Beginning Rowing for Internet Experts by Jerid Doering
As you get more experience traversing the bank on sometimes treacherous landscape, alternately sweating like a mule or standing up to your tender bits in the water freezing them off, you begin to wonder if this bank life has some greener grass on the other side.
It only takes a few drift boats going past you during peak steelhead season yelling “FISH ON!” for you to feel that little doubt creep into your mind.
That little voice “Maybe… maybe I should get a boat?”
Watching an experienced rower navigate a tricky plug run and see his rod just get whaled to the gunnel, and the fish leaping three feet out of the water in a shower of awesomeness makes you think, “It can’t be that hard, it’s just rowing, I can do that!” Then you take that fateful guide trip or that trip with your knowledgeable buddy and just put the pro-staff Bassmaster clinic on the fish.
That voice gets stronger, “This boat thing is awesome! Man, I can really access the fish and we can really have some fun! I will catch all kinds of fish.”
You start becoming the go-to guy for all your boat buddies who need good sticks/fishermen for their spare seats when someone cancels. You start getting used to the rower doing what he does and you start catching more fish.
You stay dryer, more comfortable, the scenery gets to be fun, you can fish all kinds of water differently. But I want you to remember that look the rower gave you when you said, “Hey man I can row if you want!”
The raised eyebrows, bemused knowing smile and a polite, “Ohhhhh don’t worry about it I got it.”
That should have been a sign!
You ignore the reaction and on future trips offer again and get the same response,
“No seriously, I got it, man. Just cast right on over there this side of that rock.” But alas one day, it happens.
Your Facebook post for everyone to see, “I'm GETTING A DRIFT BOAT!”
I’d like to say that after you buy the boat it is happily ever after. I’d like to say you kept your marriage after rowing your significant other down the river before you knew what you were doing. “SIT DOWN Becky, I can’t see! NO don’t throw that... OWWWWW! Stop that… we will be fine the boat is supposed to lean like that.”
I’d like to say you would never almost crap your pants, or offered prayers to any god who would listen if you made it through a section you didn’t know was there from your “google satellite” research. I’d like to say those things. I would. BUT I can’t. History repeats itself.
I see it every day going down the river.
So let’s see if I can educate you a bit, prepare you a bit and maybe prevent you from losing your wife to a mislaid bottle of shrimp oil left open that came off the bow and landed in her lap when you hit that boulder, drenching her in a spectacular oily mess (yes I saw that happen and heard a shriek that brings chills to a man’s spine).
Dude, I’m Straight. First off. Pump the brakes.
The hardest part of learning anything is, you are going to have to do it, suck royally at it, probably not catch any fish for a while (a LONG while actually, but we will get to that) and be frustrated. So, find a good buddy, and ask to borrow his boat. After he has a laughing fit until tears stream down his face, tell him it’s just to go trout fish in the lake.
After he dries his eyes he should be okay with it. Take the boat to the lake. Bring a trout rod to troll. Put it in the rod holder and just troll as much as you can. All-day if you have the time.
Staying straight while you row will probably make your blood boil for at least the first of many trips of rowing. Cuss words help with hard pulling (trying to go fast) but don’t do a darn thing for staying straight.
Practice staying straight by watching your line as it goes from your rod tip to the water.
Keep that as straight behind the boat as you can.
Practice smooth strokes.
Watch some videos of competition rowing as well.
Watch the blade control. Putting the blade flat on the return stroke greatly reduces the height and angle needed to bring the oar back and is WAY more efficient. Just like anything involving your arms, if they are locked you have more control as you angle your upper body backwards in the stroke.
I’m assuming your buddy has the boat set up.
Setting up a boat to row is beyond the scope of this article. So set your seat/footstop up if you can so that you are comfortably sitting, holding the oars.
You’ll notice it is hard to keep the paddle vertical through the stroke and will require wrist movement. Each side will have its own tension as you change your wrist movement through the stroke. Causing you at times, to barely pull with one oar while ripping with the other.
Welcome to your NEXT level of cussing.
Practice rowing straight with stroking the oars at the same time and alternating.
You don’t have to go fast. But you can if you really want to get frustrated because the faster you go the less forgiving the boat is on staying straight with mistakes in paddle position. It takes some buildup of fine motor control to do the trick.
Literally just tool around the lake trolling.
Practice turning the boat in big long curves, short curves, circles. You’ll see each stroke; how much you’ll need to pull, adjust wrist and paddle position.
It’s a constant balancing act. You will also start to recall all the wonderful things your rower did IN FLOWING WATER that you didn’t realize was this hard that you took for granted while hooking tons of fish blissfully daydreaming about having your own boat!
Once you can row straight for as long as you need to, at multiple speeds, is usually time to graduate to moving water.
See “get the lead out” aka anchoring before you attempt this phase.
Next you either bought the boat or were sufficiently humbled on your lake expedition to maybe get some more time behind the sticks before you bit the bullet. Either option works.
Your next move is to find a very flat, slow river to practice on.
The Cowlitz in Washington State was my first rowing experience. Nice big, flat easy river with minor rapids and obstacles.
My step father/steelhead mentor crash coursed me (skipped the lake expedition) at 13-14 years old due to him tiring of hearing me bellyaching about his rowing (“A little bit closer!... wait… to far… that way now.”) because, and I quote, “I didn’t buy a boat to watch you catch all the fish every time.” Also hearken back to when I said you wouldn’t be catching fish for QUITE a while right? Okay still on track then.
Keep that fresh in your mind
Then it’s just a matter of using your boat for transportation and practice to/from gravel bars to get out and fish as you would bank fishing. It’s as easy as pointing the back of the boat (behind the rower) to where you want to go.
DO NOT focus on trying to FISH people out of your boat yet.
The Author with a Washington State Steelhead
It’s like when you first start driving as a teenager. At first shifting, clutch and steering wheel were your world. Any deviance in attention would spell disastrous results.
I remember looking in the passenger seat to find my Atlas at 17—yes, Atlas, that’s how we used to find rivers and new spots before cell phones—and jumping the curb blowing a hubcap across a golf course like a scene from “The Other Guys.”
You have A LOT going on and now LIVES to be responsible for. Just focus on rowing effectively. IF they want to fish GREAT! Just don’t focus on it at ALL.
Your focus is going to be on:
- How fast can you STOP your boat and hold in all kinds of currents. Stopping requires you to put the back end of the boat parallel with the current (not moving towards either bank) and pulling on the oars briskly until you are not moving down stream, and then holding that pace. How long can you hold in current?
- NEVER go sideways (boat perpendicular to current/facing one bank or another directly) while floating down stream. You can catch an edge and flip the boat faster than an eyeblink
- Object dodging. There is a rock in the water, what side should you go around it? How can you go around it without putting the boat sideways.
- Slowing your boat down gives you time to react and plan your moves around obstacles. Practice slowing your boat and moving around obstacles.
- Focus on rowing with your backstroke, especially in technical water.
Understand that the hard “chines” on your drift boat where your sides meet your bottom act like a rudder. Picture holding your hand in the river straight, pointed downstream and angling it, feeling that pressure to move your hand the other way.
When you row backwards upstream (slowing the boat) and you angle your boat the water pushes against your boat and helps you.
The dynamics of rowing forward are WAY different than rowing backwards. You lose all of your help from the chine, and it actually works against you so it takes three times the effort to go where you want because you actually have to turn the boat towards where you want to go, then actually PUSH the boat that way.
Whereas when you row backwards/upstream you can point the back of the boat to shore and the water pushing against the chine acts as a rudder and actually PUSHES you in the direction you are wanting to go requiring a fraction of the effort.
Not only that, pushing forward, but you are also SPEEDING up.
Your reaction time has to be WAY before an obstacle to push around it. It is just a total goat rope all the way around. Get a lot of rowing experience before you start rowing forward in anything besides slow, safe water.
Get the Lead out
Anchoring. Simple right? Just skip to the next section. NO GRASSHOPPER!
This is probably right up there with the gnarliest situations you can possibly be in when in a drift boat. Let’s hit the basics.
- Use the proper size anchor: 30-45 pounds. I recommend getting a pulley for the anchor itself. Cuts the strength required to pull anchors in half. If your boat won’t stay on anchor you aren’t letting out enough scope (Google that chappy) or your anchor is too light my dude!
- Look at where you are dropping your anchor. This seems like a no brainer. But be cognizant of where you are sticking your huge wad of lead. Rootballs? NO. Does it look like the loggers just cut the trees and threw them in the river? NO GO JOE. HUGE boulder gardens where you will drag your anchor into some huge boulders and lodge it? NO SIR. Just look. If it’s sketchy, practice your rowing. That is your job now! To row people into fish. Sometimes it requires some sweaty work to get the guys to cast where they need to! Have a knife in a holster by your anchor pull ready to cut your anchor rope if the need arises.
- Where you “let your anchor go” is not where it ends up. You are rowing. You reach down and let loose the planet of lead. You hear the zooming out of line, then slack, you’ve reached bottom! Like 15 feet (depending on current speed) from where you first initiated your drop. The current is always pulling you downstream. My rule is to try and drop the anchor a TAD bit further upstream than even my best compensation for the current. I can always let out MORE line to get where I want but its monumentally hard to pull the anchor back up to go upriver to reset the pick (anchor) potentially spooking fish and pissing off people to do so.
- Watch your speed! You can only anchor in so much current. You never want to anchor in a lot of current. If it’s faster than a light slow jog, don’t even bother. You get in dangerous situations pulling an anchor back up in fast current.
- Letting out scope. Slowly let out line after your anchor collides with the riverbed, backing the boat down the river under tension by holding onto anchor rope. Different depths and speeds call for different lengths to be let out. You have to get a feel for it. To little line out and you will pick the anchor up or drag it. If you look back you will see about a 45 degree angle on your line entering the water. At some point you can never let out enough to stop from dragging because you are in to fast of water for that weight of anchor to hold you. Play with it. If you have a foot anchor release (go Clackacraft!), you row to where you want to drop anchor, hit your release while rowing to maintain position. THEN after you have reached bottom drop your oars and manage the line. It is a better system for pinpoint anchoring and for anchoring in sketchy fast water.
KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED
Your job is to always be looking ahead. ESPECIALLY when anchoring.
What if you let out line and you are still dragging anchor?
There is a log across the water downstream and you are going to drag your anchor right into it. Your boat will go down a rapid? Log jam?
You now have to row UP to the anchor (see how all of the newfound skills you learned will now come into play in emergency situations?) and DROP your oars, PULL that anchor in like your very life depends on it, and it does. THEN pick the oars back up as fast as you can and start rowing, pretending you can plane that boat! Always be looking around. Asking yourself “what if?” Look at what could happen if you come off anchor or have to make a maneuver.
Pulling your anchor in
If you are in slow water go ahead and just rip it up. If you are in faster current its wise to row up to the anchor and pull it in. The technique is to give your last pull on the oars everything you got to try and coast the boat, smoothly lay down your oars, rip the anchor in and then pick your oars back up. If you do it right, the inertia from your last pull on the oars will keep you from going down stream until just as you get the anchor in.
Everyone wears PFD’s PERIOD. People lose their MINDS when they fall in the water. Literally. I have seen it so many times in surfing, rafting, and boating.
Panicking is the first thing people do, right before they start flailing. Plus, if they hit their head you want them above water. You want them to be safe because they forget everything they have ever learned about falling in the water. ALSO require every single person to wear a tight wading belt. Wading belts save lives. It would be very smart to take water safety classes.
ALWAYS HAVE A SPARE OAR! I have snapped oars in SKETCHY water. PRACTICE reloading an oar. Keep it with you. Know how to do it. It’s not IF… It’s WHEN it happens.
OAR SELECTION, the lesser of two evils
Lighter is better… right? NO. I take a pretty hard stance on oars. I row very difficult stuff a lot.
Having a DEPENDABLE oar saves your life.
I have snapped two oars shafts from a certain company that produces carbon fiber oars (which will remain unnamed) in the SAME location (right above the joining of oar and paddle). One was a brand new replacement from the LAST snap I did, which was a replacement from the LAST SNAP the owner of the boat got from the company with promises each time they had upgraded the construction. 3 shafts, 3 snaps.
Coincidentally it happened in the exact same spot in the river where I have to dip my oar in a boil behind a rock and rip for all I’m worth on the end of a steep rapid to avoid a large stump that is DETERMINED to eat me every time I float this river.
I also watched a guide buddy snap the SAME companies oar in the SAME location in front of me just last season after he said, “Oh, I can make it up river watch me.” PULLING hard on the oar seemed to be the culprit. A little reading on line about carbon fiber should clear up any confusion as to why SOLEY using carbon fiber as an oar shaft material is hubris.
“Cracks and dents in other materials are typically easy to see, but fissures in carbon fiber often hide beneath the surface. What’s worse is that when carbon fiber fails, it fails spectacularly. While other materials might simply buckle or bend, carbon fiber can shatter into pieces. What’s more, even if a carbon-fiber component is well made and has never suffered a routine ding or collision, accidents can occur due to poor maintenance.”
You know when you store your oars? Bang them against your boat? Rocks? Could all put minute damage in your carbon weave on your oar shaft and down the road, catastrophic failure.
Carbon fiber as an ADDITIONAL material can have some amazing helpful properties to a wood or fiberglass product. Fiberglass of course is TOUGH stuff. I learned to row on Cataract oars. They are STILL in my stepdads boat 20+ years later.
Nowadays I am a Sawyer guy through and through. They make a plethora of reliable semi-light products for all kinds of rowing. They are tough as nails and have been around for eons. Trusted, Tried, and True.
Rafts are the training wheels of rowing.
You can get REALLY sloppy, bump into stuff, and generally do circles down the river and have zero problems (generally speaking and we are talking about beginning rowing here). They are GREAT for upper tributary floating where water gets skinny, or for exploring as you can get them down some pretty nasty stuff well.
Rowing a hardboat is much harder both on your muscles and your brain. They require a LOT more skill to operate as the danger for screwing up is more severe. So, I only say that, so you are mindful when you jump from your raft to a buddies drift boat after you think you’ve “got it down” it’s a whole another animal.
Don’t be fooled, rafts do flip and you still have to know what you are doing when you row any vessel but they are much more forgiving to the novice rower’s mistakes.
Rafts don’t track well or at all so forget plugging in technical water and room is at a premium, pack light. Just like anything you have tradeoffs for the benefits. I personally only like rafts when I need to scout a river for potential floating in my drift boat or low water where I’d be banging my drift boat the whole way down. BUT again. Personal choice.
I can go on for pages and pages.
Rowing has so many details that you do have to kind of learn as you go but the most dangerous part is newbies just don’t even know how much danger they are in most of the time. Ignorance can be bliss or it can kill you.
Go slow. Pay VERY close attention.
These pointers should get you in the right direction. Remember, #barbsdeep always, I’m pulling for ya.
We are all in this together. Kirk out.
- written by Jerid Doering