Drifting boats and etiquette afloat

by Neil Grose

Fishing is a past time that by its very nature is intended to be both relaxing and enjoyable. As the pressures of the modern world increase by the day, many people are increasingly becoming infatuated with the ability of fishing to wash away the stress and anxiety that the working week generates. Yet having said that, the amount of aggression displayed out on the water is becoming greater all the time. Most if not all of this is caused by boats, and in particular the way they are handled.

I would imagine that there has been a three fold increase in the use of boats in the last ten years or so on our popular lakes, but perhaps not such an increase in the knowledge of how to use them. With some basic guidelines on how to set up and control a drifting boat, as well as adherence to some universal guidelines on etiquette, every ones day out on the lake can be hassle free. Generally, most problems arise from either boats drifting across in front of others, or boats motoring in front of anglers line of drift.

Setting up a boat to drift straight
Setting up boats so they drift in a straight line makes everyone's life much easier. Easier for the anglers fishing as the boat isn't moving sideways, resulting in bowed lines and tangled casts, and much easier for other boats nearby, as they are able to predict the drift, and therefore avoid crowding their water. There are a number of factors that will influence and correct a boats drift, as follows.

The drogue
A basic yet essential piece of chandlery, this item if used intelligently will get vessels drifting straight, as well as maximising the use of the available water by slowing down the boat. There are two main types in use, the circular parachute type with one attaching cord, and the rectangular Peter Hayes Super Drogue style with two attaching cords. There are others types, but 90% of them fit into this category.

First the parachute drogue. Most people I see use them just tie them on amidships, heave them over and forget them. Boats never drift straight on their own, so just tying them in the middle won't allow the boat to go straight. To correct the drift from being in a big curve, we need a way of adjusting where it goes. If the load if the boat is always the same this is easy, just tie it forwards or backwards along the edge of the boat to suit.

If the boat swings to the right, move the drogue to the right to compensate. However, the load in a boat is never the same two trips in a row. A very easy way of making these adjustments is as follows. Instead of tying the attaching cord to the boat directly, attach a three inch metal ring to the drogue cord. Then from the bow of the boat, tie a length of rope to the stern of the boat, so it runs along the side of the boat. Along this rope tie in an overhand knot at 50 centimetre intervals. Slip the metal ring over this rope. The ring will sit on the knots, allowing the angler to move the drogue forward or aft as is necessary. This is an old trick from the British competition scene, but usual pommy tricks work here as well as over there. Doing this allows for fine tuning of the drift to compensate for wind shifts or other influences.

Secondly the rectangular drogue. This style is best suited to larger boats over 12 feet long, although I have seen some good set ups. Peter Hayes developed this design, and it works a treat. Given his background in design and drafting, it's no wonder it works so well. The basic premise with this is to mimic the effect of a sail. The drogue is attached at each end with separate cords, so that adjustments can be made easily and with great accuracy. Also the rectangle shape catches the water better. Essentially, if the boat swings to the right, then the left cord is lengthened, and vice versa. If the attaching cords are run through yachting cam cleats, then adjustment is even easier. This is the set up that Haysie and I use on the guiding boats, and if it didn't work we wouldn't use it.

If the drogue is set correctly then generally the boat will drift straight, however there a few things that will upset the applecart. The leg of the outboard motor will influence the way a boat drifts, as the leg will have a degree of water resistance, which will pull the boat around. Also, if the leg is turned one way or the other it will be trying to steer the boat, which will also change the drift. Often the best way is simply to just lift the motor out of the water. If this is impractical, then make sure it is left in the one place so that the compensation is only made once.

Usually when anglers fish, they do so with a mate. If one of the anglers is bigger than the other, then the wind will catch them like a sail, which will of course also pull the boat around. Not much you can do about that short of Jenny Craig, so adjust the drogue one way or the other to compensate. Some boats are higher in the bow than the stern, which has the same effect. The Stessl that I regularly use is like that, unattended it will swing in a pronounced curve, so the stern drogue rope is always set longer than the bow.

A few basic tips, but if everyone in a tight congested fishing situation drifted in a straight line then some of the abuse might disappear. In the really popular areas of Jonah Bay and Little Pine it is essential to drift straight, otherwise you spend all day driving the boat backwards and forwards, instead of fishing.

Moving around in boats and boating etiquette
Scenario One. Mayfly time, the trout have just started to rise, and you are drifting onto a patch of hard feeding trout. You hook one, it leaps, and before you know it you have got company. Two or three boats come straight over and fish right alongside. The fish go down and that's the end of that.

Scenario Two. Mayfly time again, and you are drifting nicely along, minding your own business when a boat drives straight across your drift, disturbing all the water in front of you. You wish for a well directed bolt of lightning.

Scenario Three. You are drifting along a nice piece of shore when a boat pulls in 40 metres in front of you and begins fishing the water you were drifting onto. Steam pours out of your ears.

Scenario Four. You are wading in the Cowpaddock up to you waist chasing some of those really nice dun feeders, when a boat tears out of the bay back into the main lake. Water spills into your waders from the wash. You wish to exchange fly rod for cannon.

Scenario Five. You are tucked in close to shore tied up to a tree patiently chasing black spinner feeders. A boat flies past on the plane, pushing up a big wave. Your boat gets bashed into the trees, the three pound brown stops feeding due to the wave action. You scream abuse, but to no avail, they can't hear you for the noise of their outboard at full tilt.

All of the above situations happen every single day in the highlands, and probably more than once at that. The English have been boat fishing for centuries, and have a well developed sense of fair play when it comes to boating. The following are some basic but essential "rules" for co-existing with other boat users.

1. Never motor across the drift of another angler. Always motor slowly BEHIND the other boats, even if it means that you have to wait a little while for some room. The same goes for motoring into the wind, don't drive straight up in front of another boat, take a very wide angle and keep out of everyone's way.

2. Never cut in on a drift of another boat. This is exactly like pushing into a queue. Not only is it very rude, but is unnecessary. If you desperately want to fish that piece of water then get in behind the other boat.

3. Keep your distance. When there are a lot of boats around then 50 metres should be as close as you should get, 100 metres is preferable. The same goes when not many boats are around. It seems pointless to fish right next to another boat when you are the only two boats on the lake.

4. Move around slowly. Where there are a lot of boats then it is essential to move slowly. Not only will you spook fish by tearing about, but it is also unsafe to move at speed where there are many boats. 5 knots should be regarded as a maximum. Besides, if you go slow you will often see fish that are missed at speed.

5. Where boats are obviously fishing in open water then slow down as you move past them. Just because a boat is in the middle of the lake doesn't mean they don't deserve the same etiquette.

6. Move slowly around boats moored to trees. A big wash generated close to a boat tied in trees can be dangerous.

7. Keep well clear of shore anglers. The angler on the shore has a hard enough time of it as it is, without boats crowding in and making life uncomfortable. This is a real problem at Little Pine Lagoon.

8. Keep things straight, try not to crowd others with a crooked drift. If you do find yourself moving across, then move out slowly.

9. Try to find your own fish. Just because two boats are near each other doesn't mean it's the hatch of the century. It is extremely rare to have all the fish isolated in one place, indeed, the fishing is always better where it is a bit quieter.

10. Be friendly. Give a wave to other anglers, remember, you are meant to be enjoying yourself.

A few basic points, but it will make life easier. No one is perfect, and that extends to guides as well. Sometimes we lose sight of the main game as well, but it is very important that guides set the example, as one can ruin it for everyone else.

There are perhaps a few changes in laws or regulations that can make things better, such as a 5 knot limit at Little Pine and restrict boat use to no less than 50 metres from shore, ban boats totally from Cowpaddock Bay north of the power lines, and a 5 knot limit north of the Jonah Bay boat ramp. Other lakes such as Penstock Lagoon would benefit from having boats restricted to electric outboard's only. But at the end of the day it is the anglers ourselves that will fix things, and self regulation will be the only way it will get better. Be considerate, think of others and keep an eye on the main game, which is to enjoy ourselves.

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