McKenzie Driftboats and Ozark Johnboats

A lot of folks are unfamiliar with driftboats and johnboats, so here is a little bit of history on the distinctive designs of these two river boat styles.

Driftboats

The exact origin of the McKenzie boat that evolved on the Pacific Northwest rivers of North America is uncertain. Some trace its roots to the crude logging skiffs that were used in the area by loggers at the turn of the century. Some think the McKenzie is related to the Eastern Banks Dory. But without a doubt, by the 1920's, the river dories in the Northwest came into their own specialized designs.

© Scott Branyan, www.flyflinger.com

In the tradition of boat building, graceful lines of a boat's design are a beautiful aspect of the craft. Gardner states, "Next best to possessing a boat is to possess her lines, carefully laid out on paper, neatly and painstakingly faired" [The Dory Book, p. viii]. Here is one view of the lines of my second boat "Progress"nearing completion in 2006.

The first true McKenzie boat can probably be traced to Veltie Pruitt, an Oregon river guide, who built the light weight board and batten boat in 1925 to handle riffles and rapids of Oregon's McKenzie River [Wooden Boat Magazine, Number 151, December 1999]. Roger Fletcher, who wrote the article, has researched the origins of the northwest McKenzie boats and now has a book out on the subject (summer 2007). You can find information about it on his River's Touch page.

© Scott Branyan, www.flyflinger.com

A versatile design, my square end McKenzie boat "Progress" is rigged for motoring below Bull Shoals dam during flood gate releases in 2008. Here I am setting up a camera to take a time-lapse video of the trip down river to Rim Shoals. Arkansas TU Council Chair Dennis McCarty accompanied me and took this photo.

The name of the boat came from the river where it was primarily used. The McKenzie river boat design had a squared-off transom and a flat bottom across the width, but a "rocker" shape from front to back. The wide bottom gave the boat great stability and the rocker meant a reduction in water friction or "lift" with the pull of the oars even in very fast water.

The design allowed the boat to grace the peaks of the waves and steer clear of the danger areas when running the rapids. The square-ended McKenzie handled white water; but if the rower made a mistake and the boat drifted into a boulder, the result was a bone-jarring stop since the square stern was oriented downstream.

Eventually, Woody Hindman adapted the boat to rougher white water by changing the design. Supposedly he came up with the idea of pointing both ends after a trip down the Middle Fork of Idaho's Salmon River. Hindman was the first to successfully solo float the river in a hard chined boat in 1939. After this trip, his "double ender" design pointed both ends with the bow oriented downstream. The rocker in both the stern and bow was also increased. This made for a more user friendly design in whitewater situations.

A further step in the evolution of the drift boat was the modification of the Hindman double-ender with a small square stern to accommodate a small motor. This enabled one to push downstream through very long and slow pools or across a small lake. This version of the boat is sometimes referred to as the "Rogue" design, named after the Rogue River in Oregon. It is the common design of most modern drift boats. Here is a video of anglers running the upper McKenzie River in this type of boat.

© Scott Branyan, www.flyflinger.com

Nowadays, fiberglass and other plastics are common drifboat and johnboat building materials. Here is my Clackcraft driftboat "Journey." It is in the modified double ender style mentioned above and serves as my backup and travel boat.

© Ken Richards

With a wide stable platform, fly-fishing on flat tailwater is easy in a traditional square-end McKenzie. Photo by Ken Richards.

The "original" McKenzie, however, is an ideal boat for use on our Ozark tailwaters. It's inherent low center of gravity and larger flat bottom means greater stability. McKenzie boats are well suited to fishing the tailwaters at all water levels and bring a new level of enjoyment to fly fishing the White River.

Johnboats

The perception is that the "Ozark Johnboat" is the original and traditional boat of the Ozarks. The reality is that several kinds of small boats had been in common use on the White River by the early 1900s, and a flat-bottomed boat was one type. Dugout canoes and flat, square box boats for general use or hauling cargo across the river were some of the earliest small crafts used in the Ozarks region. Later, flat-bottomed skiff plans or a whole boat could be purchased from Sears and Roebuck catalogs or from sporting magazines.

If you are interested in further reading on Ozark boat history, see the article, "What's in a Name, like John boat" from the White River Valley Historical Quarterly. It discusses possible origins of the Ozark flat boats [some were known by the name "John boat" or "Jack boat," also known as a "gig boat" from which buffalo carp were gigged by torch light at night], many of which were hauled to this area by train to accommodate the traveling sportsmen, who came to Arkansas to hunt and fish. One interesting possible connection of the Ozark flat boat with the northwest McKenzie boat is that they used similar material, at least at first. "Urban sportsmen by 1900 brought light-draft flat-bottomed boats built of Oregon fir to Ozark waters; their builders were master craftsmen in St. Louis" [See the article].

A postcard illustration from the 1940s shows a typical use of a Johnboat to guide fishermen for large and smallmouth bass. Guides would float the boat with a paddle and would often use fishing techniques associated with other types of river craft. Loaded with a canvas tent, cots and cooking supplies, a week long expedition was often the rule.

© Scott Branyan, www.flyflinger.com

This photo shows a modern version of the Johnboat and White River fishing techniques with a bait guide at high water.

Ironically, today, a square-ended and double-ended McKenzie boats work well on the White's modern tailwaters, while the more traditional johnboat craft is a holdover and is not necessary the best or safest craft on the tailwaters at higher flows. To see what float trips on the White River and area Ozark tributaries looked like around 1940 before the Corps of Engineer's dams were built, check out this promotional film by Jim Owen float service around 1940, and this vintage travel show film showing a float trip on the Current River in Missouri. Owen regularly ran floats from Branson, MO to Cotter, AR on the White. In my mind, the McKenzie type drift boat, powered by oars, recaptures the early form of drift fishing the river better than a Johnboat with a motor, and it is a safer boat at all water levels.