much worse than other flat bottom boat boats.

Where other flat bottom boats, such as Jon boats, flat bottom canoes and sled boats for example, offer greater stability and handling on still water, a drift boat is completely different.

Drift boats are designed to “drift”. They excel when they are moving and do not handle as well when they are at a standstill. The high sides of the boat will catch the wind and make the boat difficult to handle on flat water.

A drift boat can also be difficult to row in flat water and the wider the boat is, the more difficult it will be to row. The oars are used more for maneuvering the vessel as it travels downstream in fast moving river water. A drift boat is extremely responsive to the oarsman in fast water and can turn on a dime.

A traditional rowboat with a v-hull bottom would be much easier to row and fish off in still water than a drift boat.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. You can take steps to offset the drawbacks of using a drift boat in a lake.

Overcoming the drawbacks of using a drift boat in a lake

One way of dealing with the wind pushing on a drift boat when it is at a stop is to use an anchor. Be sure you have the correct anchor for the lake bottom you are boating on and that you know how to anchor a drift boat correctly. The anchor should hold the boat well enough to allow you to fish in relative stability without the boat being jostled about on the water.

You can also double anchor a drift boat for extra holding power as this will almost entirely eliminate the wind problem.

To tackle the problem of rowing the drift boat in flat water, when it feels like you are trying to move a tank stuck in mud, you can fit a small trolling motor to the boat. Mounting a motor on a drift boat takes careful consideration and good judgement though. You can’t just stick a motor on it and hope for the best.

Drift boats were never designed for motorized propulsion and putting a powerful outboard motor on a drift boat will result in damage to your boat and possible injury to you and those on the boat.

A drift boat can only handle a small trolling motor and it requires time and patience to learn how to use it. Using a motor on a drift boat is not the same as using one on other types of boat. You can read more about putting motors on drift boats, and the potential dangers it poses, in this article.

Also be sure to read our article on choosing the correct size motor for your drift boat here as it is dangerous to mount a bigger motor on a drift boat that it can handle.

Be aware that mounting a motor to a drift boat is not as easy as mounting one to other boat types, like a Jon boat for example, because a drift boat usually has a pointed bow and pointed stern. Even on drift boats that have a flatter stern there is usually not enough space to mount a motor without encountering problems.

If you plan to put a motor on a drift boat be sure to read our article how to mount a trolling motor on a drift boat so you get the most out of the motor and you avoid doing damage to your expensive boat.


Because a drift boat has a hull design that makes it an excellent river running this means it can handle some serious chop.

As most lakes have large expanses of open water they tend to experience high wind and therefore choppy water at times. The unusual curved shape of a drift boat is designed to allow the boat to ride very turbulent water while simultaneously giving the oarsman instant control over the boat’s direction.

In moving water a drift boat is a joy to row. You can also fish downstream off a drift boat that is moving upstream, as is the common practice in drift boat fishing.

Owning a drift boat also gives you the option of river fishing or recreational river use (like boat camping). Where v-hull lake boats would be unsuitable for river use, due to the shallow waters in rivers, a drift boat would be perfectly a home.

Should you use a drift boat in lakes?

Okay so you can use a drift boat in a lake but should you use a drift boat in a lake?

Most drift boat manufacturers advise against using their boats in lakes not because they are unsafe but because they are not user-friendly in this type of environment.

A drift can be used in a lake but there are other rowboats better suited to that type of environment.

A drift boat is a “drifter”. It is meant to be used “on the move”.

Drift boats excel in moving water and can easily handle whitewater and can even be used to run rapids. You may see drift boats being used frequently in lakes in Oregon but that is simply because boaters in Oregon use drift boats to run the turbulent Rogue River and McKenzie River. When they make the transition to lake fishing, all they have are drift boats!

My advise is to try a drift boat in a lake one or two times before you commit to buying, or building, one.

There are other boats that are much better equipped to deal with lake waters. If you intend to only boat in lakes you would be better with an alternative boat.

Alternatives to using a drift boat for lake use

As you can see it is possible to use a drift boat on a lake but it is far from the best choice.

Drift boats are designed for river use with moving water and whitewater. They are first and foremost river runners and are only rowboats and fishing boats second. So you may be better considering an alternative vessel if you plan to boat frequently in lake waters.

The most obvious alternative to a drift boat is a rowboat. The v-hull design means rowing the boat is easy and although it won’t feel as stable on flat water as a flat bottom boat it will be easier to fish off than a drift boat and a lot easier to row.

Unfortunately though traditional rowboats are just as expensive as drift boats and are more difficult to build as a home project than a flat bottom boat.

The cheaper, and in my opinion better, option is to buy or build your own, skiff. Rowing skiffs can be built for a fraction of the cost of a drift boat or a traditional rowboat. If you don’t want to build a boat you could probably pick-up a used home-made skiff if you shop around a bit.

Skiffs also lend themselves better to mounting a bigger trolling motor.

For a rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of using each boat type read our battle of the boats article skiff vs drift boat.

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