Open-Water Layout Hunting for Lake Michigan Waterfowl
October 24, 2017
If you have not tried this type of waterfowling on our big waters, here's your chance to get started.
Leaden waves rise and fall in a cadence that would rock you to sleep, if it weren't for the fact that you are a half-mile offshore on Lake Michigan, with a cold spray in your face and a shotgun in your hands.
Lying on your back in a boat not much bigger than a coffin, but a little less comfortable, you scan the horizon where gray water meets gray sky. You look for moving specks that signal an incoming flock of ducks.
They appear out of nowhere, skimming low above the waves, the black chest of the lead drake bluebill in sharp contrast to his white belly. Swinging once over the decoys, they turn into the wind, wings locked, feet splayed, rocking back and forth as they stall and prepare to drop into the decoys.
You sit up, swing on the drake and fire, then shoot again as the flock lifts its flaps and pours on the speed. They wheel around for one more pass just out of range, then head down the lake for safer water. You reload and note two pairs of legs kicking feebly skyward among the decoys.
By the middle of duck season, most waterfowlers have about given up on local dabblers and some have hung it up for the year. A group of hardcore hunters, however, are getting ready to enjoy the best shooting of the season in perhaps the most demanding style of waterfowling — open-water layout shooting.
Layout shooting is a team sport. Surrounded by as many as several hundred decoys, the gunner lies concealed in a small boat that barely pokes up above the swells. His teammates wait in a "tender," or pickup boat, far enough away not to spook ducks.
Some layout shooters use a duck call. Most simply wait for birds, usually divers, to come. When the gunner drops a duck, the tender crew motors out to pick it up.
Hunters trade positions at agreed-on times, when a gunner has shot his limit or when he signals he's ready to switch.
Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay offer some of the best opportunities to cash in on this diver bonanza. Nearshore areas offer good shooting for scaup, buffleheads, redheads, canvasbacks and goldeneyes. Out deep, you'll find mainly sea ducks — scoters and longtails.
Fresh birds come down from Canada ahead of each storm from late October until the lakes freeze up or the season ends. Flocks that have been shot at for several days tend to raft up and ignore decoy spreads, so hunters are always hoping for bad weather to bring in new birds.
A mixed bag is the rule, as you never know what the next flight will bring.
TAKE THE RIGHT STUFF
Layout shooting requires specialized gear: a layout boat, a tender boat, plenty of decoys and warm clothing.
Historically, layout hunters made their own boats, but a number of manufacturers now make layout boats. The traditional layout boat has a low-profile rounded hull that looks like a wave from a distance.
It is designed to let waves wash over it and keep it wet. A raised combing keeps water from washing into the cockpit. On some boats, a spray collar behind the gunner protects against wind and waves. Layout boats are most often painted flat gray to match the water.
You can get started layout shooting from a canoe or duck skiff, but you'll soon want a specialized layout boat.
A tender boat must be big enough to hold several hunters and a lot of decoys. Some hunters tow their layout boat, some stow it aboard the tender. Tenders may be camouflaged as boat blinds to provide shooting opportunities for more hunters.
Layout shooting requires lots of decoys, which must be rigged to deploy easily in freezing weather. Most hunters use "mother" lines, with an anchor at one end and a dozen or more decoys attached via short lines.
You can mix decoy species, or simply go with all scaup, or bluebills, as most divers will decoy readily to them. Goldeneyes are notoriously fussy about decoying to fakes of their own species. The same is true of sea ducks.
Craig Swenson, of Portage, has been layout shooting on Lake Michigan for nearly 20 years, primarily with Dalton taxidermist Ken White.
An avid waterfowler, Swenson has taken all but three species of North American ducks and geese, lacking only a cinnamon teal and fulvous and black-bellied tree ducks.
"We started layout hunting to extend the duck season," Swenson says. "But now we do it almost exclusively because there is always plenty of room, unlike in some popular marshes that get pretty crowded."
Swenson's tender is a deep, 18-foot flat-bottomed boat, with an 86-inch beam and a 115-horsepower outboard. He and White often hunt out of a 15-foot two-man layout boat built by White, but they recently bought two 8-foot one-man layouts to give them more versatility.
Swenson doesn't use a duck call when layout hunting, but he sometimes waves a small black-and-white flag to get the attention of passing flocks.
"When they see the flag," he says. "They often turn and come right in."
Rules regarding distance from shore and whether you must anchor your boat vary from one body of water to another. On Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, a boat you shoot out of must be at least 500 feet from shore, but need not be anchored.
Scout in advance to locate feeding or resting areas that birds are using, typically near reefs and other offshore structure. In shallow water, say 20 to 30 feet, anchor the layout boat before you set out decoys.
As a rule, use an upwind anchor line three times as long as the depth of the water. A hinged anchor that will dig into a sand or mud bottom works best. The downwind anchor line, if you use one, can be shorter. Use a mushroom anchor so you can pull it easily at quitting time.
Set the decoys out in lines that fan out from the layout boat. Ducks typically approach from downwind and try to land just short of the decoys, so position them to the left of a right-handed shooter, to the right of a left-handed shooter.
You can leave several gaps in your decoy strings to encourage ducks to settle in.
If a right-hander and a lefty are shooting out of a two-man layout boat, put the lefty on the right side and spread the decoys out on both sides of the boat with a gap in the middle. Likewise, if two hunters are hunting in separate boats, put the left-handed shooter on the right.
"When we hunt buffleheads in shallower water, we often tie a string of decoys to the bows of two layout boats in a horseshoe pattern," Swenson says. "We put some bigger goldeneye decoys in with them because the ducks can see them from a greater distance."
To let a shooter climb into the layout boat, position the tender on the upwind side. Some hunters wear gray coveralls to match the water, but any drab color will do, as most of your body will be hidden inside the boat.
Neoprene waders will keep you warm and dry. A face mask will prevent face shine from flaring ducks and will help keep you warm. Wear neoprene or wool fingerless gloves for warmth and dexterity.
The tender should back off several hundred yards upwind or toward shore, but keep in touch via binoculars or two-way radios. If you plan to hunt from the tender, be sure it takes place far enough away to avoid spooking birds for the layout shooter.
When hunting sea ducks in 60 to 90 feet of water, you can let your layout boat drift with the wind with one or two decoy strings tied off the bow.
WHERE TO HUNT
You'll find decent shooting on Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to the Bay of Green Bay. Nearshore areas with rock reefs, like the stretch from Sheboygan north to Cleveland and much of the Bay of Green Bay, attract scaup, buffleheads, redheads and canvasbacks.
Scaup especially like to feed on the large colonies of zebra mussels found in these areas.
Port Washington used to have a greater diversity of ducks, Swenson says, but those flocks seem to have moved north in the past few years, so he and White now hunt mainly off Two Rivers for sea ducks and off Suamico or the mouth of the Fox River in the Bay of Green Bay for other species.
The Oconto area is another popular one, as it offers good hunting for canvasbacks and redheads, but more hunters have discovered that stretch of the Bay of Green Bay and competition has increased over the past few years.
"There's no need to get out way before dawn," Swenson says. "We're usually ready to launch at first light, so we can set up in daylight. We have good shooting until around noon, and then there's a midday lull when the ducks don't move around much."
TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT
Settle into the layout boat so you can just see over the bow without straining your neck. That way, you can watch for incomers and be ready to shoot. Sit up only when ducks are in range. Be sure you can rotate your body from the hips to swing on passing birds.
It takes practice to hit ducks from a sitting position in a bobbing boat. If you wait to shoot until they are almost ready to land, you will have relatively easy shots at close range. When you shoot, the rest of the flock usually swings wide and goes downwind, offering one last chance.
The tender can pick up your ducks and bring you more shells or a cup of coffee. A landing net makes retrieves easier.
WATCH THE WEATHER
Layout hunting is not for the faint of heart, but it's not a fool's game, either. Most layout boats will ride atop 3-foot rollers, but big waves can swamp a small boat. Always check the weather forecast before you go out, and keep an eye on the sky for any storms coming your way.
An offshore wind from the west or northwest offers the safest and often best hunting. East winds can stir up big waves and send ducks out to deeper water.
Swenson recalls one close call that occurred several years ago.
"On Nov. 30, we were out about two miles when the wind shifted, so we picked up early and headed for shore," he says. "It took us only 20 minutes to get out there, but it took us 3 hours and 20 minutes to get back.
We were ready to call the Coast Guard, but we made it. My cap was coated with ice, and there was so much water in the boat that the weight blew out both tires when I put it on the trailer."
Layout shooting is an exciting way to hunt ducks, but it is a riskier proposition than most duck hunting. On big water, like Lake Michigan, always hunt with a partner and pay close attention to the weather.
A good layout boat is designed to roll with the waves, but if seas get too heavy, head for shore. The winds of November bring plenty of ducks, but they also sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.
HIRING A GUIDE
Layout hunting can be intimidating if you've never done it. A good way to sample this exciting sport is to hire a guide. Two of the most experienced guide services on Lake Michigan are Big Water Outdoors and Nolan's Top Gun Charters.
USCG-approved waterproof ship-to-shore marine radios ensure constant contact between layout and tender boats. Both services offer hunting for divers in October and November and sea ducks from November until the end of the season.