Every year, it seems like some company introduces a new oar-powered boat or raft. And these days, vessels capable of carrying two or more people down a river come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, many of which are affordable, giving lifelong wading anglers who could never buy a drift boat or large raft the opportunity to cover more water. The thing is, rowing in moving water safely—and in a way that maximizes your fishing success—isn’t instinctual to most new boat owners. There’s a learning curve you must get through in order for the mechanics to become second-nature. The only way to really become an expert on the sticks is with lots of practice. But if you’re a rookie on the oars, these are four critical tips to know before that maiden voyage.
1. Move in Reverse
You always have better control and steering ability when moving backward. In fact, in the vast majority of situations, you’ll want to get to where you’re going by pointing the stern—not the bow—at your desired destination, and then pulling the oars and rowing upstream. It may seem counterintuitive, but forward rowing leads to trouble. Rowing backward reduces the amount of forward momentum the current can impart on the boat, slowing you down and giving you more time to think. This is especially critical in heavier water with obstacles present. Always remember that if there’s something you don’t want to hit, point the bow directly at it, row backward, and you’ll miss it every time.
2. Don’t Get Sideways
Never let the boat get completely perpendicular to the current. This is something new rowers struggle with because it’s easy to lose focus or drop the oars just long enough that you get spun sideways to the flow. Drifting at a right angle, however, is the fastest route to disaster. A river flowing at even a couple of miles per hour is incredibly strong, and all it takes is a small rock just below the surface or grazing a canyon wall to flip or sink a boat. Even in water flowing barely 3 miles per hour, I’ve seen rafts flipped, cotter pins sheered, oars snapped in half, teeth lost, and people thrown into the water. Unless you need to take swift, evasive action to avoid trouble, keep the bow of the boat pointing downstream at all times.
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3. Keep Your Distance
Maintain a set distance from the bank. That distance, of course, will be determined by your target species and how you’re fishing, but once that’s established, keeping a uniform distance from the bank or any target structures gives anglers the best opportunity to be effective. If the boat is constantly moving 30 feet out, then 10 feet back, then 20 feet out again, it forces the casters to constantly compensate, which is especially painful for fly anglers because they’ll have to strip out or take in more running line to keep up with the fluctuations. As the rower, it’s your job to always be looking ahead at the bank contour so you can make adjustments to maintain that ideal distance.
4. Communicate Often
A good rower has the ability to adapt to the skill levels of the anglers. If the bow angler can cast like a champ, but the stern angler is spending most of the day untangling line from around his feet, you’re going to have to make adjustments throughout the day. As an example, when coming up on some prime water, you might want to angle the stern toward the bank, shortening the casting distance for the less skilled angler in the rear. While this might put your front angler at a slight disadvantage, his skills should let him cover the extra distance. Check in with the anglers often. Ask them if they need to be closer to or farther from the bank. And ask them if they need you to adjust the boat’s speed.