The 80,000 or more Minnesotans who will hunt ducks at first light Saturday morning are a tough and deserving lot, the weaker among them long ago having been weeded out by frigid mornings, floods, droughts, wetland drainage, cretinous politicians and a public generally indifferent to the disappearance of healthy landscapes, all of which nowadays argue against game bags flush with mallards and teal, wood ducks and ringnecks.

Yet those fortunate enough to remain in the waterfowling fold will find comfort in company kept on the season's first day. Sunrise on a marsh edge or along a point dividing a shallow lake can bond even strangers. Herons in the half-light, crows lifting noisily from their roosts and the odd mallard backpedaling into decoys round out the picture.

Among those who will be looking skyward Saturday morning will be Bob Momsen of Mendota Heights. Now 83. Momsen will hunt near Leech Lake with Tim Bremicker, as Momsen did years ago with Bremicker's father, Paul. Kids and grandkids will come and go as well, some younger, some older, each attracted to this autumn ceremony by waders oozing in mud, decoys splashing in the dark, shots made and missed, and dogs eager to retrieve.

Matt Keller, late of Bemidji and now living in New Zealand, where he, his wife and family minister to kids in need, will be absent on opening day this year -- a rarity.

"This is the first waterfowl season I've missed since I was old enough to hold a gun,'' he said by e-mail on Thursday. "I'd be lying if I told you I didn't miss it. And it has very little to do with fowl and has almost everything to do with those I hunted with.

"I miss sitting in the blind drinking coffee with my close friends. I miss the groups of young boys and their smiles when they just run their guns on a flock of bluebills with nothing to show for it. I miss the smells and sounds of an early morning on the marsh. Don't get me wrong: I'd love to pull the trigger this weekend and bring home a strap of teal to grill up. But most definitely that's not what I miss the most.''

Near Brainerd, meanwhile, wildlife photographer Bill Marchel has been on his computer late at night, watching on radar as ducks, geese and other birds migrate over Minnesota and the Dakotas, flights prompted by this week's cold front and north winds.

Gimpy -- he had a torn meniscus repaired last week -- Marchel nonetheless early Saturday morning will be at the tiller of his mud motor, shotgun soon locked and loaded.

But with him also will ride heartbreak: His good dog Axel, a Deutsch Drahthaar, died a few weeks back, a sad demarcation in the life of any waterfowler, particularly when it occurs on the cusp of hunting season.

It is true, as Marchel knows, that somewhere a puppy yearns also for a hunting partner, and is eager to tag along on opening morning, should an invitation be extended. But hunters who too eagerly fill the position of "best friend'' often do so with reservation: Memories of past opening mornings well-shared are too fresh. Conversely, arguing for a quick doggie replacement, waterfowlers widely believe that a duck worth shooting is worth being retrieved by a good dog, or at least a loyal dog, and absent one, pulling the trigger isn't so much an important part of anything. It's just pulling the trigger.

The other day, my older son, Trevor, called from Montana to say he has ducks lazing not too far from where he attends college.

But his broader intent in ringing my number was to be updated about opening day plans pending for me and his younger brother, Cole.

Already Trevor knew we would be joining my friend Willy Smith and his boys -- Matthew, Harrison and Parker -- at their shack in the backwaters of the Minnesota River in Renville County. Ducks don't live there like they once did. So any duck in the hand Saturday will be a trophy.

But ducks or no ducks, as I told Trevor, and he already knew, our opening day ritual will be unaffected. Oatmeal in paper bowls for breakfast, hot coffee in the blind, sandwiches for lunch. Then, toward dark, we'll put a match to charcoal, and while coyotes yip in the near distance, we'll cook duck, venison or both.

Wet dogs will be on site, of course, and the evening's chill will be chased away by a fire crackling in the wood stove. Willy and I might even take a shot at making our cots comfortable enough for sleeping by pouring a couple of fingers of tanglefoot. Either way, morning will come soon enough. So too the next opener, one following the other quickly as time goes on.

These and other rewards, perhaps even a few ducks, await the 80,000 or more Minnesotans -- a tough and deserving lot -- who will hunt at first light Saturday morning.

Dennis Anderson's Twitter name is @dennisstrib •