A Quickstart Guide to Rowing Boats and Rafts – Josh Ziegler 

Table of Contents

By Josh Ziegler:

Alright, so you’re sick of bank fishing, or perhaps tired of greasing the pockets of your local fishing guide (but still book those guys—they’ll be sad if you go cold turkey), and you’ve decided you want to learn how to row a boat. Good on ya, brave soul. But how do you learn? Or how do you at least avoid spinning in circles down the river, or flipping your shiny new raft, or drowning, or not being able to make it off the lake because you can’t figure out how in the actual hell to manoeuvre that awkward vessel? Fair questions. Fair concerns. Rowing is a nuanced skill which takes time. Let me say that again, it takes time. So, to start, as you begin to build your skillset, just know it happens in two phases: first, you’ll learn how to row for survival, and after extensive practice—meaning months, if not years—you will enter the second phase of boatmanship: commanding a skiff for fishing success. 

If you’re brand new and immediately want to jump into that second phase like, ASAP? Too bad. Put your time in. I’d like to model men’s underwear in one of those fancy GQ advertisements, but unless they start a dad-bod campaign, I better start doing some sit ups and wax the beer belly I’m trying to lose. There are no shortcuts. And while this article might provide some tips, it isn’t a substitute for hours spent with your ass in the rower’s seat.  That said, getting started can seem daunting, so let’s demystify this deal a bit. 

How Do I Get Started? 

Good question. Ideally, you have a friend or know a local willing to show you the ropes. If you don’t have access to an experienced buddy, call your local fly shop as they may have a guide who’s a go-getter and willing to do something a bit different for a change. If a guide isn’t available, they might know of somebody willing to help. Magical things tend to happen at the fly shop, so hangout, ask questions, and buy some stuff.  But if you really want to make some solid connections, bring the crew a tasty case of brews: Busch, PBR, Olympia— nothing fancy—it just needs to be cold. Hell, even room temperature will do. Point being, beer is currency and the gesture will go a long way in establishing a reliable connection. Trust me on this one. If someone bribes me with a case of farmer sodas, I’ll spend time helping them out. 

Now, if those two options are a bust, that sucks, but you still have options. A smart play would be a single man pontoon boat. The single pontoon is essentially a tire inner tube with oar locks. The angler wears scuba style flippers and sits in the middle of the donut shaped vessel with his or her body halfway submerged in the water. The flippers will help with navigation as you decipher how to adequately operate the oars, and due to the boats relatively small size, you’ll likely gain a quicker understanding of how the pontoon reacts to certain oar strokes. 

Start at a pond or lake, and spend a substantial amount of time developing your boat work. Though it might be blasphemous, leave your rods at home for the first few trips. I know, I know, I feel dirty even saying it, but those initial days will only help your fishing in the long run. Notice that this is really the first time I’ve mentioned fishing? Exactly. While it might be a bummer you can’t find a mentor to drop some wisdom, the single pontoon provides the opportunity to fish as you learn. When first running a raft or drifter, you’ll likely find that the day is monopolized by time spent on the sticks, or at least it should be, and your fishing will be cut down to whenever you pullover for a break. So, celebrate those silver linings if your only option is going at it alone. 

Back Rowing 

To set you at ease, making it safely down the river isn’t all that hard. I mean, this is somewhat subjective, so maybe don’t start out by running the Grand Canyon—but learning to float your home water is totally doable. I flunked my high school algebra class not once, but twice, and folks pay me to take them down the drink, so don’t be intimidated by this deal. Point being, it doesn’t take a PhD to figure this deal out, and when you’re getting started, you only need to know a few things, the first of which is back rowing. 

The initial instinct of most first-timers is to grab the oars and pull their hands back in the direction of the boat’s stern (the ass end), which will move the oars toward the front of the boat (bow). Inevitably, they will dig the blades deep into the water, and push forward as if bench-pressing a weighted bar. This is called forward rowing. For now, we want to avoid this motion as it can lead to a quagmire pretty dang fast. For example, if a hypothetical rock swiftly approaches the bow, the rookie will often panic, rely on instinct, and push themselves into the obstruction by rowing forward as opposed to avoiding it by back rowing. The result is a potential “skkkkkrrrrrbaaaang kerploosh,” as well as the subsequent sunken boat, lost tackle, and fishing buddy ready to kick some ass the moment his portly body makes it to the surface. No good. So how do you avoid this scenario?  Back rowing. Lots of back rowing. I had a baseball coach once tell me that “when in stress, we regress,” and the same pertains here. 

While a beginner may know the movement of back rowing, they will often only register the panic they feel as they see the fallen tree before them. As a result, they enter an almost flight-or-fight state and will either hasten their trajectory by forward rowing into the obstruction, or miss the water entirely with their oars in rushed attempts to dig. It will likely happen to you, and it’s definitely happened to me. Those split-second scenarios are scary, but don’t feel bad about it. More often than not, you will bounce off of a rock or put a buddy in a tree. No biggie. 

So, how do you avoid reverting back to instinctual movements? Well, in the words of Mr. Miyagi, “wax on, wax off.” Continue to only back row until it’s second nature. But what is back rowing? Easy enough, the opposite of front rowing. I’m being a smart ass, I know—but to be fair, you do make the opposite movement. Let’s take a moment to do an exercise: close your eyes. Are they closed? Perfect. Go into that sweet meditative place of imagination. Are you there? Breathe in, breathe out. Now I want you to imagine those old rowing machines nobody uses at the gym. Do you see it? Good, good. Now, picture a somewhat plump man (I’m thinking of myself here) methodically exercising on that rowing machine as sweat soaks his AC/DC cut-off. See how he moves his hands waaay forward?  Gooood, good. Now, do you see that once he’s leaning over, he uses his legs, back, and arms to pull back in one fluid motion? Perfect! Well, that’s exactly how to back row. 

If you’re bad at meditating, or feel as though you need further explanation, I’ll walk you through it: first, sit in the boat, get comfy, and grab ahold of the oars. See, pretty damn easy so far.  Once floating, you want to bench-press motion your hands forward (almost lean forward as you do it), then dig the blades into the water. Now that you’ve submerged the blades, pull your hands back towards your spine. When executing this motion, you’ll want to have your feet planted against something: the cross bar on a raft, or the foot rest on a drift boat floor. 

Keep in mind that back rowing, or any rowing, is not a strict upper body movement. If only the arms and back are engaged, the oar stroke will have limited impact on the vessel’s movement. To achieve more power from the stroke—and to avoid rapid fatigue— dig the blades into the water and push your legs (as if to straighten them) against the structure you’ve set your feet upon. As you push with your lower half and pull with your back and arms, tighten your stomach and lean backwards. If done correctly, the 90-degree angle of the lower-torso and hip should almost straighten at the end of the motion. The arms, legs, and back should all move in one fluid movement. There are variations of this stroke, as you will not always need to exert that level of force, but this is how the movement should look at maximum effort. You will quickly be able to gauge the force needed as you navigate the day. 

 How Do I Steer This Thing? 

“Steering” is where the true art of rowing comes into play, as you will eventually learn to skull or crab stroke, scissor stroke, and other intricate techniques required to adequately fish an angler from a skiff (these skills take time to develop)—but for now, we’ll cover the basics. Similar to back rowing, steering is just as easy. If you want to move the boat one way or the other, simply perform the back row motion but with half of your body. If I want to move the nose of the boat to the right, I’ll take a stroke with my right arm. If I want to move the nose to the left, I’ll take a stroke with my left arm. Easy. 

However, you are more so making constant adjustments to keep your boat “on point,” or parallel to the current (bow and stern facing down and upstream). You should always aim to have the boat “on point” as it’s the safest position to be in. If the skiff moves from “on point” to 90 degrees (the bow and stern facing the banks), then it’s in a compromised position and susceptible to flip. A raft will likely bounce if it collides with an obstruction at 90 degrees—depending on current— but a drift boat will surely topple if it catches a rock in the same position. To stay on point, you are almost always making small adjustments with your left and right oar. 

For example, if the bow starts to drift too far left, use a small right stroke to provide a quick adjustment; if the bow starts drifting too far right, use a left stroke. Constant adjustments are key, so constantly engage the sticks. If you happen to use too much force with, say, a right stroke, simply pull your right oar up, and forward stroke with that same right oar. A right forward stroke will do the opposite of a right back stroke, as it will move the bow to the left. In contrast, a left forward stroke will move the bow to the right. Again, small adjustments. “But, Josh? Didn’t you say we shouldn’t forward row? What happened to that Mr. Miyagi back rowing shit you were talkin’ about?” There is a difference between making correctional strokes, and forward rowing like you’re in a stolen Prius. Forward rowing pushes the raft downstream at a heightened rate of speed, and a forward stroke, at least in the way I’m discussing it here, manipulates the vessel either to its left or right. 

Once you feel as though you’ve mastered these techniques, you can get a bit more complex with a “scissor stroke.” A scissor stroke provides the ability to make faster adjustments. If you want to quickly turn the bow left, forward stroke with your right oar and back stroke with your left. The right oar is simply adding power to your back stroke in this scenario. To quickly turn the bow right, forward stroke with your left, and back stroke with your left. This is also a super fun way to spin in really, really fast circles down the river, but maybe don’t do that. 

When you are starting out, I’d suggest staying in the middle of the river as that’s where the bulk of the current will typically reside. When you move closer to the bank, the more you will encounter obstructions be it root wads, exposed rocks, and so forth. The middle is the happy place; the bank is the bad place. Remember, you are working on developing your skills as a rower, so ignore that juicy bank which is sure to hold a fish or two; there will be plenty of juicy banks to fish once you have your abilities dialed in.  

How Do I Avoid Crashing into Stuff? 

Once you have the foundational skills mentioned above, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re headed for an obstruction, point the bow of your rig directly at it (I know, sounds a little counterintuitive). Now that the bow is directly pointed at, let’s say a rock, begin to back row. If you’re in heavy current, well, this is the time to fully engage your legs, back, and arms in order to exert enough force to avoid collision. By back rowing, you are moving yourself away from the rock. Continue to back row until you’re at a safe distance, and then slowly maneuver into a parallel (on point) floating position by using quick left and right stroke adjustments.

When avoiding an obstruction, or if you want to move to the opposite bank, be sure to maintain a somewhat parallel position. Avoid turning the boat to 90 degrees to jet over. Instead, angle the stern at about 45 degrees in the direction you want to go and begin to back row. Yes, you will fight the current a little more at a 45-degree floating position, but you are far less likely to flip if you hit an obstruction, as the bow is still angled downstream. Also, a strong current will potentially flip, and sink, a drift boat positioned at 90-degrees, so be cognisant of not just obstructions in the river but also the rate at which it flows. 

This Sounds Awesome! What Boat Should I Buy? 

Whoa, now Bucko… If you’ve never spent a day with the oars in your hands, I’d reconsider smashing open that piggy bank. First, see if you even enjoy rowing a boat. Your first time in the middle seat of a skiff is nerve-racking, and certain folks are turned off by the anxiety it can cause, or perturbed they’re rowing and not fishing, which is totally fine and understandable; our time on the water should be, like, fun? Right? So, don’t financially jump into this deal until you know if it’s for you. But don’t let me dictate your pocketbook; if that spare change is janglin’ a little too loud in your pocket, pull the trigger, as that’s exactly how I scored my first brand new, and heavily discounted, drift boat (God bless ya, John, and your hatred of shoveling water. I could kiss ya on the lips). 

Ok, maybe you’ve got a few days under your belt, and you are absolutely set on buying your own rig. Well, let’s talk shop, big spender. First, where are you going to primarily use your new floating contraption? This is a big question to think about. A lake? Tail water? Free stone?  Little of everything? My first piece of advice as you consider your purchase is this: safety should be your absolute main concern. The anxiety you felt the first time you drove that thing? Well, that’s for good reason. People die navigating watersheds every year. And these fatalities sadly happen for a multitude of reasons, one of which is using the wrong boat on the wrong river. Due to this somber fact, I typically advise folks to go for a raft. They are safer than a drift boat, as they are more difficult to flip/sink, and far more versatile. You’re getting more bang for your buck, and you’ll have a boat which is forgiving when it comes to beginner errors. 

However, if you’re going to spend the bulk of your time on lakes or slow-moving tail waters, I’d consider a drift boat. They are far more comfortable to fish out of, reactive, and simply easier to row. Let the location you’re primarily floating be the deciding factor on this one. More often than not, go with a raft.

Yay! Rowing Boats! 

In closing, find someone to teach you, someone you trust and who has experience. Develop those initial skills mentioned in this article, and continue to row, row, row your boat! If you’re reading this with aspirations of becoming a fishing guide—rowing should become your life. Your ability on the sticks equates to a roof over your head. Trust me, seasoned clients know the difference between sloppy and clean boatmanship, so dedicate yourself to the craft if you want to make it (or get a killer Instagram account… that seems to work, too).  Lastly, if you’re learning by yourself, feel free to shoot me an email.  I’m happy to chat. Someone took the time to show me the ropes, so I’m game to pay it forward. Have fun, but most of all, be safe. 

Take our Pontoon and Raft Fishing Mini-Course with Yos Gladstone!


Picture of Josh Ziegler

Josh Ziegler

Josh Ziegler grew up in Florence, Montana. He is a teacher, professional writer, and a guide with river experience ranging from Alaska to Montana. Josh has written for several outdoor publications such as "MeatEater'', "The Drake Magazine'', and "American Angler". He is a graduate student at Montana State University, as well as an English teacher who works seasonally as a fishing guide in Montana. He jokes that he once "shoveled water for currency" in Alaska's Bristol Bay, but that was in a past life, as he's now a husband and dad to a wonderful baby boy.

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