By Will Brantley
One year a hunting buddy of mine was seduced by the thought of a comfortable duck blind. Two guys he knew had bought an old pontoon boat and fixed it up with rough lumber to make blind panels, a roof, and individual shooting ports. They camouflaged it with oak brush and added all the amenities inside. It had a jon boat port, comfortable chairs, and a heater. Shoot, there was even a little cookstove for making bacon. My buddy bought in with them.
They staked the floating blind just off a sandbar, assuming it was well-anchored on both ends by cables looped over pipes driven into the mud. The system allowed the blind to rise and fall with the river’s fluctuating levels. They set out a huge decoy spread, so all they had to do was motor in just before daybreak, settle in, and load their guns.
But one night a big cold-front storm—the kind that brings ducks—broke the blind loose from the anchors and sent it washing through the decoys and on a spirited downstream journey. The crew of disheartened hunters found the pontoon washed up on a bank a mile or so away, and to hear my buddy tell it, getting it back to the spread was a long and arduous tow.
For hunting big public water, he later admitted, the ease of a permanent floating blind wasn’t easy at all. Plus, the blind hadn’t been all that productive the few times he had been able to hunt it. Mercifully, he came to his senses, dragged his layout blind out of storage, and went back to bumming it in the cold, on the sandbars with me.
Big public rivers and lakes are my favorite setting for duck hunting. But I’d sooner go fishing and have all that water there for the exploring than be confined to a wooden box, watching the same old decoy spread day after day. I guess it’d be kind of like listening to the train from a cell in Folsom Prison.
If you have access to a rice field, flooded cornfield, or moist-soil impoundment in a hot flyway, sure, sink a pit or build a blind, and stay put. But for most public-land hunting, being mobile is a near-universal advantage. Hiking or driving to find groups of ducks to hunt right away is the most reliable way I’ve found to stay in the action all season—particularly in recent seasons with long stretches of stale weather between pushes of new birds.
Trouble is, not every shoreline is flush with cover for hiding, and wary public ducks do not tolerate hunters sitting in the open. The Avery Quick-Set boat blind was one of the original ways for marsh and backwater hunters to get hidden without ever leaving the boat. Other companies like Beavertail followed suit with boat blind systems of their own, and there are plenty of online plans out there for building your own boat blind frame.
Boat blinds work particularly well when backed against tall, undercut river banks, tucked just inside flooded brush on the edges of open brakes, and even anchored against large deadfall trees in the water. They’re standard issue for big-river hunters, where the water in chutes and oxbows is frequently too deep or treacherous for wading. Without that backdrop cover, though, boat blinds have a big footprint that can stand out.
Shoreline hunters gunning shallow marshes, bays, and mudflats have other options. The same layout blinds popularized by dry-field goose hunters decades ago work exceptionally well for duck hunting too—if you have dry ground to set them on. Like boat blinds, layouts are at their best when paired with a slightly undercut bank and some shoreline cover for a backdrop. Though many hunters opt for a blind with a rigid frame for maximum room and comfort, simpler, low-profile blinds are easier to hide. My personal layout blind is an original Final Approach X-Land’r that’s nearly 20 years old, and it still works just fine.
The camo pattern on a layout blind doesn’t much matter for mudflat duck hunting, because you need to cover the thing in mud anyway. The more the blind is stained and faded, the better it hides. Putting a small shovel or folding spade in the boat helps if you need to dig a depression and lower the blind’s profile a bit more—a step we often take if we’re hunting on clean, wide-open sandbars.
If you’re hunting an especially soupy spot or even need to set up in shallow water, neoprene ground blind covers (if you can find one for sale) keep some of the mess at bay, but they’re cumbersome. Hybrid-style layout duck boats like the Mo Marsh Fat Boy DP provide all the concealment of a layout blind while keeping you truly dry inside a boat. The tradeoff, of course, is extra weight, a larger profile to conceal, and a whole lot more expense.
Fred Zink—one of the guys who helped popularize layout blinds—rarely uses them at all anymore, for ducks or geese. He favors quick-setting A-frame blinds, like his own Avian-X model. “In places like Maryland, hunters have been using A-frame blinds for years,” he says. “They move them on skidders around ponds, and lots of geese have been shot out of them. I use them almost exclusively now for mobile hunting. They’re water and wind resistant, and I’ve found them to be more effective than laydown blinds.”
Zink employs one trick when hunting big, open fields that would work well on a shoreline too—he sets multiple A-fram blinds end to end. “The big, long profile of that actually looks more natural to birds than a single blind sitting there by itself,” he says. Zink keeps his blinds brushed and ready, ideally with prairie cord grass, but he adds extra camo local to the area when possible.
A-Frame blinds take a bit longer to set up than layouts, and of course they’re heavier to haul around. You need to bring seats too. Still, Zink says they can be placed in less than three minutes per blind, and their advantages far offset the hassle. “They’re easier and safer to shoot from; people aren’t getting their ears rung as much as out of layout blinds,” he says. “Plus, they’re much more comfortable, and just overall more effective.”
Regardless of the type of blind you’re using, a big advantage of going mobile is being able to quickly adjust your setup, and that includes more than just the decoy spread. “You don’t want ducks or geese to see shadows,” Zink says. “A lot of times, if you have birds decoying early that seem to get shy as the morning goes on, it’s because the blinds are throwing shadows and they’re seeing you. As the sun gets higher, you can move the blinds with it. Sometimes just five or 10 yards is enough to get the sun on them and kill those dark shapes.”
It’s a little extra work, but public duck hunting is always worth it. And it beats towing a lost pontoon blind back to the bank after a storm.