by Harlen Leslie
The Gulf Coast has a long history of artisanal boatbuilding that stretches back to when it was first settled. Marrying Native American designs with European influences and tools birthed entire classes of boats uniquely suited to regional waterways all along the coast. With the arrival of fiberglass and the consolidation of boatbuilding into large corporate enterprises, many traditions and generational knowledge were on the verge of being lost. However, there is a recent resurgence of artisanal builders with legacies and techniques being rediscovered that result in gorgeous, fully functional nearshore and inshore boats ideal for these coastlines.
In southern Louisiana, French colonists quickly learned that their deep-hulled European vessels were not navigable in the naturally shallow bayous, so they adopted the designs of the Indians’ flat-bottomed, 16-foot boats that were carved and burned out of single cypress logs. As these pirogue (pee-rouge) developed and became the standard for trappers and fishermen, eventually cypress planks were used to significantly drop weight and further the boats’ maneuverability in shallow marshes.
Today, Cajun craftsmen like Tony Latiolais of Henderson, Louisiana, in the Atchafalaya Basin utilize “sinker” cypress logs reclaimed from the bottom of bayous and logged swamps. Other builders like Keith Felder of Denham Springs, Louisiana, are constructing them out of marine-grade plywood and finishing with cypress. Stacked on board powerboats, these boats are prized possessions that allow duck hunting enthusiasts to enter shallow ponds and sloughs off the deeper bayous. They are now being revisited by anglers who tackle the incredibly productive fishing grounds of the Louisiana marsh and are ideal for cruisers looking to explore shallower, protected bayous.