Sportsmen have been using boats for transportation, hunting, fishing, and foraging for eons. Some cultures thrived as a direct result of their ability to join together scraps of wood so as to glide over wind and waves.
When fishermen of the past wanted to target fish they couldn’t reach from shore, what kinds of boats did they design? How did those designs influence the region and communities from which they were born? How did those boat designs change over the years until now? Where will the next classic design of fishing and hunting come from, or is it already here?
Here is a brief look at some of the most famed boat designs of anglers and hunters. Most of these designs were so important and so effective, that sportsmen are still using them today.
The Canoe of the North Woods
A red canoe paddles against a backdrop of birch trees and evergreens, drifting along a Northwoods coastline and disappears into rising mist. This scene is so ingrained in the minds of sportsmen that you can almost hear the loon calls and smell the moose hiding in the bushes.
The first groups of hunters and gatherers throughout North America fished, hunted, and traveled by canoes formed from hewn birch trees. There’s even a lake in Florida with over “100 dugout canoes preserved in the mud, and these date from 2,300 to 5,000 years old, all in one spot,” says Jeremy Ward, curator of The Canadian Canoe Museum. “A visual linkage to millennia of canoe culture. They cover North America from New England, up to Newfoundland, right across the continent into the Yukon region.”
The Canadian Canoe Museum has more than 600 canoes, and displays more than 100 to showcase the changing styles of canoe design created over eons. The earliest birchbark canoes were as sturdy and utilitarian as an aluminum jon boat. The anglers even used the designs in a similar way. “Dugout canoes are too cumbersome,” says Ward. “I think that’s why you would find these concentrations of dugout canoes in one spot. They’re so heavy that you would leave them at the shore. It would be like aluminum boats padlocked to a tree at the put in that you see today.”
As boats age, get damaged, or become obsolete, paddlers would often just leave the canoe by the shore, and make a new boat. “When you shifted Summer to Winter grounds, you might even swamp the boat underwater to get it out of the weather, which dries it out and cracks it,” says Ward. “Over time, the owners die, or they say ‘it’s not worth using that old boat, let’s make a new one.’”
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Like ditching your old boat for a faster ride, soon dugouts became obsolete. New birchbark canoes became the standard, as they were lighter, could be made more quickly, and most importantly, they were fast. Soon the Voyageurs, the workers of the fur trade paddling into the bush for weeks at a time, took up birchbark canoes because of their superior design. The Voyageurs and birchbark canoes later became synonymous with each other. The fur traders used these canoes for a reason: they worked.
“Even though they weighed so little you could carry, through displacement, quite a load on the water,” says Ward. “These oversized birchbark canoes of the fur trade were designed to carry up to 8,000 pound payload underneath the paddlers and food, and that’s in a 300-400 pound boat. That’s an incredible ratio.”
These fur traders not only helped the surrounding regions survive, then thrive, but the close quarters of a canoe even brought different cultures together. “That’s one of those wonderfully colorful cultural contact points,” Ward says. “In the fur trade you had a boat full of mixed-blood people, French Canadians, and Indigenous working crews paddling the boats, plus laborers contracted to go into the interior. There was a whole motley crew of different backgrounds mixed up in that canoe culture.”
The Changing Shape of a Canoe
As dugout canoes gave way to birchbark, other forms of construction and design kept appearing across the landscape. New canvas canoes were created with similar construction methods to the birchbark canoes, but then cedar strip canoes started to take over. Eventually, with the birth of modern manufacturing methods, synthetic materials like Royalex took over the market. These new materials made boats nearly indestructible, which is perfect for going into the bush to hunt moose, or find pristine brook trout ponds.
Even as the design of the canoe shifted with the aim of achieving utiliatian goals, canoe builders kept generations of culture, tradition, and aesthetic lines. “Canoes have to be effective,” says Ward, “you’re just talking about a tool, a hunting weapon. Nothing that humans make is simply functional. We always build into an aesthetic, and often it’s a cultural aesthetic.”
Classic lines still remain today, even with extensive experimentation. “Pointed at both ends and paddling facing forward, that sort of core formula is only a small part of every single canoe,” says Ward. Now new methods of construction are bringing about a small renaissance of canoe culture. Asymmetrical hulls, rocker design, stem shapes, and more are all in flux as designers work closely with paddlers to develop new forms. “While new methods are being blended, and combined to create new hulls and develop new paddling styles, you can still find vestiges of early Cutting Edge designs that still hold true today,” says Ward. “I find that pretty exciting.”
Fishing From a Canoe is an Aesthetic
I asked Ward why people should fish from a canoe today when there are plenty of other watercraft specifically designed to fish, often farther and faster. His answer was quick: “hundreds of reasons.” The most important reason though, was not how well the canoe performs in the Northwoods, but how it changes the hunter or angler pulling the paddle through the water. “You are more engaged with the landscape, at that pace, by being in a canoe,” says Ward. “You cannot help but feel a deeper sense of place no matter what you’re doing.”
Still, that slower place and connected feeling might even help you catch more fish. “Fishing, you’re taking all these cues from all around you, in the water, from the play of the river, wherever you are,” says Ward. “Being in a canoe, you’re just that much more connected to the world around you. In a motorboat, there’s a loss of that dialogue and all the input you’re getting from the world around you.”
If you want to feel that same connection to the natural world around you on your next day trip to the local lake or river, try it in the Wenonah Fisherman. This canoe is lightweight, as light as 36 pounds, and stable enough to lean into your hooksets. The boat is short, at only 14 feet, but can still accommodate two paddlers, and the rockered bottom means it can move around the river with agility. In the ultra-light Kevlar setup, the hull even glows in the sunlight like a birchbark canoe of the past.
The Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe of the Pacific
The best boats are fast boats, whether you’re paddling the boat yourself or letting a motor do the work for you. I’ve heard more than a few variations of the joke about the first boat race––it happened right after the second boat ever to exist was completed.
Hawaiian outrigger canoes were traditionally made from the trunks of Hawaiian koa trees, which gave the traditional canoes their name: koa canoes. These canoes were long and thin, with a whole team of paddlers propelling the craft through the water. It’s no wonder then that racing outrigger canoes is now a national sport in Hawaii, a sport that is also growing in popularity around the world.
Traditional koa canoes were used for traveling to and from different islands, all across the ocean, as well as fishing to sustain the entire family. Johnny Puakea comes from a long line of those families surviving on outrigger canoes. His father, Bobby Puakea, still builds the occasional koa canoe, and his grandfather built them. Puakea continues the tradition today designing high-end, all carbon racing outrigger canoe hulls.
Johnny Puakea, his father, and his father’s koa canoe were recently featured in the latest film, People of Water.
“Nowadays koa canoes are super nice, they’re 145 pounds, for the 44 footers,” says Puakea. “They’re trying to get them as thin as possible, but still thick enough to be strong.” Traditional koa canoes, made from the nearby koa trees, were much heavier––more than three times heavier––and not as fast or nimble. “They made them four inches thick, were super heavy, and they were short,” says Puakea. “They were dragging them up on the beach, back in those days, just drag them up onto the rocks.”
Because the traditional koas were so strong and sturdy, the hulls were stable enough for standing. “They weren’t super narrow or super streamlined for speed,” says Puakea. “They were wider, and the gunwales were actually lower back in the day. So they made them easy to get in and out of, easy to maneuver, and easy to manage.” That ease of entry made it possible for anglers to fish, dive––or maybe even combine the two in spearfishing.
Continuing the Traditions of the Past
Traditional koa canoes, the ones made from trees as in the past, are becoming rare. “There’s not a whole lot being built anymore,” says Puakea. His father Bobby still occasionally builds canoes, and then there’s the traditional koa regatta. In certain traditional racing associations, the only boat that is allowed in the event is a traditionally built outrigger canoe.
“You go down there and there’s 30 koa canoes racing against each other,” says Puakea. “They all meet specifications, but they’re all built at a different time, they all have a little bit of different shapes, they’ve all been carved at one point by hand, and it’s tradition. They’re perpetuating the tradition.”
Racing outrigger canoes, especially in Hawaii, is gaining in popularity. Even though the all carbon boats make up most of the boats on the water, Puakea believes the traditional koa canoes still have a role to play. “Koa canoes are more important now,” he says. “If you’re racing in a club, with a 145 pound carbon fiber canoe, I feel like you should really understand where this all came from. The heritage, what the koa canoes are like and what they were used for in the past, I feel like they have a really good purpose right now in our sport.”
A Fast, Nimble, and Stable Ocean-Fishing Machine
Now outrigger canoes are thin, light, and fast. The near-total goal is speed. Most don’t ever touch the sand. Puakea currently designs hulls for Outrigger Zone, and recently completed a new one-man outrigger design. The new boat, the Kahele is 19′ 3″ and only weighs 17 pounds. The Hawaiian name means “to move.”
Fishing in a watercraft that fast means you can get farther to the fish, while still participating in a tradition from distant ancestors of watermen. “The way you sit in an outrigger is pretty comfortable, and because you have the secondary stability of the ama [the outrigger], you’re not pushing this wide waterline around, you’ve got a streamlined vessel. Comfort, speed, and it’s cool.”
These boats catch serious fish. Puakea’s girlfriend, Jen Fratzke, caught a 75-80 pound giant trevally from an outrigger canoe just last year. “There’s a lot of fishing happening off of them now, especially in Hawaii,” says Puakea. “They’re getting Ono and Mahi, all kinds of stuff.”
These storied watercraft don’t just bring in the big fish and slice through big waves, their entire tradition itself is worth experiencing. “I feel like you gain the knowledge of where the koa canoe comes from, and you gain respect that way,” says Puakea. “You understand, ‘Wow, this is what the ancestors did, this is what people did back in the day, and we’re kind of part of this now.’ I think that connection is really important.”
Puakea continued, “The old timers that build these canoes, the feeling that’s in the boats when they’re built––they believe it’s alive––I really think that really needs to be passed on to everyone.”
The History of the Adirondack Guide Boat
Once, in an airport coming back from a fishing trip deep in the Adirondacks, an older couple asked if I’d heard of Adirondack guide boats. They were foreign to me and the couple was shocked. After a half-hour debrief on the subject, I went home and did my own research, finding a rich history formed around the craft.
Similar to other rowboats in form and function, with a style all its own, the Adirondack guide boat grew from a small region from specific needs of mountain guides. They needed to pack in camping gear, fishing gear, and provisions, for themselves and their clients, and carry it all deep into the bush. Their watercraft of choice had to be light.
The Adirondack guide boat was lighter and easier to carry than a canoe, and so balanced that guides could carry them down the trail with ease. That doesn’t mean they bragged about it. An old rumor says that when clients offered to help carry gear, guides would hand over the rest of the equipment and play the martyr while carrying the boat, even though they caught the better end of the deal.
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A Working-Man’s Boat With an Artistic Look
Adirondack guide boats are beautiful. Their strip construction, twisting small strips of wood along the entire length of the hull around a model, makes them fit to hang as an art piece on the wall of a hunting lodge. They’re also purpose-built to work hard and withstand the punishment of weeks in the woods. Their shape allows serious carrying capacity and stability, without sacrificing any speed while rowing, creating the ideal balance for the numerous ponds, lakes, and rivers of the Adirondacks.
Justin Martin is co-owner of Adirondack Guide Boats, a company that still builds these boats today, with modern techniques. Their boats look the same as traditional guide boats, except they finish the hulls with a layer of fiberglass to seal out water and add durability. “There are a couple builders left in the Adirondacks who do it traditionally, but it’s definitely nicer to have the fiberglass on the outside,” says Martin. The fiberglass not only seals the boat, but also adds strength, requiring less internal ribs. “Traditional guide boats would leak and in the winter time they would shrink so you could see right through some of them, until you put them back in the lake to swell back up.”
Either way, these rowing crafts were designed to function. “To go from point A to point B as efficiently as you can in a guide boat sets it aside from any other boat,” says Martin. “You don’t exert a lot of effort, and even if there’s a crosswind the boat’s going to track straight.”
People from all over the country would spend weeks in the Adirondacks with their guides, traveling, fishing, and hunting from Adirondack guide boats. The boats work in all kinds of weather and conditions, with the design barely changing throughout the decades. “Guide boats had a purpose and they essentially worked exactly the way they were was supposed to––it’s a timeless design,” says Martin.
The design is so timeless that people are still traveling to the Adirondacks to see these boats, and maybe fish from them. “The name of the Adirondack guide boat travels,” says Martin, “in memories of people with families over here, or had camps, or who grew up in the Adirondacks. I set the whole region apart, as far as small boats were concerned.”
A Classic Design with Modern Materials
Justin Martin, along with his brother and fellow Adirondack Guide Boats owner Ian Martin, currently offer a 15ft guide boat. It’s available in two versions, cedar and kevlar. The designs “hold about 550 pounds and weigh about 70 pounds––that’s true for both cedar and kevlar versions,” says Justin Martin. “We still make them as aesthetically nice as possible, but the kevlar boat is so user friendly you can run it up on shore. We even put kevlar skid plates on the ends for more durability.”
Martin has designed and built other boats, but the guide boats still have a hold on him today. “This kind of inherits beauty and functionality, so it’s very rewarding to build one of these boats,” says Martin. He says the same feeling can be felt rowing one of the boats. “ Someone that’s used to an old rowboat––maybe that they used as a kid that was really heavy––they get in one of our boats and pull the oars for the first couple times and you can see in their face. Like, ‘Wow this is a lot different than what I was expecting.’ It’s just a great, great boat.”
The McKenzie Drift Boat of the West
What started as a simple vessel of transportation soon transformed into a river fishing icon. McKenzie-style drift boats, also called dories, have barely changed their shape since they first started running rapids to reach fish in pockets of water and seams along the river. The hull’s design just works.
As companies created their own drift boat designs specific to fishing, the most important update was a pair of casting braces in the front and back of the boat to assist with casting. “Obviously if you’re moving in big, fast water, you want something to stabilize yourself so you can stand up and effectively fish,” says Shaun Hargrave of Boulder Boat Works. The oarsman’s position, in the center of the boat, has also remained the same on the dory’s profile.
Hargrave says the major evolutions of drift boat design have focused on the materials. The first dories were made of wood. “The limitations of wood as a material is that they’re going to bash against rocks, break down, and result in having to be on a pretty aggressive maintenance cycle,” says Hargrave. Then came metal dories, which were heavy, but that wasn’t even the biggest problem. “When you hit a rock, metal is indestructible, but it’s loud,” he says. “That’s obviously not ideal when you’re trying to sneak up, or fish a specific line in the river, and then you hit a rock and your shots are blown.” Fiberglass was the solution, but even that had its limitations. Then came Andy Toohey, founder of Boulder Boat Works.
A Modern Design Almost as Sexy as Wood
“In the late 90s, Andy Toohey, was only rowing wood boats, because the feel of a wooden boat is sexy,” says Hargrav, “and aesthetically it’s sexy––it looks good, it’s timeless.” Toohey dedicated himself to find a material that rowed like wood, with the lasting durability of hard plastic kayaks he saw bouncing over rocks in the rivers he rowed. “We married wood––all our gunwales and interior configurations are white ash––and a polymer.” That polymer also cut the weight of the craft way down. “We cut out over 200 pounds on the boat,” says Hargrave. “Our boats generally come into to that 350 pound-375 pound range, whereas fiberglass is a 550 pound boat. Considering that these boats are being powered by somebody’s arms, shoulders, and back, 200 pounds makes a significant difference.”
Now when these drift boats, with the right blend of wood and a special polymer, encountered a rock they slipped right over––silently. “It doesn’t make any noise,” says Hargrave. “It’s a really slippery bottom, so you can slide into much skinnier water that generally people could only go with rafts, but now you get to go there in a McKenzie dory. You can have a lightweight, low-draft boat that you can take pretty much anywhere, but still have the fishability of a hard boat.”
A Blend of Vintage Style and Modern Technology
The Pro Guide drift boat from Boulder Boat Works is exactly that, a design that blends old school wisdom and new technology to make anglers––and rowers––more effective on the water. An advanced polymer hull is combined with wooden trim accents to make the drift boat a work of art on the water.
“We find that as we continue to make a lighter weight boat, that’s safer to fish out of, it’s so much more approachable,” says Hargrave. Boulder Boat Works prides themselves on making boats that grow with anglers, from beginners all the way to hardened pro guides. “Our boat makes rowing a little more approachable and less intimidating for the everyday angler,” he says, “to not only learn on it safely, but also as they progress as an oarsman. It’s going to be that high performance boat 10 or 15 years down the line when you’re still rowing that same boat that you learned on.”
Rivers out West may be perfect for wading, but Hargrave sees a drift boat as the key to unlocking more water. “You’re getting hundreds of opportunities a day to fish pockets of water, floating down nine miles of river, that you just couldn’t cover wade angling,” he says. “It allows you to cover more water, and get more shots at fish.”
The Greenland Sea Kayak as a Hunting Tool
“A half human, half boat killing machine designed to get out, harvest, and return in big open water.”
That’s how Jeremy Ward of The Canadian Canoe Museum describes the numerous examples of traditional skin-on-frame sea kayaks on display at the museum. Even though Inuit boat builders all across the North had to improvise for boat materials, they still produced a purpose-built craft, the descendants of which we still paddle today.
Traditional sea kayaks have been called by many names, including “qajaq” and “ikiaks” depending on the region. The Greenland-style sea kayak has continued to be a tradition around the world, both in kayak design, but also the sport itself. Greenland paddling and rolling events are still held all around the world.
“The maritime culture of the Inuits, from Greenland to Alaska have real profound differences in the hull designs, but they’re all hunting weapons,” says Ward. Some hulls were designed with flat bottomed and flared sides, while others were designed for speed, with multi-chined hulls and round bottoms. Some had advanced hull designs that used principles we later discovered in cruise ship designs. “In cruise ships today,” says Ward, “when you have a bifurcated bow at the waterline, that improves the efficiency of the hull. The Elysian kayaks have a similar function in their design.”
A Sea Kayak Shaped by Hunting Traditions
Inuit kayak hunters had to be committed to the hunt––at all times. If they didn’t have all the necessary skills every time they paddled out into the ocean after their target species, they may not ever see shore again. One of those skills was rolling the kayak. Children weren’t even allowed to paddle kayaks until they could roll in any situation.
“There’s a thing called a tulek,” says Mike Looman, of Current Designs Kayaks. “It’s a seal skin that you would wear––you would actually sew yourself into the boat.” The tulek acted as both a spray skirt to keep the water out, and a defense against the cold. “In the cold Arctic waters of the North, where they came from, that’s how you stayed warm, but there was no chance of coming out of those boats,” says Looman. The air trapped inside the kayak also added buoyancy. “If you flipped over, you had to come back up.”
Inuit hunters needed to be stealthy, so they designed their kayaks out of skin and bone with long, narrow lines. “The traditional boats had a really, really low back deck and that was there for stealthiness,” says Looman. “Less affected by the wind, and much smaller profiles. They’re longer, sleeker, more efficient through the water.”
Even the traditional paddlers were carefully designed for low-impact long distance paddling, with a strong paddle stroke when you need to roll up with a walrus on the end of your spear line. “Greenland paddles were traditionally wooden paddles that were long and skinny,” says Looman. “There’s been a push to go back to them, because of the efficiency, friendliness to the body, and because they’re so easy to move through the water.”
Join the Cult of Greenland Sea Kayaking
Modern paddlers don’t typically want to be sewn into their boat, with little room for their legs and feet to move around in any way. The goal is to feel connected to your kayak, without being trapped inside it.
So why paddle a Greenland-style sea kayak now? “There’s still a cult following of the heritage of where kayaking came from, and there are still manufacturers, especially out of Europe, that are making very traditional-style boats,” says Looman. “Modern designs are a little bit more paddler friendly, which allows folks to still get into the boats, still work on some of those traditional skills, and the culture of kayaking, without it being the only thing that you’re going to do.”
One of the things you can do is fish. “[You] can fish farther distances from the dock,” Looman says, “they can cover more water, they can open up the horizon. Current Designs offers a few kayaks with traditional lines, but more modern tweaks to keep anglers and paddlers happy. Looman’s first choice for anglers is the Sisu. “The boat is nice and maneuverable, and the cockpit is a little bit larger,” says Looman. The design is a Danish-style hull, which “are designed to have a little more freedom and flexibility in the lower body, without inhibiting comfort,” says Looman.
Imagine fishing all day, and then playing around in the shifting tidal waves around rocks, or even surfing back into the launch. The one catch is you can’t bring all of the fishing gear you own. Worth it? Yes. The distance and ease of paddling is worth the sacrifice.
“People get hung up on, ‘Dude, I can fit seven rods on here, look at all the gear storage,’ but I don’t need all of that to go fishing,” says Looman. “If I can get to the other side of a lake efficiently, in a fun way, and fish completely different water than what a buddy is fishing, then why not.”
Are Standup Paddleboards the Next Classic Craft?
Fishing from a standup paddleboard (SUP) is still new, but the popularity is spreading. Some anglers that have tried kayak fishing are making the switch to a lightweight SUP. Rather than dragging a one-hundred pound boat, loaded down with gear, all the way to the water, a standup paddleboard is light enough to carry under your arm.
“There’s these huge weight savings and portability advantages over a kayak,” says Caranto. “Especially with inflatables, they even take up less space, we see a bigger opportunity in fishing, and room for it to grow and a lot of innovations that can still be brought to it.”
Caranto says the average paddleboard weighs around thirty pounds, but inflatables are even lighter than that. Imagine having a watercraft stored in the trunk of your car, at all times, always ready to go catch a few fish. “It’s like emergency fishing equipment,” says Caranto. The weight savings also means a shallower draft. Some boards can float in as little as two inches of water.
For surfers like Caranto, the biggest advantage is killing time between swells. “When you’re waiting between sets and you get bored, you can go paddle up the beach, look around and check things out,” says Caranto.
A Perfect Fishing Craft for Minimalists
Personally, I love fishing from standup paddleboards when I’m fly fishing. Nothing sticks out to tangle my fly line mid-cast, and nothing to worry about except the cruising school right in front of me. With the right gear additions, you can make a fishing SUP as overbuilt as a fishing kayak, but why spoil the minimalist fun?
It’s also handy for spotting those fish in the first place. “Your able to have a better vantage point, with something stable to stand on,” says Caranto. “Some kayaks and boats weren’t really designed to be stable when you stand up, but you know, they’re called standup paddleboards, right?” The Pau Hana Surf Supply Big EZ Ricochet is made from a special material designed to bounce off rocks and withstand any abuse fishermen can throw at it. It’s nearly indestructible, and perfect for giving SUP fishing a try for the first time.
Some anglers may get nervous about not bringing enough gear, but think of it as a benefit––less to worry about. “It’s a lot easier to manage, and a lot less effort, to get it into the water,” says Caranto. “There’s a lot less variables between you and the fish, and all that other equipment you have to drag in.”