November 03, 2010
Where I grew up, there were no duck boats. A duck boat was a boat, period. The same boat in which waterfowlers went fishing when ducks weren't flying.
My grandfather owned no boat of any sort. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, we shot ducks from boats hired out of North Florida fishing camps. The going rate was $1 a day.
Every fishing camp/duck camp had its own fleet, a nondescript flotilla tethered beneath a rickety shoreline shelter ambitiously called a "boathouse." Granddad, a small-town barber, would hand over a crinkled dollar bill (10 cents more than the price of a haircut) in exchange for one daylight-to-dark waterfowling adventure, pure nirvana for one whose post-pubescent "discoveries" were still years in the future.
The boats were heavy wooden things liberally slathered with green paint, obviously a magic concoction that peeled and curled upon contact with plywood. Aboard each were two "anchors" -- gallon-size tin cans full of poured concrete into which a rusty eyebolt was set. A length of rope, frayed and rotten, attached these weights to bow and stern.
Paddles provided propulsion and came in handy whenever Granddad's old 5-horse Firestone outboard wouldn't start, which, roughly speaking, was every time the starter cord was yanked. Also included were "life preservers," ancient cork-filled boat cushions that would not have supported the weight of a wet Chihuahua. It didn't matter anyhow, because they were sat upon, not worn.
An empty Maxwell House coffee can was standard equipment. No camp boat left "port" without one. Wooden boats, especially wooden boats infrequently caulked and seldom painted, leak. Leaks, naturally, must be bailed. Duck hunters leak intermittently as well, and "leaking" while kneeling into a Maxwell House coffee can proved much less precarious than performing the same task afoot over the gunnels, particularly in a wind on choppy water. I'm certain a Folger's or Chase and Sanborn container would have worked equally well, but "Good to the Last Drop" is a Maxwell House trademark. I shall not infringe.
Built into the middle seat, where "Little Bobby" always sat, was a low-tech livewell, which doubled as ice chest and/or dry storage during duck season. My first exposure to organized calisthenics was 200-times-a-day knee bends as I stood up and sat down rhythmically to allow Granddad and his grown-up buddies access to the lid.
Worse, there were invariably "things" in these livewells. Wasp nests always proved exciting, as did the occasional live water snake. No less motivating was dead fish or a forgotten ringneck or woodie left behind by the last angler/hunter to use the boat.
Care to guess whose honor it was to rid the boat of these "leftovers?"
I heard my first "dirty" joke aboard one of these dual-purpose boats. My grandfather's best friend told it, and I laughed, but only because Granddad did. Otherwise, I had no clue. Something about his loading the boat one morning and being asked by the camp proprietor if he needed a couple of "oars."
"Nah, fella," he replied. "We're goin' duck huntin'."
Now, while you think on that one, I'll say this: I never learned much about waterfowling aboard those old wooden boats. But who cares?
What matters is I was there, for a too-brief time, sharing experiences with old heroes, memory makers all. Dead Firestone, dead fish and Maxwell House "plumbing" notwithstanding, there's not a pricey duck-boat rig in the world I'd take for that.