Return safely from waterfowling

by Bob Bailey | September 26, 2022
Duck Hunting In Bad Weather

A flight of ringnecks skirted the bay, followed by ragged flocks of decoy-happy mallards. The ducks seemed oblivious to our presence, but when the bow anchor could no longer hold as the wind strengthened, it was time to head to safety.

The return trip was an epic journey along the windward shoreline. The point of no return stretched across a wide, wild maelstrom of frothing water leading to the boat launch. It was a white-knuckle event, with a hunting partner, loads of gear, and dead ducks all packed into a 12-foot, virtual car topper. Within one week, I was the proud owner of a new wider, deeper 14-foot jon boat.

This column is about enjoying your over-water experience and returning home safely.

Duckin’ safety

The most fundamental safety decision an overwater waterfowler can make is about boat and motor size. If you’re going to chase offshore divers, you can count on deploying big spreads in bays and open water. A 16-foot boat is essential to working on really big water, especially if you like to hunt with a partner. For two or more guests, or for guiding needs, an 18- to 20-foot craft is almost essential. There is a lot of comfort in having plenty of boat between you and the dark, cold water.

Swamping in big water often occurs over the shorter 15-inch transom that is common in 14-foot aluminum boats. A 20-inch transom on boats from 14-feet up is essential for over-water safety. Increasing boat width along the transom to the maximum available is also a good decision.

Transom depth and width are critical when choosing a power unit. Most folks tend to opt for the largest unit rating. This could pose a safety hazard once the boat is loaded with two or three people, their gear, dog(s) and decoys. Add a rising wind and unforeseen hazards can emerge.

The extra motor weight, especially in a four-stroke engine, can be offset by choosing a smaller motor. I have a 14-foot jon boat, with a 20-inch transom, and although it is rated for 25 hp, I had a much lighter four-stroke, 15-hp “kicker” installed as the main source of propulsion. It readily handles most conditions when the boat is loaded with two people and their gear. This is provided that you move to a safe location near shore during choppy weather. It just may take a bit longer to travel between locations. I also keep a 55-pound thrust electric motor mounted on the transom. It is a reliable, lightweight source of propulsion that has brought me home on occasion.

Not made for waterfowlers

Be aware that a boat’s “capacity” label may not have been designed or tested with waterfowlers in mind. I have a great 14-foot Alumacraft 148 jon boat, with a modified-V rated for up to five persons or 620 pounds. While this is a safe boat when used within its capacity, five persons with absolutely no gear or baggage and a 25 hp on top may overwhelm the buoyancy of this craft.

Watch the conditions

Keeping your eye on the sky for birds is why you are there, but also keep a watchful eye for changes in wind speed and direction. Heavy precipitation like sleet, snow, or rain can quickly add weight to your boat. Fog, hunter activity, and moving boats in darkness, also present other potential dangers. Be sure your boat is well illuminated at dusk and dawn and away from areas of boat traffic.

Be mindful of incremental changes in weather and wind, which are sometimes less easy to spot until they are right on you. Look for sudden changes in bird activity, which may indicate the presence of an unanticipated front.

If things go bad

When things start to feel bad get a message out via cell phone to someone who can help. If need be, also call search and rescue or at least local authorities. Steer a course carefully toward safety, considering weather and wave action. You may need to get ashore anywhere and wait it out or for rescue. Above all, do not panic. Be sure weight is distributed properly to avoid swamping. Don’t try to navigate at high speed through the waves, just take a slow but sure pace, where incoming water or damage can be controlled.

Let the boat take waves at a 45-degree angle, which will lift you over each roller, without smacking the transom straight-on, and causing the bow to spear into the waves in front. Be sure to redistribute weight toward the stern if water comes over the bow.

When guiding years ago, I would seat my two clients on the floor of my 18-foot wooden boat, in rough weather, about a third of the way from the transom to the bow. Fine-tune seating and weight distribution by watching how the boat handles waves. Reseating clients on the floor helped to stabilize the rocking boat by moving the centre of gravity down and prevented people from moving around and falling in the unstable craft. Most of all, don’t give up, you owe that to your passengers and yourself. If the motor quits, break out the oars to keep her oriented into the wind, while sliding obliquely toward land. If you make the right purchase decisions, you will be pleased that your choices of boat and motor combinations will greatly assist in the buoyancy of your craft, and your quest to return safely.

In earlier days when I hunted eastern Lake Ontario, we used a two-boat system, with wide, deep, 16-foot aluminum boats. It was great for redistributing the load to handle rough water, but also for ferrying decoys and gear, and to be assured at least one of our motors would remain functional if things went sideways.

Oars and more

Have all regulation safety items on board and include a power spotlight, a waterproof bag with dry clothes, matches, first aid kit, and other useful items. Make sure your boat contains good, functioning oars and oar locks, rope, a large bailer, and other useful items.

Bob Bailey headshot

Originally published in the 2021-2022 Ontario OUT of DOORS Hunting Annual.

Dr. Bob Bailey began his career as a waterfowl biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service before becoming an advocate for conservation and the future of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Bob has written for OOD for over 30 years.
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