NRS inflatable drift boat

Area 51 – NRS Inflatable Drift Boat

If you follow our Facebook Page, you’ve no doubt seen a few pictures of the new “Freestone Drfiter” from NRS. Yes, the inflatable drift boat – or IDB – is here. And it’s pretty cool.

It occurred to me that Headhunters is kind of like the Area 51 of human powered river boats. Sit on the front porch at Headhunters and you’ll see all manner of strange watercraft go by. The first place you saw an Adipose Boatworks skiff was probably at Headhunters. If you live in the west, you probably first saw the uber-cool Diablo Chupacabra SOT/SUP at Headhunters. Now you get to see your first inflatable drift boat courtesey of Jim Macallister and NRS.

Except it’s not that new…

NRS already brought out the “Clearwater Drifter” this year. The Clearwater is a much larger design, reminding us more of a high sided Willie. It has been very popular, selling well along the coast where anglers use traditional high-sided drift boats, as well as on rivers like Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon that involve running big whitewater.

The Clearwater drifter was tested extensively by guides before production began. Missoula was one of the testing areas, and we heard positive reports drift over the divide. While the “Freestone” model is new, it’s good to know that the technology and design principles have already been put to the test. Here’s a video from NRS featuring the larger Clearwater Drifter…

For us, the Clearwater Drifter was a bit too big. High sides and light weight mean you’re going to get blown around on rivers like the Missouri. For smaller rivers and low late-summer flows it’s just too much boat. For most Montana anglers stealth is a priority, and they like their boats on the small side. When we saw it last year we told NRS it’s cool, but too big.

There it is

So when I walked into the ICAST/IFTD show in Vegas last month and saw the new low sided, sexy looking “Freestone” I was pretty excited. For a fly shop owner, it’s pretty rare that you ask for a company to change something, then actually see it (not that they changed it based solely on me, I’m sure more than a few guides requested a smaller version).

NRS Inflatable small drift boat
Interior of the NRS Freestone Drifter.

NRS Rep Jim Macallister hauled the Freestone over to Craig last week to let us test drive it before it goes into production. We only had 3 days to give it a workout and provide feedback. On day 1, Mark, myself and Kalispell buddy Brett Childers took it out for an afternoon hopper float on the Missouri River. Day 2, guide Ben Hardy used it to guide on the Blackfoot River. Day 3, Julie, Adair and I took it over to the Blackfoot as well.

The IDB has also been sitting in front of Headhunters every evening, and many passing anglers and guides have had a chance to take a look at it. It’s really generating quite a buzz and everyone who looks at it seems to be very positive.

Our Take

Everyone from Headhunters who had a chance to try it out loved it. It really is as advertised. Rows like a drift boat, but is super light, responsive and bouncy like a raft. Remember that the Missouri is a drift boat river. Most of us are not fans of rafts, though we do use them for smaller streams like the Dearborn, and for our remote Steelhead adventures. Any positive comments from us about an “inflatable drift boat” should be taken pretty seriously. Here’s a few of our thoughts:

  • Unlike a raft, it has excellent tracking and ferrying characteristics.
  • Like a raft, it drafts only inches and goes over just about anything that is wet.
  • Unlike a raft, it is super easy to get in and out of.
  • Like a raft, it is self bailing.
  • Unlike a raft, it anchors effortlessly.
  • Like a raft, you don’t need a boat ramp to launch or take out.
  • Unlike a raft, the floor isn’t squishy. You can definitely walk around just like a hard boat.
  • Like a raft, it is super quiet.
NRS Freestone Clearwater Drifter
Julie and Adair floating the Blackfoot River.

The technology of this drop stitch material – the same stuff NRS uses for it’s popular Stand Up Paddleboards – is pretty amazing. When inflated to around 9 psi, it is very stiff stuff. You can stand on the gunnels, and the floor is what I would call “stiff”. It really is a “hard boat” when inflated. But it’s a hard boat that you don’t need to worry about banging into rocks or running aground.

It rows like a drift boat, making small maneuvers and moving against the current with ease. While it probably won’t replace a traditional hard boat on rivers like the Missouri, it does have one distinct advantage. Noise. It is absolutely silent. No hull slap, no noise when you touch the floor or drop something, and no noise when you hit bottom. Stealth has become a huge factor when approaching rising fish on the Missouri River.

The IDB also performed excellent with improper loads. Even though it has a constant rocker, it is designed to support weight in the rear as well as the front. Ben Hardy guided a father and 8 year old down the Blackfoot, and had no problem with a smaller child in the front, while his father (pretty big guy) fished from the back. This is critical for guides.

Inflatable Drift Boat
The hard transom provides a spot to mount a traditional anchor bracket.

There are a few negatives, of course. Nothing is perfect. Almost every critical comment by us or anyone who checked it out revolves around the frame. It still has a raft frame inside. Line catchers do exist. It’s not a “walk through” design like an Adipose. Side release anchor is your only option. But we have nothing but great things to say about the performance of the hull. Frame parts are easy to customize or change, and everyone prefers something a little different when it comes to raft frames.

For most Montana anglers who use a raft for fly fishing on typical Montana waters this is a no-brainer. It is way better to row and fish out of than a raft. But with all of the same advantages of a raft. Also, if you’re a one boat family and want a drift boat, but really need a raft (think Missoula or Dillon), it’s for you.

We’ve been watching folks redesign raft frames for years. Finally someone redesigned the raft. The NRS Inflatable Drift Boat Freestone Drifter model will be available at Headhunters next spring for $5495.00. If you’re interested in purchasing the larger Clearwater Drifter, we can order that for you right now.

inflatable drift boat, NRS
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  • Thoughts on transport, and set up/take down? Can’t imagine you’d be taking it down much, but the ability for seasonal storage would be nice.  

  • It has 3 semi-permanent aluminum “thwarts’ that stay in. When deflates you just roll it up with those inside. Not much different in size than a 13 foot raft. It takes a while to rig the rest of the frame, but not too bad. About the same as a Cat with a full gear frame. I wouldn’t do it daily, but it would be no big deal at the beginning of a 3-4 day trip. Does not seem to expand or contract with the temp as much as a raft.

  • When can I order one and what oar size do you recommend? 

    • They should be in the shop by April 1. You can reserve one if you would like, just call Julie at the shop. NRS was recommending 9.5 footers, which I’ve tried. I’ve also used 9 footers. Both work, and you can dial it more by moving the oarlocks forward/back or in/out. We are going to recommend 9 footers at the shop, and have 9′ cataracts coming with the boats if you like.

  • Price range for the Freestone?

  • I’m an East coaster that fishes mainly in western maryland, virginia and pennsylvania.  Our rivers are tight and full of rocks.  We don’t use drift boats here at all because they would beat you to death.  Do you think this boat would be a viable alternative to a raft?  Probably the most popular boat here is a 13′ NRS Otter or an Aire Puma.  The rivers see some class 3 whitewater but more importantly they are full of shallow riffles full of boulders.

    • Absolutely. It should be a perfect replacement, and those are exactly the kind of conditions that I would use it for here in MT… rocky, shallow, etc. I think it will be fine in whitewater to class III, especially if it’s quick plunge type stuff. Performance in ww should be fine, and while it’s self-bailing, it won’t drain as quickly as a self bailing raft. Other than that it should be an improvement over an Otter or Super Puma. WAY more interior room than a Puma. Like 5 times as much.

  • Ball park dimensions? Weight when assembled?

    • 14′, I don’t remember how wide, approx 250#. Just awesome. Call NRS in Idaho and they will give you the skinny. We will have a couple for sale and a couple for rent! And, a few of our gang will be rowing the IDB. Inflatable Drift Boat.

  • Can a trolling motor be mounted to take it out on a lake? I dont want to row for 30 hours.

  • What about taking it on a multi day trip? One of the things I like about a raft is that I can take it fishing or I can take it for a 3 day tip with a few friends

    • Sorry for the delayed response, missed this one and was out of town. Simple answer is two people and gear – yes. 3 people and gear, probably not, at least on a river with heavy currents and strong eddy lines. The Freestone Drifter has a listed weight capacity of 900 lbs ( I think) and we have found that while it easily holds that, the boat exhibits some squirrly tendencies around strong eddies/hydraulics when maxed out. The chines can really bite hard and it’s a low sided boat so you need to pay attention. If you were regularly going to use it on heavy western freestones at higher flows with 3 people and gear, I would have to recommend the much larger and taller Clearwater drifter. Or – as you said – a raft. If you can keep the weight down below 900 pounds, one advantage is the massive amount of room inside vs. a comparable sized raft (12’6″-13′ x 6′). While NRS refers to is as an ‘inflatable drift boat’, inflatable “skiff” might be more accurate. I would do the same things with this boat I would do with a South Fork Skiff, for example.

  • It would seem that due to the inflatable aspect of this boat that it would draw slightly less than a more typical drift boat, and the photos you have provided would seem to confirm this. From the photos it would seem to ride pretty high in the water. Do you find this to be true in practice; in other words, would you expect it to float into shallower waters than a hard-sided boat without bumping? We are specifically thinking about this boat for the upper Madison River as being a bit more forgiving when encountering the ever-present rocks, as well as something that would potentially float over more of the rocks and into shallower areas than our early-90’s low-side Clackacraft. Also, how does the draw of this boat compare to the Adipose Flow, another boat that we have considered. What are your thoughts about this?

  • Kelly McKnight
    July 20, 2016 7:29 am

    Now that you have been running these boats for several years how durable have they proven to be? Also, regarding oar length, NRS is now recommending 10 footers. Are you still outfitting these boats with 9 footers and how is that working out?

  • Mark-
    My guess is that you must not have seen it, but please respond to my question from July 12 re: the amount of draw that we could expect this boat to have relative to the Adipose Flow and also an older Clackacraft that I own. Would it be reasonable to expect it to float an inch or even two inches higher in the water? What has been your experience in getting this boat into super shallow water compared to other boats? Thank you.

    • Ron, yes sorry missed that comment. It does draft less water than your typical hard sided drifter. It is easy to handle as it weighs in the 250# range. An inch higher is what you could expect. The problem with rubber based boats is that they do not slide over rocks like hard sided boats. But we do love it so. Hope this helps. You can also call the shop and ask Sara or Ben on their experiences with this boat! Thanks Ron.

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