Duck Boats, A Building Tradition

By Dale Humburg | September 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 1998

I stepped into a duck boat for the first time in 1956 when I was five years old. Memories of that day with my dad include mud spilling over my boots and a gray day with a light west wind. I sat in front of Dad in a double-end duck boat, shaking with excitement as he called to flocks of ducks.

I don't remember if we shot anything. North Iowa was dry that year, and we were limited to hunting open water for divers. I was hooked anyway. The water, decoys and duck calls became an instant addiction. And the duck boat was where it all started.

Since then, I've jump-shot wood ducks along creeks, stood in flooded timber watching mallards bail through pinoaks and hunted from a variety of temporary and permanent blinds. Yet, my personal duck hunting roots and tradition stem from the duck boats my dad made 50 years ago for the marshes of northern Iowa.

Boats he built and used were similar in form and function to those used for many years in coastal wetlands and later adapted for hunting in prairie marshes. Local wetland conditions dictated the particular regional designs. Some were shallow, narrow double-enders that waterfowlers push-poled through bayous or cattail marshes. Others were square-stern boats that hunters often rowed or equipped with an outboard motor for use in open coastal bays.

Earlier duck boat innovators crafted boats with steamed oak ribs and cedar strips, with canvas covering the deck. Available materials often dictated the design. One of Dad's early boats was a double-ender made from two 1940 Chevrolet hoods welded together. He says that 1940 hoods became pretty scarce for a few years.

By the mid-50s, he was building boats out of plywood strips over pine frames and covered with fiberglass. And a 40-year progression followed as Dad improved on the design and taught me how to build and use duck boats.

When I moved to Missouri in the mid-1970s, I found waterfowling traditions that evolved from hunting rivers, floodplain wetlands and overflow waters. Permanent blinds were the rule where there were predictable water levels. Waterfowlers employed more opportunistic, wade-in or boat-in approaches when seasonal flooding took place. Boats primarily shuttled hunters to and from hunting spots.

Waterfowl hunting took on a new look during the last 20 years as the Conservation Department bought more than 50,000 acres of wetlands and restored more than 20,000 additional acres. In contrast to conventional hunting regimes, where permanent blinds prevailed, newly developed wetlands primarily offered less regimented hunting with no blinds.

My duck boat ventures in Missouri began in the early 1980s after the Conservation Department developed shallow wetlands on Fountain Grove Conservation Area. Today, a number of shallow marshes offer these types of opportunities on Conservation Department wetland areas. Interest in duck boats grew rapidly as the Conservation Department developed more wetlands, and hunters in chest waders with decoy bags on their backs saw the effectiveness, utility and comfort offered by low-profile duck boats.

Duck boats are only 12 to 14 feet long and 4 feet wide and are easily transported on a small trailer or in the back of a pickup. They weigh little more than 100 pounds and can be push-poled through shallow water and vegetation to a front-row seat in the marsh. The only limitation on amount of snacks, number of decoys and other equipment hauled to the marsh is the size of the cockpit.

After setting decoys, hunters push into rushes and camouflage their boats with bundles of grass woven in netting. They simply lie back in the boat while calling to ducks and sit up to shoot birds coming into the decoys.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of duck boats is comfort. Waterfowlers seldom use "dry" and "warm" to describe duck hunting. However, duck boats offer a way to abandon waders in favor of a cushion in the bottom of the boat. In the rain, hunters can use a plastic or canvas tarp to cover the entire boat until more favorable weather returns.

It didn't take long for other hunters, usually those "mucking" across the marsh in waders, to inquire about how to build a boat. Appropriately, Dad played a role in the succession of duck boat use in Missouri as well, when we held a duck boat building workshop on a March weekend in the mid 1980s.

By the next fall, several more duck boats were in use at Grand Pass and Fountain Grove conservation areas. Many who have built a boat have since guided someone else through the process, and this apprenticeship approach has been responsible for an almost exponential growth of duck boat use in Missouri.

Building a duck boat really is a hands-on process. Rather than explaining how to build a boat, my advice is to find someone who already has built one. Contact any Conservation Department wetland area, and chances are they will know someone who has a boat in progress or will have a workshop planned. triangle

Duck Boat Basics

Basic duck boat design has changed little. Decisions about length (usually 12 to 14 feet) width (no more than the width of a piece of plywood, 48 inches), size of the cockpit (6 to 8 feet) and whether a square-stern boat or double-ender dictate materials and dimensions.

I prefer bigger boats with longer cockpits; they weigh more, but there's more room for decoys and food. Square-stern boats are a little more stable; however, double-enders are easier to navigate through the marsh. I prefer a square-stern because I never remember which end of a double ender is the front.

Builders fashion duck boat frames, gunwales and cockpit from 1-inch pine cut to desired lengths and make the bottom of the boat and deck from 1/4 inch plywood, which they cover with fiberglass. Runners (1-inch by 1-inch of 6- to 8-foot oak), a coat of paint and handles complete the essentials for a working duck boat.

An unlimited number of variations and additional options can be incorporated to tailor duck boats for specific hunting situations. Some hunters include a motor mount on the back deck or oarlocks along the cockpit to provide alternative means of propulsion. Camouflage for the boat will be determined by the type of habitat and each hunter's preference.

These adaptations are just beginning to evolve in Missouri. I can't wait to see the results of Missouri duck hunters' imaginations during the next few years.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer