About a half century ago, some of today’s most popular duck boat manufacturers began building aluminum, utility-style boats in Arkansas.

The boat design was a hit with hunters because it allowed them to weave between trees and through swamps. And over the decades, those manufacturers that launched the duck boats have stayed and grown in Arkansas.

“Arkansas has always been a little bit heavy in the aluminum boat business because this is where a lot of it really got started in the country,” said Mike Ward, president of Team Ward Inc., which does business as War Eagle Boats in Monticello. Team Ward also manufactures DuraCraft Boats in Monticello.

Along with War Eagle, other major duck boat manufacturers that call Arkansas home are Xpress Boats of Hot Springs and SeaArk Boats of Monticello. Other Arkansas-based producers include Weldbilt Commercial Boats of Benton and Southfork Custom Boat Manufacturing Inc. of Lonsdale, though that is far from an extensive list.

Big or small, the boat makers have good reason for putting down roots in the state.

What also has kept the duck boat manufacturers tied to Arkansas is that many hunters consider the Natural State to have the best duck hunting across the globe.

“I talk to retail customers from all over, and every time you start talking about duck hunting, they just light up,” said Steve Henderson, vice president of sales for SeaArk Boats. “They want to come to Arkansas, or they come to Arkansas to hunt every year. We’re kind of the duck capital of the world.”

Although duck manufacturers hit choppy waters during the Great Recession, the industry is reporting that orders for boats are piling up and it needs workers.

“We have seen a consistent growth in the waterfowl industry,” said Rory Herndon, vice president of Xpress Boats. “The industry has done a great job recruiting new hunters into the sport, which in turn we see the market continue to grow.”

What Hunters Want
In addition to the shotgun, decoys and duck calls, the duck boat is a vital piece of equipment to a hunter.

“Without a boat in Arkansas, you can’t hardly go duck hunting,” said Anthony Cassinelli, 31, of McCrory, who has been hunting since he was 4 or 5 years old.

The main difference between a duck boat and a fishing boat is a “duck boat has got to get a lot of different places that a bass boat doesn’t have to,” said Herndon of Xpress Boats. “A duck boat has to have the speed and agility and [be] lightweight.”

A bass boat, on the other hand, spends most of its time on the open water.

But the duck boat also has to be tough.

The hunter is “going down through a rugged environment that either may be in a canal, or through some cypress trees or green timber,” said War Eagle’s Ward. “So he’s going to need something a little tougher” than a fishing boat.

A duck boat can range in cost from $5,000 to $40,000 depending on features. The popular designs are about 16-21 feet long and have a V-shape on the bow, so if the boat scrapes a tree, it will dodge the blow and keep going.

“My preference is 16-feet long, 48-inches wide, with a semi V or modified V [bow] with a 25 horse-powered outboard motor,” said Clark McCarley, president of McCarley Home Improvements of Little Rock. “I’ve got three sons and a dog and myself and gear. And that’s perfect.”

McCarley, 38, started hunting when he was 5 and averages about 50 hunting days a year and uses a Weldbilt boat.

If a hunter hits a wave or choppy waters, the V-bow design will deflect the water and help keep the water out of the boat, Ward said.

“If you’re parting through some tall grass or cattail or duck weed or buck brush, then that’s easier to split and go through,” he said.

Eddie Carter, 54, of DeWitt, has a 16-foot, 48-inch War Eagle.

“I like that size because it’s stable,” said Carter, 54. “And we’re going in and out of trees, so it’s not so big that you can’t get through the timber in.”

A good, aluminum duck boat should last for years, if not a lifetime, said Henderson of SeaArk, which manufactures about 1,200 boats a year.

“As long as you don’t totally destroy it, they’ll last forever,” Henderson said. “There’s still a ton of boats out there built back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

During the Great Recession, War Eagle had to deal with people keeping their wallets closed tight.

“We tell our customers that the ducks and the fish, they’re going to do the same thing they did the year before,” Ward said. “And so you can stay at home and mope around and look for all the things to go wrong, or you can get out there and enjoy the outdoors and hunt and fish.”

Ward declined to say how many boats are manufactured a year, although, the company employs between 100 and 120 people.

Still, because of the sluggish economy, boat dealers didn’t stock many boats during the recession, said SeaArk’s Henderson.

But that seems to have ended a few years ago.

Now sales are on the rise, and some dealers don’t have the supply to meet demand.

“Well sales have been real good,” Henderson said. “All the aluminum manufacturers are having trouble gearing up and getting boats to them on time.”

He said if a customer orders a boat from SeaArk in July, it won’t be ready until the end of September, “and that’s right on the cusp of duck hunting season.”

With 65 employees, SeaArk is looking for more workers, from welders to supervisors. During the recession, the company didn’t have any layoffs, but when employees left, their positions weren’t filled.

Henderson declined to say what the sales numbers were, but 2007 was its best year.

“We’re finally getting back to that number,” he said.

Xpress does not release sales figures but Herndon said the company has seen a steady climb in sales over the years. The company, which has 180 employees, manufacturers its boats in Hot Springs and produces about 3,000 boats annually, with about 300 to 500 being duck boats, he said.

Next Wave
The outlook for the industry is bright.

The duck hunter is going to hunt regardless of the economy. And there seems to be a wave of young people coming into the market, which will require them to have their own boats, Ward said.

Not to mention, as hunters get older, they upgrade their duck boats.

“There are definitely new customers out there every day,” Ward said.

(Also see: Duck Boat Innovations Rooted In Natural State)