Duck hunting from a layout boat came into its own on the biggest waters in the nation, where diving ducks and sea ducks are the main waterfowl species. But now, modern layout boat designs have made layout boats the perfect small craft for hunting any water, whether that hunting area is too large to see all the way across or small enough to skip a stone to the other side.
A proper layout boat can be hunted effectively in place of a permanent blind in just about any water with scant cover, such as a flooded farm field, oxbow or beaver pond.
Nearly every waterfowl hunter who doesn't own a layout boat wishes he had one. After all, what's not to like? Layout boats are lightweight, stable and render the hunter invisible to decoying ducks when properly deployed. They are small enough to be easily portable and storable between hunting seasons. Even their lines are clean and true. Like a double-barrel .410 bore shotgun, layout boats are streamlined and downright sexy.
So, let's first take a look at how these tiny boats have barn-stormed the big water, then see how their best attributes, after with a bit of tweaking, can make these wonderful watercraft ideally suited for hunting the backwaters.
The typical layout boat weighs from just less than 100 pounds to a bit more than 200 pounds and has a length of 8 to 10 feet, which makes it nicely manageable for one or two hunters.
When hunting a large water body, the layout boat is typically stowed within a larger boat or towed behind it to the hunting site. After the layout boat has been anchored at the hunting location and the decoys have been tossed out, the larger boat or "tender" is used for retrieving downed ducks, as well as for making changes to the decoy spread. The tender boat also moves the layout boat as necessary to accommodate wind shifts or the whims of ducks that make them work to different places in the decoy spread during the course of a hunt. It is paramount that the boat be fitted with a proper bridle, so it will swing on the towline or at anchor without digging into the water, shifting alignment — or tipping completely over.
Some hunters use more than one layout boat at a time, while others use two-man styles of layout boats. However, creating a rig that can accommodate more than one hunter at the same time also requires a larger tender boat, or duplicate tender boats for hauling the layout boats, decoys and all the other necessary gear to the hunting site. In small-water situations, each hunter uses his own layout boat.
The best layout boat designs situate the hunter so low in the water that the only thing that might give the hunter away to incoming ducks are tip of the bill of his cap and his gun barrel peaking over the top edge of the cockpit.
Overhead ducks may also spot the shadow of the cockpit, so hunters must wear outer clothing with colors to match the surroundings. For open water situations, a gray parka with a hood usually does the job. But in shallow water areas, other solid colors or camouflage patterns may be better choices.
The cockpit opening is elevated above the top deck contours of the boat by a few inches and the cockpit's top edge typically has a flared top rim to turn any waves splashing over the deck and upward and outward against themselves, dissipating their energy and keeping the hunter dry and safe. The lower the cockpit edge, or combing, the lower the hunter can sit.
A good layout boat should be perfectly balanced to prevent it from tipping, rocking or rolling, whether from side-to-side or from bow to stern. As if that is not asking for enough, a good layout boat is also stable enough for the hunter to enter and leave from the tender boat. It must be roomy enough to allow the hunter sitting inside it to move freely enough to access his ammunition, communication radio and/or mobile phone to ask for assistance from the tender boat, reach water and snacks and pivot his head from side to side to watch incoming ducks. It must also be comfortable enough to lie down inside for hours, listening to the nothing more than the waves lapping the hull.
Most importantly, it must allow the hunter to slide down low enough to hide and avoid detection, then quickly and easily sit up and raise his shotgun into shooting position.
Once the hunter brings his shotgun to bear, the boat must have enough stability that the hunter can put the shot pattern effectively to work on the ducks. Under windy conditions with choppy waves, shooting from a layout boat has been likened to shooting off a roller coaster, unicycle or bucking bronco.
Although the shooting can be quite challenging under rough-water conditions, a slight breeze rippling the water helps to hide the boat's profile. Under ideal conditions, ducks decoy with abandon, posing in-your-face shooting opportunities available with no other method of hunting.
With an understanding of the attributes that have made the layout boat a tool of choice for big-water waterfowl hunting, it becomes merely a situation of adapting one to fit the different conditions found on small waters.
Considerations are all interrelated and everything is a compromise. For example, a layout boat cannot have great stability without a large amount of surface contact, which translates into greater length and greater width. A boat that is stable enough to allow the hunter to stand up inside it to shoot at a crippled duck's head as it bobs up and down between the waves must also have a lot of weight.
Whereas the original layout boats were fashioned of wooden planks, modern versions can be made from myriad of materials. These materials include plywood, expanded foam, resin, fiberglass, plastic and aluminum.
Aluminum boats are the most durable and offer some of the lightest weights. However, an aluminum boat can be quite noisy under windy conditions or when rubbing against vegetation sticking up from shallow water. A metal hull also magnifies sound, such as a shotgun banging the cockpit side or the sounds made by a fidgety dog's wagging tail or toenails.
Fiberglass has many advantages over aluminum, as well as other materials and is the most popular material for modern layout boats. It is extremely durable, tinted many colors and molded to any shape. However, it is heavy and can splinter. Therefore it is often used over a core material, such as foam or wood.
Like fiberglass, plastic layout boats can be molded into nearly any shape desired. Plastic hulls are also extremely sturdy and lightweight. Double-hulled plastic boats do give off a good amount of noise in scratchy vegetation and amplify other otherwise small noises, but are not as noisy as aluminum hulls.
Good old wood still has a large following. Wood is relatively quiet and durable. Also, plans for building wooden layout boats are easy to find. Hunters with little carpentry skills have built many thousands of wooden layout boats. The downside is that wooden hulls require lots of maintenance, including protection from weather between seasons and annual touch-up of painted surfaces. A wooden hull is often covered with resin to increase its longevity.
Not many layout boats incorporate a means to have a retrieving dog along because they are designed for use with a tender boat.
However, in shallow water hunting situations, a waterfowling dog can be a primary consideration. Paddling a layout boat after a crippled or wind-drifting duck can burn a lot of hunting time. Simply the act of climbing into or out of a layout boat to retrieve any duck can present problems, especially if solid footing — or no footing — lies beneath the surface.
A simple platform for a dog is an option on some versions of layout boats. A better design is a separate port for the dog, which allows it to hide inside like the hunter.
But for most hunters, retrieving downed ducks and moving about a marsh is done with a pole, canoe paddle, two-bladed kayak paddle, or electric trolling motor. A trolling motor mount can be added to just about any layout boat by adapting a canoe bracket or building a custom bracket.
Speaking of poles, they are better for stabilizing a layout boat in a shallow water situation than an anchor tied onto a rope. If the hunter wants to use a pole or poles, he should look for a layout boat with receptacles for the poles, fore and aft. The longer a pole receptacle is from top to bottom the better it will stabilize the boat.
As for stability, layout boats for big water tend to be longer and sleeker, in order to ride over and through the waves. However, some layout boats designed for thinner water have fatter footprints. They are shorter and wider, even to the point of being rectangular.
I have seen one recent design from North Carolina called the Quack Tracker, that is nearly rectangular, with integral handgrips on every corner and built-in wheels or rollers on the stern corners. The wheels make it easy to roll the boat over the bow of a tender boat, into or out of a pickup bed or across the ground to get to the water.
This particular fiberglass boat is perfectly suited to shallow-water hunting because it has almost no combing, which is the extension of the cockpit's narrow lip above the top deck. Rather than a high combing to shed water away from the cockpit, the deck has molded-in, inch-high ripples that look like wave patterns and serve to dissipate waves as they move over the deck, before they can ever get to the cockpit.
The height of the cockpit combing above the deck has a lot of bearing on how well the hunter is hidden. Another consideration is how low the boat rides in the water with the hunter and his gear inside and the amount of the top deck that remains visible above the water. Ideally, the ducks should be able to see nothing when they are cupping their wings and dropping their feet. However, something is always visible. The hunter's eyes must look over the combing and the top of his head is poking up slightly as well. Some amount of the deck will be showing, along with a certain amount of the combing, but these clues to the lurking hunter should be minimized as much as possible while still keeping the hunter safe and all of the water out of the cockpit.
Cockpit combing height can be greatly reduced in small-water layout boats when compared to big-water layout boats simply because of the calmer water. However, a great way to deal with all types of water conditions is by selecting a layout boat that has a low, solid combing or a simple cockpit rim and attaching a fabric combing.
Canvas is the material long used for making an adjustable-height combing. However, modern polymer fabrics are more durable and dependable than canvas.
A fabric combing can be rolled down against the boat to lower its profile and hide the hunter's face, or raised to ward off waves and spray. Fabric combings are held up by one or more braces that pivot upward from the hull. Sometimes the combing may only raised in the front of the cockpit to better hide the hunter. At other times it may be raised only at the back of the cockpit prevent water from washing into it and down the hunter's neck.
It is important that the combing bracing system is dependable for safety reasons, or, during rough conditions, a hunter may find himself thinking about just how much a layout boat looks like a coffin, rather than just how wonderfully "ducky" the weather is getting.
Sooner or later, no matter the height of the combing, water is going to get inside the boat. Rain, wave splash, a dog shaking off, paddles, anchors and decoys are all potential culprits. Without much interior floor space, a coffee cup's volume of water can appear as though someone dumped a rain barrel.
The floor must have a secondary deck where the hunter sits or a raised area with water grooves along the sides to collect the bilge water. Another nice feature for hunter comfort is an adjustable backrest. The backrest should have an incline that continues all the way from the back of the neck down to the deck and some sort of cushion at the top to reduce strain on the neck muscles.
A layout boat is usually anchored from the bow, so it swings about to face the wind while the hunter looks over the stern, facing the decoys. The hunter can only shoot accurately in an arc of about 90 to 120 degrees on his weak-hand side. Therefore, the layout boat should be anchored along the strong-hand side of the decoys. The use of a second pole stuck into the bottom or a secondary anchor tied to a rope and dropped over the side will attenuate the tendency of the boat to swing from side to side, or during a windless weather day, to prevent it from drifting aimlessly. The proper orientation of the boat relative to the decoys is always paramount to shooting success.
The other critical factor in shooting success from a layout blind is obvious, once you think about it: How many times have you gone to the sporting clays or skeet range and shot clay targets while sitting down, nearly flat on your back with your back against a low rest, then sat up quickly and tried to hit the target? Doing so will teach you how to orient a layout boat properly with respect to the most likely flight pattern of decoying ducks in the field. It will also help you learn how to swing the shotgun while using only the muscles of your arms and upper body.
The importance of learning how to set up the shot is emphasized when you are hunting from a layout boat in small water conditions. In big water gunning, the hunter often watches ducks for a long time as they approach, then carefully chooses the location of his shot. But, in small water gunning, the ducks can appear suddenly over the brush or trees, then drop into the decoys from unexpected directions. Without time to watch the ducks approach, the hunter must react and take the shot solely on instinct. If he tries to shoot beyond his accurate shooting arc, a miss is an assured thing.
While big water layout boats have finishes intended to blend with the water, small water layout boats may be better camouflaged by painting them to match surrounding vegetation or by adding actual vegetation to break up their outline. A good example is a marsh filled with grass beds, with no other cover available.
The grass may be low enough that it will nearly hide the layout boat, but thin enough that a solid color finish sticks out like a sore thumb. The grass may also stick up high enough that the hunter's visibility is obstructed if he slides far down the backrest in the normal waiting position. Adding some sockets in the form of PVC pipe sections or conduit clamps to the edge of the cockpit and upper deck allows grass, reeds or other vegetation to be added for camouflage so the hunter can sit up higher and watch approaching ducks. Another boat, such as a pirogue, canoe or johnboat can be used in this and other similar small water situations. However, none of them offer the low-profile concealment and gunning stability of a layout boat.
INFORMATION ON LAYOUT BOATS
*Lake Bonneville Layout Boats, www.lblayoutboats.com
*The Mighty Layout Boys Layout Boats, www.mightylayoutboys.com
*Quack Tracker, www.creeksneak.com/layout-boat
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The Heat's On
HeatMax, the company that makes HotHands, now offers a line of fleece accessory garments with built-in pockets to hold HotHands packets. These include mittens, socks, caps, balaclavas, gaitors and more, perfect for early season fishing. Pockets are positioned to make the most efficient use of the heat while, at the same time, making placement comfortable and secure.
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Hybrid Duck Boat
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Bag The Waders
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Cleans Up Well
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