The Lost Art Of Layout Hunting

Gunning from a layout boat is considered by many to be the ultimate rush in duck hunting.

The weather forecast for that day made two things pretty clear: A cold front was pushing in from the north, and temperatures were expected to fall into the single digits by the next morning. The shallow swamp I usually hunted was going to be a block of ice -- so it was time to dig out the layout boat, because with the cold weather come the cold-weather ducks. And a few of us "crazy" people are usually there to welcome them in our layout boats.


Quickly becoming a lost form of waterfowling, layout hunting has roots that go back to the commercial hunting industry of the eastern shores, in which layout boats were used alongside sinkboxes (now illegal in the United States) by commercial waterfowlers, who -- since more ducks meant a bigger paycheck -- knew better than anyone about their effectiveness.

In principle, layout hunting from a boat is very similar to layout hunting in a field, in which you literally lay yourself down to create a profile low to the ground. Layout hunting from a boat is based on one fundamental principle: Diving ducks in flight skim just above the water. If a diving duck looks across a lake, it sees at eye level -- usually about 2 to 5 feet above the surface. Flying so low, it can't look down and see you, so to hide, you lie in a boat riding so close to the surface that your decoys conceal your profile.

This obviously puts a little bit of a spin on traditional waterfowl hunting, in which you see ducks overhead, call, decoy them, and shoot. With layout hunting, you and the ducks are eye to eye.


Equipment for layout hunting isn't really more expensive or extravagant than what you'd need for any other form of waterfowling -- it's just different. The core of the rig consists of the layout boat, the chase boat, the decoy spread, the tow bar (if you choose to tow your layout boat), anchors and ropes, and "camouflage." (Cont'd) Here's a general description of each:

'¢ The layout boat -- It might look a bit odd at first to anyone who's never seen one. Layout boats come in one- or two-person models, are made of wood, fiberglass, aluminum, and even plastic, and are only about 18 inches high. Most layout boats I've seen are homemade.

They range in length from 12 to 16 feet and are from 6 to 8 feet wide (the wider the boat, the more stable it is). Those measurements are at the discretion of the builder; the following two aren't: (1.) They're no more than 20 inches tall. (2.) They have a flat bottom, as they're intended to sit on the water, not ride in it. Most layout boats are in the shape of a teardrop or pumpkin seed.

The one I hunt out of was built in the 1920s and used on Lake Michigan. My dad has had it since he was in college. Every year we pull it out, fiberglass the heck out of it, paint it, and go. (With homemade boats such as ours you can expect a little seepage and maintenance work before the beginning of each year, especially if the boat's made of wood.) Plans are available to anyone interested in building one; for the less ambitious, some layout boats are available commercially; but are pricey.

'¢ The chase boat -- This boat is, as its name says, the boat used to chase downed birds, transport hunters and decoys, tow the layout, and watch the gunners. Basically, any well-built, rigid johnboat with at least a 30-horsepower outboard will work. It should be deep and seaworthy.

'¢ Decoys -- The makeup of the spread is really up to the hunters; use as many or as few as you want. Just remember that you're in the middle of a large body of water and you need to show up. Large, bright, decoys are best. I seem to have the best luck with oversized foam decoys. Any species of diving duck decoy will work, and if they're legal on the body of water you're hunting, goose decoys and even swan decoys show up clearly from a distance. All you want in layout hunting is to get the ducks' attention. You're in the middle of the lake where ducks feel comfortable. Get their attention, and they'll come to check you out.

'¢ The tow bar -- A piece of equipment unique to this style of hunting, this is just a frame that sits above your transom to which you attach ropes to tow the layout boat. Don't just throw ropes on a bar you construct and expect to go hunting. Rope length and frame height might require some fine-tuning before you're able to tow your boat. When your lengths are correct, the layout boat should get up on plane just like the boat and follow behind the boat as fast as you want. (A word to the wise: Don't slow down too fast -- the layout you're towing doesn't have brakes!)

'¢ Camouflage -- Well, kind of. Layout hunting requires some "special attire." I usually hunt in blue jeans (weather permitting) and grey sweatshirts. You want a shirt to match the boat color, and battleship gray with white and black ripples is the standard layout color scheme. I also wear a black or white hat, which at a distance looks surprisingly like a diving duck moving around. Bear in mind that when the temperature drops, you're at eye level with the water, and the spray and wind can be cold.


The two basic methods of rigging your layout boat spread both require one crucial element: a solidly anchored layout boat facing directly downwind. The boat must be facing downwind in order for the fast-flying divers to come upwind right into your lap. In order to set the boat correctly, just throw out an anchor attached to the stern and let the wind right the boat. Once the boat has turned downwind, attach another anchor to the bow.

Now come the decoy spreads. There are two main ways to set up decoys around a layout boat rig.

In the first method, which I prefer, you attach your decoys to lines somewhat as you would hooks on a trotline. I run five lines, one -- what I call the "main" line -- attached to the front of the boat and run downwind. It's about 20 yards longer than the four "outside" lines, which run parallel to the main line, the farthest outside line being no more than 30 yards away. I use 3-pound weights to hold the lines in place. They must be straight; if slack's present in the lines, they'll curve into C-shapes and thus make this setup ineffective. At the base of the layout boat I throw out about 15 "singles," individually strung decoys that close the "runways" created by the lines.

This spread works because diving ducks aren't the smartest creatures on earth. They see the setup from the sides, and turn upwind. Once they see the runways that the lines have created, they fly right up them, like jets coming in for a landing. When they reach the singles, they either plop down -- not much backpedaling with divers -- or shear off. The whole process usually takes seconds at most.

As long as the lines are straight, this rig will work effectively on all

divers and shovelers. And teal seem to like it as well as geese do.

I like this rig because it's quick to set up and to pick up. I and a buddy or two can set this rig up in about 15 minutes and have it picked up and gone in about 25.

The second method of rigging a layout boat involves the use of single-strung decoys, usually placed in a "J" formation with the layout boat being placed in the curve. This formation is deadly for getting ducks right in your face -- a range of 5 to 15 yards is no exaggeration. I don't use this rig, because the thought of wrapping 30 feet of string around 88 decoys is neither an appealing nor a quick task (especially when your gloves are freezing to your hands).

My preference for layout hunting is as a leisurely experience for the weekend --one as little like work as is possible. However if you've ever wanted to see a duck's pupils before you shoot, this is the rig for you.


OK -- so now you have a rig. But where do you put it? The answer's really pretty obvious: out in the middle. Layout boats are not meant to be used around the shore. The idea is to get as far from the shore as you possibly can, out where diving ducks raft and make their floating homes -- especially when all waterfowl species wise up to the fact that, when they fly around the banks, they get shot at. Also, layout boats should be limited to large reservoirs, river systems, etc., where diving ducks congregate.

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