When you spend a lot of time in fly fishing circles, being a greenhorn on the oars makes you a bit of a pariah. Or, at least, it makes you feel like one. Amongst avid anglers or industry folk, there exists an assumption that you know what you’re doing around boats. Oars, ropes, anchors and so on and what to do with them is treated as instinctive knowledge, leaving those that lack it on the outside.
Count me amongst the drift boat hayseeds. It’s not that I’m perplexed by boats, I just didn’t grow up around them. Sure, I’ve rowed john boats on bass ponds, paddled canoes and kayaked a bit, but none of that does anything to prepare you for handling a 4-500 lb. drift boat in heavy current.
Here in East, where drift boats don’t dot every driveway, this less of an offense. Even in trouty Pennsylvania, the closest driftable trout river to me is ninety minutes away, and the next one after that is another ninety. Given that the vast majority of our trout fishing is done on foot, lacking the capacity to handle a boat hasn’t meant missing all that much water.
For smallmouth, it’s a different story. Floatable smallmouth rivers are much more common here in the East, and not having a boat means missing water. Lots of it. The same goes for my increasingly common trips out West. For years I’ve had to turn down generous offers to borrow drift boats or have passed on opportunities to affordably rent them, simply because I’m not qualified. I’m not about to run trials with someone else’s $7,500 boat just to get my feet wet behind the oars.
Sorely wanting to put my years as a drift boat tenderfoot behind me, I’ve long been looking for a solution, an opportunity to get behind the oars without risking life and limb or a major financial investment. Most used, decent drift boats, once you add in the trailer required to get them from point A to B, will still run you well over $5,000, often considerably more.
Add in the fact that I live in downtown in a major metropolitan city -- and have no driveway and a backyard smaller than most people’s garages -- and it was clear I needed to think outside of the box, at least a bit.
I wanted a drift boat. Not a float tube to access more water or a one-man pontoon, but an actual drift boat or legitimate raft; something that was going to teach me how to work the oars, position the boat for anglers along for the ride, and so on.
Enter Flycraft. The Flycraft is a 2-man inflatable, closed hull raft (along the lines of an NRS raft but much smaller) that is the creation of Ben Scribner. Scribner set out several years ago to build a better boat. Mostly, this came down to building a boat that did what most of the existing drift boats already did -- offer stable, agile craft for navigating most trout rivers and streams -- but with the added bonus of portability. Traditional drift boats, for all that they do, aren't terribly portable. They're heavy, unwieldy and require not only a trailer to transport but, in most cases, a boat launch to get them floating. Scribner wanted a boat that could do what drift boats do, but also access sections of rivers without public launches, remote waterways and smaller streams.
Scribner hit the water with the first Flycraft prototypes around 3 years back, and his boats have been growing in popularity ever since. At The Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, NJ this year, the Flycraft booth had a constant stream of onlookers and interested customers, and anglers were overheard excitedly discussing the boat elsewhere on the show floor on many an occasion. Scribner's boats have become pieces to covet, as experienced oarsmen have touted their extreme agility, stealth and -- of course -- their portability.
As a drift boat neophyte, it was the portability bit that spoke to me. Designing a boat to be portable, by in large, means designing it to be lightweight and compact. These qualities speak in no small way to the drift boat greenhorn, as they serve to eliminate many of the perceived barriers-to-entry into the world of the oarsman. And so, in relatively short order, I found myself on the phone to with Ben Scribner. Not long thereafter, three big boxes showed up at the door containing my first entry into the world of drift boats.
Assembly isn't something most drift boat shoppers spend much time pondering, but since the Flycraft arrives in pieces, it's worth noting what's involved in turning those pieces into a ready-to-roll drift boat. The answer is: not much. On a humid, early summer night, with a good friend, a few beers, and Flycraft's YouTube assembly video as assistants, the Flycraft went together and was ready to hit the water after about 90 minutes of easy work. It's worth noting that a second pass at it would most certainly take less than half of that -- with a good shot of getting it done in less than a half hour -- but the first pass includes time to listen to instructions and contemplate possible missteps.
The Flycraft's compact design and lack of heft means many things. For one, there's no trailer needed. The Flycraft, weighing in at just 98 pounds, can be loaded relatively by a single person into the bed of a pickup truck or onto the roof of a car or SUV. With two people, loading is an absolute breeze. Toss over a few cam straps to lock it down, and off you go, literally in minutes. Unloading is even quicker.
No Boat Ramp
Easily carried by two people or dragged by one, you can basically get the Flycraft in the water anywhere there's not dense forest or cliffs blocking you from getting the boat wet. Slide it down riverbanks, carry it down trails, scramble it down rip rap. In most cases, as long as you can get to the water, so can the boat. And while this is undoubtedly the best part of the Flycraft's lack of reliance on boat ramps, it also means that the drift boat newbie can seek out a quiet location for his or her first couple of launches without having to ponder the possibility of a busy boat launch full of horrified onlookers watching as the boat spins, oars flair and so on. Sure, this might sound silly, but for those of us with the sin of pride, it matters.
Like assembly time, compact storage might not be a high priority item for all drift boat shoppers, but for those that don't have an abundance of room, it is paramount. As mentioned, I live in an urban area. There's no yard to park a trailer in, no garage to stow the boat in and so on. Given such, it was no small benefit -- rather, it made owning a drift boat possible -- that the Flycraft happily spent the summer either propped up in the backyard against the brick wall of the rear of my house with a tarp thrown over it or deflated in my basement when I knew I wasn't hitting the water for some time (while I didn't break down the boat's aluminum frame during these times, doing so wouldn't have required much effort).
The Flycraft's floor is a separate high pressure chamber that is inflated to almost three times the pressure of the rest of the boat. The result is a surprisingly hard, stable floor. If you're like me, you hate fishing seated from a drift boat, and being able to stand is an absolute must. The Flycraft offers the ability to stand with ease, not with clunky standing platforms that require additional hardware, but with a seamlessly integrated floor that runs the length of the craft.
You'll be wise to take any claims made here about the handling of the Flycraft with a grain of salt, given that they're being made by amateurs with less than a few dozen hours behind the oars. But along those same lines, the fact that rookie oarsmen were able to row the Flycraft with success, put the boat on fish, slip down small side channels and navigate the craft through choppy runs without knocking the standing angler in the front of the boat into the waves, should be no small consideration.
Does that mean we didn't find ways to do embarrassing neophyte things like graze another drift boat despite an inordinate amount of available room in which to avoid doing so, blown anchor points, go left when we wanted to go right and other such nonsense? Of course not. We did lots of that. But we also got a lot of things right, quickly became comfortable behind the oars, caught fish and had a hell of a lot of fun.
The Flycraft is quiet and runs stealthily through surprisingly skinny water. We were able to get surprisingly close to rising fish even in still, gin clear water, without putting them down -- that is, provided we were able to avoid rookie oar slap.
For a compact boat that you can toss on top of the car, there's a healthy amount of storage. Sure, there a no compartments and you're not going to stash as much gear as you can in a 16' aluminum hulled drift boat. But, there's enough room to tote several boat boxes, a full sized YETI cooler and all manner of other gear. You'll be surprised how much you can strap to the Yakima cargo rack at the rear of the boat without compromising the handling of the boat.
A Real Boat
All of the above, combined with the rest of the Flycraft's offerings -- comfortable, cushioned swivel seats, reverse lean bar, camcleat pulley anchor system -- conspire to make it a real boat, not an inflatable compromise.
Given how much fun we've had with the Flycraft, it's hard to find things to gripe about. More experienced oarsmen might have technical notes to share, but we've yet to hear many complaints. For the most part, the Flycraft did all that it promised to do and consistently found ways to surprise us.
One thing that did feel lacking from the Flycraft was some form of integrated rod storage. One of the nice things about hitting the water in a drift boat is that you can do so with several rods rigged up -- one for dry flies, one with a sink tip for streamers and one ready with a double-nymph rig. And so we did. But without a designated place to store rods, we ended up improvising and balancing them along the Flycraft's aluminum frame. Unfortunately, the rods never seemed to find a stable purchase there, and were often being knocked about and requiring attention. Leashing them to the rear cargo rack or other such ideas proved no more successful as they either found ways to get in the way or were unavailable for convenient access.
In reality, this dilemma would have likely been easily solved with a trip to the local home store, the purchase of a couple $5 lengths of PVC pipe and a few cam straps to marry the PVC to the Flycraft's frame. But, we're lazy, so that experiment will have to wait till the weather breaks.
UPDATE: Turns out this dilemma is now also easily solved by the addition of the now available Flycraft locking rod holder ($295).
So I'm a greenhorn no more. Well, sort of. Am I ready to row two guys through Yankee Jim Canyon on the Yellowstone or man a drift boat on the Deschutes? Of course not. Will I be renting a drift boat with relative confidence the next time I fish the Missouri? Absolutely.
More importantly, the Flycraft has opened up the world of drift boats, allowing entry in an approachable way and one that -- for $2,995 -- comes at a fraction of the price of outfitting one's self with a more traditional boat and a trailer. Not only does that offer up countless hours of chasing fish from the boat, it also reveals how game changing drift boats can be simply as transport down the river on walk-and-wade days.
One of the most surprising realities of time spent with the Flycraft is how little it feels like a compromise or an entry-level model, despite my expecting it would. In fact, it is easy to see how the convenience and portability of the Flycraft would trump the advantages of larger, less explorer-friendly drift boats.
For many, the Flycraft may end up being the only boat they'll ever need.