Les Palmer: In praise of drift boats

If you’ve never fished from a drift boat, you might want to add it to your bucket list. No one should exit life without having experienced this treat.


I first fished from a drift boat in 1987, when Kenai resident Greg Daniels invited me to go fishing for king salmon on the Kenai River in his custom-built RB, an aluminum 16-footer. We launched at Centennial Campground in Soldotna, and fished down to Eagle Rock, about 9 river miles.

The quietness of the boat was immediately noticeable and appreciated. I was surprised by our ability to use all of the fishing methods that the power boats were using. We pulled plugs, we dragged bait, we pulled Jet Divers with bait, and we back-bounced with bait. There wasn’t much they were doing that we couldn’t do, including catch kings. The highlight of my day was boating a 52-pounder that I hooked while dragging bait near Eagle Island. After that, I rowed. While back-bouncing at Big Eddy, I was surprised at the ease of holding the boat in the current and staying in the sweet spot. We caught two kings while I was providing the power.

Since then, I’ve fished from drift boats many times on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. On the no-motors-allowed Upper Kenai, between Cooper Landing and Skilak Lake, they’re a great way to fly fish for rainbow trout.

Boats designed for rowing on rivers evolved from the use of open-water dories on Oregon’s Rogue and McKenzie rivers in the 1930s and 1940s. A typical drift boat has a wide, flat bottom, flared sides, a pointed stern and a narrow, flat bow. Often referred to as McKenzie River drift boats, early models were made of wood. While a few wooden boats continue to be manufactured, many are now made of fiberglass, aluminum or plastic. Drift boats can have many useful features, including storage lockers, casting braces, casting decks and comfortable seats. Some have features that make them better for use in waves and rapids.

Prospective buyers have several options. Makers of finished boats include Hyde, RO, Lavro, Willie, Koffler, Willie Pavati, and Clackacraft, to name a few. Several builders will custom-build a drift boat to your specifications. If you’re handy with tools, you can buy a plan or a complete kit for building a wooden drift boat.

I don’t remember seeing drift boats on the Kenai until the early 1980s. Their numbers increased after the Board of Fisheries banned fishing from powered boats on the Kenai on Mondays in May, June and July. Now, thanks to these “drift only” days, the number of drift boats has increased.

One disadvantage of fishing with a drift boat is the difficulty of rowing upstream in strong current. This means that if a big fish pulls you out of a hole and you have to chase it downstream, you may not be able to row back up to where you hooked it. It also means that you’ll have to launch your boat, drive your vehicle and trailer downstream to your planned take-out, then use another vehicle to take you back to your boat.

For several years, I’ve supported adding more “drift only” days for the Kenai, maybe Thursdays. Proposals have been submitted to the Board of Fisheries to do just this, but too many guides have opposed the idea. One reason for their objections is the added time and hassle of launching and taking out in two different locations. If there was one additional take-out ramp, say just downstream from Cunningham Park, I think the idea would be less objectionable. State Parks should’ve done this years ago. If we build it, they will come.

The advantages of drift-boat fishing outweigh the few disadvantages. Unlike powered boats, drift boats don’t pollute water or scare fish with their engine exhaust. On drift-only days, the Kenai is an entirely different river, a much quieter and more peaceful place to fish. Many of us would like to see that kind of difference more often.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.