By Larry Dablemont
The Joplin Globe
There is nothing a grizzled old riverman like me hates to see more than a caravan of brightly colored kayaks, forging down through a hole of water in the summer, whipping the water to a froth with those windmill paddles they use.
In a shady spot where the current slows and you’ve caught a good smallmouth or two already it is quiet and peaceful. And then here they come, as fast as they can go, as noisy as they can get, and as completely out of place on that river as a white farm rooster in the Rocky Mountains!
So who woulda thought that just the other day a friend and I both floated down the river in a kayak? It’s easier to imagine John Wayne riding a Shetland pony, or Clint Eastwood on a donkey! Well we done it, Rich Abdoler and I, and by golly it wasn’t so bad. But there’s more to this story. First of all, we weren’t flapping down the stream zig-zagging in a red or yellow kayak with our knees up around our ears.
If you are on an Ozark stream in something that is bright red or yellow, you are greener than a July cucumber. Grizzled old outdoorsmen try to blend in and fit in and go quietly down sacred waters where our ancestors slipped along in wooden johnboats, as part of the river rather than a gaudy intruder.
This story goes back to last winter, when my old huntin’ buddy Rich and I found all kinds of ducks on Truman Lake. Thirty years ago, we clobbered ducks on Truman when it was new, by wading out in chest waders to stand beneath pin-oak trees in flooded backwaters without a cocklebur in sight.
Today, the pin-oaks are gone and there are cockleburs everywhere, and the lake has been silted in so badly if you wade out anywhere you bog down in mud up to your haunches. If you can get out at all it may suck your boots right off and leave you flopping all the way to the shore like a wounded coot. I am getting too old for that kind of work.
And trying to hunt out of my big 18-foot War-Eagle duck boat is tough. It will go across Truman’s rough water very effectively, and get you there in a hurry. But it is a chore to hide. Big boats with blinds stand out like a moose on a mud flat, and if you hunt that way, wary flocks of mallards look at your decoys while just out of range, and get the heck out of the country.
At a sport show last winter in St. Louis — the last one I will ever go to — I saw some kayaks actually made for real outdoorsmen. They were colored to blend in with the waters they were to be used in. I talked to the guy who was displaying them, and he explained the concept behind them, how they were tremendously stable, light, and made for those who hunt and fish, rather than those who would be just as happy on a water-slide at an amusement park.
I knew right then I was looking at the answer to my duck-hunting dilemma. There was a little leaf-shaped ten-foot craft called a Nucanoe, and it would easily fit in my duck boat, where it could be hauled to backwaters teeming with waterfowl, and used sort of like an old-time layout boat.
He also had a dark gray 12-foot kayak made by the same company, which he touted as something two men could fish from, on all kinds of waters. That was called a “Frontier” model. My friend Rich bought one, and I talked the fellow at the sport show into loaning me the 10-foot Nucanoe until I could come up with enough money to pay for it. You see, Rich once worked for the government, and made more money than I.
Duck season is a long way off, but the two of us took our new toys to the river last week, floating the upper end where there isn’t enough water now for a regular canoe, and we were both surprised. I think Rich has the best craft for fishing, but I think mine will be the better duck-hunting boat.
I took my shotgun, just in case I saw a turkey, and two rods and reels and my tackle box, and a small cooler. I moved the seat back as far as I could get it and had to put some rocks in the bow to balance it, and down the river I went, in a kayak! I hope my grandpa wasn’t watching!
In all seriousness, I learned a great deal that day. The little Nucanoe I was in floats high, and slides over the gravel bars and rocks in very low shoals without making much noise. I didn’t use those windmill paddles most kayakers use. I learned long ago how to paddle any boat from one side, and I just used my sassafras paddle to slip quietly down the river. I fished a buzz-bait, and the little craft held its course, and responded to the slightest and easiest dip of the paddle. It would turn so quickly and completely that I could get in a fast shoal and maneuver around rocks with ease, something a longer boat or canoe wouldn’t do. Gone was the grating sound of aluminum against rock.
The bottom of the Nucanoe was pliable enough to slide over the rocks, and tough enough to take the abuse. I thought, as I drifted along in that little craft, how easy it would be to cover the front half of it with a hood of chicken wire, weave in branches and boughs to create a blind, and sneak down the river completely hidden. In doing so, I could hunt ducks, turkeys, squirrels or deer, or just photograph the river and its wildlife close up.
The river didn’t have much water, but when we came to some deep holes, there were bass eager to take the buzz-bait off the surface. I caught and released several, and I thought to myself that there will be times when I only have a couple of hours to fish, that the little outdoorsman’s kayak would be so easy to load and take to a small pond, a short stretch of river or even a remote area of one of our Ozark lakes. It weighs only 50 pounds. Seats in it are adjustable, and most people who use kayaks paddle them from the center, as Rich did his.
It is obvious that the little Nucanoe I used the other day won’t do everything that grizzled old outdoorsmen like Rich and I want to do. I will still use my 19-foot Grumman canoe, and my 16-foot johnboat on the rivers often, especially when I am taking one or two fishermen. But what I have now is something that gives some additional dimensions. I will indeed be great for duck hunting.
But this fall I will hide it with camouflage and use it as a floating blind to take pictures from, and hunt from it as well, now that I know it is stable enough to never have to worry about capsizing.
In the next few weeks, as the weather stays warm and the fall colors spectacular, I will use it to catch a big bass or two when I want to slip down to my favorite spots on the river late in the evening with my sassafras paddle and a rod and reel.