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The Dirt on Mud Motors for Duck Boats: Comparing Longtails vs Shorttails/Surface Drives

Outlining the nuances between mud motor varieties.

The Dirt on Mud Motors for Duck Boats: Comparing Longtails vs Shorttails/Surface Drives

Breaking down the differences between the two types of mud motors to help you decide which one will best suit your needs. (Photo courtesy of PFF Mud Motors)

So, you made the decision to purchase a mud motor but are now questioning your sanity as you dive into trying to find the perfect model for your needs. If you have already reviewed our Mud Motor Buyer’s Guide, you’re off to the good start, but if you still have questions on the difference between short and longtails, you are in the right place. While both short and longtails accomplish the same task of navigating shallow water, selecting the right model the first time will go a long way in eliminating buyer’s remorse.  


The Long and Short of It

Mud motors come in two configurations, shorttail and longtail. While some manufacturers refer to their models as surface drives, surface drive is just another fancy name for a shorttail mud motor. So, with semantics out of the way, let’s get into what makes them different.

As their name implies, the most obvious difference between the two models is, well, shorttails have a short tail and longtails have a, you guessed it, long tail. The “tail” of a mud motor refers to the length of the shaft behind the power head. Longtails have a straight shaft that connects almost directly to the motor in a straight line and can measure up to about six feet in length. Shorttails on the other hand have multiple shafts that connect to “knuckles” making two 90 degree turns before reaching the propeller. This keeps the prop closer to the transom, roughly half the distance of a longtail, and they look more like your grandaddy’s conventional outboard motor. 


longtail mud motor
Longtail mud motor. (Photo courtesy of Go-Devil)

If the simple definitions make the shorttail sound more complex, that is because they are. Longtail mud motors, simply put, have fewer parts and are more efficient at transferring power directly from the engine to the propeller. Shorttail varieties have more moving parts, more locations that may require maintenance, slight efficiency losses due to the multiple connection points, but also more opportunity for advanced features like a transmission. These mechanical differences are just some of the nuances between styles, but only scratch the surface of why either style is better, or worse, for a given application.  

shorttail surface drive mud motor
Shorttail or surface drive mud motor. (Photo courtesy of Go-Devil)

The Expert Analysis

Warren Coco, the Owner of Go-Devil Manufacturing, has been building mud motors as a company since 1977. Prior to 1977, Coco was building mud motors of his own design, constantly tweaking and improving it, before he decided to turn his passion into a livelihood. Since 1977, Coco has developed a full line of one-piece boat hulls, shorttail and longtail mud motors, and accessories all built for those that run the shallow water. In order to get the best breakdown on the advantages for the different configurations, we went directly to Coco for his analysis. 

Coco broke it down simply at first, stating, “If you have enough water depth to get on plane and run for long stretches, a shorttail will be faster and easier to handle.” On the flip side, “If you can’t get on plane and you have to bump and grind your way through the marsh, the longtail is the right mud motor for you.” This breakdown illustrates the different environments that each style will excel in. For obstruction-choked marshes and timber where there is a lot of start and stop of slow running, the longtail will be the most efficient. In areas where you can make longer runs on mud flats, across deeper open water, or between obstacles, a shorttail will be faster and easier to handle.

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The reason that each configuration excels in different environments, despite both being designed to handle shallow water, comes down to the prop size/style and what medium the propeller can achieve its ideal rpm, and subsequently, highest horsepower output. Coco stated that, “Longtails are outfitted with a smaller propeller than a shorttail that is designed to run fully submerged in the mud. When down in the mud, the engine can generate maximum horsepower at around 3,600 rpm and generate its highest forward thrust. Shorttails on the other hand are outfitted with a larger propeller that was designed to run half in, and half out, of the water to generate their peak horsepower in a mixture of water and air.” This is an important attribute of getting the most performance out of your engine, as submerging a shorttails prop fully in the mud won’t generate enough rpm to spool up the engine therefore making it more lethargic when trying to get unstuck or out of the hole.

In terms of physical operation, Coco added, “Both configurations will require some experience to get the most out of them, but the choice of either type should be based solely on the environment you are going to hunt.” To better illustrate this, Coco provided two real-world examples. 

Where Longtail Mud Motors Excel 

The first scenario is when you need to, quite literally, jump over a log. According to Coco, if you pull up to the log in a longtail and stick the prop in the mud, you can drive the boat right over the obstacle. The long shaft allows you to keep the propeller in the mud and maintain forward thrust and you simply lift up the shaft once the boat is in clear water on the other side. If you tried this with a shorttail, you won’t be able to generate the same amount of thrust with the propeller buried in the mud and once the boat gets up on the log the propeller will be out of the water and provide no forward thrust. While the shorttail may work, depending on the height of the obstruction, you may also have to get out and push the boat off of high-center.

longtail mud motor
Longtail mud motors are best suited for smaller duck boats in tight spots full of debris and shallow water with deep mud. (Photo courtesy of Backwater Inc.)

Where Shorttail Mud Motors Excel

In situations where you are making long runs in marshes with occasional obstructions, Coco mentions that shorttails will get up on plane, run smoother, and operate more like a conventional, but more rugged outboard motor. Longtails, in this scenario, will work, but their propellers aren’t designed to run in clear water and will require additional work to keep the propeller from cavitating. They also aren’t as operator-friendly in this scenario, as you need to stand to operate them.

shorttail surface drive mud motor
Shorttail or surface drive mud motors are optimal for larger duck boats where big, clean water crossings are likely to be encountered. (Photo courtesy of Excel Boats)

The Extras

In addition to the environment-specific attributes, both motor types have other pros and cons. For starters, longtails are less expensive than shorttails, as they have less parts, but also less features. Longtails only go in one-direction, forward, where shorttails can be fitted with F-N-R transmission which makes them more maneuverable. This, and other added features like power trim, etc., make shorttails more like conventional outboards, but also require more maintenance and have more to break/repair due to their advanced features.

Other key considerations include that shorttails can be operated with console (rather than tiller) steering controls, while longtails require the operator to stand up and hold onto a grab bar when under power. Longtails are also more complicated to store/tow, due to the long shaft that must be turned 180 degrees into the boat. This requirement can make it complicated if you intend to fit your boat hull with a blind. 




Final Synopsis

Selecting between a shorttail or longtail mud motor comes down to the type of environments you intend to hunt with your duck boat. For short runs and in heavily obstructed waters, longtails will outperform shorttails. On the other hand, if you are running shallow river, coastlines, or open marshes, shorttails can handle the open water and still churn through the trash along the edges. While neither is one-size-sits-all, careful selection of the right configuration will get you deeper into duck euphoria than a conventional outboard could ever dream of.  

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