'Anchor Management' by Scott Haugen

'Anchor Management' by Scott Haugen

For drift boaters, an anchor system seems like a basic piece of equipment. 

But a closer look reveals there’s more to it than meets the eye.

fishing boat driftboat

By the time we heard the rope zipping through the pulley, it was too late.  We’d already reached the end of a fast-moving set of rapids, and just like that, our anchor–and 75-feet of anchor rope–were gone. 

That’s a good thing.

Had there been a knot tied in the end of that rope, there’s little doubt what the outcome would have been.  More than likely our 30-pound anchor would have dug-in, capsizing the boat in the middle of the heavy water.  We were fortunate.

It was 3:00 a.m., pitch dark, and we were launching the drift boat early to beat the crowd to our favorite salmon hole.  In our haste, my buddy and I failed to make sure the anchor rope was secure in the Jamb cleat.  When we hit the rough water, the rope slipped, the anchor kicked-free and in an instant the rope began peeling out of the boat.  The water was so noisy we failed to hear it, and it was so dark, the minimal moonlight we relied on to navigate downstream wasn’t nearly enough to allow us to see what was going on inside the boat.

Between the two of us that morning, we had nearly a century of boating experience.  It goes to show, no matter how much boat-time you have, anyone can make a rookie mistake.  Fortunately this one only cost us some lead and rope.

Thankfully we had a front anchor, so were able to fish where we wanted.  Later that morning we returned to the launch to discover someone had hauled the rope and anchor out of where we’d lost it.

Not only are anchors–and anchor ropes–a simple part of a drift boater’s gear, but properly managing them is important.  Proper anchor management can mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful day on the river, but more importantly, the difference between a safe or potentially catastrophic day on the water.

jerry haugen spring chinookCaption: The author’s father, Jerry Haugen, pulled this salmon from a heavy swirl hole.  Were it not for running two anchors, this hole would not have been fishable.

No Knots

When I see boaters with a knot tied in the end of their anchor rope, I’ll often ask them, “Why?”  The answer is almost always the same, “Because I don’t want to lose my anchor.”

Putting a knot in the end of your anchor rope may be fine if fishing in a shallow lake or very slow-moving river.  But in a fast-flowing river, it’s a different story–especially if it’s a rugged river in the Pacific Northwest.  The steeper the gradient of a river, the faster the water flow.  Also, the rougher the terrain the river is carving its way through, the more prominent rock ledges, boulders, trees and root wads may be.  This equates to more obstacles to contend with.

There’s nothing more scary, or dangerous, than having an anchor get hung up and run to the end of your rope, the boat being tossed around uncontrollably by the raging current.  I’ve seen this happen, and have faced some hairy encounters, myself.  One way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to have no knots in the end of your anchor rope.

knot driftboat rope

Caption: Keeping the end of your anchor rope free of knots means it can slip through the pulleys in an emergency situation.  The author rarely knots the end of his anchor rope, a move that’s likely saved him from disaster more than once.

On a float I made down a Cascade-born river, a small, 14-foot drift boat was coming down behind me.  There was a gnarly set of rapids to negotiate, and once I made it through with my 16-foot Alumaweld, I held below the rapids, eager to see how the little wooden boat faired.

Midway through the rapids he panicked and pulled out, choosing a chute which was shallower and slower moving.  Not a good decision as it put him smack in the middle of a boulder patch.  He bounced off one rock, then another.  When he slammed into the second rock, his anchor broke free.

He didn’t know it, nor could he hear me hollering to him over the roar of the rushing rapids.  Anticipating I’d soon find myself in a rescue situation, right about then the guy’s boat bottomed-out on some rocks.  There he sat, in the middle of a set of rushing rapids, with nearly all his anchor rope out.

When he discovered the anchor had broken free, he tried pulling it in.  It was hung up.  The rapids were so fierce on both sides, he could barely move for fear of breaking the boat free and then having to battle against a hung anchor.  He did the smart thing and quickly cut the anchor rope.

Now he could focus on shifting the weight in the boat to break it free.  It took a while, but he got it done and safely picked his way through the rest of the rapids.

When he drifted by, he thanked me for waiting.  As he pushed past, I glanced at his anchor rope.  Less than two feet of it remained, and in the end of it, a big knot.  Had that knot hit his pulley, full-force, there’s a high probability his boat would have capsized.  He was lucky.

anchor rope boat

Caption: Storing your anchor rope in a bucket insures it will stay clean and not get tangled with other gear.

When running fast-flowing rivers, don’t put a knot in the end of your anchor rope.  Many times, if you do lose an anchor, you can row back upstream, on the

slack side of the current, cast out and hook the anchor rope, pulling it in.  If it’s unretrievable, rest assured that come low water time in the summer months, someone will likely pull it out.

The risk of having a boat capsize, endangering lives and losing gear, is not worth the price of an anchor and rope.  Pay attention to where you’re at and how your anchor system is set up for the rivers you fish. 

Rope Length

Another factor to consider is how long your anchor rope should be.  This may depend on the river you’re running, or the height at which it’s flowing.  Personally, I like about 75-feet of anchor rope on a 30-pound anchor for the rivers I fish.  Many locals are happy with 50-feet of rope, and some opt for a 40-pound anchor in high water.  It’s your call, and often what you choose depends on the size of your boat and the water you normally fish.

Whatever length you choose, keep in mind it’s better to have too much rope than not enough.  Too short of an anchor rope can find you tight-lined when anchored in some fast-water settings.  This makes shifting your weight in the boat very dangerous, as the slightest movement can kick the boat sideways.

Having too short of an anchor line in swirl holes can also be very dangerous.  The shifting currents commonly associated with swirl holes can kick a short-lined boat from side-to-side, causing standing anglers to quickly loose their balance.  I’ve seen more than one angler get pitched-out of a boat in this situation; not something you want to have happen in a vigorous, swirling river.

A longer rope allows you to drop anchor well above where you want to be, then ease the boat into the target holding spot.  A long rope also allows you to safely hold in high, faster moving water.

anchor rope hang

Caption: When on the water, occasionally re-coiling your anchor rope will help keep it tangle-free.

When dropping anchor in riffles or other quick-moving water, it’s a good idea to have the boat traveling as slowly as possible, preferably still.  From there, drop anchor and slowly feed out rope as the current carries you downstream, until the boat reaches the position you want to be in.

Once in position, turn the oar blades to the proper angle so as to keep the boat aligned.  This will not only help to steadily hold the boat in fast water, it will prevent currents from shifting the boat and pulling the anchor loose.

Keep in mind, however, not to longline the rope in a hole where fellow anglers are present.  The last thing you want to do is tie-up the hole so others can’t fish it.  Be aware of where fellow anglers might anchor or fish.

One spring I was anchored above two boats, drift-fishing a salmon riffle.  We were all within a boat’s length of one another, and working together could all fish the target water.  Then another boat came in.

He dropped anchor below the last boat in line, plopping smack in the hole where the bottom boat was fishing.  When kindly asked to move, the new arrival rudely refused.  The two anglers in the lower boat who’d just had their hole ruined, proceeded to cast and break-off over a dozen hooks...all in the intruder’s anchor rope.  When the intruder went to pull anchor, he couldn’t get the line of hooks through the pulley.  I think he got the message.

Point is, if running a long anchor rope, be aware of other anglers’ positions as it’s easy to tie-up more water than necessary.  When amid fellow boaters or bank anglers, run a shorter anchor line so as not to cut off their fishing.

Another reason I like a long rope is that when my anchor does get hung-up, I can easily get the assistance from another boater to help pull me loose.  If I’m alone, battling a hung anchor, a long rope often allows me to let out slack, row to the side of the main current, then row back upstream.  This puts you in position above the hung anchor, often times allowing you to yank it free.


Stowing Rope

No matter how long your anchor rope, constantly pay attention to where it’s at in the bottom of your boat.  Make sure no knots have formed, and just as importantly, that it hasn’t wrapped around rods, tackle boxes or other gear.

A tangled anchor rope can not only result in broken or lost gear, it can cause you to miss hitting the spot you wanted to fish.  I’m guilty of letting down my guard when approaching a riffle I wanted to anchor in.  When I began letting out the anchor, I discovered the rope was tangled, either in itself or in other gear.  The result usually finds me moving too quickly through the target water, meaning a missed opportunity to fish the hole I wanted.

In an effort to keep the anchor rope free of tangles, it’s a good idea to occasionally feed it through your hands and coil it up on the floor.  Doing so takes only seconds and ensures it stays organized and in operable condition.


2nd Anchor

Having a second anchor in your drift boat is good for a couple reasons.  First, you can more easily anchor and safely hold in swirling water, whereby allowing you to fish otherwise hard to reach spots.  Second, should you lose your primary anchor, you have a backup.

two anchor setup fishing driftboat riverCaption: Retaining desired boat position in swirl holes and high water is often best done with a double anchor setup.

Most second anchors are mounted to the front of the boat.  I’ve got my front anchor system mounted to the bow through a pulley system that runs along the left side of the boat.  My rear anchor system runs along the right side of the boat.  With this setup I can easily manage both anchors from one spot.

If you usually have someone in the boat with you, the person up front can run the anchor through a simple, one-piece anchor bracket with a cleat and pulley.  Or they can tie-off the rope to the side of the boat.  Front anchors usually weigh about 1/2-1/3 that of the main anchor, so are easier to handle.

scott haugen fish steelhead

When running a front anchor, an extra long rope isn’t necessary.  A front anchor serves the purpose of holding you in precise position so you can fish a hole. 

Keep this line tight, so as to avoid being moved around by shifting currents.

Things To Consider

If you don't carry a second anchor, there's a nifty device which works well in a pinch.  It's a woven, nylon bag that holds various sized river rocks, or one big rock.  The bag can easily be tied on the end of your anchor rope and takes up virtually no space in the boat.  And, of course, it weighs next to nothing.  

If not carrying a second anchor, packing an extra rope is a good idea.  Stowing a 30-foot section of rope in the boat is a good idea just in case you do find yourself in need of an extra anchor rope.  It can also come in handy in a number of other situations.

Finally, it’s a good idea to routinely wash your anchor ropes.  When sitting in the bottom of the boat, getting covered in fish slime, bait cure residue, dirt, mucky rainwater and whatever else, ropes can take on strong, foul odors.  These odors can be transferred to your hands and potentially contaminate your lures, plugs and other terminal fishing gear, which can turn-off a salmon bite.  When ropes start smelling ripe, soak them in a bucket of hot water with plenty of lemon scented Joy dish soap.

anchor fishing driftboat river fishingCaption: A long rope comes in handy when trying to free a hung anchor.  It also allows you to more easily hold in fast moving water.

As far as what types of anchors to use, that’s a whole different story. 

Most boaters find a basic pyramid design to be ideal, but there are other options.  Resign yourself to the fact that if you spend enough time on the water, you will eventually get an anchor hung-up and likely lose it.  The key is being prepared when it does happen and to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

Plan ahead, keep things organized and you’ll be surprised how valuable a good anchor system can be.  Not only does a finely tuned anchor setup allow you to more effectively fish a specific piece of water, it’s safer, and safety is the most important part of fishing any river.

- Written by Scott Haugen

Visit www.scotthaugen.com

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1 comment

Great advice for safety and fishing education,

Tight lines

Thomas Allen

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