Small-Craft Waterfowling

Knowing how to use small duck boats can pay big dividends for waterfowlers

By Cameron Pauli

Good public hunting can be hard to find, but hidden waterfowling gems do exist if you can get to them. Paddling or poling a small boat may be your best bet for solitude, uneducated ducks, and a memorable hunt. Here are four different types of shallow-water boats you can use for waterfowling.

1. Kayaks

Wayne Roberts, Ducks Unlimited's regional director for Connecticut and Long Island, New York, hunts exclusively from a kayak. "I only need a couple of inches of water, and I can go just about anywhere," he says. "Some of the places we hunt are so thick that the only way you can access them is with a kayak."

Roberts uses a sit-inside model with a large open cockpit, which allows him to get in and out easily. Although the kayak has limited cargo capacity, Roberts firmly believes that this is a small price to pay for increased mobility.

"We generally don't take a lot of gear with us when we hunt," Roberts says. "You only need a few decoys, a mojo, a gun, and a box of ammunition in the spots we regularly hunt."

Packing the bare necessities gives Roberts and his hunting partners complete mobility, granting them access to spots unreachable by conventional duck boats. The result is often little to no competition from other hunters.  

Roberts notes that kayaks can also be useful when hunting from a larger boat without a dog. Instead of having to pull up anchor and use the motor to recover birds, all he has to do is drop the kayak overboard and paddle out to make a swift and silent retrieve.

2. Canoes

Waterfowlers have been using canoes for decades, but many of today's duck hunters overlook this time-tested watercraft. Bob Owens, president of Lone Duck Outfitters, prefers the canoe over other small boats because of its mobility, maneuverability, and generous space for gear and his Labrador retriever. However, Owens warns hunters not to venture out on frigid waters during hunting season with a dog that is unfamiliar with riding in a canoe. 

"Don't make opening day your dog's first time in the boat," Owens says. "During the summer, take your dog out in the canoe and practice some retrieves. You can even start by setting the canoe up in the yard to give the dog practice getting in and out of it."

Once you've reached your hunting destination, Owens suggests pounding wooden stakes into the mud on each side of both ends of the canoe. The extra stability helps create a solid shooting platform and a balanced place for a retriever to sit.

3. Duck Skiffs

Duck skiffs are small boats typically designed for shallow water that don't fit into any particular category. These boats come in many shapes and sizes and are ideal for hunting in a wide range of habitats.

Andy Paulios, a wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, estimates that roughly 80 percent of the public hunting areas in his state can be accessed with some variation of a duck skiff. He has hunted from a double-ended skiff for years, and prefers this type of watercraft due to its versatility.

"Double-ended skiffs work well in shallow marshes, and you can even paddle them down rivers," Paulios says. "They're really adaptable and easy to hide."

Paulios uses a kayak paddle with his particular boat, which doesn't have a keel. Other popular designs include single-ended skiffs, some of which have transoms for mounting small motors. If you're not afraid to use a little elbow grease, poling is an effective and more traditional method of getting your skiff from point A to point B.

4. Layout Boats

The layout boat has become the go-to watercraft for hunters looking to slip through shallow wetlands, yet still have the ability to hunt from a boat. Hunters looking to haul a lot of gear may want to consider a layout boat coupled with a small mud motor.

"I can normally fit three or four dozen decoys, my gun, and my blind bag in the boat with me," says Ralph Harr, owner of Hunt'em Boats. "Mud motors allow you to access areas where there is a lot of vegetation that you wouldn't be able to paddle through. As long as my prop is in the water, I can get through pretty much anything."

Layout boats have an extremely low profile and provide unparalleled stability. When thoroughly concealed with grass or other camouflage material, they are lethal for close-range gunning.

"With the entire surface grassed, my boat sticks up only 15 inches above the water," Harr says. "I can lie down, drink coffee, and get out of the wind. It's as comfortable as a duck boat can get."