River fishing rafts

River fishing rafts
Video River fishing rafts

Buying a fishing raft is not a small decision. There a ton of different ways to approach your setup and the investment is significant, even when buying used. Expect to shell out at least 2k for a decent used raft much more for a shiny new boat. The good news however is that well made rafts last for a very long time and they hold their value well. More importantly, a fly fishing raft will bring you years of joy, opening access to waters that are otherwise impossible to reach.

This guide is designed to cover a big chunk of the options available. Everyone has a different set of needs ranging from a smaller, sneaky boat for one or two people to a whitewater capable rig setup for multiple fisherman. Take your time, do the research and buy a raft that is made to last.

Fly Fishing Raft Packages and Brands

You will find a bunch of great fly fishing raft manufacturers and a few that are questionable. Sticking to the proven brands that offer customer support and a rock solid warranty is always a good idea. Finding a deal on off-brand rafts is enticing but cheap glue and corner cutting can wear out a boat in a hurry. Here are a few fly fishing raft reviews to show the range of options in teh current market.

NRS Otter Package

The Otter is loved by many owners and you see them everywhere. The 13-footer is perfect for fishing and you can order it as a package with the NRS fishing frame. For an out of the box package, this one is hard to beat. The Otter also has the cross-over capabilities for whitewater, making it extra versatile.

I’ve fished in a bunch of Otters, some with much more than 5 years of hard use as guide boats and they are running strong with no holes or patches. The durability is rock solid and NRS has a big factory for support and professional repairs. I think the 13-footer has plenty of space for 2 anglers and a rower with a bunch of gear.

The 14-footer however would make a nice raft for big water in the northwest and it can function as a solid gear boat if needed.

The 13-footer has 18-inch tubes and the width runs just over 6-feet. The stability is excellent and it remains very responsive, making for the perfect compromise. The frame is a perfect fit and you can have this thing setup and ready to fish within an hour of receiving the package.

Aire Super Puma

The Aire Super Puma is an amazing fishing raft. It can pair with a bunch of different frame styles but the NRS fishing frame combined with a Super Puma is really ideal. My personal favorite feature is the floor. It’s self bailing just like the Otter but the floor does not have baffles. It’s flat and rigid, making a nice standing platform for fishing.

Skip the casting platforms and save on that weight because you can stand fairly comfortably on the floor. The other interesting thing about the Puma design is the internal air bladders. They are covered with a super durable external layer. You will have a very hard time puncturing one of these boats.

This boat is super nimble and responsive. It has a nice rocker and is great for crawl strokes that are common while rowing anglers. It also weighs under 100-pounds which is light for a very durable 13-footer. You can run it as a paddle boat with 2 thwarts or pull the thwarts, throw on a fishing frame and run it hard. This is one of my favorite setups and they last forever.

STAR Rafts

The STAR brand has been around for a long time but NRS recently acquired the brand and has revamped the designs. I’m running a 12-foot Wonder Bug in South America with a Longhorn frame because it breaks down small and fits in my camper van. It could hold the full fishing frame however and they make it in a 13-footer. The raft is a hybrid with a cataraft. Big tubes create a really responsive ride and the floor is self bailing but not inflatable. I’m loving the way it rows and cuts across water.

For a full fishing boat that can hold two anglers, a rower and a bunch of gear however, the Outlaw 13-footer self bailing raft is a killer budget boat. The specs are similar to an Otter at a much lower price point. You get the 5-year warranty as well.

Another option in the STAR lineup is the Starlite model. The welded inner seams and thick PVC design makes it prime for use and abuse. It’s not a self-bailing raft but the boat is also really light at sub-90 pounds. It has the warranty and a great price point for a raft that should last for decades.

Big Sky Inflatables and the Watermaster Bruin

This guide isn’t really about personal watercraft so I’ll skip the single person Grizzly and Kodiak models. These are awesome rigs for one person fishing however. Incredibly versatile and really well made at the factory in Montana.

The new Bruin model is a step up that can run as a single, double or three person boat. It has a bunch of different frame configurations and is compatible with an NRS frame. Like all of their designs, versatility is the key with this brand.

If you like running light and pushing the limits of smaller waters without sacrificing the ability to hit big water, this is a wonderful boat. It’s 11.5-feet long and 5-feet wide with a self bailing floor. It also weighs less than 60-pounds.

Based in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, I imagine the design is based on the home waters. The Bitterroot has numerous channels and downed logs that make certain sections difficult with a heavy rig. With the Bruin, you can squeeze through the channels and portage easily.

While the bigger 13 and 14 footers on this list are more fit for guide boats, the Bruin is a great fly fishing raft for personal use. It can haul 1500-pounds of weight and is perfect for a couple of people, gear and a dog.

Blackfoot Strike by Sotar

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Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula Montana teamed up with Sotar to make their version of the ideal fishing raft. It runs at 13.5-feet so it has a little more interior space for anglers. It’s light and rows more like a drift boat with the diminished tube size. It can take on the bigger water but the tracking and interior space are suited to fishing with two anglers and a rower.

I’ve rowed a few of these and they are fantastic boats. Not cheap by any means but you get the Sotar quality. The only downside is the lack of transition for whitewater and gear hauling. These rafts are made for fishing. Period. No thwarts and not intended to haul a big load of gear. If you’re rowing 100+ days with anglers, it’s hard to go wrong here.

You can run an NRS frame or one of the custom frames used by the outfitter. The custom frames are fitted with an anchor system, elevated angler seats and rod holders. It looks like the raft comes in several different sizes but the 13.5-foot model is the one I’ve seen used most often in Northwest Montana.

Achilles Hypalon Rafts

I have a soft spot for Achilles rafts. One year, I bought 3-different used Achilles boats and I wish I had kept them all. Each one was hypalon and they were old and well used but still held air perfectly. Two bucket boats and one self bailer with a blown baffle that didn’t stop the raft from running every day for a summer.

fishing raft

If you want a boat that might outlast your fishing career, Achilles and Avon hypalon models are absolutely bomber. Hypalon is also easy to patch and repair. I shredded one boat on a trailer and did a home repair with NRS hypalon and the correct glue. It ran all season after without fail.

The RV bucket boat or the RV-SB Self Bailing model are good options. I like the 12′ 6″ length for a nimble fishing raft or the 14-foot model for a more hefty, big water boat. Both are hypalon construction and hard to not love.

Hyside Rafts

The team at Hyside has a cult-like following and it seems like they sell out of models every year. They also have some really cool rafts like the Mini Max that can fit with a welterweight frame for a crazy portable yet whitewater ready craft.

Fisherman will like the Outfitter or Pro Series. The Outfitter in a 12.5-footer is perfect for running most western rivers with fisherman. You can move up to the 14-foot models to run bigger water like the Deschutes in Oregon. Alternatively, the Pro model 13-foot boat is the ideal compromise.

Hyside fishing rafts are Hypalon coated nylon that is extra durable and loved by outfitters and private boaters. They make a great raft and are an all-around solid company with a big footprint in the whitewater community.

Dave Scadden Paddlesports

Scadden has a bunch of different personal watercraft designs with frameless and rigid frame models. They also have a multi-person raft with the Dragonfly Series. This series actually has 9 different boats which is a little overwhelming.

The XL3 is the 3 person full fishing frame and the XTC3 is a more minimalist version frame. The XT2 is frameless with inflatable seats and the XT2 is a 2-person boat with a frame. The XTC2 is also a two person frame design. Lastly, the XTC3 is a 3-person frame model.

Like I said, they have a ton of options. The big selling point is the portability. The boats break down small and are easy to transport. I don’t have a ton of personal experience with this brand and while they seem nice, I think one of the latter brands will provide a more durable, stable fishing platform for the long term.

Streamtech Salmonfly

Streamtech advertises their rafts as drift boats. They are built on Maravia rafts and designed with maximum comfort and functionality in mind. I’ve seen a few around and the layout is phenomenal. They run on the heavy side but the trade-off is the incredible frame design.

Three models makeup the brand. The Green Drake raft is their smallest and it’s the perfect trout boat. It runs 13-feet long and comes with their lean bars, padded seats, gear box bays and heavy duty frame.

The Salmonfly is the next model up and is slightly larger at 13′ 6″ with gear bays, angler seats, lean bars, anchor system and all the goods. It’s a killer boat for big water and multi-day trips but still can run the smaller rivers without issue.

Their Steelhead model is designed to run the big rivers while hauling a load of gear and anglers. It’s extra stable and measures at 14′ 6″ with 7′ of width. You can drop in dry boxes, coolers, piles of gear and multiple people while punching through big rapids.

Rocky Mountain Rafts

These boats are made for affordability with a durable design. The 12, 13 or 14-foot model with an NRS frame is a great boat. They use thick PVC and welded seams. The welding is nice and adds to the durability.

I’ve rowed a 12-footer with several anglers and it was a really nice ride. They are heavy which factors somewhat into the loading, unloading and portaging scenario but otherwise, the boats are nice and they hit a great price while having big water capabilities.

Stealthcraft

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The company makes fantastic drift boats and they also have a few rafts. It seems like a very similar raft model is selling under a few brands which means they are likely ordered from the same overseas factory and are branded accordingly. They have a very narrow design and sell on the portability factor with room for two anglers and a rower.

I think these rafts have a place on mellow rivers but the narrow design is not ideal for big water and the interior space is limited. Being a relatively new thing in the market, I can’t report on durability either. They do appear to have a glue strip like those found on many Saturn and Odyssey rafts. If the glue is not the highest quality, it might break down and cause leaks along the strip which is difficult to repair.

I’d advise a test run and a reference before jumping into this emerging market.

Raft Fishing Frame Options

When it comes to frames, there are a few dedicated manufacturers and quite a few custom makers that do small batches. Personally, I like a lightweight, bare bones frame setup but you can opt for standing platforms, lean bars and all kinds of custom accessories.

NRS Frames

The NRS raft fishing frames are the gold standard. The modular design makes them easy to assemble, adjust and customize. I like to run this frame with the front seat, stern mount seat and an anchor system. It’s simple, light and durable.

You can also opt to add standing platforms and casting braces for anglers. This definitely adds a level of comfort, especially when standing provides an advantage. The anchor system runs off a system of pulleys and a cleat and it works great.

These frames will fit most 12-14 foot raft models. You can easily adjust the seat placement by loosening the bolts and sliding them along the main rails to find the perfect fit. You can also pull the seats and just run it as a rowing frame if desired.

Recretrec

These guys make some really nice frames for gear boats with modular designs to fit coolers and dry boxes. They also have the Rocky Mountain fishing frame that comes with all the bells and whistles. It’s a comfortable setup with adjustable seats and adjustable foot bar, a cooler bay and a dry box bay. It has a lean bar and standing platform and is built to function like a drift boat.

Downriver

Downriver specializes in whitewater equipment and their custom raft fishing frames are really well made. They have several different models for a variety of angling needs. The specificity in the designs means they might have the perfect setup for you.

I really like the Taylor LD 2-Bay model for a 2-person raft. It has a front bay for a dry box or cooler that functions as a seat. The angler gets a lean bar and the rower has a comfortable seat with an anchor system. Running a lightweight 2-person rig is advantageous and this is one of the few models made for the need.

The Green River Drifter has a diamond plated floor that transforms raft interiors into drift boats. Their San Juan 3-bay model is really well planned for anglers as well. The stripping baskets are a nice touch for preventing tangles and hangups on the frame as well. They also have the Rio Grande and Eagle models for running bigger rafts on multi-trips that require extra bays for storage.

Downriver is a leader in fishing frame designs and is worth considering for any angler outfitting a new raft.

Outcast Fishing Frames

Outcast is owned by Aire. They essentially use the Aire rafts but outfit them just for fishing. Their frames are excellent and I really like the lean bar designs. They offer great support while remaining light and functional. On some of their models, they use NRS frames but they also have used different styling in the past.

Custom Raft Frames

You can find a number of custom frame builders. Some will want the actual raft while they build out the frame. Most are either made with steel which is heavy but rock solid. A frame builder that can bend aluminum can build out a really nice, ultra-light frame as well. Montana Raft Frames is one company worth looking into. I’ve seen and rowed on their frames and they are obviously made by experienced anglers. Riverboat Works in Salida, Colorado is another one that makes some great looking frames and they offer custom jobs. Their frame for the Hyside Mini-Me is really cool.

Fly Fishing Raft Accessories

Now that you have a raft and frame setup, it’s time for the fun stuff. It’s way too easy to go wild with accessories. Personally, I like a minimalist approach with a few high quality items like a cooler, dry bags and a quality anchor. A dry box is also great on multi-day trips. Here are a few accessories to consider for your fly fishing raft.

Anchor Systems and Anchor Styles

Most raft anchor systems run on pulleys and the anchor rope is held by a cleat that is easily within reach. Some will run through the floor with a foot pedal to drop the anchor. The floor system is really convenient but not possible unless you have a hard floor. The NRS anchor system is the go-to for most raft frames.

Anchors come in a variety of shapes and styles. The lead pyramid style anchors are the most prolific. Personally, I am not a fan of dropping lead in the rivers. These anchors wear down over time and deposit lead in the river bed.

A lead anchor with steel casing is far more environmentally friendly. Other anchors come in rectangle cube shapes and the spike anchor is also popular.

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My absolute favorite is the cube shape with the welded loops on each corner. These loops mean two points of the anchor will contact and grab the bottom to stop the boat quickly. They do not stick and pull up easily. The design is simple and highly effective. These are made by Green Anchors in Hamilton, Montana.

Rod Holders

Not many rod holders are made for off the shelf purchase. Building your own from PVC pipes is the easiest and most cost effective means of creating a rod system. They are nice to have and they protect your rods from catching on brush or being broken by a boat dog. The Rod Dog from Montana Raft Frames is one of the few commercially made holders out there and it’s a great system. Otherwise, cut some cheap pvc and make your own.

Gear Storage

Storing gear inside the raft is important. You want dry storage but also need easy access to fishing equipment. Dry boxes are a wonderful thing on overnight trips. You can load up with dry foods, pack tents and clothing and keep everything safe. I love them. They also are expensive and add weight. Use them when appropriate, skip them for day trips.

You can do well with a couple of nice dry bags and a good fishing boat bag. Simms, Patagonia and Fishpond all make great boat bags. If you browse the isles at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse, you will find a few other nice options as well.

For dry bags, I like the basic NRS stuffsacks and the Watershed brand as well. A backpack version is really handy for hauling around difficult to reach campsites.

Raft Coolers

Like dry boxes, coolers can function as seats. You can for the high end Yeti or grab a similar roto molded cooler from one of the several other brands out there. Just check the dimensions first to make sure they fit the bay on your frame.

Soft sided coolers are also great for rafts. They are best suited to day trips but the flexible sides make it possible to stuff them away where hard sided coolers don’t fit.

Raft Oars

Oars are often overlooked but they make a huge difference. A nice pair of Sawyers is hard to beat. Carlisles and cataracts also nice and they make great workhorse oars. I am not a fan of oar rights. You can’t feather or adjust the blade angle. They might help a new rower but they are very limiting in the long run.

Fishing oars require feathering and superior control. Sawyer Dynalites are amazing oars. The Cataract SGX with a Cutthroat Oar Blade is also ideal. It maximizes the blade surface area under water in shallow zones. You can maintain control and position anglers while running over gravel bars and rocks.

PFD’s

I recently reviewed the NRS Chinook Fishing PFD and it’s great for holding essential gear while wearing a super comfortable fishing life vest. Every fly fishing raft should have a PFD for every single passenger. You might even grab one for the dog.

The fishing PFD is perfect for personal use and you can throw in a few basic model vests for other folks. I keep a few larges, mediums and one child size.

Raft Trailers

Buying a raft trailer is the last step. You can break everything down but having a trailer means you can go fishing every day without deflating or breaking down frame components. Key components for a complete raft trailer are the winch, roll bar, tie down points and a homemade harness to winch from the frame and not the d-rings. You can make your own trailer or buy one pre-fabricated from one of the few manufacturers specializing in building raft trailers.

Western Trailer and Auto – Based in Missoula, MT, they have flatbed raft trailers with roller bars, winches and a nice deck. You can get one with a tilt deck as well.

All America Denver – The prices seem pretty good from these guys and the trailers look well built. They also have several different sizes which is nice if you’re hauling a bigger than average raft.

Sawtooth Raft Trailers – I like the concepts from this company. They offer a cargo trailer with a raft deck or a flatbed version. A raft trailer with a motorcycle mount is also displayed on their website. If you want to run your own shuttles, this is an excellent option.

Montana Raft Frames – They don’t just make frames. They have a rock solid trailer that is designed to take abuse. An axle and tire size upgrade is also possible if you really want to push the limits of where you tow your boat.

Truck Rails – Placing a raft on the railing of your truck bed eliminates the need for a trailer. I did this with some planks in the past and it worked great. There is a company called Propworks that was making a system with an integrated winch and a drop down bar that makes loading really easy. I’m not sure if they are still around and can’t find a website but it’s a great way to haul your raft.

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