If ducks or geese can be found on any given stretch of water, you can bet there's a boat, skiff, canoe, or pirogue that's been specially designed to carry hunters there. The evolution of waterfowling rigs-from dories and sloops to modern craft constructed of space-age fibers-has made it both easier and safer for hunters to reach their favorite gunning waters.
For many waterfowlers, their boat is a ticket to ever-changing hunting venues, for finding new gunning areas can be as simple as taking to water at a public boat launch and paddling, poling, punting, or motoring to a new locale. In many jurisdictions, it is perfectly legal to hunt a given body of water so long as you can gain access without crossing private land. Most river systems, streams, lakes and even some marshes offer public-access hunting; check with law enforcement officials in your area for specifics.
Selecting the type of watercraft suited to your needs is a matter of matching a boat to the waters upon which you intend to hunt. A big-water diver fowler will have different watercraft needs than, say, someone who plans to hunt mallards on a small cattail marsh. The following is a guide to waterfowling craft that can be used under a wide array of conditions.
Canoes have existed in one form or another since the beginning of recorded history. Their success is undoubtedly due to their versatility, for they can be used to hunt waterfowl on just about any type of water except for large lakes or bays where waves may destabilize them. The term "canoe" stems from the Arawak language, the lexicon used by a tribe of people who inhabited the West Indies. Early canoes were typically fashioned from skins or bark, or were carved from logs, and were used to hunt, fish, explore new territory, and even wage war.
The forerunner of our modern hunting canoes was the creation of a Scotsman, John MacGregor, who built a craft he called the Rob Roy in the mid-1860s. A hybrid of Inuit design and European technology, these able, lightweight craft quickly gained widespread popularity and forever endeared the canoe to enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Canoes offer waterfowlers a level of portability not found in most other craft. Today's canoes are made of tough, lightweight modern materials, such as Kevlar, polyethylene, fiberglass cloth, and Royalex. Aluminum canoes first made as early as 1886 also remain in favor with many hunters because of their durability, though they are heavier and noisier than canoes made of the other materials. Because of the canoe's sleek, lightweight design, it doesn't take a trailer hitch to haul one around, and you don't need a drive up boat launch to put in.
Once on the water, canoes prove exceedingly maneuverable. While beaver dams, branches, and deadfalls may bar a hunter from taking a boat upstream, a canoe can be readily portaged around or over such obstacles.
For hunters who like the handling characteristics of a canoe but aren't particularly fond of paddling, there is the square-stern canoe. These are designed to be motor-driven and offer many of the advantages of small boats with the portability of a canoe. While canoes can be useful in many waterfowling venues, they do have limitations. Compared with many boats they lack the initial stability and payload capacity, and, except square-stern canoes, can only be propelled efficiently by manpower (offset motor mounts are available for double-ended canoes but rarely prove satisfactory). If any of these characteristics make a canoe seem less than ideal, read on.
If you're looking for a craft more stable than a canoe, don't look toward the pirogue. As Robert Ruark once wrote of the old time dugouts, "A pirogue is a water going ashtray that will capsize if you shave more closely on one side of the face than on the other."
While most hunters today think of pirogues as Cajun creations from the swamps of Louisiana, the Term "pirougue" actually originates with the Carib Indians, a tough race of aboriginals who lived on small islands in the West Indies, traveling throughout the archipelago in hollowed-out logs.
North American Indians also used dugout canoes for transport, and Cajuns continued the practice, using cypress logs as the base wood of the thin craft. Modern pirogues are made of synthetic materials, and their sleek lines make them easy to paddle or pole through vegetation that would stop a larger craft in its tracks.
Say "duck boat" to most waterfowlers and the image of a jonboat will come to mind. The wide, flat bottoms of these boats provide stable platforms from which to shoot, and they displace little water, making them ideal for operating in shallow areas. Like the canoe, the jonboat is another versatile craft that waterfowlers routinely use on everything from small streams to large lakes.
Jonboats are fine platforms for outboard motors, so a hunter isn't limited to poling or paddling for locomotion. Jonboats come in many sizes, and their sturdy frames make them ideal for customizing; kits are available to help you do just that. Pop-up blinds that attach to jonboat frames are also available, helping you quickly transform the craft from a transport cruiser to a stable yet mobile hunting blind. Unlike permanent blinds, a mobile blind means you can always go to the ducks instead of trying the more difficult feat of coaxing them your way. If you choose to customize your jonboat, be sure to take advantage of the boat's large cargo space, but also be sure to leave room for decoys, dogs, gear, and a hunting buddy.
Like canoes, jonboats can be purchased inexpensively and they transport easily either in the back of a pickup or via a trailer. If you can afford only one duck boat, the jonboat is as versatile a craft as any.
To meet the demands of turn-of-the-century epicures for canvasbacks and other big-water ducks, market gunners of the Atlantic tidewaters used layout boats to reach the large rafts of ducks that congregated on the deep bays. Sitting barely above the water's surface, these boats were usually positioned in the midst of enormous spreads of blocks.
Layout boats were typically one-man craft that were towed to deep water by a larger, more seaworthy boat. After positioning a generous spread of stool big enough to lure ducks or brant away from nearby rafts of birds, one hunter would remain in the low-profile layout, which was anchored into position. An opening in the spread would be left in front of the boat to direct ducks to an area close enough to allow the gunner an easy shot.
The layout boat's low freeboard may have made them less visible to ducks, but it also made them vulnerable to heavy weather. That's why other hunters stood watch from a distance in the larger towboat. If the water got too rough or if it was time to rotate gunners, the larger boat would move in and the gunners could change places.
Though relatively few gunners continue to use this technique, some still cherish it as a venerable method of waterfowling, and some boat builders still build layout craft. Some modern layout boats-as is true of many of today's waterfowling craft-have injected-foam compartments to make them virtually unsinkable.
Other low-profile craft, such as sneakboxes, have been in use for more than 150 years. Probably the most famous, the fabled Barnegat Bay sneakbox, was the brainchild of Captain Hazelton Seaman, who designed and built his boat in 1836. Originally made of white cedar cut from the swamps of Seaman's native New Jersey, modern day sneakboxes are available today built of fiberglass and aluminum. The mere fact that the boat is still in use today is testimony to its ingenious design.
For many waterfowlers who spend the majority of their hunting hours in a small marsh where the waters are relatively calm, a skiff can be the perfect taxi from shore to blind and back. These light, portable, relatively inexpensive boats come in a variety of shapes and forms. The majority offer a bit more stability and cargo capacity than do most canoes. They are often ideal to paddle or pole through a marsh when jump-shooting, but if you plan to use them as a blind, be sure to tie them to stabilizing poles pushed into the mud on either side of the boat. These stakes will help keep the craft from tipping when occupants stand to shoot or when you send your retriever out to fetch a fallen bird.
For some waterfowlers, a blind is a home away from home, a second house without the mortgage. I've been privileged to sit in blinds with piped-in gas heat, and a stove where a breakfast of eggs, bacon and hashbrowns is prepared served promptly at 7:30 each morning of the waterfowl season. While there is something to be said for such amenities, such blinds are designed more for the comfort than for practicality. In my experience, being able to change locations frequently is the key to getting ducks or geese consistently, for they are forever altering their daily feeding patterns. It doesn't take birds long to associate trouble with a permanent blind, so change venues if you want to keep surprising them.
A blind can be as simple as a piece of camouflaged cloth stretched over your body or as elaborate as a concrete bunker with swivel seats, shelves, and a telephone. Yes, one blind out of which I hunted in Nebraska even sported a phone (heaven forbid not being able to order a pizza when the mood strikes).
When constructing a blind, remember that you'll need to be able to spy approaching birds without them seeing you. The most frequent mistake most hunters make is using vegetation or other blind material that doesn't match the surroundings. Disguising a marsh blind with brown cornstalks, for example, is as sensible as laying out a string of fluorescent decoys. Use the vegetation found in the immediate area of your blind; it's the only way to keep from being obvious.
Address several questions when locating your blind:
ý How many people will hunt from it?
ý Will a separate entrance for a retriever be important?
ý Is the area frequented by enough birds to warrant building a blind there?
ý Should the blind be left open or covered?
ý If covered, should you use sliding doors or the pop-up variety?
ý Chairs or a bench?
If you decide to forgo a permanent blind in favor of more portability, choose materials that you can easily tote with you to the field or marsh. With the plethora of camo patterns on the market, it's easy to blend into almost any kind of cover, from cattails to cactus. A longtime friend of mine routinely carries six mallard decoys and a sheet of homemade camouflage that looks nearly identical to the matted rushes of a muskrat hut. He pitches his decoys in a pool adjacent to a muskrat house, stomps out a flat spot on the hut for him and his Lab to sit, drapes the sheet over the two of them, and waits like a praying mantis for the birds to approach within range.
Veteran New Jersey waterfowler Pete McLain is a strong advocate of coffin blinds, for they are both portable and effective in concealing hunters. He spends most of the duck season in the Prairie Pothole Country, and there is little cover near the small waters of the region. The low-profile blinds are a perfect choice for hunting in areas where cover is sparse like a stubble field or a pond surrounded by short-grass prairie.
Essentially, a blind can be almost anything that conceals you from ducks or geese. Be creative. Round bales, pipe from a center pivot irrigation system, even a junk car along the edge of a field can be turned into a blind, nearly anything with which the birds are familiar. On one particularly memorable South Dakota goose hunt, geese from the Missouri River lifted off each morning and clocked by the thousands to the midst of an expansive, picked cornfield. The birds were too far from fence-lines or other cover to reach, so we decided to hide ourselves in two wooden calf crates that the farmer upon whose land we were hunting had left in the field. On schedule, the geese departed the river and flew directly toward our field, as they had been doing for two days. Some three hundred Canadas lighted near the four of us before we dropped the crate lids and took incoming birds at close range.
If you are hunting over water, try making a quick blind for your boat from local vegetation it's far easier than building a permanent structure and likely more effective, too. No matter what kind of permanent or makeshift blind you use, pay attention to its position relative to the sun, prevailing winds, and even other blinds in the area. Bird movements often change when the first shot of the season is fired over the marsh, so don't go to great lengths to build a permanent blind before you are reasonably certain you can predict bird patterns. Rising or falling water levels, nearby crop harvests, and local hunting pressure will all affect both the number of birds in the area and the direction from which they might approach.
If you are debating whether or not to build a permanent blind, remember that hot breakfast in the blind might sound appealing, but a limit of birds before breakfast is even better.
[Information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]