His airboat is a catch-22 of sorts, as it often times serves as a magnet for the very thing he is trying to escape — people.
Don’t misunderstand, as Randy Jenson enjoys being around people — his wife, Anita, his family, and those he interacts with daily at work. But there are times he just wants to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life and skim across the placid waters of what many in this area call “God’s Country.”
That’s when he feels blessed to own a couple of airboats, and when he climbs aboard them, it takes him to places that are peaceful, quiet and quite beautiful.
What? How do airboats, those often times noisy machines, translate into quiet beauty? It takes one to get to the other. And, Jenson quickly interjects, it also takes common sense and respect for others when operating an airboat.
“I have had so many people… I will come into the landing or at the gas station getting gas, and they come over and say, ‘Wow, I have never seen an airboat before. That looks like fun.’
“The fun part of an airboat is getting away from everybody. With an airboat, you can go back in the sloughs as it opens up so much more area for you.”
Jenson, a 62-year-old man who lives on Brice Prairie, is an avid fisherman, duck hunter and trapper. Having an airboat allows him to reach backwater areas on the Mississippi River, as well as on Lake Onalaska, that you simply can’t reach with a boat, even a flat-bottom boat with a mud motor.
An airboat can skim over shallow areas of the river, mud flats, sand bars and even moments of dry land. It, in a sense, is a freedom machine.
“Rarely do you see two airboats together. That is the reason you have an airboat, you don’t want to go where the crowd is, you want to find fish on your own. Get away and totally relax,” Jenson said. “I had a Skeeter bass boat with a 150-horse motor on it that I used for fishing, but you couldn’t take that boat duck hunting. You couldn’t do any ice fishing with it.
“Nothing compares to an airboat when it comes to the freedom of extending your season. I still work for a living, so the time I have, I have to use it wisely.”
Maybe that’s why Jenson is an unofficial spokesperson, of sorts, when it comes to airboat etiquette. He knows they are loud, he knows they are not popular with everyone, especially those who live around boat landings.
He also believes if courtesy, respect and obeying the laws regarding airboats are not followed, there could be a different future when it comes to when and where they can be used.
In recent years, there has been a limited number of complaints from citizens regarding airboat use on Lake Onalaska, said Dale Hochhausen, Wisconsin DNR Conservation Warden, whose main jurisdiction is the northern half of La Crosse County.
“A vast majority of people realize there are a lot of residents along there (north shore of Lake Onalaska) and tend to go slow and get a distance away before they power up,” Hochhausen said. “A vast majority are trying to not create problems or issues out there.
“I haven’t had a bunch of complaints about loud boats out there. I have had a few calls here and there. Other boats out there, surface drive boats with modified exhaust – some call them mud motors – are just as loud.”
Having owned an airboat for 25 years, Jenson said he’s seen the positive and negative impact of the machines. He’s enjoyed quality time duck hunting with his son, Justin, 34, and stepson Brody, 22, while using an airboat. He’s also had a not-so-polite wave — you know, the angry kind — from a homeowner as he idled by.
“I would say 95 percent of the people that own airboats share that same feeling of respecting others. We stand out, we know that. It is fairly obvious when we are around,” Jenson said.
“One guy at the landing asked me, ‘Have you ever had the cops called on you? No, but a buddy has twice.’
“If I put in at the landing to go duck hunting or fishing, with open water and somebody is behind me following, I would absolutely drench those people (if he quickly accelerated).
“I have two airboats, the one I use for duck hunting has a 500 horsepower, a big prop, so you have to be courteous. I will idle out as far as I can (from the launch). It might be 4 in the morning, and I certainly don’t want to wake anyone up.”
Hochhausen said any boat, airboat, fishing boat with a mud motor, or even the high-powered speed boats that cruise the river’s main channel, must meet a certain decibel level to be in compliance with the law.
“There is a decibel level, 86 decibels, that is the (maximum) requirement for operation. It’s a law. Where people may get into trouble with this is if they modify the exhaust on those airboats, or don’t have the required exhaust system,” Hochhausen said.
“Sometimes propeller noise can be an issue, too (in addition to the engine). People can quiet them down.”
Jenson is keenly aware that some airboats, or specifically their operators, are not as respectful of other boaters, or around the launch areas, as they should be. That, he says, could come back to bite all airboat operators if things don’t change.
In doing some kayaking on the Black River in recent years, I have experienced several first-hand encounters with airboats. I will say each time the airboats approached me, they slowed down to an idle when we met, then slowly throttled back up when they were well past me.
That type of respect, of sharing the waterway, goes a long way in how I view airboats.
“Everybody has to share the outdoors. Yes, we enjoy it differently,” Jenson said, “and if some of the airboat (operators) don’t start thinking about that, there won’t be any airboaters. I do think they can make these airboats quieter, and it may come to that.”
There is no doubt airboats have opened up new territory for anglers, for duck hunters, and others. Jenson, who is 50 percent owner of Midwest Ceiling Systems in Holmen, said airboats are especially invaluable this time of year when most of the ice is gone, yet there may be some remaining in the backwaters. You can safely reach these areas with an airboat and safely fish.
And, Jenson said, you are usually by yourself.
“An airboat captain has too much respect to go in a place where there are lots of fishermen. I don’t think we are anti-social, but we prefer not to be right near people,” Jenson said. “Trapping and bow hunting is the reason I really wanted an airboat. You don’t do either of those things around people.”
Jenson said he wanted an airboat ever since he was a kid, when back in the early 1960s there was a crime-adventure TV show called “Everglades,” where a law enforcement officer patrolled Florida Everglades in an airboat. Operating an airboat in the everglades, however, is far different than driving one in the Midwest.
Time, and experiences, have shown Jenson that.
“There is no Florida hull if you are doing fishing here, especially ice fishing. Our local hulls are extremely heavy, the heavier built the better,” Jenson said. “Ice fishing with an airboat is hard on a boat. A lot of times during slushy conditions, it will stick to the hull. You always have a spud with you to chop yourself out.
“I don’t think you will catch an airboater without a spud.”
Airboat hulls sometimes heat up during a trip on ice or open water, then when stopped, they can freeze to the ice. Another reason to have an ice spud, Jenson said. He’s also experienced mechanical breakdowns — one time his steering linkage broke — and typically carries an extra starter and fuel pump for the engine in each of his boats.
“Airboat ownership is not a cheap thing. There are rewards, but there is cost,” said Jenson, who said he has around $60,000 invested in his two airboats. “Stuff is going to break. I have people on my phone, if I break down, that I can call. That’s also why I have two airboats.”
Jenson realizes not everyone can afford an airboat, but points out that bass boats and fishing boats are similarly priced, if not more. It’s not about the money, Jenson said, but the freedom to explore areas others cannot.
“They are really, really nice, for sure,” Jenson said. “It opens up so much more area for you.”
Areas with fish, ducks, beavers and deer. Areas with nothing but the sounds of nature.
For Jenson, it just takes a little noise to reach silence.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org