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Backwater Boats

By Gibbs Milliken

Lightweight, flat-bottom boats run silently in shallow waters.

In the Deep South, few boats are more popular for hunting and fishing in flooded lowlands than flat-bottomed boats such as the pirogue and the johnboat. Often handmade, these one- and two-person craft have been in constant use for centuries. Evolving from the simple dugout tree trunk, these boats were later built of marine plywood. The current commercial models are form-constructed of more durable fiberglass, aluminum or polyethylene. In shallow waters, these basic paddle-craft are often powered only by push-pole. The larger open-water marsh, duck or johnboats usually are equipped with electric trolling or gasoline-fueled outboard motors.

In its purest form, the pirogue is a lightweight, horizontal-profile boat with a pointed bow and stern. It can be maneuvered easily through shallow swamps, bayous, flats and marshes. The flat bottom makes it relatively stable when the operator is standing and poling on quiet waters. For safety, most novice users prefer to sit and paddle with a lower center of gravity. The pirogue is the classic Cajun boat used by duck hunters and fishers to sneak up on game and fish in almost complete silence. Some designs have stake or spud-holes through the hull ends for conversion into stable duck blinds.

At 40 pounds, one of the lightest versions is the all-fiberglass Copperhead Pirogue that will carry one person, equipment and a dog, for a maximum load of 325 pounds. ($295; length: 13 feet, 10 inches; color: olive drab; Louisiana Pirogues, (504) 277-6526, www.pirogue.com). For a step up in size, consider the two-person, aluminum Black Water Pirogue. This sturdy, hand-finished, 70-pound boat is well made and can carry up to 500 pounds. It is slightly keeled for better tracking and with a light, well-balanced load, can travel in two inches of water. ($695; solid color; $735, four camouflage patterns; length: 13 feet, 9 inches; C & D Enterprises, (877) 396-7612, www.duckcommander.com).

The larger duck and marsh boats vary only slightly from the pirogue. Their bows and sterns are partially decked; a flanged gunwale forms a cockpit to reduce the shipping of water in a chop. Often called "layout" boats for their use as waterfowl blinds, they can be dragged into fields, marshes or poled across wetlands and camouflaged near arrays of decoys. A classic variation of this style is the Slider, a completely hand-built, wooden design for one or two persons fly fishing on the Texas coastal flats. The Slider has the graceful lines and charm of an antique lapstreak craft, but is made with modern wood laminates protected by fiberglass cloth set in epoxy and finished with catalyzed urethane paint to give it years of service in rough-bottom bays and rivers. ($2,500; length: 16 feet; weight: 55 pounds; Austin Angler (512) 472-4553, www.austinangler.com).

Aluminum johnboats are the most common and practical means of shallow-water transport for hunters and fishers. These inexpensive, low-maintenance, flat-transom craft have set a proven standard for all-purpose utility boats. In Texas, they outnumber the Louisiana-style push-boats because our water depths vary so greatly. Johnboats vary in size. Small models, 10 to 12 feet long, can slide into the bed of a pickup. Larger, trailer-carried versions rigged for bigger waters go up to 24 feet. One of the most popular sizes is the 12-foot-long Riveted Jon. It can take up to a six horsepower gas outboard or an electric trolling motor, and holds three persons for a total load of 440 pounds. Add oarlocks and oars and it doubles as a traditional rowboat. ($629; Model #1232; weight: 105 pounds; Fisher Boats, www.fisherboats.com).

The Ambush is a two-person hybrid boat made of molded polyethylene that can carry up to 800 pounds. It has the form of a modified, sit-on-top kayak and the stability and low maintenance of a 44-inch-wide johnboat. ($749-$799, depending on options; size: 13 feet, 10 inches; weight: 100 pounds; colors: olive drab, granite, or wheat; Ocean Kayak, (800) 852-9257, www.oceankayak.com). The Ambush can be paddled or outfitted with a strong 12-volt, saltwater trolling motor such as the RT55/S Minn Kota Riptide for silent traveling at a good speed on calm waters. ($419; Minn Kota, (800) 227-6433, www.minnkotamotors.com).

Remember that all motorized craft used on public waters must be registered with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and have the required safety equipment on board.

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