ON THE BIGHORN RIVER — With a steaming mug of java clutched between numb fingers and his 12-gauge shotgun propped across from him, Bob Adler was all set.
"OK, I've got a cup of coffee. Time for the birds to come in," he said.
"Nope, you've got to have a hot plate of food," said his friend, Dave Wise, whose camouflage-clad body was wedged into the boat bench seat alongside Adler.
The consensus was that any type of distraction, such as a bathroom break or re-arranging the decoys, would bring geese winging in to the unprepared hunters. But in truth it seemed the geese were more of a bonus than a requirement to the whole outing. A jet boat trip down the Bighorn, paper plates piled high with a hot breakfast and friendly banter were what counted.
The friends, along with fellow hunter Tim Haffey and Wise's black Labrador retriever, were sheltered last Wednesday within the disguised confines of Wise's homemade jet boat specifically designed for waterfowl hunting. At first light they had motored downstream past logjams, shallows and even over a diversion dam, spooking hundreds of geese and ducks off the water ahead of them as they sought a spot to set up for the hunt.
Once a site was chosen, the geese decoys were scattered across a stinking, boot-sucking mudflat, and extra camouflage was added to the boat. Then the hunters settled in to wait ... and wait ... and wait. A few geese flew to surrounding fields, but none turned toward the hunters despite Wise's enticing honks on a goose call. Plenty of ducks winged within shooting distance, but the duck season was closed. Haffey broke up the tedium with the first hot pot of coffee.
"I got a little panicked there for a minute," Haffey said as he filled cups. "I didn't see the coffee at first and thought we were going to have to go back."
Wise, a welder by trade, has repaired so many jet boats that have been plowed onto gravel bars or run atop snags and boulders that he developed a keen insight into how the river-running crafts are built.
Two years ago on New Year's Eve in his shop, he began building from scratch an aluminum boat for waterfowl hunting. He built the dual-axle trailer first, in about half a day, using it as a jig atop which to form the boat.
Wise has long been a lover of all things motorized as well as hunting and fishing. He remembers when he was 6 or 7 years old traveling with his father, John, to trap game along the Yellowstone River.
"Water is my thing," he said.
Friends and family pitched in to help build the boat. Wise said the work was great therapy after his father, who was an inspiration for the craft, passed away.
"He died the day we started building the hull," Wise said.
John was 78 and suffered a brain aneurysm. Wise found him on the shop floor in the morning, ready to go to work.
"He was into hunting and fishing," Wise said. "That's what got me into all of this stuff. So I vowed to get it done just for him."
Warmer way to hunt
His father would be impressed. The vessel has a shallow 10-degree V in the hull. The boat measures 78 inches at the beam and 21.5 feet long. With its 60-gallon fuel tank full, Wise estimated the boat weighs around 2,100 pounds -- not including the five people and two water dogs it can haul.
That weight seems minimal considering all the amenities that Wise built in. Plywood bench seats run down each side of the boat. The seat lids lift for storage of decoys and other gear. In the back is a four-burner stove with oven along with more covered storage. Way back, the rear deck holds two propane tanks -- one dedicated to the stove and the other to a pipe that funnels gas to four fuel cocks to which heaters can be attached for a maximum of 120,000 BTUs.
The inspiration behind the craft was that there had to be a better way to hunt waterfowl -- a warmer way during a cold season that extends into January, he said.
"The nice thing about a boat like this is you can sit in your T-shirt and hunt all you want," Wise said.
Over the benches on each side, a half roof arches up. To starboard, the roof is lower, allowing the shooters to stand and shoot over the top. The entire structure is lined with ¾-inch foam padding for insulation and sound deadening. Around the outside, woven grass mats and sticks of willow make the entire hulking structure look like a floating haystack.
"We get a lot of double takes driving down the road," said friend Troy Sharp.
Spotlights allow travel in the dark, and inside dome lights help the hunters to locate decoys and other gear before first light.
Powering the boat is a 454 Chevy motor that generates about 500 horsepower as it turns a Hamilton 212 jet that can push the craft up to 50 mph. A stick steering wheel makes the big boat more responsive.
"It's the true meaning of a redneck boat," Wise said. "But it is very functional."
Wise also has used the boat to hunt coyotes, turkeys and raccoons. He has fished out of it and camped in it and even used it to recover other boats that have had accidents on the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers.
"The great thing about that blind boat is it gives us access to places to hunt that we couldn't otherwise hunt," Wise said.
In Montana, the public has access to all streams and banks up to the high water mark. After setting decoys on a sand bar or mud bank, Wise ties up against a high bank or snag in slow water and adds additional local vegetation for camouflage.
"This boat works well in that you're able to place yourself where the waterfowl don't expect you," Wise said. "And it gives you the capability to blend in with your surroundings."
It took two months of work and a "million miles" of welds before the haystack boat was born. Wise values it at about $80,000.
Despite all of the work that went into the boat, Wise is quick to credit his friend Haffey for making the hunting outings so enjoyable.
"Tim's breakfasts are the highlight of the trip," Wise said.
It's easy to see why he pays Haffey such a compliment. In the back of the boat, Haffey fried a pound of bacon, heaps of hash browns with melted cheese on top and a dozen fried eggs. There's something about a hot breakfast on a cool day on the river that makes the experience even more extravagant.
Haffey also perked three pots of coffee throughout the day. His attempt to make pancakes topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries failed when the first cake stuck to the pan.
Oh well, everyone was too stuffed to eat more anyway. Just to prove how good they would have been, though, he made one in a tiny nonstick pan for Wise. Adler joked that the pan was from Haffey's Suzy Homemaker Oven.
With the smell of bacon lingering, Haffey stored the greasy frying pans along with various utensils in a plastic container out of the way. Rubbing his hands together in anticipation and then adjusting the position of his camouflaged 12-gauge shotgun that sat propped across from him, Haffey was ready to concentrate on hunting.
"All right, now let's shoot some geese," he said.