Choosing a Duck Boat
By: Bob Bailey
Keep safety and your style of hunting in mind
A flight of ringnecks came barrelling into the northwest wind as if it didn't exist. Only gentle breaths of wind had rippled the glassy water's surface at first light. It had risen steadily and unnoticed throughout the morning, as we were distracted by a strong early flight. By 10 am, though, the boat strained against anchor cords in the face of a near gale-force wind. We struggled to pick up the decoys and, with great trepidation, set out to cross open water exposed to the full sweep of the wind. The 12-foot car-topper seemed to get smaller with increasing distance from shore. We needed to round an island to find shelter, but the point was being pounded by a mile of wind-driven waves. The island divided the waters, making the wind appear to pummel it from two directions. High crests and low hollows turned into bucking white horses. The first deluge came over the bow before we hit the full fury of the cauldron off the point.
I had my partner quickly move back to bring the bow up and worked with the motor to keep the transom barely above water. As we rounded the rocky point to safety, decoys and ducks floated with our gear in the bottom of the boat.
While surviving a close encounter with the rough side of nature is exhilarating, I took it as a warning and a learning experience. In spite of decades on big water, underestimating what wind and waves can do to any placid-looking waterbody is still easy. Less than a week later, I was heading out in a new 14-foot johnboat.
Safety is the lowest common denominator in any decision regarding the purchase of a new duck boat. A great little boat isn't much good if it puts you at risk on the water. But, this doesn't mean you need the biggest boat you can afford. Just match the appropriate boat to the kind of hunting you do and the water you will be navigating.
The first consideration is determining how much boat you need to carry basic equipment, dog, and hunters. If you normally hunt alone, but occasionally take out guests, planning for the heavier load at the outset is better than getting caught in rough weather without enough boat under you to make it back. An alternative is to purchase one boat for hunting alone and another for taking out friends and handling bigger water. Many hunters are constrained by the amount of room available to store their craft at home, though, as well as by their budget. If so, go a bit bigger with an all-round duck boat.
Make sure the load you plan to carry doesn't exceed the weight restrictions or recommendations that are set for all boats. Make estimates of your weight and friends, clothing, guns, ammo, and other gear, including anchors, oars, decoys, and the weight of the blind on the boat, adding a premium for the many days it will probably all be soaking wet. Once everything is tallied, add at least another 10% for dead ducks, geese, and unforeseen items. Water collecting in the boat on rainy days also adds more weight. To be sure your new craft can handle the load, compare your estimates with manufacturers' recommended weight capacities.
Functionality is another part of making a choice. Consider what kind of waterfowling you will be doing. Is it for ducks and geese, will you be using decoys and a boat blind, sculling for ducks, jump-shooting, or will it be a lay-out boat for divers, a sneak boat to get back into shallow marshy areas, or an all-purpose johnboat with a portable blind on it? If you're an avid waterfowler and prefer to hunt over water, you will likely not be able to find one boat that suits all needs and opportunities.
I have four duck-hunting rigs. They include an outfit that can provide quick, safe travel across big water, with plenty of room for decoys, equipment, and another hunter. My 14-foot standard johnboat can be used on smaller lakes and rivers and accommodate duck decoys, a few geese, and another hunter in a pinch. My 10.5-foot johnboat is for small lakes, creeks, and rivers that often have no designated boat launch. The 14-foot canoe is for personal use when paddling creeks and hunting beaver ponds and other out-of-the-way places.
Another consideration is how much boat, motor, and trailer you can physically handle. As a hunter north of 60, I can only move around so much weight on my own. Try to keep your rig manageable from this perspective, because you will always be faced with situations where brute strength is required to hitch up, launch, retrieve, and/or store it.
Quality is also a key variable in finding a craft that will stand up to years of use under tough conditions. My duck boats are typically driven through stump fields. Even going carefully, you will end up jacked up on stumps or boulders every season – or you're just not getting into the best places. Not to mention floating logs and deadheads, which are a real eye-opener in a predawn run. Then, there's the wear of constant shoreline contact with gravel and other abrasive materials.
Choose a well-reinforced boat with a thick, durable hull. It might cost more, but its value will become apparent with time and use. In aluminum boats, I've had good luck with quality riveted and welded products.
The height of the transom and the weight of the motor provide your best assurance against being swamped in cold, deep water. I speak from the experience of having been there on two occasions, fortunately surviving. In V-hulls and semi- or modified-Vs, most swamping I've experienced and heard about occurs over the transom when the boat is overloaded, overpowered, or simply overwhelmed by rough water. These hulls tend to keep the bow high, unless there's too much weight in the front. The weight of the motor causes the problem, especially with a low transom, not its horsepower. Many boats are kept afloat in rough water by the power unit pushing the transom up and out of the wave's trough, but when the motor fails, the serious threat of a low transom looms.
Flat-bottomed boats like johnboats, with a low bow, don't handle the combination of heavy loads and rough water well. They're not designed for this. They tend to plow into oncoming waves, with water coming in directly over the bow. Deeper, higher, and wider boats compensate to some extent for this lack of seaworthiness, but only to a point.
By the way, ifyou're wondering, dogs abandon ship first as it starts to swamp and roll. They swim quickly for shore and run up and down, having a great time until you arrive. No Lassies here. Manufacturers and vendors usually stick the highest-rated power unit on the back of their boat packages. All boats are rated for power capacity, as well as load.
The advent of four-stroke engines has added significant weight to the same-size power unit in a two-stroke, and should be considered when choosing an outboard and the height of the transom that will support it. I think some power ratings might be excessive for lighter aluminum hulls, so be aware when you're planning to use the craft in rough fall weather.
Major outboard brands come in several sizes, from 2- or 2.5 hp and up. Be aware that the same-size engine block can be souped-up and offered in higher horsepower units. This provides an option in some models of attaining more horsepower with lower overall unit weight. This is a potential advantage for keeping down the weight on the stern.
Transoms are normally 15 to 20 inches high on mid-range duck boats. If you're hunting out of the boat in rough weather, you will not regret choosing the higher transom and a longer-shaft motor. The final recommendation on power units is to stay clear of shear pins whenever you can. Buy a unit with a slip clutch or similar device, especially for hunting stump- and log-infested water. I remember one late-December evening, in a heavy wind and snowstorm, with freezing hands trying to knock a stuck, but broken, shear pin out of the shaft of my 2.5 hp, so I could replace it. I didn't get it out until the next day in my workshop, after a long, cold night of rowing against a northwest wind.
The canoe is a versatile craft for waterfowling. Principal considerations in choosing a canoe are durability, stability, handling, and size.
Four basic canoe materials I've tested in hunting situations are aluminum, fibreglass, cedar-strip, and Kevlar. Aluminum appears most durable, but tends to be clunky, noisy in a jump-shooting situation, and less manoeuverable, but it shrugs off abrasion, beaver dams, ice, falling out of a pickup, and other abuses.
Fibreglass canoes score well in handling rougher elements and are more manoeuvrable than aluminum, but larger ones can be heavy.
I've had many great outings in a friend's cedarstrip, which is silent and highly manoeuvrable, stable, not too heavy, but requires more care to preserve the hull.
Many Kevlar canoe sizes that might be considered for duck hunting are designed to be stable under a heavy load. They can be highly unstable with a single hunter or a pair of hunters with little equipment. They have the advantage of being light, but can be difficult to control in a wind. I haven't used Kevlar canoes for duck hunting, so reserve further comment on their utility.
Some folks use specially designed kayaks today, especially for a single hunter jump-shooting. I've had no experience with these craft, either, although they appear to be a deadly option under certain shallow and protected-water hunting conditions.
Smaller single-person canoes provide access to creeks, beaver ponds, and other duck holes lacking launch facilities or even a road in. Canoes can be carried into isolated locations that can't be accessed any other way and, due to their size and depth, can't be effectively hunted from shore without the use of a well-trained retriever.
Larger canoes and those with flotation along the sides are great for ferrying equipment into out-of-the-way places with a companion and a dog. Canoes in the 16- to 17-foot range are about right for jump-shooting creeks and marshes with two hunters. Be aware, you can't use electric or gas motors for propulsion when actively hunting, as in jump-shooting.
Canoes also come in large freighter sizes and sometimes with square sterns for a power unit. An electric motor is the only kind of power unit I will risk on a canoe. When you need to carry people, dogs, and equipment any distance, I recommend moving up to a smaller, more stable johnboat. Although my rigs include a 14-foot fibreglass canoe, I recommend going to aluminum hulls for 18-foot and larger canoes, simply for the durability, stability, and keeping the overall weight of the craft manageable.
These boats come in a range of sizes to handle several hunting needs. The advantage in a flat-bottomed boat is the ability to manoeuvre back in the slop and swamp off the main channels or bays of lakes, where ducks are often found. These boats slide easily over vegetation and around obstacles.
Smaller versions can also be tucked into the bed of a pickup and used where a launch is absent and access difficult. My 10.5-footer can be slid across the ground like a sleigh into secret duck-hunting locations.
A 14-foot johnboat is my principal waterfowling craft, though, when hunting alone or with a partner on smaller waters. It's rigged with a portable blind and has a fairly small footprint, blending easily into dead cattail or green shorelines.
Larger johnboats can carry two or three hunters and plenty of gear. They can also be rigged with a blind, and provide a stable shooting platform.
The second big advantage in a johnboat is the greater stability per unit length, compared with a canoe and even modified or rounder semi-V-hulled aluminum boats. A 12-foot johnboat is much more stable than a comparable 12-foot standard semi-V aluminum, but it will not handle any kind of a load in rough water.
These boats have been around in a range of sizes for a long time. They're available in aluminum and fibreglass, with the same advantages and disadvantages of these materials as previously pointed out.
The V-hull is basically designed to handle waves, making for a smoother ride and better seaworthiness. The bow tends to be higher, which is important on rough water. A number of companies have incorporated V-hulls to some extent into their johnboats, improving safety and performance in rough water, while preserving some stability and accessibility of the johnboat.
While any V-hull boat can be turned into a duck boat by simply covering it up, those designed with the waterfowler in mind tend to deliver more benefits over sticking a blind on a runabout. Hybrid modified-V hulls, married to the basic johnboat design, have improved on the parental stock in several ways that benefit duck hunters. The bows are pointed and higher, lowering the risk of water coming over them. These boats are now much wider and deeper per unit length, adding capacity and stability. A 20-inch transom is offered in most of the 14-foot and longer models.
One additional advantage is the built-in floor decking in some models, with only a stern bench and optional removable pedestal seats. Not having rows of bench seats increases the capacity to carry decoys and makes movement from bow to stern easier and safer. Having benches with piles of gear stowed in-between encourages the hunter to hop from seat to seat to reach the motor. Slick aluminum benches get wet. Bad falls are inevitable.
These boats are a part of the duck-hunting tradition on the St. Lawrence River, with a number of hull designs offered by different manufacturers. The basic model is 16 feet or more in length, with a pointed bow, a flat or modified-V hull, a deck covering that comes back four to six feet from the bow and in several inches along each side, leaving a cockpit in the centre. This opening is walled in with siding 8 inches or more in height. The siding supports the blind. It can be permanent or hinged in some models to lay flat when picking up or laying out decoys. These boats tend to be low in the water, seaworthy, and drawn easily into available cover.
The history and longevity of these boats speaks volumes about their utility for hunting ducks on big water and in places where extensive travel is required across stretches of open water to reach marshes along the St. Lawrence. These boats are heavy, so many are kept in boathouses and marinas along the river for the season. They can be transported, if you have the capability and strength.
Sometimes also called a sneak boat, the punt or pirogue is a small flat-bottomed boat that's versatile in marshy backwater areas. These boats are used to access out-of-the-way locations, and can double as a layout boat. My father used a 14-footer on the St. Lawrence, which he towed out to a hunting location. He often covered it in mud and weeds for dabblers or turned it into an effective layout boat using an inclined plane. Long, narrow versions of these boats are sometimes used to pole hunters jump-shooting.
These hunting craft come in a variety of choices. Some are fitted with small transoms for a light outboard and/or oarlocks for self-propulsion. The hunter lies on an inclined plane facing the decoys, generally down or across the wind.
Layout boats should be anchored at both ends to prevent swinging, which scares birds and often moves the hunter(s) out of the best field of fire. Mobile layout boats can be taken far back into cover or smeared with mud as camouflage. Some have cord mesh used to thread natural cover over the deck, sides, and stern. Other layouts are built in single or double coffin-box style, where the floor of the cockpit extends well below the surrounding hull. These rigs need to be transported to the hunting location.
Low-profile layout boats are usually painted with a flat, steely grey to blend into the water on a cloudy day, and are deadly for hunting diving ducks and for dabblers in backwaters with wild rice or other vegetation. I used to staple sheets of clear plastic to the exposed surfaces to blend in with the water.
For the avid diving-duck hunter, there's no equal to watching birds decoy to a rig surrounding a sink box. With your head below the waterline and looking up at the closest decoys, it feels like you're literally in the middle of a raft of feeding birds. Ducks will pass within inches of your head, and you can watch for incoming birds, stand up, and shoot through a 360-degree horizon. Sink boxes have a floating platform, traditionally made of steel with a wide, flat profile on the water. They're more popular as an over-water shooting platform in Quebec and parts of the Maritimes. Although some come with wave deflectors, they're difficult to use in rough water. The platform supports a box or a well in a hole in the middle of the platform, often using lead weights as ballast. The platform itself is secured by two anchors and is also weighted down close to water level. Traditionally, iron decoys with magnets were used to help weigh down the surface of the box. The low profile of the platform blends the sink box into a spread, where decoys are often placed around the rig to break up the profile and conceal head movement of the hunter(s).
In parts of southern Ontario and elsewhere, some craft were traditionally designed for “screening” waterfowl. A flock of decoys is set up in a likely location and the boat is anchored upwind and preferably upstream of the decoys, usually at a couple hundred yards away. A screen of natural vegetation or other camouflage is set up to cover the bow and shield the presence of the rest of the craft and the crouching hunter, as the boat is sculled or paddled downwind toward birds that have settled in the decoys. As birds rise into the wind, there are good shooting opportunities. Boats with a comparatively low profile and good manoeuvrability can be converted to screening or “sculling” purposes. Diving ducks and Canada geese are sometimes susceptible to this tactic. There are many choices in waterfowl hunting craft today, and lots of considerations in making the correct selection for your preferred hunting style and circumstances. Above all, please consider safety as the primary goal in choosing your next duck boat. Remember that all boats look much bigger in the showroom and on the trailer in your driveway than they do in heavy water far from shore.