September 29, 2004
By Chuck Lichon
For concealment, a low profile duck blind is a great way to hunt in both rough and calm waters.
If I had one guess why I was put on this earth, I would say it was to layout hunt. That's probably the reason why I recently emptied my already thin bank account and purchased 23 acres on Michigan's Saginaw Bay, a layout hunting hotspot. Building my permanent residence on this significant hunting and fishing resource will allow me to keep my layout rig virtually along the shoreline, making it easily available for gunning action with the many divers that migrate through this area.
The definition of a layout rig is, for the most part, synonymous with the terminology of most "duck boats." Waterfowl hunters have different ideas as to what is and what is not considered a layout boat. In areas where hunters have to deal with heavy water, a larger, stouter boat would be used as a layout boat. In a more sublime area where wave heights tend to remain somewhat subtle, a more sleek-looking craft may do.
Whatever the case, a layout boat is simply a water craft that is used to properly conceal a duck hunter in an open water area without the ravages of wind and water negatively affecting the hunter. The main ingredients for a layout boat are: short length (usually less than 10 feet in length) and low profile.
The key in the above definition is the word "open" water. Yes, there are a number of boats that can be used to conceal yourself in open water, but a layout boat not only conceals the hunter, but the craft itself is hardly noticed by low-flying divers; it looks more like a deadfall that floated out to open water.
In the days of market hunting, many of these kinds of duck boats were deadly since they employed the use of live decoys and heavy swivel guns--small cannons, really.
These battleship-style guns were often mounted in the bow and were usually fired into a flock of flying or sitting birds. Little imagination is needed to figure out how many birds were killed with these weapons. With modern-day limits, a half-dozen waterfowlers could be finished for the season with one shot from a swivel gun.
Fortunately, these guns and the market hunters who employed them are now history, but the boats still remain--low in profile, appropriately decked to handle the kind of water to which they are employed, and designed internally to provide a reasonable amount of comfort for the hunter.
Layout hunting is not only a tradition, it is a considerable challenge to lie in a prone position on open water, many times in conditions that are less than desirable, with your vision reduced to about a 90 degree radius waiting for divers flying just above the deck at break neck speeds. And some state wildlife personnel say this is a disadvantage to the ducks? Hardly. But this is another story for another time.
One of the original layout-boat builders residing in America today is John Kalash of Michigan. His idea of a well-designed layout boat is one that has a crown that is not too high (like the back of a box turtle) so as to create a shadow, and one that is not too low, which, of course, would be about as seaworthy as a bathtub.
When John heads out to his native Lake Erie on a duck hunt, he may spot what looks like a raft of divers. As he motors toward the birds, he notices a man's head pop up a couple of hundred yards away. "When this happens," John says, "I know the layout boat is well concealed."
Basically, there are two types or styles of layouts that Kalash builds. One has a slightly higher crown than the other and is called a pumpkinseed. It has a flat bottom and no pit inside, which makes it a high rider. This style, according to some, is easier to tow, but is also easier for the birds to spot due to the higher crown.
The second style is a box or pit boat. As the name implies, a pit is constructed in the bottom of the boat and allows for a much lower profile. Federal law requires that your body be at least half above the water line. This boat accomplishes just that, but also provides for a boat that blends into the water.
Most layout boats have a canvas cover on top. This is called a "raise" or "combing" and is used in times of rough weather. Most veteran layout hunters, however, refrain from using the raise unless it's absolutely necessary. When the canvas is put into place, it eliminates the low profile and creates a shadow that may cause the birds to flare on certain days. If the raise is needed, they move it up only about three or four inches, just enough to keep the water from washing over the top. To assist in preventing a shadow effect, you can use white paint for the underside of the raise.
Layout-boat builders currently feel that the one-man, one-dog layout units are designed about as close to perfection as possible. The two-man units, however, could probably use some modifications in design, especially in areas of making the craft easier to tow. With some of the new lightweight fiberglass rigs on the market today, layout rigs are easier to tow, but you may give up some of the concealment of heavier wood boats.
Those duck hunters who are fortunate enough to live or have a cabin on the waters they hunt are more apt to own and use layout boats. The reason for this is that many waterfowlers feel that the work involved in layout hunting is not worth the effort. Instead of hauling the duck-hunting paraphernalia that is normally used by the hunter, layout hunting involves much more gear and work.
When hunting divers in open water, most hunters have a spread of between 100 to 200 blocks in order to attract the large flocks of divers. There are a few different arrangements for layout hunting. One arrangement employs the use of a "V" design with the layout boat at the narrow or pointed end of the "V." The boat is anchored at both ends, and the wind hovers from your backside as you face the blocks in a prone position. Normally, the majority of the decoys are strung out between 50 to 70 yards downwind of the boat with a few more on the port and starboard sides of the boat.
The same holds true for the "pearl-drop" arrangement. The layout boat is again anchored upwind, only this time it's at the wide end of the arrangement. The idea in these two designs is to have the divers fly over your boat, giving you only a couple of seconds to flash a shot at them. The prone position prevents you from seeing the low-flying birds coming in at all angles. It's not unusual for a flock to drop in behind you and merrily swim past your boat toward the decoys.
Another method of decoy arrangement is to place several strings of blocks approximately 65-yards long. The decoys are spaced roughly 15 feet apart with four strings on the port side and two on the starboard side for a right-handed shooter. The boat is anchored between the fourth and fifth line about three-fourths of the way upwind from the downwind end of the spread. The idea is to bring the birds down to the left of the shooter in among the decoys.
Although layout boats are most often used in open water situations, they are also used to sneak up on certain species of puddle ducks as well. It doesn't take long for black ducks to become educated enough to shy away from the usual marsh structures that may resemble a blind. Therefore, you must do a certain amount of homework in order to outwit them.
Blacks usually tend to frequent creek areas and small ponds in the evening hours. These areas should be scouted during the early evening to determine if the birds are returning to rest for the night. With a layout rig and a handful of decoys a hunter should move into these areas before dawn and set up.
If you're careful, any birds that may be startled into flight will return in a short time, allowing plenty of action on singles and doubles. It's important, however, to allow them to drop well within shooting range for clean kills. With most ducks it is much more difficult to finish off a bird in the water than it is in the air. For that reason, if the bird appears alive as it falls, a second shot while it drops may save it from becoming a meal for a marsh predator.
Layout boats were made initially for bluebills and redheads. However, other species may tend to congregate around diver decoys, including goldeneyes, canvasbacks and scooters. Cans are less likely to decoy in however, and will circle several times out of gun range, simply teasing the hunter.
If you have never experienced the sport, picture yourself leaving shore in a towboat with a favorite hunting buddy. As you head out to open water, you spot a raft of divers working about a mile and a half off shore. The adrenaline starts to flow and you look back at the layout rig being towed into position.
The sky is as blue as you have ever seen it, but no matter--open-water hunting for divers can be successful any time of the day and in almost any type of weather. Soon you reach the area that appears to be the most promising and begin stringing out dozens upon dozens of blocks. Your experienced partner gives you the go-ahead to prop yourself in the coffin-style boat.
Your eyes gaze up at the clear sky as you listen to your partner move off into some out-of-the-way position so as not to frighten any oncoming birds. He also acts as a safeguard against winds that may suddenly produce waves not conducive to layout hunting. You begin to wonder how difficult it is to shoot from a sitting position in a boat that is bobbing up and down in the one-foot waves; it's an unnatural position for gunning ducks.
Nevertheless, your thoughts soon turn to action as a flock of bluebills scream in over the blocks seemingly low enough to hit with the barrel of your gun. The only movement up until now has been your heart pumping slightly above the norm and the rolling of your eyeballs beyond the normal periphery of a human, while trying to catch a glimpse of an anticipated flock of divers.
The Model 12 pounds against the shoulder and you wonder why you never spent more time on the skeet range. But no matter, because as the day wears on and you alternate positions with your partner, one hour in the layout and one in the watch boat, you start to get the feel of it all.
Birds start to drop and soon you are well on your way to becoming a layout hunter, the peace and solitude only broken by the occasional firing of the gun or the sounds of the wind rushing over the wings of a flock of bluebills. You have arrived.
Work? You Bet! Is it worth it? No doubt. It's an experience no duck hunter of any worth should depart this earth without.
For information on layout hunting on the Saginaw Bay with this writer, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org