Public Land Playbook: Be a Public Boat Ramp Champ

For duck hunters, the goal is to work quickly and quietly at the launch ramp, and stay out of the way. Here’s how.

© Jim Thompson

If you want to sully your reputation among public duck hunters, be the guy or gal who ties up the boat launch an hour before legal light. As hunting communities go, the fraternity of public land waterfowlers is relatively small. In a given hunting area, everybody knows everybody, as they say. Maybe not by name, but we do generally know who hunts where, who shoots the most, who’s a good caller, and who could use more practice.

The boat ramp is the great gathering hub. At midday, following the morning hunt, it’s a relaxed place for storytelling and migration reports. But before daylight, when other hunters are racing the clock (and often each other), the boat ramp can become a bottleneck.

As launch ramps go, those used by duck hunters are typically small—just big enough for one boat at a time. Some of them aren’t paved—the one I use most often is a sloped gravel bank. The water around them is generally shallow enough to wade, or it’s a swift river. One little hold-up can have a domino effect on everyone else who’s waiting to launch. Handle yourself and your boat with care and efficiency and you’ll fit right in. Slow things up and cause another group of hunters to miss the early flight? Well, you may have to find a new home ramp.

Don’t be that guy. Follow this advice instead.

Know How to Back Up a Trailer

Maybe you’re a champ at steering a pontoon with your backup camera, but towing your buddy’s 15-foot jon boat behind his ‘90s-model Tacoma fitted with a camper shell is a different game altogether. You’ll probably have to rely on your mirrors to drop it in, and that can be difficult for some.

Practice is the best way to learn trailer-backing skills—but not when you’re in line at the boat ramp. If you know you’re not a skilled backer, swallow your pride and ask your hunting partner to drop the boat in. And in the off-season, set up some road cones in the church parking lot and practice backing a short trailer between them using only your mirrors, until it becomes second nature and the cones survive unscathed. Short trailers are more difficult to steer in reverse than long ones, so they make for better practice.

Photo © Jim Thompson

Prep the Boat Elsewhere

Don’t be the group that backs the boat down the ramp, parks the truck, and then starts unloading gun cases and blind bags while their dog prances about searching for a place to relieve himself. Stop well short of the ramp—way up in the parking lot and out of the way is best—and double-check that the plug is in the boat, the rear tow straps are removed, the running lights are working, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are ready for everyone, guns are secure, and decoys are loaded. While you’re at it, hit the key or pull the starter cord on the motor. You never want to run an outboard dry, of course, but warming it up on land means a quicker start once you’re in the water.

Control Your Dog

Speaking of retrievers, there’s a good chance your companion isn’t the only canine at the ramp. If Old Bowser still has some unfortunate habits you’re trying to remedy—like fighting or humping—leash him up after opening the kennel, and ensure that he’s safe and secure in the boat before launching.

Light It Up

By law, power boats are required to display navigation lights between sunset and sunrise. At 5 a.m. in December down at the river, that means your War Eagle too, and your headlamp doesn’t cut it. Bow lights are red and green (port and starboard, respectively), and the stern light is white. Boats come equipped from the factory, but you can buy cheap aftermarkets just about anywhere boating supplies are sold.

Navigation light requirements usually aren’t strictly enforced in a flooded-timber boat lane, but if your boat stalls in a major shipping channel with barge traffic in the dark, they could save your life.

Wear Your Life Jacket

Speaking of saving lives, more duck hunters die from drowning than any other cause in the field—and statistics suggest that many of those casualties are among younger hunters, age 18 to 30. I remember being too tough to wear a life jacket when I was a young person. Now, though, I’m older and have a family to think about. In the 20 years I’ve been hunting Kentucky Lake, I’ve lost count of the tragic tales I’ve heard of hunters drowning. Fact is, age doesn’t mean much if you’re treading water on a 20-degree morning 200 yards from shore. Wearing a PFD dramatically increases your chances of survival. Put it on at the ramp, and keep your boat’s kill switch hooked up too.

Don’t Drain and Drive

No one wants to launch a boat on a 45-degree sheet of ice—but that’s exactly what public ramps often become on dead-cold mornings. Water draining from trailers and pulled plugs will freeze on concrete in a matter of minutes on the coldest days, so do your part to keep icing to a minimum. After launching, pull your trailer out just far enough so that it drains back into the river, before driving up the ramp. Do the same after loading, and pop your drain plug out while you’re at it. Once the flow subsides to a drip, drive up the ramp and head on your way.

Help Your Fellow Man

Everyone’s in a hurry to get to the best spot, but public duck hunting is best when we hunters are friendly to one another. If the ramp is crowded and you see someone else having trouble—maybe having difficulty backing a trailer—be cordial and offer to provide help, if you can. At the end of the morning, offer to take a picture of the folks in the other boat who have a limit of mallards. Don’t be snide. Don’t ask where they were hunting. Just say, “Congrats on a great hunt.” 

Come to think of it, the world in general would be a better place if we conducted ourselves this way, on and off the boat ramp.