What is a Drift Boat Used For? The Answer May Surprise You!

A drift boat river running

The drift boat is an iconic shallow water vessel that began its life in the turbulent waters of Oregon. The drift boat was a natural evolution from the ocean dory that was carried on a larger vessel and launched in bays for fishing runs. But with the drift boat having changed so much from its dory origins and with its totally unique hull design it is no wonder many people wonder what is it used for.

A drift boat is used almost entirely on inland bodies of water. It is most often used for river running in turbulent whitewater rivers. The unique curved hull, with its flat bottom and shallow draft, along with its ability to turn on a dime, makes a drift boat one of the only fishing boats capable of riding rapids. As well as river running the drift boat is also used for a unique type of fishing where the boat is continually moving upstream while an angler fishes downstream.

The versatility of a drift boat

A drift boat evolved from the ocean dory boat. The dory is a rowboat that was traditionally used as a fishing vessel in bays and along ocean shorelines.

Dory boats were launched from a large schooner to fish in ocean waters. These boats were designed with flat bottoms so they were easy to to stack on the schooner that carried them. Unfortunately though, a boat with a flat bottom is not a good choice for ocean waters and this boat design lead to many accidents and deaths. It did, though, lead the way to the development of the drift boat.

The flat bottom design of the dory meant this boat has a shallow draft and thus this made it a perfect choice for boaters who frequented inland bodies of water where shallows are prevalent. Of course there were other types of shallow draft river boats available but the dory’s ability to handle rough water gave it an advantage over other flat bottom boats in the turbulent rivers of Oregon were it was first used inland.

Boaters who had access to the dory, as it was used in nearby ocean waters, and the need for a unique vessel that could be used to navigate the turbulent McKenzie and Rogue rivers found that the boat was an almost perfect fit for their needs. The dory boat proved valuable to these river users because the flat bottom hull gave the dory a shallow draft that allowed it to access areas of shallow water while its hull design allowed it to ride turbulent water better than other types of flat bottom boat (like a Jon boat or flat-bottomed skiff, for example).

With a few minor design modifications, such as the uniquely curved nature of the hull that gives the boat more rocker (read more about that here), the dory soon evolved into what we now call the drift boat and became by far the best river running rowboat in existence. But its unique capabilities don’t stop there.

There are many reasons to use a drift boat rather than a dory.

The drift boat is a much more versatile vessel than a traditional dory. Though the two boats are similar, a drift boat is uniquely suitable for activities that are usually reserved for river rafts, whitewater kayaks and some specially modified canoes.

Let’s take a look at some of those activities now.

River running

A drift boat is first-and-foremost a river runner. These boats are designed to take on some seriously turbulent river waters.

River running involves recreational vessels navigating rivers that have areas of unsettled water which includes turbulent whitewater and tumultuous rapids.

As many drift boats are made from wood you may think that this is a strange activity for a wooden rowboat to be involved in and normally you’d be right. But, a drift boat is not your average type of rowboat! A drift can do things that a normal rowboat could not even attempt (see our article drift boat vs rowboat for more information).

Whitewater rowing

The reason the ocean dory was first used in the turbulent rivers of Oregon was because it could, unlike other flat bottom boats, handle rough waters, at least to a certain degree. However, with different rivers and rapids came different challenges and so over time the dories were modified so they were better suited to the specific environments they were being used in. This gave rise to several different variations of inland waterway dories such as the McKenzie Dory and the Rogue River Dory.

Drift boats were a further evolution of the river dory and, although there are also some different variations in this boat type, most drift boats share similar characteristics, perform in a similar way and look very similar.

The drift boat is designed to be a truly excellent downstream rowboat that is easy to maneuver even in the most turbulent of whitewater. Drift boats are incredibly responsive to the oarsman.

The flat bottom hull means the boat can be used to navigate shallow water areas but its uniquely curved shape and high sides allows it to tackle some very turbulent water. Having evolved from the dory the drift boat is better able to deal with choppy water than other flat bottom boats and it can drift quite happily in whitewater all day long.

The only drawback is that a drift boat is a downstream vessel. Although it is easy to navigate in whitewater when moving downstream, it would prove to be a very difficult task to try to row the boat upstream in the same water simply because it would require so much physical effort.

You can put a motor on a drift boat so that you can move upstream but not all motors are suitable and mounting the motor is not as easy a task as it is with other boats. Careful consideration must not just be given to the size of motor you mount on a drift but there are very specific ways to mount the motor to avoid damaging the boat. Drift boats were not designed for mechanical propulsion and using it on one requires foreknowledge of its affects and careful consideration to safety protocols.

Rapid riding

Turbulent whitewater isn’t the only thing that a drift boat can ride easily. A big part of river running, at least in the Oregon rivers the drift boat was designed to be used in, involves navigating rapids.

In rapids, up to class IV, where operators of rafts and kayaks are usually only brave enough to go, it is not unusual to see a drift boat or two.

Drift boats were made to ride rapids!

The unique hull design of a drift boat means it can not only handle the rough water in a rapid but its flat bottom means it won’t snag on the river bottom as it does it as it will easily slide over boulders and obstacles as it rides the rapid.

A drift boat has superior stability in moving shallow water and superior handling in turbulent water which means this boat can be used by experienced oarsmen to handle rivers with up to class IV rapids.

Drift boat fishing

Turbulent river water is not the only cool use for a drift boat. They are excellent fishing vessels as well, though they do it in a slightly different way from other river boats.

Drift boat fishing involves a unique type of angling. Where most freshwater anglers will anchor their boat and cast off from a stationary position, drift boats fish “on the move”. Although it is possible to anchor a drift boat to fish from it, as would be the case if solo fishing, this comes with its own challenges. Drift boats are “drifters” and are more stable when they moving. They are less stable when at rest.

So, a drift boat really comes into its own when it is used to fish while it continually moves. This also means the boat can follow the fish instead of waiting for a bite.

Drift boat fishing involves at least two people on the boat; the oarsman and the angler.

The angler stands at the bow of the boat and cast off downstream while the oarsman maneuvers the boat, into the best position for a greater catch, all the while keeping the boat moving in a steady upstream direction. Even though the drift boat is moving upstream and the angler will be fishing downstream. He/she will cast off from the bow, rather than the stern, because as a rowboat the boat appears to move backwards with each stroke i.e. the stern (at the back of the oarsman) moves forward – one reason why the stern of a drift boat is pointed and not flat.

Although many drift boat owners will use this technique when fishing it is the most popular with tourists/rentals. In order for drift boat owners to engage in drift boat fishing they need to enlist the help of a friend or fellow angler who must row the boat while the other fishes.

Most drift boat fishing is done on rentals.

When you rent a drift boat for fishing most times the boat will come with a guide. The guide is responsible for rowing the boat and positioning it correctly for the ideal catch. Drift boat rental guides are experts in the waters they navigate daily and are renowned for helping their clients increase their catch.

You can read more about drift boat fishing here.

As you can see the drift boat is a very versatile inland waterway, shallow draft vessel that is both fun and practical.

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