One of our customers the other day asked about shuttle services on the Yellowstone River. I was fresh off the slopes on a powder day—floating a trout river was the last thing on my thawing-out mind—but I also found three of our guides in the shop replaying the previous day’s float on the Upper Madison. Ready or not, it’s the time of year to consider floating.
Take a map and draw a 100-mile radius from our trout-centric home and opportunities to float number in the dozens. Increase that radius 50 miles and that number triples—and floatable rivers are as varied as the watercraft available to float them. Here’s a little help deciphering what is the best choice for you.
Know your needs and wants. The best way to be happy with your boat is to have realistic expectations for its use. Brainstorm where you’ll use your boat, when you’ll take it out and who will be using it. If you’ll be the only one casting a line and you only fish in summer, you might consider a single-person float tube or pontoon. If you have a family or know your fishing buddies will come along and be willing to pay for gas and shuttles, consider a larger boat. There is an ideal boat out there for you, but an honest look in the mirror is the first step to boat-owning happiness.
Single-person float tubes, rafts or pontoons. These small boats can be easily carried by one person, and are often packable. Float tubes and single-person pontoon boats are ideal if you plan to fish smaller ponds, lakes and slow-flowing rivers. On ponds and lakes, fishing and floating can be done simultaneously, but on a river with heavy currents and obstructions like the Upper Madison, these boats are best used for transportation—getting from one spot to the next to wade-fish.
Larger rafts and pontoons. For floating and fishing, a raft is more desirable than a pontoon because it tracks better. In our area the most common lengths for a fishing-first raft range from 14 to 16 feet. Any less and the boat becomes more specialized, any longer and it gravitates to a family float boat for use on larger rivers. Where your raft falls in the range is up to you and where you plan to fish and who you plan to take. A 14-foot boat is best used by two anglers and a rower. You can get another person in it but depending on the width of the boat and the water you’re floating, it’s probably not comfortable or safe. A 15-foot raft will handle two anglers, a rower, a dog or two and perhaps a kiddo or two. A 16-footer gives a lot space for anglers, ride-alongs and gear but you sacrifice maneuverability for comfort.
Hard-sided skiffs. The term skiff originated from saltwater boats and it made its way to trout waters with the original South Fork Skiff back in the 1980s. The genesis was the need to navigate smaller waters. Today skiffs are seen on nearly every float in the area and have exploded in popularity. A skiff is best defined as a low-sided fiberglass or aluminum drift boat designed for non-whitewater rivers. Most skiffs incorporate rod holders, a wider footprint allowing less draft and an interior designed for ease of mobility and lack of line tangling. Such features include pedestal seating rather than a boat-wide bench seat, for example. On rivers known for wind, the lower-sided skiff is less likely to be affected; yet on larger rivers with big wave trains or deep drops an intermediate level rower may take on some water or worse.
Traditional high-sided drift boats. Drift boats can be divided into two categories: high-sided and low-sided. High-sided boats have been around a long time and incorporate a pointed bow that is taller than any other part of the boat. A high-sided drift boat is ideal for big water and big loads. This boat works well in the Yellowstone when it’s running high, and is a popular choice for experienced anglers rowing through the turbulent water of Yankee Jim Canyon. Wind is an enemy of this boat as the higher bow is easily affected, making rowing difficult. A high-sided drift boat is less versatile than a skiff and a little harder to find these days, but if safety and big water are your goals this could be the boat for you.
Low-sided driftboats. With a substantially lower bow, sides and stern than a high-sided drift boat, these boats combine the safety of a high-sided boat with the tactical nature of a skiff. If a skiff is a sport coupe and a high-sided drift boat is an SUV, a low-sided boat is a crossover. The most common low-sided drift boats are 15- and 16-feet long. Either length is ideal for every float in our area. The pointed bow cuts through bigger waves more safely than a skiff, yet the lower-profile isn’t pushed around by the wind as much as the high-sided boat. A low-sided drift boat is the most versatile boat on the water today. With the exception of most Class III rapids, there isn’t anything these boats won’t do well enough for you to feel good about owning one.
A longtime local guide said he loved his boat 80 percent of the time. That is the best way to sum up owning a boat in our area. Because our waters are so varied, no single boat is going to match all situations. The best way to get the most out of your boat-owning experience is to research before you buy, purchase with confidence and then simply enjoy it.