Drift Boats and River Dories

Reviewed by Randy Dunbar

In the early 1980s I was a District Ranger for the US Forest Service. In partnership with the McKenzie River Guides, we hosted a work party to build a new launch on the upper McKenzie River, just downstream from Olallie Campground.

A number of people in that work party are given honored places in the historical accounts in Roger Fletcher's book, Drift Boats and River Dories.

Fletcher gives us keen insights into these people, and many more facts about fly fishing's signature watercraft. His first person interviews reveal a spirit binding these river-loving folks. The historical photos and family accounts are priceless in documenting the era of pioneering river runners.

What You'll Find

The first of 4 sections in the book are a delightful account of the people closely identified with the design, construction, and eventual use of the boats. Fletcher describes the virtuous circle of oarsmen and women who translate their rowing experience on the rivers back into design modifications that have lead to the premier river boat designs in use today.

He is quick to identify his geographic focus with two maps in the opening pages: one to show Oregon and its key rivers, and one to show the driftboats "spawning grounds," the McKenzie River drainage.

After a brief nod to wood technology, the second section transforms into a boat builder's bible. You'll find the basic information needed to construct a wooden drift boat: terminology, how to read plans, materials, construction techniques, tools, and much more.

The third section recommends a model building process as the best way to learn to build a driftboat the free-form way. Fletcher does not skimp on instruction on how to do this. It's a bible within a bible.

The fourth section, "The Boats' Lines," showcases the excellent drawings done by Samuel F. Manning. Eight different boats are included along with an entertaining narrative related to each one. Veltie Pruitt's "Light McKenzie River Boat" is the first one taken up, and if you love driftboats the accompanying text will bring a lump to your throat.

Bottom Line

Fletcher has certainly taken driftboat history and design to the PhD level. His book deserves to stand alongside works such as John Jennings wonderful "The Canoe: A Living Tradition." And it shows the same level of scholarly research exhibited by Tappen Adney in his efforts to preserve the history and design of the birch bark canoe.

If you want a quick read or want to learn how to row a boat, this is not the book for you. But if you want to learn the history of this type of boat, find an actual design, or build a historic boat, Drift Boats and River Dories is a must-have book. It's well written and well illustrated. And, if you have a yen for driftboating, it's thoroughly entertaining.

Randy Dunbar is a fly angler who lives near the McKenzie River. He has worked the last 35 years at floating and fishing the waters of the West, Canada, and Alaska. He has much work still undone.