Picking a River Boat: A Raft or a Dory?

I’m in the process of fulfilling a lifelong dream of buying a manually powered boat for river fishing. It’s great to walk and wade, but there’s something about the sensation of flowing with the current… taking family and friends along with you on your river trips… and covering literally miles of fishing opportunity that a boat affords.

It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing for bass (some of the biggest smallmouth bass in the country are found in river systems), or pike, or even trout. The benefits of a boat are substantial.

But it’s tough to choose the right craft that fits your needs. The discussion around river boats usually boils down to two general options. Should you pick a drift boat (a dory) or a raft?

The main factor you must consider is the type of river you plan to row most often. Faster water with boulders would make me gravitate toward a raft. Let’s face it — drift boats are easier to maneuver, but they don’t bounce off rocks like rafts do. You don’t get many mistakes in drift boats. If you’re just starting out, therefore, it’s often best to start with a raft or a pontoon boat, and once you have many rowing hours under your belt, then you can think about a dory.

If you plan on fishing in mostly gentle, flatter water, however, it might be fine to start with a drift boat. Drift boats do typically offer the advantage of more stable footing and more storage.

Another thing you should think about is where you will launch, and how you plan to transport your boat. Rafts can be completely deflated, of course, and assembled on the spot, though that takes time. You can haul rafts on a trailer, however, if you tend to go up and down in elevation, you must remember to transport your raft with reduced air pressure (so it won’t pop when you gain elevation). A dory may be quicker to launch, but easier to do so at established boat launches.

Whatever you choose, do yourself a favor and take some lessons from a rowing pro, and be sure your first purchases for you boat are PFDs, a rescue line, and other safety gear. The river isn’t a place for trial and error, but with a boat, your opportunities will grow exponentially.

Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large with Field & Stream, and he co-wrote The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing with the late Charlie Meyers.