Hunting Style Will Define Your Ideal Waterfowl Craft
Duck boats and pornography came up in conversation the other day but not in the way you're thinking. I was trying to describe what I thought the perfect duck hunting boat would look like, including the features and equipment it would have, and it boiled down to what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, famously, in 1964, when he said he didn't have the words to describe pornography but, I know it when I see it.
See, perfectly innocent. Get your mind out of the gutter.
Sure, you and I could come up with a laundry list of perfect duck-boat features, required and desired, from duck boats we have owned or have hunted in. But let's be honest. The perfect duck boat would have to have … well, I know it when I see it.
So, I figured I'd ask a guy who's essentially spent his entire life in boats.
Mike Ward is president of War Eagle Boats. His family has been in the boating industry for about 70 years.
I had the opportunity to grow up in the boat business, he said. I grew up around it, so a lot of this stuff is, well, I won't say second nature, but we talked it at the kitchen table growing up.
Ward starts by wanting to understand the conditions a duck hunter will face.
The first thing I always do is listen to the customer; listen to where he's going, what he's going to do; the type of conditions he's going to be in, he said.
Then, he said, it's a matter of discussing the pros and cons of various features.
The guy who's running a long distance on the water will want something different than the guy who's running through timber, he said.
So that's where we started.
Shallow Water, Big Water
In typical timber hunting situations, water is not particularly deep — maybe 12 to 18 inches — though travel channels might be a bit deeper, so a shallow-draft boat is called for, Ward said. But if you're going to run a river or bigger water — well, wait a minute. Some rivers might have some rocky or otherwise shallow territory where a flat-bottom boat might be appealing. But back to the point, which is, if you're going to run a deep river or bigger water, you might want a boat with V-shaped hull for a little smoother ride over longer distances, Ward said.
Got it. Flat-bottom for shallow, V-hull for deeper. From there, other than motors, which we'll get to in a bit, features of a perfect duck hunting boat are the same, with a few tweaks for personal preference, of course.
All War Eagle boats have a V-bow, Ward said, which lets them deflect waves and water to the side. Also, when going through grass or brush or trees, the V is kind of a parting mechanism, so it's a little bit easier for the boat to get through there, he said.
Likewise, if you're motoring in the dark, pre-dawn or after a day's hunt, and you bump into a tree or stump or other obstacle, you're more likely to deflect off it than you would with a square-bow boat, he said.
Something with a square bow, when it hits, it's going to stop, he said.
Ward also recommends War Eagle's duckbill bow, which extends out the front of the boat to part brush, deflect water and provide an extended deck for easier in and out. The duckbill also features LED dock lights in protective cages below the deck level, which provides lighting for safety when boating in the dark, as well as setting up decoys and trailering and untrailering. Some hunters mount a light bar on the bow, Wade said, which is a tripping hazard getting in and out of the boat but can also produce glare that hinders your vision.
With the lights underslung on the duckbill, you don't get that glare and you get very good vision forward, he said.
Speaking of decks, A large portion of the decks of War Eagle boats are what we call below deck, Ward said.
When you're entering — say, stepping off a bank into the boat — you step into the boat onto a mid-deck, and then another step to the bottom deck; typically about a 9-inch step to the mid-deck, and then another step onto the floor area, he said. Ward said he prefers the mid-deck style rather than a high deck, like with a bass boat, because it provides a forward deck for stowing decoys and gear and provides an additional bench seating area.
But one of the big things I like about it is when you're getting in the boat, you're stepping in and down, he said. You're not having to step up and over something, and in waders, not everyone is as agile as a track star.
Let's go back to hull configuration for a minute — flat bottoms especially.
We build a mud boat called the 750 Gladiator with float pods on the back, which are an important feature for starting off in shallow water, Ward said.
The pods put additional flotation behind the centerline of the motor to provide additional stability when taking off, helping prevent the stern from dipping down at the thrust of the motor.
You don't have the tail-end swoop, Ward said. You'll plane much faster. When you keep the rear from swooping down, you don't have the bow rise, and that also keeps your prop pointed straight toward where you want to go.
The pods can also be used as steps to get in and out of the boat from the back, which is handy for hunters and dogs, he said.
And that leads to motors; outboards for big-water boats, gator-tail motors for shallow-water boats.
We see motors going up to 115 horsepower or so for running the rivers and open-water situations, Ward said. And in open-water marsh situation or reed situations, we're seeing camouflage patterns to match, like the Max-5 pattern.
The Gladiator is made for a gator-tail motor, Ward said. About 15 years ago, he saw mostly 25-horse motors. Now, he sees a lot of hunters with 37-horse motors and some with 40s.
With those motors, you can start that boat off in about 8 inches of water, with hunters in the boat, he said.
Tiller or wheel steering?
If you're going to be in the woods, I think the tiller is the way to go, Ward said, simply because of the zigzagging in and out of the timber. A lot of your turns are going to be tighter, and you may not have time to turn that wheel enough revolutions to get through there that fast. So I see running larger water with the steering wheel and tighter situations in timber running the tiller handle.
With a tiller, he said, the boat's response is immediate.
Boats such as the Gladiator, with flotation pods on the back and gator-tail motors, are the pick for shallow-water situations, Ward said.
It's a growing market area for duck hunters because it's allowed them to go to a lot of different places they couldn't go before, he said.
For a hunting boat's interior, Ward likes to see open layouts, with uncluttered room for equipment, decoys and dogs — and a firearm-storage box. Gun boxes, he said, are a really good safety feature. Most hunters have their gun in a case, but if you also have that case inside a storage box, it keeps dogs from jumping on them and people from stepping on them, he said.
War Eagle's most popular firearm-storage configuration is a side-load box, he said. Again taking the pro-and-con approach, Wade said, with a top- or side-load box, you'll have a handy bench seat. But if you have a duck blind on your boat, the side-load box might be the better choice so you don't have to lift the blind to access the box.
Continuing to the back of the boat, there are covered rear flotation pods on the inside, providing seats or seat mounting. Some prefer a bench seat all the way across the back, but others prefer to sit at a 45-degree angle. No pros and cons; just personal choice.
If you run a gator-tail mud motor, consider an important piece of safety equipment: the handrail. On the Gladiator, which is designed for a mud motor, the handrail is standard and adjustable for standing or sitting. Whether standing or sitting, the driver can use the handrail for stability and to push or pull against as they swing the tiller.
And speaking of safety, the first safety consideration when looking for a boat should be that it meets U.S. Coast Guard flotation requirements, Ward said. Check pods and under the deck and make sure flotation is in place, he said.
Running lights should also be a standard feature, he said. Some duck hunters omit running lights, thinking if they have a spotlight to guide them in the dark, it's good enough. Not so, he said. Running, or navigation, lights let other boaters know which direction you're going, which is important to know in the dark.
Docking lights, such as those in the duckbill extension, also add safety while navigating.
The old standard for navigating in the dark would have been the driver running the boat tiller with one hand and a Q-Beam spotlight in the other, Ward said. And I promise you, if you gave the light to somebody else, they would decide they wanted to look at the bank while you're going forward. So dock lights on the front take that out of that's guy's control. He can still have a Q-Beam as an accessory, which is a good accessory to have.
And speaking of Q-Beams, a 12-volt power plug-in is a must for powering spotlights and other accessories, including cell phone chargers.
War Eagle uses a T-lock and cap-rail system along the gunwales, which allow attachment of accessories such as blinds, a trolling motor, the mud motor handrail and shell tray and blinds. The system of a T-shaped bolt tightened with a wingnut is quick and easy, so the blind can go on and off in a matter of minutes, Wade said.
Another consideration for the often wet, often muddy conditions of duck hunting is secure footing. The textured, non-skid LINE-X liner of War Eagle boats helps provide sure footing, while protecting the interior and making it easy to clean, Wade said.
Just take a water hose, and get after it, he said.
War Eagles for All Seasons
Wade knows many War Eagle owners are four-season boaters and use them for all types of boating in addition to duck hunting, and, four-season or not, boats with camouflage patterns such as Realtree Max 4 and Max 5, Hardwoods and Timber are popular.
Boiling it down, Wade said if he had to narrow his recommendation to two models, he'd pick the 750 Gladiator for shallow-water, mud-motor use and the 961 Blackhawk for running marshes, rivers and open water.
The perfect duck boat: You'll know it when you see it.