I glided across the surface of the lake like an ice skater, the bow of my canoe gently cutting through the waves as diamonds sparkled in the water and sparkled on the antlers at my feet. This was something new. I had seen flip-flops, fish, and beer in this context, but never antlers. I could get used to it.
My friend Parker told me this was the best part of boating whitetails. It is not to see a deer emerge from the wood, shoot or put your hands first on the flank of the fallen animal. No. The most satisfying moment of this type of hunting was when you finally got a deer into your canoe, pushed off and floated away without a sound, just you, the deer and the water.
Image via Dylan Lenz.
Why hunt from boats?
I traveled to Alabama last December to try surfing for money, a practice that is gaining traction among whitetail hunters. Using a boat, you can access public land or private hard-pressed areas that other people cannot comfortably reach. By crossing lakes, rivers, or swamps, a savvy hunter can infiltrate otherwise inaccessible public land or simply save themselves a long trek through the area. The rewards for this extra work are less pressured deer, higher deer densities, and sometimes older bucks. In short, better hunting.
My mentor on this trip was Parker McDonald, a staunch white man and host of the Southern Ground Hunting Podcast. Parker made a name for himself successfully hunting public ground deer by the water in much of the South. We met at a nondescript boat ramp late one night alongside a narrow channel of calm water. The sun was setting, and the surface of the water was flat as a mirror, reflecting oranges and purples from above. We load our canoes with rifles, backpacks, life jackets and flashlights. Then we got going.
Our destination was a long peninsula jutting out into the lake. This became home to our camp for the next five days. From here, we would leave the tents and set out each morning and evening for distant places, all accessible by water, stretching for miles in any direction. Boat hunting water systems offer easy avenues to access vast expanses of hunting real estate. The possibilities almost paralyzed me.
Image via Bobby Jahrig.
best buck boat
The next day we got up early, had coffee while listening to the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore, and set out again, this time to hunt.
On our way, drifting quietly and slowly through the black mist, I recognized another advantage to this approach: stealth. We gingerly docked our boats on the shore, tied them to the rocks, and set out on a short hike to a destination just above the cliff. There was no long, noisy walk through farm fields or acorn-filled trees to send the deer running. Instead, we slipped noiselessly out the back door and climbed into a nearby tree before dawn.
Access to a place like this is not possible with any boat. A “money boat” has to tick a lot of different boxes. You need to calmly access narrow, shallow water while having the stability and carrying capacity to handle hunting gear and a deer as well.
Parker’s chosen boat for this job and the equipment we used on this trip was a hybrid of a canoe and kayak. These are small, nearly metal-free (ie quiet), and light like a kayak, but with the added utility features of a boat.
Parker said a standard canoe or kayak will work as well. These are easy to launch and carry in most situations, while also sailing high enough in the water to access almost anywhere: a shallow swamp, a small Midwestern creek, or high water in a southern swamp. .
The downside of these options is that they are not good at covering long distances. Relying solely on a hybrid boat for access to the water in recent years, Parker spent an inordinate amount of time on the water to reach distant areas on large rivers and lakes.
“I would get up at 1:00 in the morning to be in the water at 3:00, to be somewhere before sunrise. And that weighs you down,” she said. For this reason, Parker has added to his repertoire a small aluminum boat and outboard motor, which might be worth considering for other hunters with big water destinations in mind.
Ted Zangerle of The Hunting Public also prefers a boat like this. “My favorite type of deer boat is a standard flat-bottomed jon boat with an outboard motor,” he said. “I can get up and down quickly with the motor, but I can still weave my way through backwaters and shallow streams.”
I spent my first morning hunting with Parker watching him access his hideouts on public land where he sets up his ambush sites. The wooden hills that rose from the shore crumpled into funnels of terrain perfect for the cruising males. Adjacent private land food plots gave ample incentive for females to frequent the area.
Image via Dylan Lenz.
I was out later that afternoon on my own, looking for similarly productive locations, driving south that night and exploring a northern branch the next day. The change of pace from the previous weeks of hiking through the cornfields of the Midwest and climbing the mountains of the Northeast was exhilarating. My traditional means of whitetail hunting, so anchored in one place, immobile, terrestrial, had become suffocating. This was just the touch on the face that I needed.
Yes, every morning and evening, I sat and watched and waited. But between those times, I flew. She made all the difference.
It was in these later days, while working against strong winds and attempting to cover longer distances, that I realized for myself the value of an engine, something I had long assumed was an unnecessary indulgence. Whether you use a canoe or a flat-bottomed jon boat, both Parker and Zangerle recommend an electric trolling motor. This gives you enough thrust to cut through moderate wind, but still allows for quiet access and maneuverability in shallow water.
“When we have a spot in mind and we know there are likely to be deer within earshot when we approach with the boat, we can drop the trolling motor and it becomes a silent approach,” Zangerle said.
While Parker prefers a minimalist approach to his boat, mounting almost nothing but his engine, he reiterated to me during our trip the importance of having good lighting for early morning and late night boat trips through fog. blinding that watercourses frequently conjure. We both used high-powered headlamps on our hunts, while also turning small flashlights on the back of our canoes as running lights. Zangerle takes this one step further with the use of a mounted LED light bar. “A bright light on the front of your boat can help you avoid a lot of logs and, in the end, help you save some money on engine repairs,” he said.
Image via Dylan Lenz.
What mattered more?
On my third day exploring the Alabama waterways, I finally found what I was looking for. I meandered up the main channel of the lake for a half mile then veered into a narrow swamp that narrowed and disappeared after a few hundred yards. Steep wooded hills towered over me on either side, forming a bowl of mixed hardwoods almost like an amphitheater. I slid out the inside drain and reached the top, finding an oak floor that pressed up against a series of old clear cuts. I settled against a tree trunk.
Nine hours later my prey appeared, coming out of the oak floor, scraping, and finally stopping long enough for my crosshairs to settle.
Later, with that deer in my boat, I leaned back in my seat as I rocked gently up and down and thought about how right Parker was. It was a deer hunt on public land that most can only dream of. Lots of deer, hardly any other hunters, lots of signs, and both Parker and I filled out our tags on the same day.
But it wasn’t the deer sightings or trigger pulls that stood out the most. It was the morning mist rising off the water, the breeze on my face as I sailed at noon, the waves singing me to sleep each night, and that last long heavy float. Finding or building the perfect whitetail boat is a worthwhile pursuit for obvious practical reasons. For me though, it’s less about what that ship can help you do and more about what it can take you. As is the case with all life, it begins and ends with water.
Featured Image via Bobby Jahrig.