Minnesota has a long and storied history of duck hunting clubs, but few can trace their roots back more than a century. One that can is the St. Paul Heron Lake Gun Club, located on Heron Lake in extreme southwest Minnesota.
The club's existence, dating to 1913, reflects in many ways the arch of the state's waterfowling history, from a marsh and wetland mecca in the late 1800s that was home to millions upon millions of ducks, to an also-ran duck state whose shallow waters have largely been drained, ditched and degraded.
Still, Christopher Ward, 50, and his two sons, Charles, 22, and Connor, 20, will be on site at Heron Lake on Saturday morning when the curtain lifts on Minnesota's 2014 waterfowl season.
"My grandfather, William Ward, and my dad, Charles, were both members of the club," Christopher Ward said. "I was first taken there when I was 13. Now my sons are members. So that's four generations."
Heron Lake was home to so many ducks in the mid-to-late 1800s that it often was referred to as the "Chesapeake Bay of the West." Canvasbacks inundated the lake in fall in such large flocks that school kids in the small town of Heron Lake rushed to classroom windows upon hearing their thunderous wing beats.
Heron Lake and the entire Prairie Pothole Region that stretches into the Dakotas and beyond were formed about 12,000 years ago, when glaciers receded. A mosaic of marshland and dry ground, covered in tall prairie grasses, was left behind.
Market hunting flourished at Heron Lake in the late 1800s. But by the turn of the century, the lake's canvasbacks, redheads and other ducks became relatively scarcer, and intense conflicts arose between market hunters and sportsmen, most of whom were from the Twin Cities.
Transportation to and from the small towns of Heron Lake and Lakefield was by train, and at the villages' railroad stations, Twin Cities weekend hunters (and often their dogs) were met by their guides and transported to their respective duck clubs in advance of Saturday morning's shoot.
Until the end of the 1800s, market hunting continued apace, and one hunter reported he was paid "50 cents for canvasbacks, 35 cents for redheads and prairie chickens, 25 cents for mallards, 12.5 cents for blue-winged teal, 10 cents for pintails, gadwalls, green-winged teal, ruddy ducks, jacksnipe, wilson snipe, large yellowlegged snipe, golden plover, and upland plover."
But inevitably, conflicts escalated between professional hunters and sportsmen, and in 1901, Minnesota outlawed market hunting.
Still, duck hunting at Heron Lake continued to decline. Common carp were introduced to Minnesota in the late 1800s, and they quickly muddied the state's waters, stunting aquatic plant growth — so much so that one Heron Lake survey in 1922 didn't find a single celery plant, ducks' favorite food.
Additionally, farmland ditching and draining accelerated. And more people moved in: In 1870, 2,655 people lived in Minnesota's four southwestern counties. By 1900, the population was 53,700.
In 1913, when the St. Paul Heron Lake Gun Club formed (the successor to a still-older group, the Reeves Gun Club), it had 14 members; that number was cut to 11 by 1927. Today it has eight.
Conflicts arising at Heron Lake in the last half of the last century largely concerned the lake's water level, which is regulated in part by a dam on the lake's outlet.
Some argued the dam should be removed, allowing the lake to find its own level, depending on rainfall.
Others countered that the dam is necessary to maintain enough water in the lake to ensure boat travel and encourage the lake's game fish, among other reasons.
Farmers, wary of their lands being flooded in some years, also have entered the fray.
Today, some 10 duck clubs remain on the lake's north end, one of which, the St. Paul Heron Lake Gun Club, will inaugurate its 101st season a half-hour before dawn Saturday.
"There's nothing like going down there to hunt; it has a very calming effect," Christopher Ward said. "Typically, on the first day, it's fairly easy to get our limits, with 75 percent of our birds being teal.
"But it's not like it used to be. The mallard flights years ago were phenomenal, but we haven't seen them for 15 or 20 years.
"And last year, our club killed 120 ducks, about a fourth of what it once did, about 100 of which were killed the first three weekends of the season.
"We never really had a migration come through."