Brandon Butler: Fishing rafts are top choice for river floats

Floating a beautiful river is my favorite way to spend a day. It doesn’t matter the season.

Throughout my life, I’ve floated rivers in canoes, kayaks and jon boats, but my favorite floating vessel is a fishing raft. Rafts float in very shallow water, bounce off obstacles, are hard to flip and hold a lot of weight. Fishing rafts include seats, oars in the middle, an anchoring system and gear storage. They are the Cadillac of river floating boats.

The sections of river where fishing rafts are the best are non-motorized. Fishing rafts look and function like drift boats. They have grown in popularity among fishermen over the last decade. These rafts are effective at accessing shallow water flows and low water conditions. Plus, there is just something inherently relaxing about being at the whim of the river’s currents while drifting.

The rivers in the Ozarks where I like to fish are floatable in my raft during most water conditions. I don’t float during floods, but otherwise, my raft floats all year long. The stretches of river I float most often are not accessible to motorized boats, including jet boats. I like fishing where the only competition for prime spots comes from anglers in canoes and kayaks.

A great feature about a raft is it will travel on the top of a SUV or truck with a camper shell. Or, you can put it in the bed of a truck and support the end with a hitch extender. One person can move and the maneuver a raft, but two people tackle the job easily.

One trip I hope to make with my raft is through the Wind River Canyon near Riverton, Wyoming. About 20 years ago, I spent some time in that country. Haven’t been back since, but I reflect on the beauty of that canyon regularly. It’s steep and deep. Bighorn sheep live on the slopes. The river weaves through the walls of rock and is strewn with boulders. There are rapids and long riffles. If I were to paint a trout stream, it would look like the Wind River.

I currently float a Smith Fly Big Shoals raft. So does my good friend and podcast co-host, Nathan “Shags” McLeod. Our rafts hold three people. Another buddy of ours, Paddle Don Cranfill, floats a two-man Flycraft. As much as we like to razz him about it, his boat floats great, too. There are a number of brands out there to choose from.

Our three rafts give us a total of eight seats. So my hope is, we’ll put together a group of eight anglers. With two vehicles and one small trailer, we can transport three rafts and all our gear. Having two vehicles also solves our shuttling issue at the end of each float. Paying for shuttles is an option, but they’re not cheap.

Jeremy Hunt, owner of Flies and Guides on the White River in Arkansas said, “I love the slower pace of this type of fishing, and a raft is the perfect way to beat the crowds during dead-low water. When flows are light to moderate, such vessels are perfect for delicately working down the river. Unfortunately, a raft loses many of its tactical advantages when flows get heavy, but they are still effective if you are able to keep moving.”

Raft can be used on ponds and small lakes, too. Since they are so light and easy to move, you can slide them down a bank into water with no boat ramp. They really are versatile boats, and they are more durable than you might imagine. The exterior can take a beating and keeping on floats. I do carry a repair patch in case of an emergency, but I’ve never needed to patch a boat yet.

If you love floating and fishing, you should check out these modern fishing rafts. If had to whittle down my personal watercraft collection, my fishing raft would be the last boat to go.

See you down the trail …

Brandon Butler writes a weekly outdoors column for the Daily Journal. For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on or anywhere podcasts are streamed. Send comments to