Boating the Blue Lines

fly fishing, rafting, smith river

On any map of Montana, the blue lines represent more than just water. Like they did for the trappers who came before, rivers represent freedom. For everyone living or visiting this great state, those ribbons are the major gateways to adventure, and the vessel you choose can make all the difference.

The first thing a soon-to-be water nut needs to do is answer some basic questions. Are you a hardcore fish-head or an adrenaline junkie that loves whitewater? Will your adventures be family outings or solo excursions? And what about your previous experience? Once you nail down your intended purpose, your decision on specific craft becomes much easier. Here are a few categories you may fall into.

Diehard fish bums all want a driftboat. They’re romantic and efficient, and it’s easy to see why—they’re romantic and efficient. There are two popular types in Montana, one of which boasts the standard pointed front with classic looks and quick handling. Many of these are built locally—check out at RO Driftboats in Four Corners for some staples.

The second style becoming more popular is the skiff version, which sports a square nose and flat profile. This boat is great for those windy days so common in a Montana summer. The gold standard is Adipose Boatworks’ Flow. They are built in Helena by dedicated trout bums who live and breathe the trademark angler lifestyle.

Both of these boats will handle three people easily and will confidently navigate most, if not all, waters around Montana. Costs vary, but if you’re looking for a shiny new boat and trailer, plan to spend up to or more than $10,000.

If you’re a whitewater junkie or plan to spend relaxing Saturdays on the water with the family, going with a raft is probably a better route. NRS has a diverse and stacked spread. Check out their website for some good ideas. The best thing about rafts is their ability to handle multiple uses: add a full frame and you’ve got a good fishing platform. Leave the seats out, add a cooler and a sunshade, and you’ve designed the perfect family boat. Run it with no frame at all, grab a few thrill-seeking buddies, and use it as a paddleboat past House Rock on the Gallatin.

Rafts generally cost less, can be deflated during the winter or for storage and transport, and are more forgiving for new oarsmen. Mind you, they are not as fast as the driftboat, but the bonus is not having to worry as much about bouncing off rocks.

Other Vessels
Like your solitude chasing fish? Want to run some smaller streams and creeks? Take a look at Stealthcraft fishing rafts or go even smaller and consider a packraft. Each offer small, dynamic vessels that can float anything bigger than a trickle and will store in the back of a Prius. These boats are great for solo evening floats chasing a fleeting caddis hatch—more stable than a canoe but just as versatile.

If you long for the freedom of Montana’s blue lines, don’t just dip your toe in the water. Invest in a craft that fits your needs and you’ll soon be reaping the rewards. Happy floating.

John Way owns the Tackle Shop in Ennis.