In the cramped quarters of a layout boat, freedom of movement is limited, offering shooters only a brief window of opportunity to acquire a target and fire. Fortunately, we don’t have any shortage of gunning opportunities. Reder’s hawklike eyesight soon spots another knot of bluebills lining up on the tail of the rig. Once again, the birds come right at us at full speed. But this time, they cup their wings and pitch into the open landing zone on the starboard side of the boat. Instinct takes over as we sit up to fire in unison and each send a black-headed drake tumbling into the waves.
“Nicely done!” Reder exclaims, grabbing my shoulder with a gloved hand. “That’s what layout hunting is all about.”
A Team Effort
Mark Rongers and Greg Bires soon arrive in the tender boat, aptly named The Bill Collector, to retrieve the downed bluebills. With more than a century of hunting experience between them, my hosts are among the world’s foremost authorities on layout gunning. Rongers is proprietor of the Mighty Layout Boys, specializing in the production of traditional Lake Erie-style layout boats, cork decoys, and other hunting accessories. The company’s website (www.mightylayoutboys.com) is a popular forum and information hub for layout gunners from across North America and beyond.
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My hosts take a few weeks off from their jobs each fall to test new products and hunt with their extensive network of friends and customers. This has taken them on layout-gunning adventures from Washington to North Carolina to Mississippi. But their favorite place to hunt is southern Ontario. Strategically located within a short drive of several legendary diving duck staging areas such as St. Clair Flats, Long Point, and Georgian Bay, this narrow strip of land is a little piece of heaven for layout gunners.
“Most of the big water is public access, so if you’re equipped with the boats and decoys to hunt in various water depths, you can go just about anywhere the birds do,” Rongers says. “Layout hunting gives you a lot of mobility and freedom to move around and try new hunting areas.”
But layout hunting isn’t without challenges. As I saw firsthand earlier that morning, putting out a large rig of decoys offshore in a high wind requires precision and teamwork, and simply climbing down into a layout boat from a much larger tender boat is a delicate operation in a heavy chop. But my hosts make it all look easy.
As daylight diffuses through the low clouds scudding overhead, skeins of bluebills crisscross the bay looking for company. Mixed in between diver flights are occasional singles, pairs, and small flocks of wigeon, mallards, and black ducks, allowing us to add a few colorful dabbling ducks to our growing bag of scaup.