Launching a drift boat for muskies eases the mind.
By Dave Karczynski
It’s late October in muskie country, the first wintry blow of the season. Packers flags wrap tight around flagpoles, and leaves clot the windshield of the lead truck so thickly we have to stop our caravan twice.
I’m fishing today with the boys from Boulder Boatworks, who’ve hauled their goods halfway across the country from Colorado to northeast Wisconsin to do something they can’t back home: chase teeth. I’ve ogled their boats long enough to have violated any and all angler commandments about coveting thy neighbor’s property—something about the combination of classic woodwork on a modern build—but this is the first time I’ve gotten the chance to fish from one.
I’m as ready to chase Esox as I’ve ever been. I’ve got 12 more flies than I need, a wader pocket full of energy bars, and even a beer koozie-cum-lanyard around my neck—good for Saint Bernarding yourself when a casting hand turns to pulp, or a shoulder goes kaput, or you suffer any of the other dozen maladies associated with muskie fishing, not the least being an often bruised ego. At the launch, all three boats slip in without a hitch, and as the concrete landing disappears behind a riverbend, I give thanks for this opportunity. There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, which is good because there’s no other place I could be. That’s the beauty of a day on the river in a drift boat: the point of no return comes early.
Drift boats. I’ve traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles in them. I’ve sung in them, slept in them, screamed until I saw stars after great fish I’d missed, laughed like a madman for hours after boating a personal best. As a moving-water fishing tool, the drift boat is unrivaled. I’m here to celebrate the drift boat as a social club par excellence, the hub of sporting hubs. With apologies to worm-dunkers with their wobbly piers, and buddied-up bowhunters in tandem tree stands, the drift boat is as perfect a space to share with other humans as you’ll find in the sporting world.
For starters, few flotation devices this side of an Alcatraz raincoat have such a sense of escape built in. With no direction but downstream, and no stopping unless you really, really need to, a drift boat has all the joy and adrenaline of a jailbreak. Adding to this feeling of escape is the fact there’s nothing to distract you, and few questions to figure out. Direction? Just one. Acceptable behaviors? Casting or rowing. Which beer to drink? Whatever is in the cooler. In a world of countless micro-decisions, where we swipe and scroll a billion times a year to find everything from mates to meals, the single-minded course of a drift boat yields a rare existential clarity—no matter what sort of mental mess you start the day in, by the time you shimmy up to the takeout, the world—for a time, at least—makes good firm sense.
And then there’s the idea that you and your buddies are in it together—for better or worse. The wading angler can decamp from a shared beat at a moment’s notice, whether to nap or crap or just stare at the clouds. Not so in a drift boat, where among other things, tight quarters seem to bring out the best kind of storytelling. New yarns are met with a generous credulity; twice-told tales get better. Always, the fishing dictates the rhythm. On a day when the smallmouths are crashing surface bugs, there are plenty of starts and stops, wisecracks and asides, but on a muskie trip, where there might be hours or even days between bent rods, things can get positively Homeric. On today’s float, I learn about chicha, an Amazonian alcohol made of chewed plants and spit. About how to trap a wild pig with just a flat rock and an empty schedule. I learn the ins and outs of fishing every type of river in the mid-Atlantic. I hear an unabridged history of muskie guiding in the Midwest.
And then a crackling comes over the radio: the lead boat has a fish in the net. We push hard around the next bend, and sure enough, the rest of our party is anchored flush against the bank in a victory formation. It’s a good fish, a worthy fish, deserving of a hailstorm of beers. The tale of the eat and fight is told three times, once by everyone in the lucky boat. Eventually, with the whistle of the evening wind, we realize we’re losing heat and light. Anchors up and sunglasses off, it’s time for last-ditch flies in bright colors, fire-tigers and electric fuchsias and nuclear oranges. Talk stops for the first time all day and the world goes silent except for the churning oars. There’s still an hour yet of freedom to the takeout, still three winding river miles, still 100 or so casts of anything-can-happen—and damn if I’m not convinced it will. And maybe that’s the last great thing about moving through the world on the bow of a drift boat: the odds always feel slanted toward a miracle.
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.