Sculling For Cotton State Ducks
September 28, 2010
Scull boats have been around for at least 100 years but are just now being rediscovered by Alabama duck men. Here's what they offer in some challenging wingshooting situations.
Photo by R.E. Ilg
Sculling can best be described as a pro-active waterfowling method. Instead of waiting for ducks to come to him, a hunter lies prone in a small, low-profile boat, working a long, crooked oar that extends through the transom of the boat. He pursues his quarry on the open water using stealth to try getting in shotgun range before the birds take wing. It is a lot like a chess game - you make your move, and the ducks make theirs while you try to anticipate that move.
Though this coming season will be my fourth "under the oar," I studied this technique for many years by reading books, checking out information on the Internet, and talking to veteran scullers, the older folks, many in their late 80s.
Most scull boats are 12 to 14 feet in length and about 9 to 15 inches high when sitting in the water and are made to hold one or two hunters, depending on the model and style. A curved-shaped oar that typically measured 4 to 5 feet in length powers the craft. The vessels are usually counter-balanced with removable weights that give the boat the proper attitude while in the water with the hunter aboard. These boats are specifically designed with stealth in mind and for slipping or sneaking through the water with little to no noise. Once in range of the ducks, the hunter raises to the sitting position and shoots.
During the market-gunning era for waterfowl, in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the scull boat was used extensively. These boats saw regional popularity from the west coast through the Great Lakes to Maine. After the passing of the Migratory Bird Act in 1918, which outlawed market gunning, many of these old sculling boats were still used. In fact, I have seen a few that are still in use today. In Alabama, migratory waterfowl may be hunted from a floating craft that is powered by human muscle (paddled or rowed), so sculling is perfectly legal.
Even though sculling for waterfowl has seen a noted increase in interest in the last few years, it is still largely a lost art for modern-day waterfowlers. There are just too many other easier and quicker ways to go about duck hunting. The simple fact that sculling is very physically demanding and takes time to master makes it a "self-regulating" sport.
There are some scullers that will not even talk about the sport for fear that the rivers and lakes will become overrun with scull boats. These people regard this sport as some kind of "super secret." But over the years I have noticed that if 100 people show interest in this sport, only 10 actually try it. Of this 10, only one or two stick with it long enough to become accomplished scull hunters.
"It's not an easier way of duck hunting, just another way," is how a 30-year veteran of the sport once put it. But the rewards can be great.
I can vividly recall one late December morning in North Alabama a few years ago. It was bitter cold and the weather forecast called for another front with single-digit temperatures to soon pass through. The ducks were tightly rafted up out on some grass flats just off the main river channel and they were feeding like mad. I sculled into this 500-plus-bird raft as they slowly parted to let me into "their world" and then closed the door behind me. I was so excited that I was afraid to blink to breathe. To have that many birds so close to you is a very memorable moment. It was unforgettable how loud the birds were inside the raft as they continued to feed.
On the other hand, I can remember many botched sculls when the birds jumped long before I reached them. Most of the time it would be my fault - a wrong angle of approach, too much boat motion or something else. But sometimes the birds will take wing for no apparent reason, even if you do everything right.
Sculling for waterfowl is an open-water sport. It requires big, wide and open bodies of water that offer the birds a good rafting environment that provides them a comfort zone. Sculling is rarely done near land. It makes many of the birds very skittish when they get close to land, especially when the hunting season has opened and the first shots have been fired at them. The birds then fly set and seemingly predetermined routes to avoid flying over or close to land, sometimes flying far out of their way in the process.
SAFETY As with any type of hunting, safety is the No. 1 priority when out on the water sculling. That is why it is smart to always hunt with a partner, either in the boat with you or in a nearby boat. Just imagine yourself lying down in a 14-foot ultra-low-profile boat about a quarter-mile from the nearest land in the dead of winter floating on paralyzingly cold water. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in such a scenario.
A few safety precautions are obviously in order. First, have a good life jacket handy, if not actually on you. Take along a cell phone. Also, put cords on all your counterweights so you can pull them to you in case you need to "deep-six" them over the side in a hurry. Additionally, I carry a double-bladed kayak paddle that is painted fluorescent orange to hold up and wave as an emergency signal to attract passing boats.
Knowing your boat's limits and knowing when to head toward land are probably the two most important issues regarding safety. The time to experiment with your boat and to find out what conditions it can handle is during the summer months in shallow water. It is too late during an actual hunt when you are caught out in nasty weather.
The weather in northern Bama can turn rather hostile in the matter of a few minutes in the winter. Last season I was making a scull on some goldeneyes in a large bay that was about a half-mile across. When I first started the scull, the wind was very mild, the water relatively calm and the skies partly cloudy. When I reached the center portion of the bay, black clouds starting rolling in and the wind began whipping the water into a fury. Very quickly, 3- to 4-foot white-capped rollers were crashing into my boat. I immediately repositioned the counterweights and moved toward the rear of the boat to elevate the bow. Then I stuck the needle-like bow into the oncoming waves and let them carry me to shore. It was a cold, wet "white-knuckled" ride that called on all my experience.
Needless to say, if the weather even hints at turning foul, do not delay. Head for shore. There will be other days to hunt, but maybe not if you make the wrong decision out there.
TACTICS The search for what works best for you is one facet of what makes this sport so addictive and fascinating. There are many dif
ferent variables to consider in planning a hunt, and they almost always change with each individual scull. Many times you even have to change plans during the scull. No two sculls are the same.
There are really two schools of thought regarding the approach to rafted waterfowl in a scull. One method is fast and head-on. The other is slow, methodical and flanking. Each has its positives and negatives.
The reaction of the ducks is probably the major determining factor regarding which to use. If the birds have noticed me but do not really seem that concerned or have not noticed me at all, I close the gap quickly and usually head-on. However, if the birds are getting nervous, exhibiting erect necks, swiveling their heads and starting to bunch up, I begin flanking them and slow way down. When and if they relax, I again angle head-on under full steam, hoping they will hold until I have gotten in range.
Besides paying close attention to the birds' attitude, also make note of things like wind direction, the position of the sun and the probable direction of flight. Again, all these elements change with each scull. Since most birds take off into the wind to gain quick altitude and since sculling with the wind is easier and faster, a downwind approach is usually best. But invariably there will be times when the only way to get to the ducks is against the wind. This is when you have to work twice as hard for propulsion and be very careful of bow-slap created from the oncoming waves or chop. Bow-slap is almost certain to alert the birds and send them flying. It is important to have the correct amount of counterweight in the boat's bow so that the craft spears the oncoming waves and makes very little, if any, noise.
Ducks are just like people when it comes to the glare of the water. When the sun is either setting or rising, it creates a blinding effect that can be used in your favor. At the duck's eye level, this glare is magnified even more. Therefore, sculling with the sun at your back stacks the deck in your favor. Admittedly, it would be a difficult decision to choose whether to scull into the wind with the sun at your back or to scull with the wind and into the sun. If you determine which of these scenarios is the best, please let me know.
Even if you do have ducks jump early, stay alert. As crazy as it may sound, many times after the birds have taken off out of range, they fly toward or past you within range in trying to escape. Buffleheads in particular are notorious for flying right back over you after they jump.
SCOUTING As with any type of hunting, when sculling there is absolutely no substitute for scouting. You should spend at least half of your time on the water scouting and planning your strategies.
A good pair of binoculars is a must for this task. You can scout by walking the banks, by driving riverside roads or by actually getting on the water.
For sculling, scouting is not a pre-season affair that ends when the shooting starts. It needs to be a constant effort. You have to realize that the birds are here today, over there tomorrow and maybe gone the next. Constantly updating your information is imperative.
ADVANTAGES Sculling is much more popular in the northern portions of the country and out West than in the South. This is probably because of the presence of more large, open bodies of water there, plus a sculling tradition. Whatever the reason, when you pull up to a boat ramp to unload your scull boat here in Bama, expect to be attract some stares. Most folks in the Cotton State have never seen a boat like this before and have never even heard of it.
The first question you will likely field is, "Does it really work?" The answer to that question is, "Only if you know what you are doing."
Once it's mastered, there are several advantages to this style of duck hunting. You no longer have to vie for a blind on the bank or in the cove, swamp or flooded timber. Out on the open water, you typically have the hunting to yourself. Rarely will other hunters ever encroach upon you. More commonly, an occasional curious observer may venture by, keeping his distance and just watching.
Frankly, sculling is also a simpler waterfowling technique. Traditional duck hunting is very equipment intensive and usually involves decoys, dogs, calls and more. None of these items are necessary to scull hunt ducks.
Another thing you can dispense with when doing this type of hunting is a lot of the heavy clothing usually associated with waterfowling. You are always on the move, working the oar to get at the birds or simply moving to your next spot. Many times in subfreezing temperatures, I have broken a sweat after a long scull.
My favorite advantage of all is that it is not mandatory that you wake up hours before daybreak. Though it is often a good idea, it is not a necessity, since you are not depending on the birds to fly in. Many of my more successful hunts have been in the late-morning or early-afternoon hours when there is less gunfire going on. At these times of the day, the ducks seem to be more relaxed, less jumpy and content to raft up on the water.
It is even possible to use sculling in conjunction with more-standard hunting techniques to extend your days. When I first started to scull hunt, I would start the day in a blind with a spread of decoys for the first few hours, then launch my scull boat to finish out the morning. Over time, however, my scull boat addiction changed that pattern. On the other hand, you may find that you have more immunity to sculling and can practice it in conjunction with other hunting techniques.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Steve Parsons is a writer and part-time duck-hunting guide who makes his home in Madison, Ala. He also maintains a Web site dedicated to sculling. You can view the site at http://home.hiwaay.net/~parsons.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Alabama Game & Fish