2021 is going to be an interesting year to navigate – both on and off the water. If you’ve ever thought about navigating rivers here in the Rocky Mountain West using a set of oars vs. studded wading boots, check out this article by Reid Baker. Reid makes a great case for changing up your walk/wade fishing game and exploring your favorite river by drift boat or raft.
- Will Rice, The Current Journal Editor
"Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Gink"
By Reid Baker
After I hung up the waders on my full time guide career I felt the intense need to mix things up. I spent years walking the same handful of rivers with clients, and found that what had made me successful as a guide—predictability and consistency—was impacting my overall enjoyment as a “civilian” angler. Simply put, I had lost that thrill factor you get when seeing a river for the first time. Though I had a couple of destination trips planned throughout the year, what I really needed was a fresh way to approach the waters in my home state.
At one point early in my guiding days I had been logging commercial miles as a whitewater raft and float fishing guide. I was also fortunate enough to have a number of friends who owned boats throughout the years, but I was always at the mercy of their schedules. It didn’t take me long to conclude that a craft of my own would open me up to a refreshed approach to the river.
I’ve now had my raft for several seasons. I can absolutely say it immediately helped broaden the rivers I could access throughout the region, and accomplished my initial goal on day one. But what I didn’t exactly expect was how I enjoyed my time on the water once I pivoted to primarily being a float angler. The following thoughts and tips have impacted my enjoyment of days on the water the most. Here are just a few of them.
Float and Be Happy
Starting my guiding days up in Hog Island’s HQ town of Steamboat, I always felt that credo perfectly summed up the float fishing community. It’s just always seemed more chill. There is something about meandering down a trout stream with your best fishing buds, family or dog in the seats that takes away any nagging sense of urgency. Maybe it’s because you know you have miles of water ahead of you, and all you have to do is sit back and let the river take you there as the scenery changes. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve never found myself getting bummed out floating on a trout stream if the fishing is slow, or if there are other boaters, waders, SUP’ers… or even drunk tubers.
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re thinking that buying a raft or dory is going to get you away from the crowds, you are in for a big disappointment. Just go to Pumphouse on the Colorado River on a Saturday morning in July, Grey Reef in April or The Bighorn during BWO season, and you’ll quickly realize you have every bit of angler density as the Cheesman Canyon trailhead.
But despite the possibility for waiting your turn at the launch or someone anchored up on your favorite hopper bank, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find you achieve a Zen-like level of peace about it all. You’ll ask your buddy to turn up that tune on the Bluetooth speaker, or chuckle when the dude on your hopper bank hangs up on the overhanging brush. Or, even better, call out how awesome it looked when he hooked up.
The comradery between the gunwales
There is something to be said about cramming two or three anglers within a 12’-16’ boat that brings people together in a unique way. As days and miles continue to grow in my log book, I find the conversations, jokes, debates, family time and memories revolve more and more around that close proximity. Call it a focus group, social experiment or petri dish, but it’s something truly special that you can’t get when you’re spread out on foot along a sprawling run.
My mother-in-law is a proud breast cancer survivor. During her treatment, she discovered the amazing catharsis and community she found through a fly fishing cancer group in her home state of Michigan. She credits the river and the people she met on it as a major factor in her recovery. But as years went on and after heavy rounds of chemo, her balance and sure-footedness began to decline, causing her to question her ability to wade. Then, after tripping over some barbed wire mid-river, she faced the fact that her walk wading days needed to be behind her. Each summer her now annual float with my wife and I in Colorado is one of the highlights of her year-- ours as well.
Similarly, but at the same time very different, is if you’re on my short list of fishing buddies, you better have a thick skin before coming aboard the SS Baker. Heckling is, and should be, a staple in every healthy angler to angler relationship, and in my opinion, the mark of a true friendship.
But I also believe a little social edge on the boat plays an essential role for both success and safety. Yes, it pushes you to fish better. More importantly, it pushes you to row your lines clean and avoid hazard. Then put anglers in the best position to hook up. The rower feels just as much a part of landing any fish as the one holding the rod, and I chalk that up to proficiency on the oars, clear lines of communication and some light ribbing from time to time. Just ask my friend, Farmer Shawn.
(Editor’s Note: here is the unofficial definition of “farming” a fish – verb - to be deprived of or cease to have or retain a fish you should have hooked and landed)
The cooler. Or amenities in general. But mostly the cooler.
Between dry boxes, boat bags filled with gear, or compartments for all your knick-knacks, there is a new level of conveniences to make your day extra prepped—provided you can stay organized, which is absolutely key.
Multi day wilderness floats are essentially the perfect blend of backpacking serenity and peace, mixed with all the cushiness of car camping.
And then there’s the cooler, oh the cooler! Gone are the days of PB&Js smashed inside your fishing vest, or long treks back to the parking lot to tailgate lunch. When the ice chest is the rower seat, or sits in the front bay of the boat, you have a whole new world of culinary experience while anchored up in your scenic float. I’ve come to truly appreciate a proper shore lunch shared amongst good people.
And nothing beats the whole boat celebrating the (first?) fish of the day with cold beers straight out of the ice.
I could go on, believe me. What I’ve found is the boat has a way to access rivers differently and bring people together differently than walk wading. Not necessarily better, just different, which was everything I was looking for when I shoved off on the maiden voyage. What started out originally as a way for me to diversify the ways I approached the stream soon taught me new ways I came to enjoy my time on the water.
Special Note from the Author: Boating, especially on rivers, is inherently dangerous. The author in no way recommend this activity without extensive training, area knowledge and well-maintained equipment. Never boat while impaired.
10 Questions to contemplate if you are thinking about getting a raft or drift boat:
1. How do you plan to use the boat? i.e. fishing, camping and overnights, whitewater, lake fishing, family floats?
2. How many days do you plan to be on the water?
3. Where will you store it?
4. Do you already have a trailer, how will you transport it?
5. How many people do you want to carry and fish with?
6. Do you have any rowing or river navigation experience? What types of boats have you rowed in the past?
7. Are you planning only day trips or do you want to use your raft for multiday adventures?
8. How long and how many people do you want to take?
9. New or used? What’s your budget?
10. Do you know how to identify safe flows for the rivers you intend to access and do you have an education plan?"
About the author
Reid Baker is a front range weekend warrior, PTO destination angler, dedicated conservationist and a dabbling writer whose work has also appeared in The Flyfish Journal. When not fishing or planning his next trip, Reid also serves on the board of Denver Trout Unlimited.
This article was first published in the 2020 CURRENT Magazine.