By Matt Young
Lying side by side in a two-man layout boat, Tom Reder and I scan the dark, choppy waters of Lake Erie for diving ducks just after dawn. Waves break against the sides of the low-profile craft and occasionally lap over the gunwales, splashing us with cold water. The only thing keeping us from getting completely soaked on this raw October morning is a thin, plastic spray shield covering the back of the boat's cockpit. But the nasty weather couldn't be better for gunning diving ducks over a layout rig. With a steady gale driving out of the northwest, the open water beyond the protection of the Ontario shoreline looks like a scene from The Perfect Storm. The waves will force diving ducks to abandon their offshore roosts and seek shelter in protected bays like this one.
We don't have long to wait. Reder nudges me with his elbow and says under his breath, "Bluebills on the deck." A squadron of about a dozen lesser scaup has seen the long string of brightly painted cork decoys trailing downwind, and they are now following the "pipeline" directly toward us. As the scaup roar by my side of the boat, I sit up to shoot. But before I can shoulder my autoloader, they're gone in a black-and-white blur.
"That's okay," Reder says with a chuckle. "That's why I like to shoot ‘em with their feet down."
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.
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.
At midmorning, Rongers and Bires switch places with us in the layout boat, while we take a turn manning the tender. This gives Reder and me the welcome opportunity to stretch our legs and have a cup of hot coffee. On windy days, layout hunting is an all-day affair, and the birds keep flying all morning and into the afternoon, providing everyone with plenty of shooting. We don't pull the rig until just before sunset, cold and tired but exhilarated after an unforgettable day on the big water.
A Labor of Love
Waterfowl hunting, like so many other things in life, is what you make of it. And few waterfowlers have made more of their hunting opportunities than Rongers, Bires, and Reder. Raised in northern Indiana's gritty industrial corridor, the three friends didn't have access to prime waterfowl habitat during their duck hunting formative years. But that didn't stop them from riding their bikes to shoot mallards and teal on marshy potholes in remaining tracts of unincorporated dune land, and when they were old enough to drive, they ventured farther afield to shoot bluebills and other divers off the breakwaters of Lake Michigan.
When they reached their 20s, the quest for better duck hunting led the trio north to Michigan, where they rented a cabin on a lake that stacked up with bluebills during the peak of the migration. Gunning from shore, they bagged their share of birds, but they longed for a way to hunt the open water in the middle of the lake, which harbored great rafts of scaup.
"In 1975, my brother ran into a guy named Jack Bucko who was looking to sell two Zack Taylor sneak box wigeons," Rongers recalls. "Greg and I each bought one, and that fall, we took the boats and 60 L.L. Bean cork decoys up to the cabin in Michigan and started layout hunting in the middle of the lake. We've been hooked ever since."
They later replaced the sneak boxes with a lower profile, two-man John Kalash boat, and for more than 20 years, the trio hunted all over the Great Lakes region with this layout rig and an 18-foot aluminum tender boat. Their enthusiasm for traditional layout hunting set them apart, so they started calling themselves—half-jokingly—the Mighty Layout Boys. During their travels, they frequently encountered other waterfowlers who wanted to give layout hunting a try. But these hunters didn't know where to learn more about the sport or where to buy layout boats and other hunting equipment. Rongers and his wife, Elaine, founded their company to help fill the void.
On the Road Again
After two days of gunning bluebills and dabblers on Lake Erie, my hosts decide that for a change of pace, we should hunt nearby Lake St. Clair, where we would have a better chance of taking canvasbacks. The bag limit on canvasbacks in southern Ontario is a generous four birds a day. One of Rongers' customers, Jack Newman, has reported good numbers of canvasbacks on the famed St. Clair Flats and has offered to guide us there the next morning.
"One of the biggest perks of running this tiny company of ours is that we get invitations to hunt all over the country with some remarkable people," Rongers says, as we tow The Bill Collector and two layout boats toward Lake St. Clair well before dawn. "We've made some great friends and have had some amazing hunts in places that we never could have hunted any other way."
We meet Newman for an early breakfast in the community of Mitchell's Bay on the northeast shore of the lake. He has hunted ducks in southern Ontario since the early 1950s and has gunned Lake St. Clair for more than three decades. While now well past retirement age, he still hunts almost every day of the duck season in good weather and bad. We follow him to a nearby public ramp where we launch the boats, and soon we're motoring through "the cuts" toward the open waters of St. Clair Flats.
At daybreak, we set our decoy rig in a pass between two large stands of bulrushes that form a natural bottleneck for trading diving ducks. Standing in waist-deep water on the windswept flats, we have a much easier time deploying the decoys than during our previous deep-water hunts on Lake Erie. Reder and I will once again shoot first, this time from one-man layout boats spaced about 15 yards apart on the upwind edge of the decoys. Newman, Rongers, and Bires wait just around the bend in the tender to help retrieve downed birds.
Over the open waters of the lake, clouds of diving ducks rise like palls of smoke from distant brush fires, while scattered flights of dabbling ducks circle hidden pockets in the bulrushes. As gunfire from other hunting parties reverberates around us, waves of divers—mainly bluebills, ruddy ducks, and buffleheads—come barreling through the pass. Most skirt the edges of the rig, but occasionally, a small bunch breaks off, locks their wings, and bombs into the decoys. Reder puts on a shooting clinic, downing five ducks in as many shots. He briefly jeopardizes his perfect shooting average when he misses his fourth shot, but he soon recovers by taking a "scotch double" on bluebills with his fifth shell.
Unlike my hunting partner, I have a tougher time hitting the speedy little divers streaking over the decoys. But my luck improves when a formation of much larger diving ducks suddenly appears downwind of the decoys. The birds' sleek profile and wedge-shaped bills clearly identify them as canvasbacks. As they cup their wings and sail low over my side of the rig, I sit up and shoulder my autoloader. Firing almost eye-level with the low-flying flock, I fold a pair of cans gliding just above the decoys. Reder claims another bird moments later, as the rest of the flock reverse direction and flare downwind. We scramble out of our boats and retrieve the ducks ourselves, too excited to wait for the tender boat. More than a decade has passed since I have taken a canvasback, and I am delighted to once again admire these regal birds in hand.
It's a fitting conclusion to three memorable days of traditional layout gunning in southern Ontario. After spending considerable time on the water with my hosts, I clearly appreciate how this "sport within a sport" can get in your blood. Rongers says it best: "When I'm in a layout boat on the broad water, the shot is almost anticlimactic. It's the total experience—the fellowship of your hunting partners, the teamwork, the wind and the waves, the solitude, and watching a big flock of divers bore into a decoy rig—that makes layout hunting so rewarding."