By Matt Young
As hunting pressure in the United States has reached an all-time high in recent years, ducks and geese are becoming conditioned to avoid any cover that can possibly conceal waterfowlers. Heavily hunted mallards, for example, often leave traditional resting areas in marshes, sloughs, and flooded timber at dawn to spend their day loafing on big water, mud flats, gravel bars, and puddles in harvested grain fields, where they are less likely to encounter hunters. Geese, diving ducks, and other dabblers also often share these wide-open habitats, making them very productive places to hunt a variety of waterfowl.
The challenge facing duck and goose hunters is how to conceal themselves in areas with little standing cover. Fortunately, waterfowlers are an innovative lot, and, over the years, they have developed a variety of specialized equipment and tactics to help them hide in open environments.
Without question, the most effective open-water blind ever designed was the sink box, invented by early 19th-century market hunters along the Atlantic Coast. The equivalent of a pit blind for the water, it consisted of a submerged wooden box supported by a floating platform. While seated inside the box, shooters were almost completely hidden below the water line, and, consequently, were nearly invisible to approaching waterfowl. While sink boxes have been relegated to waterfowling museums in the United States, another invention of the market hunters that has remained legal—the layout boat—has only grown more popular over time.
Market hunters on the Atlantic Coast originally designed layout boats to conceal them in open water and on the edges of tidal marshes. For hunting in very shallow water or on dry land, they developed scaled-down versions of layout boats, commonly known as gunning coffins or pond boxes. The use of layout boats and coffin blinds gradually spread westward from the East Coast during the 20th century, and, today, they are used by waterfowlers across much of the U.S. and Canada, from the salt marshes of New Jersey to the rice fields of California.
Gary Goodpaster of Memphis, Tennessee, has hunted waterfowl from layout boats across much of America's Heartland. He uses a 13 ½-foot boat for most of his hunting, but relies on a smaller and lighter 10-footer when hunting harder-to-reach places. "You can hunt with layout boats in just about any cover imaginable," says Goodpaster, who is also Ducks Unlimited's director of special events. "I've used them in moist-soil wetlands, cattail marshes, flooded timber, corn and soybean fields, and even along sandbars and mud banks on large lakes."
The cardinal rule of layout hunting, according to Goodpaster, is to keep a low profile. "The best places to hunt are areas where the birds clearly want to be, and that have just enough natural vegetation to hide the boat, but not enough cover to spook wary ducks. If at all possible, the boat should never be higher than the surrounding cover. A lot of layout hunters get careless with the height of their profile. The gunwale of their boat might be only eight inches above water level, but they pile artificial or natural cover on top of it that might raise their profile by a foot or more, which makes them much more conspicuous to waterfowl."
Goodpaster also stresses the importance of covering the boat in a manner that matches its surroundings. "Take a look at where you are going to hide and use common sense to determine what you're going to need to cover up. I use simple weathered canvas covers and some artificial camo for my boats, topped off with natural cover from the precise spot in which I'm setting up. But I use no more cover than is necessary to hide effectively."
Despite their excellent concealment capabilities, layout boats are more confining than many other types of blinds, and limit hunters' visibility and flexibility while shooting. "Layout hunting is a lot like bowhunting in that you have to plan in advance for your shots," Goodpaster says. "When you set up, think about a shooting/landing zone and the position of the boat relative to the decoys. Shooting from a sitting position can be difficult, so it's important to prepare properly. As a right-handed shooter, I always point my boat at a 45-degree angle to the right of the landing zone. That will allow me to move the gun comfortably over the left-front of the boat, where most birds should be decoying. Naturally, this set-up should be reversed for a left-handed shooter."
Layout hunting also requires a little more patience than other forms of waterfowling. "You have to think like a predator," Goodpaster explains. "Put yourself in a position where the ducks want to be, and keep your eyes and ears open and then keep still and wait for the birds to appear. That's why comfort is so important. If you are in an awkward, uncomfortable position, you are going to fidget and give yourself away. Invest the time to make yourself comfortable because you may be there a while."
Although many layout boats come with inclined backrests, Goodpaster prefers to use an adjustable foam cushion to support just his head and neck. He also uses a floorboard in his boat to keep him dry while he's lying down. "You can't keep mud and water out of the boats while you are hunting, so you should have some sort of floorboard to keep you comfortable and out of the slop that collects in the bottom of the boat. It's also very helpful to have foot braces in your boat for leverage when you sit up to shoot."
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."
Down and Dirty
Given the remarkable effectiveness of layout hunting for waterfowl, it was only a matter of time before hunters adapted the concept from water to dry land. The result was the lay-down field blind, which, over the past decade, has become the preferred method of concealment for goose hunters across North America. Ron Latschaw, inventor of the highly popular Final Approach Eliminator blind, has guided goose hunters across much of the western United States and Canada, and he has a wealth of practical advice about how to use lay-down blinds in the field. "The first thing you need to do when you take any lay-down blind out of the box is muddy up the fabric so it won't shine in the sun. I take a bucket of dry dirt, add a little water to make a light mud, and brush it on the fabric with a broom. Next, I let it dry for about an hour and then rinse the bulk of the soil off with a garden hose. This will leave a thin layer of mud on the fabric that will eliminate most of the reflection."
Most lay-down blinds come with elastic straps on their sides to hold crop stubble and other vegetation to help conceal them on varied landscapes. But Latschaw cautions hunters to add additional cover sparingly to his blinds. "A lot of hunters put too much stuff on their blinds trying to hide them, but what it actually does is give them the appearance of big piles of grass in the field. If the camouflage on the blind matches the field, I like to let the pattern show through to create a three-dimension effect, which is much harder to see."
One of the greatest advantages of using lay-down blinds is mobility, and Latschaw advises hunters not to be bashful about moving blinds during a hunt to get better shooting positions. "The first flock of the day will usually indicate how the birds are going to approach your spread, unless, of course, there is a major wind shift. If geese are trying to land on one side of your spread, and only the guys on that side are getting shots, you need to move your blinds immediately, so all the shooters will be centered in the area where the birds want to land. Sometimes, adjusting your blinds just a few yards to the left or right can make a big difference."
Overlooking the Obvious
Despite all the advancements in concealment technology in recent years, many waterfowlers continue to bag ducks and geese in fields and other open habitats from blinds that stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Veteran goose guide and Real Geese decoy designer Darrel Wise has a theory about why this is possible. "Waterfowl, especially geese, learn through experience to associate certain objects with danger. If your blind doesn't represent one of those danger signs, you can get away with a lot of shapes, colors, and ugliness."
While guiding in central Alberta, Wise uses hay bale blinds to conceal groups of six to eight hunters in the same decoy spread. "The whole premise behind my blinds was that they would work well in fields with other hay bales. Now I use them in fields where there isn't another bale for miles. I've also had success by pulling the blinds together in a clump and brushing them with tree branches to look like a big brush pile. Of course, we don't fool every flock, but, every year, we decoy an awful lot of geese at close range with those blinds."
Wise concludes that many waterfowlers worry too much about tiny details on their blinds, and don't give enough attention to the fundamentals of concealment. "The key to any above-ground blind is to have it completely brushed on the roof and sides so there are no large openings where ducks and geese can look in and see you. If you are covered up well, the birds won't know you're there until you come up to shoot."