Where to Use a Drift Boat to Get the Most From It

Drift boat in river rapids

Drift boats are iconic rowboats that are were first seen in the rivers of Oregon. They are beautiful boats that look stunning on the water and have multiple uses so it’s no wonder they are becoming more popular across America. But what exactly are the best environments for using a drift boat.

Drift boats are almost always used on inland waterways. They were built to handle turbulent rivers with whitewater and rapids up to Class IV. They can also be used for fishing in lakes and ponds, though are most effective in moving water. The flat bottom and shallow draft of a drift boat means it can be used to access shallow water areas and its superior handling means it can be used to navigate some very turbulent water.

Where to use a drift boat

Drift boats have been designed to be used on turbulent rivers with whitewater and rapids. In areas where you would normally see only whitewater kayaks and river rafts you may also see the occasional drift boat. A drift boat is a river runner. It is capable of navigating extreme whitewater and riding the type of turbulent rapids that only modern rubber rafts and specially designed kayaks can be used in.

However, a drift boat is not restricted to river running. It can be used in different environments for different purposes. Let’s look at those now.

A drift boat excels in whitewater rivers with rapids

Drift boats are most often used in rivers that have turbulent water because that is what they are designed to do. Whitewater is no obstacle to a drift boat.

As a river runner, a drift boat is more than capable of keeping up with any other vessel that is designed to ride rapids.

With its uniquely curved shaped and shallow draft a drift is capable of riding some pretty rough water even if the depth of the water is very shallow (like in rapids).

Now you may be thinking, “why would anyone want to use a rowboat that is usually made from wood for navigating boulder laden whitewater rivers? Surely a wooden rowboat (or even a fiberglass or aluminum one) and class IV rapids equals a broken a boat?” And, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that.

So, how can a wooden rowboat be used on seriously scary rapids?

Well, the ability of a drift boat to easily navigate turbulent rapids lies in its near instant responsiveness to the oarsman.

A drift boat can turn on a dime. This means an experienced oarsman/oarswoman can manipulate the trajectory of his/her boat easily in even the most turbulent of waters.

Take a look at the video below to see how the oarsman easily steers his drift boat on whitewater and through rapids.

Drift river running on Rogue River (video)

A drift boat performs best in moving water

The drift boat is known as a “drifter” because it performs at its best in moving water. Drift boat fishing for example, is done while the boat is kept continually moving upstream while the angler casts off downstream.

Although you can anchor a drift boat and fish from it when it’s stationary, this causes some stability issues and the boat will never perform at its best. To get the most from a drift boat you need to keep it moving.

Drift boats are also known as downstream boats. Although drift boats are extremely responsive when maneuvering them, the flat bottom hull makes it difficult to row the boat upstream in any type of strong current (just like a flat bottom Jon boat fitted with oars). The flat bottom hull is just not equipped for slicing through the water effectively enough to make rowing upstream as easy as you would find in a v-hull rowboat.

Of course you can put a motor on a drift boat to help push the boat upstream but you must do this with extreme caution. Drift boats are specialized rowboats that were never designed for mechanical propulsion. Using a motor on a drift involves a real learning curve as the boat will not handle the same way other rowboats (or any boat for that matter) would.

There are specific sizes of motor that are appropriate for a drift boat and going over those recommended sizes can be disastrous for both the boat and the people on it. A motor that is too powerful for a drift boat makes the boat impossible to handle and it can easily send the boat into the banks without you being able to do anything about it.

Additionally, drift boats have hulls that make mounting even a small trolling motor a challenge. As both the bow and the transom of a drift boat are usually pointed mounting even a small trolling motor on one requires specific steps to be followed.

In the video below watch how the boat is continually kept moving while the angler casts off and fishes from the bow.

Drift boat fishing (video)

Fishing in lakes and ponds

Although drift boats are drifters that are meant to be constantly on the move, this does not mean you cannot use one in still waters.

Can you use a drift boat be on a lake? Yes it can.

Although drift boats will perform best on moving inland waters, like rivers, they can still be used in open still waters, like lakes.

However, you should be aware that a drift boat will not perform as well as other types of boats that are better designed for still open water use. A drift boat will not track as straight on calm water as a v-hull rowboat or a v-hull, or semi-v, skiff for instance. Nor will it be as stable as a Jon boat for the wind-based reasons given below.

Just as rowing a drift boat upstream is physically demanding, it can be just as physically demanding and tiring to row a drift boat in still water. The flat bottom hull causes a lot of drag which requires a lot of physical force to overcome.

Additionally, in open water such as lakes, there tends to be much more wind. Unfortunately, the high sides of a drift boat, that gives it such an advantage in turbulent waters, are a drawback in open lakes. The sides of the boat will catch the wind which then pushes the boat around making it more difficult to control and will make it feel less stable on the water.

To better understand why exactly a drift boat can be used so effectively in all of the above environments we need to quickly look at where this totally unique rowboat came from and why it is has such a unique design when compared to other boats.

How the dory evolved into the drift boat and why

Drift boats evolved from the dory fishing boat. The dory was used in bays and along shorelines for fishing. Although the dory boat has a flat bottom it was not designed like that for the usual reasons. Flat bottom boats have a flat hull design so they can be used in shallow water areas, whereas the dory was given a flat bottom simply to accommodate for its mother-ship’s limited storage space.

The dory boat did not sail out to its fishing spot on its own. It was carried aboard a mother-ship, usually a schooner, which launched multiple dory boats into the ocean water when it reached its desired fishing location. When the day’s fishing was finished the dories were loaded back onto the schooner for the return trip. So, giving the dory a flat bottom meant several boats could be stacked on top of each other and this made for easier storage and transportation.

This flat bottom hull caused many problems for fishermen, and even deaths, as flat bottom boats are not designed for rough water and the type of waves you see in the ocean. To learn more about these problems and the dory boat read this article.

Although the flat bottom hull design caused problems at sea, it was extremely beneficial on inland waterways. Soon the dory was being used on rivers in Oregon, where the boat was readily available. And, as rivers are either shallow or have extensive shallow areas the dory proved to be an invaluable shallow draft river boat.

However, it proved itself to be much more than just an excellent shallow draft boat.

When dory boats were used on inland waters they were first used in the McKenzie and Rogue rivers in Oregon. Both these rivers are extremely turbulent with not just whitewater but they also have with shallow water class IV rapids.

On these rivers a normal rowboat with a v-hull would simply ground or be broken up into pieces on the rocks. So, obviously a flat bottom vessel was needed. However, other commonly used flat bottom boats of the time, all which are still used today and can easily handle shallow water, like a Jon boat for example, proved to be totally incapable of handling the turbulent water and rapids of the McKenzie and Rogue rivers.

Fishermen found that the dory boat was better able to handle the turbulence of the Oregon rivers because it was designed to handle ocean chop, while its flat bottom meant it could be used to navigate the river shallows and to avoid grounding in shallow rapids. However, the dory was not totally at ease in rapids.

Soon the dory was being altered, like giving it a unique curved shaped, to make it better able to ride the rapids of the Rogue River and McKenzie River and hence the drift boat was born.

This is why a drift boat can be used in both shallow water and in turbulent water.

For a more in-depth explanation of the difference between a dory and a drift boat read this article.

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