PIROGUES:
TIME-TESTED CRAFT FOR HUNTERS AND FISHERMEN
 

The pirogue's ability to maneuver in shallow, narrow waterways while carrying a considerable load makes it the perfect cram for waterfowlers hunting marshes and swamps for small-water anglers.


"IT LOOKS AS UNUSUAL AS ITS NAME, THIS pointy-ended, flat-bottomed, low-gunwale cousin of the canoe. But for hunters and Fishermen in the South, the strange craft called a pirogue can be the magic carpet that transports them to prime hunting and fishing sites.

The pirogue's ability to negotiate shallow, narrow waterways, coupled with the boat's light weight, load-carrying capacity, and ease of handling, makes it perfect for many outdoor situations an increasing numbers of outdoorsmen--waterfowlers and pond anglers in particular--are discovering just how useful these muscle-powered boats, used for centuries in the backwaters of southern Louisiana, can be.

Pirogue is a mutation of pirogua, the Carib Indian word for a dugout canoe. Today's pirogues trace their own origins back to those ancient dugouts fashioned from individual tree trunks. The pirogue--pronounced "PEE row" or "PIER ogg"--developed in the swamps and marshes of southern Louisiana, where resident Creoles and Cajuns improved on the Indian's dugout, first using lumber, then fiberglass.


Though a few Louisiana craftsmen continue to build wooden pirogues, almost all modern versions are made of fiberglass.

"The design is classic. We just use modern technology to build them," says Ron Chapman, a shipwright from Chalmette, and one of several independent Louisiana-based boat builders who produce versions of the craft.

Chapman has been building fiberglass pirogues for seventeen years, using the old wooden versions as his inspiration. His pirogues, made of hand-laid fiberglass with cypress handrails atop the gunwales, are based on measurements and designs of the old wooden boats he found around duck camps and trapper cabins in south Louisiana.

That design is key to the pirogue's usefulness, Chapman says. A classic pirogue is 12 to 16 feet long, pointed at both ends, has a concave flat bottom with a slight rocker fore and aft, flared sides (beam wider than chine by as much as 10 inches), and low


sides The boats also are asymmetric: the fore half is a bit wider than the aft, looking something like an elongated teardrop.

The pirogue's flat bottom means it draws little water, while the asymmetric shape, concave bottom design, and rocker fore and aft accentuate that characteristic by building a "bubble" of water beneath the moving boat, Chapman says. There's an old Cajun saying that goes, "A pirogue can float on a heavy dew," and that's not far from the truth Propelled by a paddle or pushpole, a prorogue can sip over water too shallow for a traditional canoe And because the boat has no keel, it can slide over logs and other obstacles that would cause a keeled, round-bottomed canoe to roll. Pirogues are amazingly stable for their size.

The pirogue's ability to traverse shallow water and narrow passages has made it a standard piece of equipment for Louisiana waterfowlers. Even when the boat is stuffed with decoys, guns, and other equipment, a pirogue can be paddled or poled to prime ponds isolated by expanses of marsh or swamp, inches-deep water, and narrow channels that would stymie other watercraft.

Though waterfowlers always have been the largest market for pirogues, increasing numbers of anglers are discovering the boat's usefulness on ponds, sloughs, bayous, and other protected waters.

"More and more bass fishermen are going to them," Chapman says "They're finding they can lust throw a pirogue on the car or in the truck and head for the water."

A pirogue's light weight (a 14-foot one-man model weighs as little as 39 pounds and a two-man model only 15 pounds more) means they're a snap to handle and can easily be dragged to water not accessible by vehicle. That gives anglers a shot at using a boat to fish places otherwise off-limits, because of restricted bank access.

Those anglers discovering the advantages of the pirogue are simply the latest converts to this time tested craft. --SHANNON TOMPKINS

AVAILABILITY AND PRICE

Pirogues are endemic to Louisiana. The unique boats are as common as alligators in the Bayou State, but seldom found beyond its borders. Outside of Louisiana, you'll find pirogues for sale only at a few boat dealers in southeast Texas or southern Mississippi.

"They're just not known outside this state," says Ron Chapman, a Chalmette shipwright, and one of a handful of commercial pirogue builders in Louisiana.

Like Chapman, most of Louisiana's commercial pirogue builders sell their boats wholesale to marine dealers who then offer them on the retell market. Prospective pirogue paddlers living outside Louisiana should contact a local marine dealer and ask that he contact a Louisiana dealer or broker for information.

Almost all pirogues offered for sale are made of fiberglass, either chopped or hand- laid. But a few craftsmen continue to build wooden pirogues, often using cypress harvested from Louisiana swamps.

The cost of fiberglass pirogues ranges from around $200 for a 14-foot one-man model to as much as $400 for a 16-footer that will easily hold two large men and their waterfowling gear. Wooden pirogues are more expensive, starting at around $400 for a one-man model.

For information on fiberglass pirogues, contact Ron Chapman, Shipwright, Dept. FS, 324 E. Solidelle St., Chalmette, La. 70043, telephone (504)277-6526.

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