Among the nation's most experienced big-water layout hunters is Mark Rongers of Hobart, Indiana. His company, The Mighty Layout Boys, manufactures a full line of layout boats and accessories, and their website (www.mightylayoutboys.com) is a popular forum and information hub for layout gunners from across North America and beyond. "We have tried to take the best elements of the classic layout boats of the past and improve upon them," Rongers says.
"Since layout hunting is often done offshore, our paramount concern is safety, and all of our boats are built to exceed U.S. Coast Guard safety standards. Of course, a good layout boat also has to be low profile. We design our boats with a series of concentric circles that radiate out from the cockpit, creating a gradual slope to the water that doesn't cast a shadow. It's what we like to call stealth technology for the duck hunter."
Like most traditional layout hunters, Rongers' favorite quarries are canvasbacks, redheads, scaup, and other diving ducks. While hunting divers on big water, he deploys decoys on long lines anchored on either end with heavy weights. "Long-lining is the most practical way to rig decoys for hunting in varying water depths," he says. "We rig our decoys on 150-foot lines made of ¼-inch diamond braid or solid braid sinking nylon rope in OD green or black."
His typical diver spread consists of four to eight dozen long lines, with eight to 12 decoys on each line. He spaces his decoys seven to eight feet apart on the downwind half of his spread and five to six feet apart on the upwind half. In addition, Rongers sets a 300-foot "pipeline" downwind of the main decoy spread. Brightly painted drake canvasback, redhead, or bluebill decoys are spaced about 15 to 20 feet apart on the pipeline to attract divers trading over open water from great distances. "I usually position the last decoy on the downwind end of the pipeline about 90 yards from the layout boat—nearly twice effective shotgun range," he says. "More often than not, divers will pick up on the pipeline and follow it right into the main rig of decoys."
Rongers rigs each of his decoys with a six-foot dropper line, which he attaches to the long line with alligator clips or large stainless steel shrimp clips. "The dropper line allows the decoy to move freely while floating above the long line," he explains. "I rig some of my decoys with the dropper line attached to the back of the keel and with others attached to the front, so the decoys face in different directions. This keeps my decoys from looking like toy soldiers lined up in a row."
He advises hunters to position layout boats among the decoys on the upwind third of the spread, no further than 30 yards from the downwind edge of the decoys (see illustration). For right-handed shooters, the majority of the decoys should be set to the left of the boat, and vice versa for left-handed shooters. "A seated right-handed shooter can comfortably swing from a two o'clock to a seven o'clock position," Rongers explains, "while a left-handed gunner can comfortably swing from ten o'clock to five o'clock. Positioning the boat to either the left or the right side of the spread gives layout hunters greater flexibility for shooting birds approaching the decoys."
The Next Generation
Although layout hunting originated on the East Coast and the Great Lakes, innovative waterfowlers in other regions have successfully adapted this style of waterfowling to their local hunting areas. During the past two decades, boat builders in the Midwest, South, and West have developed an array of new layout boats, designed for hunting diverse wetland habitats. These boats range from one-man, pod-like crafts with minimal ballast to large, two-man models powered by outboard motors.
Among the new generation of layout boat builders is Ira McCauley, founder and president of MoMarsh, in Defiance, Missouri. "I got into boat building so I could have the kind of boat that would allow me to hunt moist-soil management areas consisting of open water interspersed with flooded weeds only about a foot to 18 inches high," McCauley says. "I needed a boat that could get me into these areas with a load of decoys and a dog, and that would also provide me with good concealment in sparse cover."
All MoMarsh boats are U.S. Coast Guard approved and can be powered by standard outboards, electric trolling motors, or mud motors, as well as by paddling, poling, or rowing. Fully loaded, they draft only about four inches of water, making them a good choice for hunting in shallow wetlands, such as moist-soil wetlands and flooded fields. But they also can be used in flooded timber, cattail or bulrush marshes, and even on open lakes.
Through experience, McCauley has learned to strike a balance in his designs between concealment, comfort, stability, and safety. "It's certainly important for a layout boat to have a low profile, but the sides also should be high enough and the boat should be deep enough to fully conceal a hunter while reclining in a comfortable position," he explains. "One of the biggest misconceptions about layout boats is they are uncomfortable. But once you get in one and lay down, you realize it's just like being in your easy chair at home. And when you are all covered up, they also provide a lot of protection from the elements."
McCauley also has some good hunting tips for layout hunters. "I have learned that the key to success in duck hunting is to be exactly where the birds want to be," he says. "If there is cover available in the area that birds are working, hunters should use it to their advantage. Whenever possible, I like to place my boat in a clump of vegetation or tie up to an old snag to help break up my silhouette—the more you can blend in and hide the better. But a lot of times there is no cover where the birds want to be, so you just have to conceal yourself and look like a harmless stand of weeds."
While hunting in open water, McCauley recommends that both hunters and their boats should be completely camouflaged. "I like to cover the boat with a good layer of Invisigrass, which is a raffia product, to serve as a base, and then I will sprinkle some local vegetation or crop stubble from the hunting area on top," he says. "You don't want to use too much—just enough to match the color of your surroundings. It's also important to wear gloves and a facemask, so you're completely covered up. Today's ducks are so well educated that you can't have anything showing that doesn't look natural."
He uses a variety of decoy-spread configurations while layout hunting. "Early in the season, we will often scatter decoys in a big loose group and set our boats where we think the birds are most likely to land with a particular wind," he says. "Later in the season, we'll set our decoys in a pea-shaped configuration (see illustration) with our boats set off to one side. This is a great setup for hunting in sparse cover because the boats are out of the field of view of any birds working the decoys."