White River

Drift boat or White River jon

Posted by John Berry on November 1st, 2012
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When I first started fishing our local streams over thirty years ago, the first thing that I noticed, were the unique White River Jon boats that were used here by the bait fishermen. Back then fly fishers just wade fished on low water. Over the years fly fishing guides and anglers developed techniques to fly fish higher flows from these Jon boats. Back then they were all narrow green Shawnees. I always thought they had a grace and beauty about them with their long lines and shallow draft. Their small motors were perfect for navigating our rivers. They have been developed over the years locally to suit our river conditions. They handle high or low water with ease and are very comfortable.

When I travelled out west, I fished from drift boats. These are short maneuverable rowboats developed in the Rocky Mountains for the turbulent rivers found there. They have their own beauty and grace. I found them to be great casting platforms. They are able to handle some pretty rough water. Their light weight and ability to turn on a dime makes them perfect for fishing shallow water. They are also popular on other trout rivers in various locations including Michigan and East Tennessee. For the last few years, I have noticed a trend toward the use of drift boats here. A lot of the guides that worked out west, before settling here, brought them with them. Other anglers that fished from them fell in love and bought them to use here. Local boat manufacturer, Shawnee, is currently developing its own drift boat designed specifically for our streams that will be manufactured here.

Last night I was perusing a fly fishing forum on a local fly fishing website that featured a thread about the use of drift boats that included a debate between two local guides on which boat was the best suited for our waters. Both guides were experienced and had solid reputations. It was an interesting discussion and a draw at best. Both water craft have their advantages and disadvantages. It should be noted that I know several guides that own and use both.

The White River Jon boat has a motor and that allows it to easily move upstream and with any current at all it can return to the launch site and avoid the use of shuttles. When you locate the fish, you can rerun the area and fish a given section over and over again. With a motor, there is limited physical exertion required. With an electric start and power tilt, it is even easier. The White River Jon is also a bit larger. This means more distance between fly casters and less chance for them to tangle up with each other. There is even room for three casters. I occasionally fish with three anglers and have noted that they have to be experienced to prevent tangles. They are not always easy to control when drifting with windy conditions or very low current, particularly if jet motors are used.

On a drift boat, the lack of a motor is a distinct advantage. The boat is quiet and you can hear yourself think. This also allows you to move stealthily through the water and easily approach wary fish. With the oars, you can easily maneuver and are better able to drift when dealing with windy conditions or very low current flows. They are especially adept for banging the bank with streamers or grasshoppers because of the ability to micro manage the drift so carefully. They do not handle very high flows very well (like maximum flows on the White River). With a drift boat, it is a one way trip and a shuttle is required. They require that the boat handler be healthy and physically fit to power the oars all day. I know several guides that had to quit using them because of damage to their bodies from long term use of drift boats.

Some users of both boats have made modifications to their watercraft to make them more like the other. I have seen drift boats with small motors that allow them to move upstream. They look ungainly at best under power but it works. Several guides that I know have added oars to their Jon boats to better control their drifts in windy or low water conditions. It is effective but the down side is that they have to move from the rear of the boat to the center and take a few minutes to get set up before they start rowing.

Where do I stand on this debate? I will be sixty six years old next week and I think that I am a little old to row a boat all day. My combat tours in Viet Nam and various old sports injuries have take their toll on my body. If I were younger, I would acquire a drift boat and use it on lower flows. I would keep my White River Jon for higher water or lower flows on windless days.

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