Stealth and Stability
While layout boats are now used in a wide range of habitats, a small fraternity of traditionalists continue to use the boats on big water, much like the sink box gunners of old. This is a labor-intensive and potentially dangerous form of waterfowling, requiring specialized equipment and expertise. Traditional open-water layout boats must be towed by a larger and more seaworthy tender boat to the hunting area and then anchored in place. Decoys are usually rigged on long ganglines anchored on each end with heavy weights. During the hunt, waterfowlers usually take turns shooting from layout boats and manning the tender boat, kept nearby to retrieve downed birds and rescue the gunners if the weather suddenly turns nasty.
Mark Rongers of Hobart, Indiana, has hunted diving ducks and other waterfowl on the Great Lakes and surrounding waters for the past 27 years. He is also a cofounder and president of the Mighty Layout Boys, a manufacturer of layout boats, decoys, and other waterfowling products. His company designs layout boats with both safety and concealment in mind. "The paramount concern in layout hunting is safety because it's usually done on big water far from shore," Rongers advises. "But, for concealment purposes, a layout boat also has to have a low profile that doesn't cast a shadow. Ideally, the boat should be stealthy enough not to be seen by ducks on calm days, yet stable and safe enough for hunting on windy, choppy days when the birds often move best."
Like the majority of open-water layout gunners, Rongers specializes in hunting bluebills, redheads, canvasbacks, and other diving ducks, but he bags a variety of other waterfowl species as well. "I have been amazed at how effective layout hunting can be for dabbling ducks. When mallards start using Lake Michigan late in the season, I bring along four super-magnum mallard decoys and place them off to the side of my diver rig. It's not unusual for us to decoy several flocks of mallards during a hunt. The birds frequently are already cupped and gliding when we first see them, and they often come straight to the mallard decoys on the first pass. They just don't expect danger one or two miles offshore."
Rongers also has developed layout tactics and equipment for hunting geese on open water. "We make a custom goose chair that fits in the cockpit of our layout boats. It consists of a super-magnum shell decoy with several slits cut in it to provide good visibility. For decoys, we have converted super-magnum shell decoys into floaters by lining their bases with polyethylene foam. When we set up to hunt, we mount the goose chair on the layout boat and surround it with 40 of these large floating goose shells. Whoever is in the layout boat uses a flag with one hand and blows a goose call with the other. We used this rig to hunt resident Canada geese on a large open marsh in southern Michigan last year with great success."