Rowing: Easy, healthy, thankful. Have you noticed that when we treat ourselves the way we are supposed to: an honest day’s work, eating what’s good, using our muscles and lungs, honoring God, that everything else seems to go well with us. Life is good. fall-pagosa-peak

I have wanted to find out if it was possible to solo row moving rivers while fly fishing. The trout rich waters of the Rio Grand in Colorado are descended upon every June by fly fisherman from all over. They typically use drift boats, which are large heavy rowboats, aptly named ‘drift” rather than “row” boats, as they don’t row well at all, but are very stable. They are steered by a oarsman amidships. He does not fish, but can carry 2 fly fisherman fore and aft. It is a good design for the job.

 But I wanted to get my day’s exercise and enjoy the art of fly fishing at the same time. And I wanted to go alone, anytime, not just when a friend could get join me. Great news: it works!

I put my Heritage 15 Carbon Single in at the end of an area called Rainbow Run near South Fork, Colorado. This is a mile-long stretch worth fishing more than one pass, so I fished it, then rowed upstream through this stretch, then fished it again. No other rowboat I know of could do this. The water was running at 500, which the locals tell me is 5-7 knots. To row against this, plus avoid numerous rocks and log jams, is a great workout. It took about 20 minutes to row upstream, and 10 minutes to float back. The last time I fished this stretch yielded a 24 inch rainbow, but this time no luck. I just hadn’t figured it all out yet: casting, stripping line, steering the boat, avoiding rocks, holding on a good hole for an extra cast or two… So I stopped rowing upstream and concentrated on developing a system.

Here’s what worked for me. I positioned the boat at about a 45 degree angle to shore, with the stern down stream so I could see what’s coming. I would hold both oar handles in one hand, and by feathering, I could make small arm-only strokes with both oars in one hand, to move me a little closer or further away from shore. Rather than stripping line, I kept the casting length of the fly line constant, casting with my right hand. After a while, I got pretty good at it, moving the boat rather than changing the line length to cast closer or further away to shore or eddies. If a spot was red hot, I could clamp the rod between my knees and row back upstream to take another pass.

The first hook up was tucked into a log jam. I let the reel fight the fish, and at first the fish turned towards midstream, which I really needed because I could not row upstream and fight the fish at the same time. But he turned back toward the log jam as though he knew I was one-handed. I had no choice but to clamp down (one-handed) on the reel and hope I could drag him over the log without breaking the line. I once fished with a reel with a broken drag, and learned you can jam the back of the hand holding the reel against the reel and create drag. This keeps the other hand free row. My line dragged the fish out of the water, about half way over the log jam, before the line broke.

The next fish was less lucky. A clean strike, I again let the reel fight the fish as I one-hand rowed towards shore. I needed to plant a foot in the shallows to land the fish. I needed both hands. I could have landed while the boat was still adrift, but the water was low and there were exposed rocks everywhere. Stopping the boat movement was safer, and allowed me to focus on a clean catch and release, reviving the fish before letting it go. In these waters, it is unclear if touching the bottom is allowed, especially in privately owned lands. I’ll ask forgiveness, for the health of the fish.

The Heritage handled these waters wonderfully. I would say any water a traditional drift boat can go, so can the Heritage, except perhaps some very big whitewater. In Colorado, when the water is that big, the color is nasty and no one is fishing anyway. Later, as the water recedes, fisherman float in rubber rafts rather than hard bottom boats, and they can handle the rock impacts without issue. I’d say the shallow draft of the Heritage is good for most of these skinny water days. I hit several rocks with my 15 Carbon. One hit was particularly hard as I had a fish on and didn’t want to try hard to miss it. A later inspection showed no damage, but I’m not ready to add this to the guarantee. If you row waters with exposed rocks, eventually you’ll do some damage. Carry a roll of duct tape, which will patch anything and get you home. Just like the drift boats, if you float rocky water, sooner or later you’re going to learn how to do small patch jobs (I’ve written a small manual on this available with our patch kit).

I was having a great time. So much so I drifted right past my take out, where the car had been left, and just kept going. I knew the next takeout was several miles down, but this was too much fun to end now.

After a few more hours fishing, the afternoon storms moved in, and I had a mile or two to go to the takeout. This area was less rocky and a bit wider. I put the rod down, spun the bow downstream and pulled. Wow! Sliding seat rowing over top of a 7 knot current… I must have been breaking some kind of speed limit. Easily 10 mph, and I easily outran the storm. At this speed it is important not to hit a rock, so watch closely and choose a clear path. If you come into questionable water, just spin the boat back to stern-first, so your eyes are facing where you’re headed. It is amazingly easy to navigate and control the course of your Heritage this way.

Arriving at the takeout, with no car, the next step was to hope some passerby would take pity on me a give me a lift. I took my rod and the oars with me and climbed the bank to the road. This being an outdoorsmen’s haven, the first vehicle stopped, the kind fellow anxious to learn about my extra long oars and escapades fishing the great Rio Grande.

Kayak fishing has become a popular idea as late. While I’ve never kayak-fished, I have kayaked a good bit, and used to own the local kayak dealership. I must say, I believe we have a better mousetrap. For several reasons:

1, The low seat of a kayak is no longer comfortable for me compared to the high seat of a Heritage. At age 53, I get cramps seated so low for very long.

2. The Heritage is literally twice the speed of a fishing kayak at cruising speed. No kidding. So you easily cover more real estate. And more powerful for bucking a wind, tide or current.

3. Sliding seat is universally recognized as the best cardiovascular exercise known. Why not get this huge advantage while fishing?

The idea of getting the world’s best form of exercise while enjoying one of my favorite past times, is heaven. I no longer own a powerboat of any kind. This is too good. I’m planning an Everglades trip soon, camping and fishing in the Heritage for several days. Then hopefully next year to Ascension Bay in Central America.

So, what’s on your wish list?