More lifestyle than pastime, duck hunting commands the wingshooter’s attention in ways other field sports don’t. Some will disagree, particularly those Minnesota waterfowlers who have grown weary of viewing mostly empty skies over their decoys, their early morning risings, they believe, having gone to waste.
Fair enough. But the fact remains that anyone who is serious about duck hunting, no matter the relative abundance of birds, is serious also about the equipment the sport requires — equipment that in many cases qualifies as art, or at least memorabilia. Waders, cold-weather gear and retrieving dogs might not fit these descriptions. But decoys do, as do calls and the specialized watercraft duck hunters often deploy.
Or so I said to my wife recently while revealing my purchase of a vintage Grumman Sport Boat.
“You already have a duck hunting boat and a canoe you camouflaged for duck hunting,” she said.
“But Grumman Sport Boats aren’t made anymore,” I said. “And this one is cherry. Original owner, original paint.”
Duck-hunting boats, or “duck boats,” have long fascinated me. Pieces of Americana that in most cases are designed for specific uses in very specific environments, their common intent, always, is to transport the waterfowler to a site where he or she can close to within shotgun range of mallards, wigeon, gadwall, teal or other winged fowl.
In Louisiana, for instance, the pirogue, originally a sort-of cypress dugout (now flat-bottomed) double-ended canoe, is still used, as it was a century ago. Sculling boats, in which a long, single oar extends from the transom of a one-person layout boat, allowing the hunter to scull the boat by moving the oar side to side, is similarly a unique duck boat made for specific purposes in specific places.
Other specialty duck boats include the Barnegat Bay (N.J.) Sneakbox, the California tule splitter and the Marblehead (Mass.) gunning dory, the latter used for sea duck hunting.
Yet, no state has a richer duck hunting heritage than Minnesota, and we therefore have our own long history of duck boat design and manufacturing.
I was reminded of this last weekend, on the duck opener, while near New London where Roger Strand and his family have a duck hunting camp. The Strands use a Lund Ducker for transportation, a 103-pound, 12-foot, 4-inch-long iconic Minnesota-made craft that, like the Grumman Sport Boat, is no longer made.
Roger Strand also owns a reconditioned Shell Lake low-profile duck boat built by the Shell Lake Boat Co. (in business from 1904 to 1980) of Shell Lake, Wis. (Shell Lake Boat Co. was bought by Lund in the 1960s before ultimately being closed.)
Two very popular Shell Lake duck boats in their day were the shallow-draft, 12-foot, 6-inch-long Mallard Queen and the 13-foot-long Drake Mallard. Both were cedar planked and could be purchased with either canvas or (starting in the 1950s) fiberglass coverings.
Willy Smith, my duck hunting buddy from Willmar, also is smitten by duck boats. He owns a Grumman Sport Boat and also a Lund Snipe, the latter a 14-footer that can be used for duck hunting but at 150 pounds is a bit heavy to maneuver in smaller waters. Lund also made the lesser-known Ricer and hard-to-find Retriever, the latter of which Lund touted as a flat-bottom boat that “was ideal for the true duck hunter” because it was stable and shallow-drafted but had enough rocker to allow easy rowing.
Craigslist regularly has for-sale listings of Minnesota duck boats, and the number seems to increase as duck numbers fall. One current listing, by John Lewicki of the Twin Cities, is for a reconditioned Alumacraft Retriever, a rare offering because only 205 were made in 1958.
“I bought it from a guy in Wisconsin, along with a Lund Ducker,” said Lewicki, who had previously owned a Lund Ducker he sold to a hunter in Tennessee. Sandblasted and repainted, Lewicki’s like-new Alumacraft Retriever is priced at $4,500 or best offer.
Some years ago, while hunting brant in Cold Bay, Alaska, at a camp owned by Minnesotan Pete Iverslie, we used Iverslie’s camouflaged seagoing duck boat built, appropriately, by the Duck Boat Co. Big and stable, the boat was constructed on the East Coast and shipped to Seattle, where Iverslie had it loaded on a cargo ship destined for Cold Bay.
Cool as these and other duck boats are, including the contemporary, fairly compact models offered by Minnesota manufacturer Carstens, as well as those like the 20-foot surface-drive-powered craft my son Trevor and I borrowed from a friend last winter to hunt goldeneyes on the Missouri River in Montana, my aspiration has long been to add a Grumman Sport Boat to my small-time waterfowling armada.
For many hunting seasons, Willy Smith and I used his Sport Boat on Delta Marsh, Manitoba, and it proved highly functional. Big enough to carry both of us along with a couple dozen decoys and, if we wanted, two Labradors, the boat could be rowed from the middle seat and also paddled by one of us sitting in the stern.
Which is why, when a friend decided to sell his Sport Boat recently, I bought it. Not, as I told my wife, because I needed it. Nor, as I conceded, because it would necessarily improve my duck hunting.
But because duck hunting is more lifestyle than pastime.