Drift Boat For Yellowstone's Treasures

By Don Jordan

posted 9/18/06

GARDINER, Mont. - Here on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park is where the Yellowstone River leaves the park and becomes a major recreational river for kayakers, rafters, and fishermen.

The Yellowstone is a big river from here on down, but the stretch just outside of Gardiner and through Paradise Valley is the most popular outside of the park. Last week, my friend Howdy Sloan of Silver Gate, Mont., and his son, Dusty, loaded a couple of southern Indiana boys into his Clackacraft McKenzie boat and headed downstream.

My partner in crime was Ken Webb, a well-known Bloomington reprobate.

The McKenzie boat has a long, illustrious history. Today's boats are modified descendents of the New England fishing dories used by cod fishermen. The craft appeared in Orgeon in the 1930s as "drift" boats for fishing whitewater rivers like the McKenzie and has evolved into the highly specialized craft you see out west today.

Double-ended with a lot of rocker, the boat is built for the operator or guide to sit amidships manning a pair of long sweeping oars. With all that rocker, the boat turns in a split second. Two people can fly fish simultaneously from this boat, one in the bow, one in the stern. Special leg "locking" braces on both ends permit anglers to stand and cast even in the roughest white water. The flat-bottom design and wide beam makes for extreme stability.

We were out for the big cutthroat and rainbow trout that live in the Yellowstone's boiling whitewater and deep holes. We caught a handful of smaller fish of both species and a good number of mountain whitefish. Webb contributed his special long-distance catch and release technique. To his credit, ole Ken caught several trout during the day.

Jordan's approach was to foul-hook the trout in the side. Makes for a great fight but much harder on the fish than Webb's approach.

Howdy's boat handling and reading the river became the focus of the trip for me. As any experienced whitewater canoeist or kayaker can testify, reading the water ahead and putting the boat in a perfect position to navigate a lively boulder garden is among the most challenging of all outdoor skills. Add three other people, their costly fishing tackle and coolers to make it an even more interesting test. It is an art and a skill in one package.

From my seat behind Howdy, it was easy to watch him pick his routes. Lining up on the "V" above the rapids; turning and moving laterally in an instant; rowing hard to avoid being swept against a boulder-strewn bank with two guys fly casting at the same time, it was more than interesting. There is tremendous satisfaction in putting a boat in a perfect attitude to permit perfect entrance to and exit from a rapid, avoiding eddy currents and obstacles. I think this is what makes a guy like Sloan want to perfect this aspect of outdoor life. There is tremendous satisfaction in handling a boat well in whitewater.

One of Sloan's life goals is to become the best drift boat operator on the Yellowstone. Although he bows to Gardiner's Richard Parks as the best drift boat captain in the river, I can testify that Howdy's boat handling under tough, low-water conditions inspired great confidence and was at least impressive.

In fact the highest pucker factor on this stretch of river is making a safe landing at the take-out, just above a little goodie called "Yankee Jim." Yankee Jim is a Class III to Class V rapid, depending on the water level. The hapless fisherman who misses this landing is screwed, blued and tattooed.

"We lose a couple of drift boats there every year," said Howdy as we made a perfect approach to the landing and spun into a tiny eddy. No sweat.

The Clackacraft and her captain almost stole the show from the mountains and the river for me. It is one more plus that makes fishing in paradise worth a 1,600-mile drive from Indiana worth the trip.

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©Copyright 2006. Donald Lee Jordan

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