DRIFT BOATS - Tony Ensalaco

DRIFT BOATS - Tony Ensalaco

I have owned a drift boat for over two decades, and since then, I have experienced countless, unforgettable encounters and heart stopping battles.


During low-water conditions drift boats may be the only way to go. They are also quiet and very comfortable.


I try to convince myself that the damp, 38-degree air that permeates the November grey sky should only improve the fishing—a mental ploy to help me forget about my discomfort and keeps me focused on my rowing duties. As soon as the Clackacraft drift boat is positioned several yards above the run, I instruct my partner, Ricky Dunnett, to let out “Gayle Sayers” on the Shimano Tekota line counter, which refers to forty feet, the number that the great Chicago Bear running back wore. Once the requested length of line is let out and the reel is engaged, the swift current instantly grabs the oversized lip of the quarter-ounce, gold and orange Hot-N-Tot, driving the plug straight down into the fish zone.

Ricky rests the rod in the inside rod holder and checks to see that it’s secure before letting out the next two plugs. When all of the lures are deployed and appear to be working, it’s time for me to go to work by gently easing the boat towards the left side of the run where thick clumps of over-hanging bushes grow along an undercut bank. The idea is to slowly back-troll the plugs along the brush line and work them as far back as I dare under the fallen tree that is partially submerged at the bottom of the run. A sharp pull on the left oar, while simultaneously pushing the right oar, makes the nose of the boat abruptly offset at a forty-five-degree angle to the current, allowing the wall of lures to swing in the direction of the bushes. The anticipation of what should happen has us hanging on the edge of our seats while our eyes remain focused on the pulsating motion of the Lamiglas tip sections. As the lures approach the deadfall, the current increases and the rods start to thump even harder. The line closest to the brush appears to be taunting the fish by intermittently twitching the droop-ing branches as it erratically moonwalks downstream. Our attention is focused on the inside rod, as if we are trying to wish it into burying when, without warning, the weakside rod doubles over and locks up. The weight of the fish violently contorts the rod in a grotesque way that defies the properties of graphite. The welcome sight of a bent rod snaps us out of our collective trance and instinctively triggers us into action.

As Ricky fumbles to remove the rod from its holder, I row the boat backwards with the intention of pulling the irate fish from the logjam. It doesn’t work. The big male steelhead wants no part of that maneuver and decides to scream towards the fallen tree, stopping dangerously close in front of it and begins thrashing its thick body on the surface. Ricky now has the rod firmly in his hands and I order him to hold it steady without dropping it towards the fish. I shout that I’ll fight it with the boat by rowing further upstream towards the softer current on the opposite side of the stream. This time the trick works. Somehow, we manage to get the fish’s head turned in the right direction and it follows us upstream like a trained pet. We are able to temporarily guide the it into a shallow section of river and away from all obstacles until the steelhead feels the gravel below. When our adversary realizes its vulnerability, it immediately makes a beeline downstream, straight toward and through an eight-foot-wide chute created by the deadfall. Fortunately, the line doesn’t get caught on any of the errant branches that protrude from the jam as the enraged steelie shoots past. Now, I must push hard downstream and follow the fish through the narrow opening. Easier said than done. My partner and I are able to breathe a huge sigh of relief once the steelhead clears the trouble and finds its way into an open area of river below the deadfall.


Each winter/spring season the author rents a drift boat in Alaska to access some of the best steelhead fishing in the world.


Once we make it past the logjam, I decide to pull over and beach the drift boat so we can savor the fight. After an intense ten-minute, back and forth slugfest that included a few heart poundings runs and a couple of massive tail slaps, we were staring at a 15-pound, gunmetal sided, wild steelhead in the bottom of the rubber net. Ricky complements me on my “fancy” rowing tricks that I performed through-out the commotion. I look down and see a spilled beer can on the floor that was inadvertently knocked over during the melee. I thank him as I reach down, pick up the can, and take a final pull of whatever liquid remains, which helps me regain my composure. I then look at my partner and say with an unconvincing smirk on my face, “No problem—I had it figured out all along.”

Any angler who has spent time fish-ing from a drift boat can relate to the fire drills that always seem to break out after hooking into a hot fish. I have owned a drift boat for over two decades, and since then, I have experienced countless, unforgettable encounters and heart stopping battles. Don’t get me wrong, anytime you are able to get a line wet on a steelhead river there is going to be the potential to have something extraordinary happen, but when you fish from a drift boat, it creates scenarios that would not exist if you were only limited to bank access. Drift boat fishermen can fish areas that can’t be reached from shore, and they are able to cover the water more thoroughly by using a variety of methods that are not available to one who is limited to wading.

So, what makes a drift boat a better choice than the other types of boats, such as jet sleds, johnboats, kayaks, rafts, and pontoon boats? Versatility. You can run a drift boat on just about any river that is wide enough to pull the oars through the water column. John boats and jet sleds are probably the best choice on larger rivers, but they have their limitations. There is no question that the extra elbow room makes those boats a pleasure from which to fish, and they can certainly do a lot of things that a drift boat can do, especially the ones that have a kicker motor. However, Jet sleds and john boats are limited as to where they can be used. There are motor restrictions on several of the smaller Great Lakes tributaries which automatically limits one’s options. Some of those boats have oars, which allows them to comply with regulations, but they don’t respond as easily as a drift boat.


Big Dave has a creative way to launch his Clackacraft drift boat.


In recent years, I have watched the influx of jet sleds during the salmon season on the lower Pere Marquette River, and those guys do a serviceable job on the sticks, but rowing around a vessel with a heavy, cumbersome motor mounted on the transom is a difficult task, even for the best oarsman. It can be done, but it isn’t easy. The advantage that a drift boat pilot has is he can get the boat in and out of the tightest places with very little effort. That becomes important when the guys up front are pitching lures into the logjams as they transition downstream, and having to maneuver the boat to retrieve snagged baits is inevitable. If I am planning to fish a large, wide open river with a couple of buddies, then I’m probably towing a sled that morning. But, for the smaller, brushy streams, my first choice will always be a drift boat.

What about kayaks, rafts and pontoon boats that seem to be the rage today? They are easy to transport, they can be launched and pulled out from almost anywhere on the stream, and they are economical. These smaller boats are a great mode of transportation, especially for fishermen who are looking to get away from the crowds. There is no question that they’re a great choice for the budget conscious angler, and I would have killed for one in my younger days. But being more conservative today, I prefer to fish from something that has a little more stability than a kayak or canoe, especially during the winter months when the water is hovering just above freezing. I have seen a few mishaps, so I have decided it’s best for me to use something that has high, secure gunwales and a level floor to keep me inside of the boat where it’s dry. I also prefer a drift boat over pontoon boats and rafts because I will usually have two, sometimes even three other guys with me, and I am still able handle the boat while they are fishing from the front bench seat. Some of the larger pontoons and rafts are made for up to three people, but the seat-ing configuration only allows one person to sit up front, while the other one is positioned behind the rower’s seat. If you’re looking to pull plugs or walk bait directly below the boat, then the unlucky fisherman perched in the back becomes a spectator.

The one deciding factor that made me purchase a drift boat was the safety factor. I found myself in too many precarious situations when I fished the streams on foot. Not only did I get into trouble while I was in the water, but I also took some colossal spills on the ground while I was hiking the stream trails. I was much younger back then, and I was able to bounce back much quicker after a fall, so my well-being was never a concern. As I grew older, and maybe a little smarter, I began to make safety a top priority. Since I have been doing most of my fishing from a boat, my accidental baptisms in frigid water and my tumbling down river banks have dramatically declined. There are no more banged up shins and soaked wallets and cellphones in my life. It’s comforting to know that I don’t have to trudge across heavy currents anymore when I want to fish the river from the opposite side, and when I am on a river that has steep or slippery banks, I will fish from the inside of the boat rather than get-ting out and risking a fall. Even when I get out of the boat to fish, I never stand in water that is over my knees. A drift boat gives me the peace of mind that I’m in a safer situation. Of course, being around moving water is never one hundred percent safe, but I feel that it’s better to cruise along on top of a river than trying to cut through the current while being constantly on the lookout for changing depths and unstable bottoms. Sure, you can get yourself in some unsettling predicaments from a drift boat, especially when you are just learning how to use one. But overall, it’s a safer alternative than walking the banks and wading the streams.



As far as the actual quality of fishing, my catch rate has dramatically improved since acquiring a drift boat, and I attribute that to a few key factors. The first is that I am able to read the water better, or at least in a different way than someone who is wading the same area. You will get a different perspective of the water from a boat than you would from the opposite side of the stream at eye level. There is a definite advantage to being able to peer down into the water from above. There isn’t a river rat who hasn’t climbed up a tree or stood on a tall rock to get a bird’s eye view. There are stretches of certain rivers that I have bank fished for years, places that I thought I knew intimately until I fished the same areas from a drift boat. Floating the river will show me why steelhead and salmon hold in certain areas and why fish may no longer use some places. Observing the river from a different viewpoint helps decipher subtle current seams and hidden structure that can’t be detected from the bank.

By seeing the river in a new way, I am able to hit the various current seams at different angles or fish around structure more thoroughly by positioning, and repositioning the boat accordingly. This is a great way for bobber enthusiasts to cover the water. For example, when a float fisherman is wading or bank fishing, he will usually cast upstream and across the current to begin his drift. Then, in order to eliminate any unwanted line drag, he will have to constantly mend his mainline as his bobber travels downstream. Line drag can be avoided from a drift boat by placing the boat above the holding water and running the bobber directly downstream. You can pick apart the current seams by manipulating the bobber’s route by changing the rod’s position or feathering the mainline. You will be able to fish places that are impossible to drop a bait in from the bank. Discovering these hard to reach, hidden gems are a reason in itself to own a drift boat.


If you are considering getting a drift boat, then I strongly recommend that you first go out with someone who is proficient at operating one, such as a guide. It is important to learn a few basic lessons on how the boat works. My first rowing experience was a disaster. 


Fishing from a drift boat also lets you target the transitional water more effectively. That is something that is next to impossible when you are restricted to only walking the streams. It’s hard to cover everything because you normally have limited river access from the bank and because there isn’t always an easy way to get to the stream. It could be that the woods are too thick and there isn’t a clearing that allows you to get to the water. Or, the current on the side of the river that you are on may be too fast or deep to safely fish from the shore. That’s no problem with a drift boat. There aren’t too many places that a drift boat can’t go. I seem to catch a large percentage of my fish from those secondary spots when the fish are mov-ing or when they are pushed out of the classic holding water due to heavy fishing pressure. Competent fishermen know or, at least, can figure out where the best holes are located, and those spots are usually occupied by the time I arrive. It’s tough to find quality holding water when there is a flotilla of boats sharing the river ahead of you. Since I am not one to race other fishermen, I had to learn how to fish the discrete places that are scattered between the popular runs. There are plenty of tiny, obscure depressions and minor log jams that attract salmon and steelhead. What I like about fishing those out of the way places is that they are usually overlooked, and the fish are more likely to be in a positive mood. It should only take a cast or two to see if anyone is home and willing to play. One of the greatest advantages you have fishing from a drift boat is that you can always keep a bait in the water when you are moving from one spot to the next. You will be surprised how many bonus fish you will pick up that were holding in pockets between the obvious runs and holes.

What I like the most about a drift boat is the variety of methods that can be performed from one. Not only can you do everything a bank fisherman can do (and in many situations, be more effective), but a drift boat provides new options, such as Hot-Shotting, side drifting, back bouncing, and running Jet Divers. There is plenty of room for extra equipment in a boat. When I’m wading a stream, I take only one rod and a limited amount of gear, because I don’t want to take the chance of leaving anything behind when moving to a new spot. Losing expensive equipment is rarely a problem when I fish from a boat, and I am able to take several rods rigged for dif-ferent situations. People joke that my drift boat looks like a tackle store that exploded inside. It appears to be overkill, but there is a reason. Ask yourself how many times you wanted to try something, but you didn’t want to go through the trouble of re-rigging? That dilemma doesn’t happen in my boat. I don’t hesitate to try different things because I have rods set up and ready to go. It has become common for my group to catch fish using several different methods in one day, because the tackle is available and ready to use.

We discussed some of the attributes of a drift boat, so what are the drawbacks? The most obvious inconvenience is that you will normally need two vehicles, one to trailer the boat and the other to act as a shuttle rig. This is necessary, because, when you are finished floating the river, you have to retrieve the trailer that will be left be-hind upstream at the put-in. This becomes a royal pain when you and your partner(s) are traveling long distances and are forced to drive in separate vehicles. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.



If you fish somewhere that allows motors, then I strongly recommend purchasing a kicker motor. Believe me, it’s an invaluable asset. Years ago, I was contemplating investing in a motor, but I had trouble pulling the trigger, because I just bought a new home and thought the money should go towards new furniture. Coincidentally, at the time, I took my wife on a seven-mile float trip to fish for salmon. After about three hours and less than halfway through the stretch, she was becoming impatient with the slow pace of the float. That’s when she turned to me and demanded that if I ever wanted her to fish with me again, then there better be some sort of motorized apparatus secured to the rear end of this tub so we could move things along faster. Done! Needless to say, the spare bedroom was empty for a while, but the Nissan five-horse, four-stroke was delivered to my doorstep five days later.

The main advantage of a kicker motor is that you no longer have to float the entire stretch from top to bottom. I will sometimes float downstream and only fish the first two or three miles of a stretch using the oars. Then, I will use the motor to take me back upstream in the early afternoon. After a short break, I will hit the river again in the evening. It’s a great way to combat the midafternoon doldrums. Another option is to start at the lower end and run upstream to fish the bottom half of the popular floats. This enables someone to fish that coveted “first water” before the other drift boaters who launched upstream can descend on them. I think that can be construed as “corking” other fishermen, which I don’t condone, but it does help relieve congestion at the beginning of the day.



Another way to get back to the put-in ramp is to find a service that will spot your vehicle for you. Some fly shops, canoe rent-als, stores, and even guide businesses will shuttle your rig from the boat launch to the agreed take out. Prices can vary depend-ing on the distance and which stretch you plan on floating, but it’s sometimes more convenient and usually cheaper than having to take two vehicles on a trip. Believe it or not, I have even used public transportation in the past. One river that I fished is located near a town that has a bus service called, “Dial-a-Ride” that offers rides for a nominal fee. I would call from a cellphone when we were close to the take out, and the bus would arrive within a short timeframe to take me back to my truck.

My last suggestion is to use a mode of transportation that is portable, like a bicycle or small motorcycle. As long as the rider is in decent shape, bicycles are a great alternative for short distances, as long as the roads are paved and fairly level. A ten-speed was my “go to” choice until an unexpected snowstorm one afternoon dumped ten inches of snow while we were on the river. You can imagine the end result.

After that experience, I decided to upgrade my ride to a gas-powered dirt bike. At first, I was transporting the dirt bike in the drift boat, but unfortunately, loading and unloading was a two-man job. Then, I found a duel receiver for the back of my truck. The trailer hitch with the ball fits in the bottom receptacle and the motorcycle carrier goes in the top one. With this device, loading and dismounting the dirt bike can be done by one person. I lock up the dirt bike at the takeout and ride it back to the trailer rig parked upstream at the end of the day.


I found a duel receiver for the back of my truck. The trailer hitch with the ball fits in the bottom receptacle and the motorcycle carrier goes in the top one.


Finally, if you are considering getting a drift boat, then I strongly recommend that you first go out with someone who is proficient at operating one, such as a guide. It is important to learn a few basic lessons on how the boat works. My first rowing experience was a disaster. A buddy of mine purchased a new boat and unexpectantly threw me into the rower’s seat, even though I was never in one before. I didn’t under-stand how to use the oars to avoid trouble, so I crashed into nearly every obstacle in the stretch. After that miserable experience, I vowed to never get in a drift boat again. I must have a short memory.


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It wasn’t until several years later and a few guided trips that I decided to give a drift boat another shot. By paying close attention to the guides and asking questions, I was able to get a feel for the current and an understanding of the nuances of controlling a drift boat. I was able to apply that knowledge once I finally scored my own drift boat. Now, I can’t imagine not owning one.

Drift boats are a fantastic tool to have in your arsenal. As soon as you learn how to safely navigate the river, you can start discovering new places to fish and develop innovative strategies that weren’t possible when only being able to fish from shore. Most importantly, you’ll be in a safer situation. You won’t have to contend with losing your footing on icy trails or keeping your balance when wading slippery riverbeds in strong currents. Once you own a drift boat, you’ll never want to go fishing without one!

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