Saturday, January 7, 2012

Layout Boat, Briefly

Today was a special day for some of my favorite sportspeople...I took Josh and Kali, both friends of mine, on a layout boat hunt for scoters. I've got a great boat that keeps a very low profile. It's a Great Lakes-style boat, meaning it has a combing (or sprayskirt) and it's more rectangular than pumpkinseed or saucer shaped as Texas-style or Maritime Canada boats might appear. Nevertheless, my disgust for the weatherman grows with each layout hunt. There are 3 things that layout hunters must consider when going on a layout boat: Targeted Species, Gear Load, and Weather. Here's where my fun begins...

I layout hunt for Black and Surf Scoters. I call it a Blackout...drakes only, hopefully! Nevertheless, I rarely see other birds in good numbers, even though I have decoyed pintails in October, teal in January, and every diver except a goldeneye virtually each trip after Thanksgiving. But it's so incidental, that it's not worth the extra decoys. One should never expect to kill mallards, or other puddlers for that matter, on the open water of the extra salty Pamlico or Albemarle Sounds. If you want to kill scoters in North Carolina, the Pamlico Sound is the place. Sometimes, I'm so successful at bagging scoters, that I feel as if I should be a guide. Obviously, it would be Blackout Outfitters.

The Gear Load, I tell ya, is the meat of the matter. Layout hunting and primarily targeting scoters, even from shore, requires a different approach. I'll discuss this from the layout hunters standpoint.

  • Decoys: I buy the cheap-ass Flambeau mallards when they go on sale...a dozen for 20 bucks is hard to beat. I'll never shoot a mallard in North Carolina, so I immediately open the box, remove the plastic from each duck, and paint it with black spray paint. Dead flat black is all that is needed. Glossy black is no good. I even have about 3 dozen crab pot buoys that are black. I've also used gallon milk jugs painted black. It sounds ridiculous, but all of the above work. I have even decoyed them to my cork scoters that I carved. There's no need to buy the GHG decoys unless you really think it matters. Still, scoters - and most other ducks - are almost easy to decoy when you leave the confines of the Gentleman's Shoreline Blind. Black and round is good. Leave the mojo in the garage, too. A flag to wave is also very valuable. Since calling scoters is a giant wate of time, the flag i how you hail their attention. I wave my black Stormy Kromer cap at them. I've flagged them in from a mile, no joke. Back to decoys...don't show up with less than 50, while  100 or more are the norm.

  • Decoy Rigging: All of my decoys are on 3/8" mainline rope. I use the Rig'em Right brand because I kinda know the owner...well, his brother anyway. But it's the best stuff at the best price. Each decoy has a springy clip, as seen on lobster lines, that is used to connect the decoys to the lines. Each line is about 150 feet long...with the front and back 20 foot sections devoted to being underwater, attached to anchors. For anchors, I use bricks...usually three on the front, and one on the bag. Old sections of chains, cinder blocks, and weight plates are all good...just make sure that each weight will grab the bottom with angular edges and that it weighs around 10 pounds. Also, but big plastic 40 gallon trashcans. Each trashcan will hold approximately 20 decoys. I use 5 per trip. Nevertheless, Once the decoys are attached to the mainlines, I never take them off unless they get tangled. They're easy and lightning fast to deploy and pickup. All the guides do it, too...

  • Clothing: Wear black or gray. Wool and synthetics. and snug neoprene waders. Brown and green does not exist on open water, so ducks flare over it. The layout boat is traditionally gray, so it blends with the water. I put mine right in the middle of my decoys, so the profile of the layout boat actually helps to provide the illusion of a dense flock of feeding scoters. Also, always bring an extra full change of clothes.

  • Gun and Ammo: I use a 20 gauge semi, choked full, with #2 steel. Shots are close and I'm fairly accurate at those ranges. Full chokes deliver the payload in a tight wad. Crippled sea ducks almost always get away. As soon as a scoter hits the water I follow up with an immediate finishing shot on the water. Most people shoot twelve gauges. Still, a full choke is the absolute best when it comes to serving lethal shots. Always bring two boxes of shells, too. When I take my 12 bore, I always shoot 3" shells. Call me old fashioned...I call it thrifty and whimpy...

  • Miscellany: Only idiots leave shore without multiple forms of communication, including rescue flares. I keep a pail on board for bailing out the layout boat on rough days. Also, a dry box with bandages and bandaids for rope burns is good. Also, I bring two anchors...already tied on a line. Where the line attaches to the boat, I tied of crab pot floats...that way if I have to make a quick run in the tender boat , I can just unclip the rope and hassle with the anchor later. Also, I keep an extra 200 feet of rope on an orange spool that are commonly used to store extension cords. Extra rope is good for towing or replacing a broken motherline! VHF radios are good, but I prefer cell phones. Also...bring plastic zippered bags to stuff electronics into at the ramps. Everything will get wet, no questions asked. Also, hunting open water without a GPS is like going in a corn maze blindfolded. Generally, I hunt where land isn't visible, so a GPS is perfect for getting to and from the hunting area. Make sure to take extra batteries for it, too! Also, a boat repair tool kit such as simple wrenches and screw drivers are good, too. Binoculars are good to have when the tender boat is keeping an eye on the hunter in the layout boat. The tender boat generally sits downwind and 400-500 yards away from the layout boat. And don't forget a lifejacket for the layout boat! A 5 foot dip net is also handy for retrieving ducks.

  • Boat: The bigger, the better. Mine's a flat bottom boat, so it takes a whipping on the choppy waters. But it's sides are tall enough to keep water out, but low enough for hunters to trade out of the layout boat easily. Also, I strap my layout boat to the bow for transport. Some are towable, but mine isn't. A boat smaller than 17 feet is just too small. Mine's a Carolina Skiff, as are most of the others that go after scoters. Aluminum boats, with the exception of those Alaskan Lunds are useless when it comes to hauling all of the above gear. There's simply not enough room. Either way, the Tender Boat is "base camp" for the layout hunters. It holds the other hunters while they await they're turn in the layout boat. It keeps the snacks, dry clothes, cased guns, etc. It's important to have it big and well-stocked. A nimble, but fast craft is also needed. Sometimes, especially when the weather comes in, it's nice to have a boat that will run 30 mph when loaded. I like beating the guides back to the ramp the most, though.
The Weather: Weather is the most important thing to consider when layout hunting. Cloudy days with a light chop sea are pristine conditions. The layout boat can sometimes appear white in open, sunny days. Also, if prevailing winter wins are from a westerly direction, you're eventually staring directly into the sun. I will not fight the sun. Period. The light chop on the water helps the layout boat itself look like a small wave. A 10 foot long, 4 foot wide, and 6 inch deep gray boat absolutely disappears in a light chop. Winds around 10 miles an hour are perfect my preferred locations, but those winds do different things for different areas. Rainy days are alright, as scoters don't seem tom mind. I've bagged them in all conditions, but when wind speeds are above 13 miles per hour, I DO NOT GO OUT. Four foot tall waves are daunting for the tender boat. A roller like that, while it won't flip a well-made layout boat, it will fill it with water in about a second. Then the layout boat, while refusing to sink, will still list recklessly and become a cold, wet, hazard. Summing up, avoid sunny days with westerly winds and all days with high winds. Very cold days, such as 20 degrees Fahrenheit are also dangerous as accumulating ice on a tender and layout boat can weigh down an outfit quickly.

Above all, layout hunting is almost a subculture to duck hunting. You were either born to do it, or you'll only do it once. Expect soaking, cold, bouncing hour-long stints in a boat the exact dimensions of your childhood bunkbeds. Expect your gun to rust. Expect to lose a cell phone or 4. Expect shots of less than 20 feet at some our country's least pressured, beautiful waterfowl species. Expect to want to go again and again!

Anyway, we got our limit, despite filling the layout boat with water and employing virtually all of the gear I mentioned above. Anything can happen to anyone, at any time. It's a wonderful, but risky sport. No ordinary asshat, whose only experience is this meaningless blog or some other write-up in a magazine should just up and go. Hire a guide. They'll put you on the birds and have the right gear. If you love it that much, invest your time and money. 

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