Don’t Row the Big Water

We’ve got some big and brown water flowing through town this week, and that means one thing and one thing only when it comes to fishing tips: Don’t row the big water. It’s spring, and the new boat smell is drifting around Missoula from driveways and garages all over town. Anglers who have made the plunge and dropped big dollars for a nice new boat are anxious to get those puppies out on the water, come hell or high water. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t take very high water to turn your inaugural float into a hell ride. Sure, you see plenty of other boats out there and they seem to be doing just fine… Well, guides make it look easy for a reason: they row like old vikings and deal with all kinds of currents and obstacles and weight shifts in the boat and broken oars and a whole list of other things that can turn things funky in a hurry. And iffy situations in a boat come up quicker than you think. So the best fishing advice for spring if you’re new to rowing or just rusty from a long winter of waiting is to simply not row that big stuff.

This is no fun. And can happen faster than you think. Take it easy out there.
Photo via

Lets talk about what constitutes “Big Water”. Of course big water is all that churning, bumpy stuff the whitewater guys love so much, but that isn’t the only thing that can make for very tricky and dangerous rowing. When fly fishermen think of the perfect western river, filled to the brim with native trout and meandering past snow-capped mountains and hopper-filled meadows, the Bitterroot River looks just about perfect. And it seems like an easy row: no real rapids to think about, lots of flat looking sections and lots of access points. Sure, it’s got all that. But it also has a whole lot of sweepers and tricky currents, and it’s meandering channels can change in a hurry. It isn’t uncommon for an industrious beaver to fell a tree and block the only “safe” channel and change a float overnight. Likewise, there can be surges of water that happen on the Bitterroot thanks to releasing water from the Painted Rocks Reservoir on the West Fork. And lets not forget those diversion dams and plunge pools. All of this adds up to a very dangerous river when not treated with the respect it is due. Taking your eye off the ball, not having an exit plan, and risking your boat and safety to get to that “really good looking water over there” can all have serious consequences on the Bitterroot. In the Missoula area, the Bitterroot claims more lives than the Blackfoot and the rest of our “big water” combined, but rarely does it get treated as dangerous water. Well, it is. Boats flip easily. Rafts get pinned to trees fast. And sweepers don’t let you wash out to safety if you go in the drink. Somber stuff, but its stuff you should think about before you head out to the door toward new water you haven’t rowed before. What can you do to make your float as safe as possible? Here are a few quick tips.

Research: Get a good float map, and a river guide and study it. Really. Not just the milage and the location of boat ramps. Good float maps (like River Rat Maps) have more than just simple blue lines and black roads, they help detail the kind of water you’ll encounter, the known obstacles, and the overall personality of the rivers. Get one for every river you want to row. Check the river flows. Read the reports. Talk to fly shop rats. I’ll say it again: TALK TO FLY SHOP RATS. They fish and row, and more importantly they get the daily info from the guides they send out on the water. If you haven’t been in a section of a river in a while, call them up or stop in a shop and ask about anything new and relevant. When a log goes down in that side channel you caught a big brown in last season, these guys know. And here’s yet another reason against self shuttling: the professionals who move 20-30 guide trucks a day know exactly where the traffic is, where it isn’t, and why. They won’t let you run through stuff that could get you killed. And lets remember that: it could get you killed. So lets not skimp on the research. (Or the $20 shuttle.)
Practice: Anyone can row. But not everyone should be on the sticks when things get sticky. If you’re new to rowing, don’t pretend you’ve got it covered. Here’s a typical “river town” scenario: guy with boat asks guy without boat to jump in for the day and get after them trouts. Guy without boat says, “Hell yeah! But I haven’t really rowed before.” Guy with boat says, “Oh, its no big deal I’ll teach you as we go.” Guy without boat should say, “Yeah, no thanks.” Learn to row on some easy stuff, and when the fishing isn’t the focus. Get a few days under your belt just fun floating and learning how the boat moves. Leave the rods at home. There are plenty of sections of river that are safe for beginners, and have just as many trout as the dangerous stuff. You don’t hit the L.A. freeway when you’re learning to drive, and you shouldn’t hop behind the oars on tough water your first time either. Be honest about assessing your abilities, and you’ll stay safe.
Scout It Out: Whenever you can’t tell what’s ahead on a river, you should take a walk. Park the boat and head downstream to check out what you’ll be rowing, and plan your attack accordingly. This goes for rapids, rock gardens, funky bends, or anywhere that your river’s eye view doesn’t allow you to see what’s coming. Sometimes this walk will result in a false alarm, and you’ll know its safe to proceed as planned. This is called success. Other times you’ll find dangerous conditions await, and you’ll know you need a strong, experienced rower behind the sticks and all involved should be prepared for worst-case scenarios. This is also called success. Take a walk, scout it out, and get it done.
Be Flexible: I don’t mean start stretching. Nobody likes a guy that can do the splits. It’s just weird. But it is important to be flexible when it comes to choosing your float. Don’t get tunnel vision on a section of the river, or a certain river, just because Timmy in sales caught a big brown there last week, or the hatch is on, or whatever the reason. There is plenty of great water, and safe water is your best choice. When you’ve researched well and gotten the latest information on a float, you’ll know whether or not it is still a good choice and should plan your day accordingly. There is nothing wrong wth fishing safe and reliable water.
Simple tips, and really only scratching the surface. But we want a no fatality year on our rivers this season, and every season. Even experienced rowers follow this same advice every single float, all season long. But when the rivers are big, and the water is moving its the most important thing you can do to prepare for your day. Get after it, but do so safely. And make that new boat last season after season.

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