Practical Duck Boats

A closer look at some of the most versatile craft available to waterfowlers
By Wade Bourne

Waterfowlers have created a variety of boats to meet their hunting needs in different parts of the country. The Louisiana pirogue, the Barnegat Bay sneakbox, the Reelfoot Lake stump jumper, and the Lake Erie layout boat are classic examples of this regional diversity. Some styles of boats, however, are more versatile than others. These craft have stood the test of time and proved their worth. Whether you're hunting small potholes or large lakes, open water or flooded timber, free-flowing streams or quiet backwaters—these boats can get it done.

Here is an overview of four of the most popular types of duck boats along with expert advice on how to use them in specific habitats.

The Ever-Popular Johnboat

The johnboat is by far the most popular of all craft used by waterfowlers. Available in a broad range of sizes and designs, these boats are rugged, adaptable, and affordable. They will take a beating when you're hunting in swamps or flooded timber, and they're very easy to repair if they spring a leak. In addition, they're versatile enough for other uses. You can duck hunt from a johnboat in winter and fish or pursue other recreational activities in other seasons. For this reason, a johnboat offers considerable bang for the buck. 

"Johnboats have a lot of bottom surface, so they float higher in the water," says Mike Ward, president of the War Eagle Boat Company, a leading manufacturer of johnboats, based in Monticello, Arkansas. "They offer a great strength-to-weight ratio. Because they're lighter than fiberglass boats, they take less horsepower to attain equivalent performance on the water, and they're a lot more economical to tow on the highway." 

While johnboats have been around for decades, today's versions come in various designs and power options. They can be powered by outboards or shallow-drive mud motors. Different camouflage patterns and floor coverings are available. Other options such as dry boxes, dog platforms, different lighting schemes, and various deck configurations allow hunters to customize johnboats to fit their specific needs. 

For duck hunting, Ward strongly recommends a johnboat with a V-shaped bow, since this design navigates more easily through timber, buckbrush, and other cover, and also offers a drier ride in choppy water.

"Here in southeast Arkansas, we usually hunt in flooded timber, frequently in water levels that fluctuate from one day to the next," Ward says. "A lot of times we use a johnboat to motor into where we want to hunt, then we get out and stand next to trees as we work ducks down through the branches."

If the water is too deep to stand in, Ward and his hunting partners attach a portable blind to their johnboat and shoot from it, locking the boat to a tree to provide a stable platform. "One of the keys to duck hunting success is having a boat that's versatile enough to allow you to hunt where the birds are," Ward says. "A johnboat will take you through timber or brush or over a shallow mudflat. It's very adaptable and tough, and these are reasons why so many duck hunters own one."

The Low-Profile Layout Boat

Layout boats allow hunters to set up in shallow, open areas that larger boats can't reach or be concealed in. The layout boat's portability, shallow draft, and low profile allow it to be launched virtually anywhere and floated in as little as six inches of water to get to where ducks and geese are working.

Kevin Berggren of Broken Bow, Nebraska, uses a layout boat to hunt potholes, marshes, flooded fields, and lakes all over the Midwest. His boat of choice, the MOMarsh Fat Boy DP, is made of fiberglass and weighs 95 pounds. Measuring 13 feet long, 48 inches wide, and 15 inches tall, the boat has a roomy cockpit that will accommodate a hunter, a retriever, and up to six dozen duck decoys. 

Among the Fat Boy DP's options is a detachable transom for mounting a small motor. Berggren uses a six-horsepower mud motor for accessing shallow, weedy marshes. He camouflages his boat with raffia grass attached to netting and adds natural cover when he sets up to hunt. On-site, the rig functions as a layout blind on the water. Berggren reclines inside the boat, folds two door panels over his body, and lies motionless while birds are working. His retriever sits behind him with only the dog's head exposed.

"Most of our hunting is done on public land," Berggren says. "With my layout boat, I can get into hard-to-reach backwater spots that hunters in traditional boats can't get into. I can launch off an unimproved shoreline, motor in, and set up with minimal trouble and time spent. All I need is some cover that's as tall as the boat, like smartweed or some other natural vegetation, to hide in." 

Berggren and his hunting partners transport four layout boats on a custom-made double-decker trailer. Two of the boats are outfitted with mud motors, which are used to tow the other two boats and their passengers to the hunting site.

By using layout boats, Berggren and his hunting buddies can set up and be completely hidden exactly where the birds are working. The hunters consistently take shots at very close range, and decoying birds usually have no idea they're there. On a hunt last season, for example, three swans landed and swam within six feet of Berggren's boat. "Two of them had neck collars on, and I could read the numbers," Berggren says.

The Seaworthy Semi-V Hull

For hunting on big rivers and lakes, many waterfowlers choose a boat with a semi-V or modified-V hull. The shape of the bow and keel helps part the waves for a smoother ride and makes the boat more stable and maneuverable on big water.

World champion duck caller Barnie Calef guides on the Missouri River in southeast South Dakota out of a boat-blind rig built on a semi-V hull. The custom-built 20-foot boat has a 100-inch beam, 30-inch sides, and a splash well at the stern. Powered by a 150-horsepower Evinrude E-TEC outboard, the boat is designed to safely navigate big water and provide the benefits of a fixed blind. 

Called an "Odessa rig" in the Midwest, Calef's boat is fitted with a permanently attached blind that features aluminum sides and a roof with four shooting holes spaced equally down the center of the rig. The blind is covered with palmated grass, and Calef usually attaches several tumbleweeds to the outside walls when he sets up to hunt. This rig also features several nice amenities, including a three-burner stove and five infrared heaters. The boat is spacious enough to hold five hunters and their gear as well as 80 Canada goose floaters and 100 duck decoys.

"This rig provides me with the best of both worlds for hunting on big water," Calef says. "It has the power and speed for running long distances, but it's also maneuverable in shallow water. I can idle in only a foot of water."

The boat is also extremely seaworthy and dry, blocking out spray, rain, and wind. "We hunt in some pretty brutal conditions, and we stay totally comfortable in the process," Calef explains. "In addition, this boat's size and power make it great for breaking ice when the shallows start freezing up."

Calef targets ducks and geese as the birds return to the river during midmorning after feeding in adjacent grainfields. "I do a lot of scouting to find where the birds are resting," he says. "My boat-blind rig allows me to launch from an improved boat ramp and run as far as I need to get to the birds. Then we're able to hunt as long as we want to, regardless of the weather. When we leave the ramp in the morning, there's no reason to return until we fill our limits or run out of shooting time. And it's usually the former, not the latter."

The Portable and Maneuverable Canoe

Canoes are the ultimate stealth boats for float-hunting along secluded creeks and rivers. Lightweight and portable, these craft can be launched almost anywhere. They float in only inches of water and are quiet and maneuverable for sneaking up on ducks in these waterways. 

"Float-hunting is usually better in less traditional duck hunting areas, where you have scattered birds instead of big concentrations," says veteran waterfowler Joe Congleton of Knoxville, Tennessee. "There won't be as many ducks around, but there are usually a few birds hanging out on farm ponds and small lakes."

When a hard freeze hits and the ponds lock up, the ducks will shift to creeks and rivers where the current keeps the water open. "This is especially true if there's been a heavy rain and the river is running full and spilling over into adjacent cuts and low areas," Congleton says. "Plus, you may pick up some migrating ducks when this happens. Sometimes these streams will hold surprisingly large numbers of ducks that are tucked out of the public view."

Congleton uses a 17-foot square-stern Grumman with a keel for added stability. The canoe is painted olive drab. For camouflage, Congleton and his hunting partner pile leafy oak branches on the bow and in the center of the canoe when hunting. 

"The main drawback to a canoe is its tippy nature," Congleton cautions. "When float-hunting, safety is the number one concern. We always wear a life jacket. Only the person in the front shoots; the paddler in the back keeps the canoe lined up and stable by keeping his paddle deep in the water during the flush and shot. We don't use a retriever in a canoe. And we always carry a dry bag with extra clothes, boots, and a fire starter in case we do tip over."

According to Congleton, float-hunters should pick their water carefully. "The best streams are those that are relatively flat and deep," he explains. "There needs to be enough current to allow the boat to glide along with very little paddling, only steering from the hunter in the stern. Avoid fast water, especially rivers with sweepers—trees extending into the water from the bank. Ideal stream width is less than 40 yards." 

When floating, the paddler should hug inside turns and use the bank and overhanging brush to conceal the canoe from ducks just around the next bend. Hunters should glide along quietly, always looking ahead for birds resting in dead water, around points and islands, at the mouths of feeder creeks, or in eddies on the inside of bends. Ducks will also loaf on logs, sunning and preening themselves, allowing stealthy hunters to float within close range before the birds flush.

Congleton and his hunting partner usually take along a half-dozen decoys in the canoe. If they bump a lot of ducks from a particular spot, they'll throw out the decoys and then hide and wait for the birds to come back. This usually doesn't take long; perhaps 15 minutes.

"When conditions are right, float-hunters can take their limits quickly," Congleton says. "Then you've got an enjoyable paddle ahead of you to the takeout spot. Backcountry streams teem with wildlife in the winter, and the scenery and the solitude combine for a very enjoyable experience."