by Matt Young
Given a choice, most waterfowlers would hunt in natural wetlands with plenty of cover in which to conceal themselves, such as flooded timber, salt marshes, or cattail sloughs. But the fact is, better duck and goose hunting is often available in open-water habitats largely bereft of vegetation like flooded croplands, moist-soil impoundments, and reservoirs.
What these habitats may lack in aesthetics, they more than make up for in waterfowl numbers. Ducks and geese naturally flock to wide-open places to feed and rest, and this behavior is further reinforced by hunting pressure, as the birds learn quickly to avoid any patch of cover large enough to conceal hunters.
Although waterfowlers have developed a variety of tactics and equipment to hunt in open-water settings, layout hunting—in which shooters conceal themselves by reclining inside low-profile boats or coffin blinds—has long been among the most effective. Today's layout rigs, constructed of lightweight, durable materials, allow waterfowlers to safely and comfortably hunt in a wide range of wetland types. Following is an overview of the most popular types of layout boats and coffin blinds, as well as proven strategies for using them.
A Grand Tradition
With origins dating back to the market-hunting era, traditional open-water layout hunting is still actively pursued by waterfowlers in many regions of this continent. Much like the sink box gunners of old, these hunters conceal themselves in layout boats anchored in deep, open water adjacent to large spreads of decoys. Although some modern layout boats can be powered by outboard motors, traditional layout boats are typically carried or towed to the hunting area by a larger, more seaworthy "tender boat." Gunners take turns shooting from one or more layout boats and manning the tender boat, kept nearby to retrieve downed birds.
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."
The Deadly Coffin Blind
Despite the versatility of layout boats, nothing beats a coffin blind for concealing hunters on the edges of wetlands and in extremely shallow water. Built without a keel, coffin blinds are designed to rest on the bottom below the water level rather than to float. This gives coffins an even lower profile than layout boats.
An expert in the use of coffin blinds is goose and duck calling champion and outfitter Kelly Powers of Union City, Tennessee. A member of the Drake Waterfowl Systems pro-staff, Powers has hunted ducks with the patented Stakeout blind in many areas of the United States and Canada. Powers says the blind is especially effective for hunting flooded agricultural fields. "After a big rain, ducks love to feed in sheet water in harvested grain fields," he says. "There usually isn't enough cover to hunt these shallow areas with a traditional blind, and since you can't lie down in the water, you need something to hide you and keep you dry. Coffin blinds allow you to do it."
He also likes the mobility provided by coffin blinds. "To have consistent success, you have to be able to hunt the areas that ducks are using on that particular day," Powers contends. "Coffin blinds are small and light enough to be transported in the back of a pickup or by an ATV. And once you get to where you are going to hunt, you can also stow your gun, decoy bag, and other gear in the blind, and carry in all your equipment in one trip."
While hunting from coffin blinds, Powers likes to keep the number of hunters in his party to a maximum of four. "The more unnatural objects that you have sticking up out of the water, the tougher it's going to be to decoy ducks," he says. "I like to put plenty of decoys downwind, so working ducks have a lot of birds to look at instead of my blind."
"But you should also set your decoys according to the wind conditions," he adds. "I usually put a good little group of decoys right at my feet and then scatter several smaller groups to the sides and downwind. The harder the wind is blowing, the closer you want to set your decoys. On calm days, you should put your decoys farther out. Whenever possible, I like to put out a few field decoys on nearby patches of dry ground or mud. You always see a few mallards and pintails walking along the edges of flooded fields, and adding some field decoys to your spread provides an extra touch of realism."
Like McCauley, Powers is a stickler about camouflaging his coffin blinds as well as possible. "I cover the lids on my blind with a layer of carpet glue and then sprinkle them with a little bit of dirt and crop stubble," he says. "This is a much more subtle way to conceal a blind than piling up a bunch of stuff on top of it. I also attach bungee cords to the sides of my blind with eyelet screws and stuff them with stubble to break the blind's outline."
Coffin blinds can be further concealed by partially digging them into the mud in shallow water. "The ideal situation is to dig a hole in the mud bottom that is just deep enough for your weight to hold the blind down in the hole without it floating up," Powers says. "You can also stake down your blind to hold it down a little deeper in the water. This will get you down as far in the water as you possibly can."
As anyone who has watched thousands of mallards and pintails feeding in a flooded field or canvasbacks and scaup rafted offshore knows, waterfowl frequently gather in great numbers in open-water habitats. But until recently, many of these areas have been difficult if not impossible to hunt. By providing effective concealment in sparsely vegetated wetlands and fields, modern layout boats and coffin blinds have opened up a wealth of productive new hunting territory for waterfowlers across the continent.
Manufacturers of Layout Boats, Coffin Blinds & Accessories
Drake Waterfowl Systems (www.drakewaterfowl.com)
Four Rivers Layout Boats (www.fourriverslayoutboats.com)
Mighty Layout Boys (www.mightylayoutboys.com)
Otter Outdoors (www.otteroutdoors.com)
Ron Banks Hunting Boats (www.banksboats.com)
Quotable Layout Quotes
Positioning the boat to either the left or the right side of the spread will give layout hunters greater flexibility for shooting birds approaching the decoys. —Mark Rongers
I have learned that the key to success in duck hunting is to be exactly where the birds want to be. —Ira McCauley
I like to put plenty of decoys downwind, so working ducks have a lot of birds to look at instead of my blind. —Kelley Powers