Being able to fish a larger trout river from a boat is a mixed blessing. The boat fisherman covers much more water than does a wading angler and reaches many spots a wading angler can’t.
But the boat fisherman is usually moving past any given target fairly quickly. Often too fast to cover well those spots a wading fisherman might cover more carefully and productively.
I have often, for example, caught as many or more trout as large or larger in a day’s wading on Montana’s Madison River than I have in a day’s float trip on the same river.
Floating is also sometimes the only way to really fish a river. Either because some productive stretches are too much of a distant walk-as with some areas of the Madison. Or because shoreline access is limited by posted land, as with many rivers in the West and elsewhere.
If you are looking for perfect float fishing techniques for catching trouts and also some other fishes, then this is the right article for you.
Fishing in moving water from a boat and with streamers calls for some special tricks, a few of which we’ll examine here.
Conventional streamer strategy is based on the wading angler stationary in a stream. This means one end of the line is stationary also, and the angler has to mend and manipulate his line in the flow to control the fly.
In float fishing, both ends of the line are moving. The angler’s boat is moving downstream and so is the fly, often in currents of different speeds. Line-control problems thus become different and sometimes complex.
The kind of boat you’re fishing from will also make a difference.
Most drift boats-also called Mackenzie River boats. These boats as are commonly used in the Rockies and West. Also, these boats are sufficiently stable to allow casting and fishing while standing up.
This is by far the easiest way.
You’ll have to fish sitting down from an inflatable raft, common on many western rivers, or from a canoe, as commonly done in the Northeast.
For most of this chapter, I’ll assume you’re standing in the bow of a drift boat being rowed by a good guide on a larger river.
Many drift boats have knee-locks at the bow, which enable you to brace yourself while standing. There’s usually a small deck right in front of you to hold your loose fly line. When you start, strip offline and make a cast of fifty feet or so.
Then strip in line so it falls in large loose coils on the deck, and you’re ready to start fishing.
The guide will be right behind you in the center of the boat, rowing upstream to slow and control the boat’s downstream drift. And it will help to stay a comfortable cast away from the bank toward which you’ll be fishing.
Assume for the moment you’re a right-handed caster fishing the left bank as you face downstream. Using the worm of float fishes, this can be very right. Use a high back cast so the plane of your forward cast can be aimed downward toward the water along the bank.
Use the full bend of the rod in casting so your rod ends up low to the water after your forward power stroke and the line is perfectly straight between your rod and the fly. You should be casting accurately enough so your fly lands within an inch or two of the bank (or any other target) every time.
The trout will almost always be lying within a foot or so of the bank or other covers, and other things being equal—he who can cast most accurately will catch the most fish.
On some rivers, especially popular rivers like the Madison or Bighorn in Montana, the trout are treated to a daylong parade of drift boats constantly working the same banks.
When streamer fishing if you cast your fly right on target to the back of an eddy you are most probably covering the water.
If you are behind a stump, or through a hole in the brush you will find the advantage. The same way you’ll probably be covering water-and catching trout-the other boats haven’t. This is applicable to with other fly types, too.
This sort of accurate casting comes with long practice and tackle properly balanced to the size and weight of the fly you’re fishing. Being aware of its importance, however, can be of help to anyone.
Brown trout of this size is most commonly caught on streamers as opposed to other fly types. This fish came from Montana’s Big Horn on a Dark Spruce streamer in October.
Now you’ve got the fly next to the bank, and your line is straight. So, you’re in control of the fly for streamer and ready for a strike. The fly is drifting broadside in the current, paralleling the downstream motion of the boat.
By working the rod tip, a little and stripping line with your line hand as need be, you can give the fly some life.
Try to keep it in productive water for as long as possible, which means near the bank and not mid river. If the current is smooth and of constant flow between you and the bank, you should be able to keep the fly alive and drifting there for several feet.
More typically, the current speed is varied, and you’ll have to mend line up or downstream to keep the fly in position for as long as possible.
Sooner or later, of course, you’ll have to pick up for another cast, and this introduces another problem. There are usually fishy-looking spots every few feet along the bank and trying to cover every one of them as you’re drifting along is exhausting.
The first few times I tried this, I wound up casting like a machine gun for a couple of hours and was ruined for the rest of the day. As the boat drifts, keep looking ahead at possible targets. You’ll have to keep picking one-and passing up others in order to fish that one properly.
This problem and its solution offer a bonus for an alert fisherman in the back of the boat. Two fly fishermen often fish simultaneously from a drift boat.
And the caster in the bow always has the first whack at a choice spot.
It’s impossible for the bow caster to fish every good-looking spot. Therefore, all the rearward fisherman has to do is to watch where the bow person casts and fish where he or she doesn’t.
Sometimes the bow fisherman will raise a fish that doesn’t touch the fly, and because of the boat’s drift can’t cast back to the fish. Again, the alert fisherman in the stern has an excellent shot at catching the very same fish.
There’s one method of manipulating a streamer fly that works. Especially well when drift fishing, although it can be used by wading anglers to lesser effect.
Mel Krieger, the San Francisco fly-casting instructor, described this to me after having taken a float trip with Tom Morgan, who owns the Winston Rod Company in Twin Bridges, Montana. I haven’t fished with Tom nor seen him use this technique.
But I fooled around with it a little based on Mel’s description and thus found a way of giving super action to a streamer fly without pulling it too far from the bank.
One aspect of fly-rod physics means that when you push the rod sharply downward, the tip flips up before following the rod down.
And even though fishing from the rear of the boat and thus getting the second shot at the best spots, I was able to hold my own by watching and then fishing where the bow caster didn’t.
When the fly is drifting close to the bank on a fairly tight line, if you flip your rod downward sharply, the up-flipping tip causes the fly to dart forward a short distance. As the tip recoils, it gives a little slack, which causes the fly to stop just as abruptly.
All this can take place without your having to retrieve any line-or at most just enough to keep line control-and the starts and stops of the fly are much more abrupt than you can achieve by simply stripping line. It’s a deadly and simple secret.
Suppose you see a large rock downstream and a few feet out from the bank. Commonly, trout will be holding behind. And on either side of the rock, waiting to nab whatever food the current offers.
The typical float fisherman will drop a cast in the eddy behind the rock and may often take a fish in so doing.
Adaptation is the perfect techniques to cope with these kinds of different situations.
But more than a dozen boats have already fished this rock today, so let’s try something different. Cast your fly upstream of the rock and near the bank.
As you float abreast of the rock, use an underpowered roll cast to throw some slack over the rock and to place your line downstream of the rock at the same time.
Now you can raise your rod and swim the streamer downstream around the far side of the rock and through the eddy from the bank side.
Chances are the fish will never have seen a streamer presented in this way (unless I’m in the boat you can see downstream). And you may get a violent strike that you wouldn’t have gotten with a more conventional cast.
When a right-handed caster fish the right bank (or a left-hander the left side), both the caster and the guide can be in danger.
Danger of being struck and hooked by the cast. In this case, a conventional back cast brings the fly over the boat between the caster and guide.
Guides are a little touchy about this and rightly so; it’s no fun having to yank a big hook out of your ear or neck.
Using your right arm across your body in a backhanded casting motion is too strenuous for a full day’s fishing. And I use a different solution that my friend Alex Hall showed me years ago. He showed it during a Big Hole River float trip.
With both this method and conventional casting, there’s another little trick you can add that can make a difference.
If you stop your forward cast abruptly or even pull back on the rod slightly as the cast straightens out, the line will turn over with more than normal force.
This makes the waterlogged and heavy streamer hit the water with a good, hard splat. On some days this seems to get the fish’s attention and can bring a near-immediate strike. On other days, it just scares the trout. You’ll have to experiment.
This float-fishing discussion has been limited to fishing with a floating line. I almost never use a sinking line while drift-fishing. I enjoy having the trout come to a big streamer that I can see. And generally feel I need the line control given by a floating line to drift-fish effectively.
When you come to a big, deep hole that just demands to be bottom-fished with a sinking line, ask the guide if he’ll beach the boat down below so you can walk back up and fish it properly.
About me: Hi, I'm Alex N. Ferroni, One of the creators of The Safariors blog and former camping trainer at Tripspot Magazine. I wish some other outdoor, hiking, hunting, fishing and camping enthusiasts have made this blog to share our thought. We are learning a lot through each trip, and we want you to learn that too!