My daughter Anna and I were floating in inner tubes in the pool the other day when the conversation turned to "belly boats."
You don't hear much about belly boats anymore. I think you can still get them but they're not as prevalent as they once were. They've been overtaken by the kayak craze.
A belly boat is essentially an inner tube with a cloth covering over it. The cloth includes a “saddle” with 2 leg holes. You sit inside the inner tube and you can fish, float a pond or river, etc. The belly boat usually has a pocket or 2 in the upper part of the cloth covering to store gear.
Back in the early to mid-1990s, some friends and I were absolutely eat up with teal hunting. Teal are among the smallest of the ducks and they’re the earliest migrators. While the season for most ducks runs November through January, the “special teal season” runs for a couple weeks in early September. If you enjoy hunting and you ever get into a mess of teal, you will be absolutely hooked.
They’re small ducks. They bunch together tightly and they’re highly acrobatic when they buzz into the decoys, twisting and turning. I once watched a bald eagle chase a teal. The eagle had no chance.
Acrobatically, they are the jet fighters of the duck world and they're a ton of fun to hunt.
My brother Mitch and I once fired 3 shots apiece into a tightly packed flock of teal and knocked down 10. They were bunched that close.
The little birds love shallow water and weeds.
In the early to mid-1990s – at the height of our teal hunting adventures – the lake had gone through a cycle where there was almost no vegetation. We needed weeds to hunt teal and we found the weeds growing on the south pond at Murphy Hill, the large TVA site north of Lake Guntersville State Park near the Five Points community.
Years and years ago, TVA acquired the property for a proposed coal gasification plant that was never built. But the agency did some work on it, including building 2 cooling ponds. There’s a south pond and a north pond and as young hunters, we killed teal on both of them.
The problem for us was this. The ponds are deep. You can’t access them with just chest waders. So I bought a belly boat.
Belly boats, like bass boats, kayaks or any other water craft, come in grades. You can get very basic models or top of the line luxury models. Ours was a base model. I think I paid $80 for it.
Being a base model, It didn’t exactly ride as high as we would have liked. I was the big guy in the group so even though I was the owner, I rarely used it. We’d recruit the lightest, youngest guy in the party to paddle the belly boat out and pick up the ducks and decoys.
On one memorable morning at Murphy Hill, our hunting party included Andy Beasley, his then soon-to-be brother-in-law Brandon Kelley, my brother Mitch and myself. Brandon Kelley is a strapping lad nowadays, but he was just a skinny kid then. He was our designated belly boat man.
We’d throw the decoys as far as we could, always using weighed keels so they’d right themselves. Then if we shot teal, we’d pick up decoys and teal at the end of the hunt, minimizing the trips required out into the water in the belly boats.
Remember that teal hunting takes place in early September. It’s still essentially summer. If you go, be prepared to fight mosquitoes and to keep an eye out for snakes. Turtles are out too and that led to an interesting morning on the particular hunt I have in mind.
The teal came in pretty early and we knocked down several, maybe 6 or 7. But it was early and we planned to hunt some more.
“Do we need to pick up those teal?” someone asked.
“Naw,” came the reply. “Leave them until we get through. It’ll look like we have more decoys.”
So the teal stayed on the pond, floating in the milfoil.
We might have even had another volley of shooting after that. It has been many years and that particular detail fails me.
We sat in a row along the dike of the south pond like blackbirds on a wire, eyes trained to the skies and water in front of us.
It had been an hour or so since we’d shot the teal when someone spoke up.
“Hey, I just saw one of those teal bob,” he said.
“Yeah, I saw it too,” someone else said.
Everyone was looking after that and we saw more teal bobbing. What in the Sam Hill was going on?
“You better go pick those teal up,” someone suggested.
Brandon suited up, got the belly boat and picked up our teal. A couple of them had divots out of their heads when he retrieved them. One had slipped under the surface completely, never to be seen again. The only thing we could figure was that the pond was full of snapping turtles and they’d tried to get our teal and succeeded in snagging one of them. The brains had been eaten out of the others.
As Anna and I floated in the pool, I told her the story of the snapping turtles and the teal. She laughed and she remembered the belly boat because she played with it in the pool a bit as a small child. She's 20 now and the belly boat has long since bit the dust.
I had one other really interesting adventure at Murphy Hill teal hunting. I went in by john boat and hunted a slough directly behind the pond. My buddies had abandoned teal hunting by then and I was keeping the flame alive by myself. I knocked down one or 2 teal that morning. The slough was not as good as the ponds. By then, weeds were everywhere in the lake once again and that made pinpointing spots a little harder.
The real trophy of this particular morning was an enormous beaver. They’re destructive things, cutting trees, damming creeks and all that. I had never shot one. I remedied that when this one came paddling through the decoys. He rolled over, laid on the surface for a moment and I was like, ‘Yeah, I got him.”
Then he dove and didn’t come back up.
‘Aw, man, I can’t believe I didn’t hit him hard enough to get him,’ I thought.
I guess I hunted another 2 hours or so. As I was picking up decoys, the enormous beaver popped to the surface, dead as fried chicken. He must have gone down and grabbed a plant or root or something as old timers say critters will do.
I had no scales and it was before the day of cameras on cell phones. But he was a big beaver. I guessed him at 60 pounds.
It’s the only beaver I’ve ever shot and I considered him a trophy.
If you can stand the heat, bugs and the snakes, the “special” early waterfowl seasons really are special. We used to goose hunt a lot back in September and October too. Those are stories for another time, but it was great fun as well.
The special goose season runs Sept. 1-30 with a limit of 5 Canada geese per day. The special teal season runs Sept. 14-29 with a limit of 6 a day.
I haven’t done any of the special early seasons in years, but that might change this year. I was bass fishing the other day and 150 to 200 geese flew right over the boat. It struck me that it would be pretty easy to put the gun in the front of the boat. If geese come over, put down your fishing rod, pick up your gun and have at them. It sure would be a lot easier than those old hunts we did as young men.