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Tied up in a local legend: Drift boats always perfect on river

FRANK ARMENDARIZ/THE CHRONICLE

Named after the river where they were invented, the McKenzie River drift boats connect people to a historic pastime and are as popular as ever.

A local innovation, the McKenzie River drift boat has been around for almost 100 years and is as popular as ever. The boat offers a stable angling platform that can float in only inches of water and can maneuver among river rocks and shallows in comfort and ease. They allow you to fish miles of river in a single day and are just plain fun to float in and row. Piloting a drift boat is a simple exercise in hand-eye coordination that with a little training and practice most people master within a few floats. It’s a part of Oregon history that still motivates thousands to socialize with family and friends on the banks of their local river.  

The boats are incredibly simplistic; a rowboat at heart equipped with an oarsman’s seat, passenger seat and oar lock blocks, attached to a rocker hull that flares outward at the handrails. But the simplicity of the design, the fact that the boat only requires several key components to operate, makes those parts essential to its safe navigation and to a safe day on the river for everyone.

Most essential to any river float is a life jacket (or “personal flotation device”) for everyone on your boat that is Coast Guard-approved for use on the river; an important designation. The difference between PFDs designed for river use and those designed for stillwater can be subtle at first glance, but are significant. 

“Type III” river PFDs will have more “floatation” generally, 16-20 pounds, and is designed to float a person face up even if the wearer is unconscious. They have more buckles and straps that cinch at multiple points. The buckles and straps are also much stronger and when sized correctly the shoulder straps by law are required to support the full weight of the user. I spend weeks at a time in a life jacket and can tell you that modern PFDs are more comfortable than ever, more durable – and often more expensive too. But the confidence of knowing that if you accidentally put someone in the water their chances of survival are multiple times higher than with any other style PDF … is priceless.

For all river boat captains I recommend that you have basic training in first aid and CPR and a first-aid kit that supports your level of training in your boat where you can easily access it. Fishing has a lot of sharp edges, including knives and hooks. The places where we fish also have innate hazards that we often stumble into and find ourselves or friends cut, scraped or bruised. Treating injuries quickly promotes healing and can also prevent infections that can prolong the injury.

About hooks: There are a number of tutorials online to learn how to remove an embedded hook. None are painless, but the loop technique is quick and effective. Hooks are also notorious for harboring staph and tetanus, especially if you have caught a fish with it. Once removed, the area should be thoroughly washed with soap and water and dressed with an antibacterial ointment. And take no chance, anyone accidentally hooked should also consult their physician as to the status of their tetanus vaccination.

In a drift boat, you need two functioning oars and two oar locks to have any chance of safely navigating down any river. Breaking or losing any of those individual components will leave you stranded on the bank. Or even worse, trapped against a mid-river rock or root wad. Remember, river environments are always dynamic, they have subsurface rocks, trees and shoals. And the only component that reaches below the surface are your oars. Eventually when you find one of these subsurface obstacles (everyone does), your oar will get trapped and break. It happens in a heartbeat. A pinned oar can come loose and without damage, but with eight or nine feet of leverage, one can damage or break your oar lock in the process, making your boat unnavigable.

I can’t overstate the importance of carrying a spare dependable oar and oar lock in your drift boat, right at hand, where you can quickly replace a broken one. 

A few other things I always have in my drift boat are a small dry-box that I carry with my cellphone, fishing license, invasive species permit and my river-guide documentation. Also, several oar lock retainers, a spare boat plug, a bailing bucket, 100 feet of half-inch spectra rope, a roll of high-tack tape and, of course, my river whistle. 

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