The issue Friday night when we turned off the shack's gas lights was whether alarm clocks in sufficient number would awaken us at 4. We also wondered just how cold our two-bit clapboard hovel might get and whether a fire in the wood-burning stove would be required. Camouflage hanging from nails and cots carpeting the floor, this was as close to "Deliverance" as a fella could get without being in the movie itself.
As it happened, every weirdo jingle imaginable awakened our crew at the appointed hour. Smartphones in the hands of smart alecks will get you that: duck quacks rising from one cot, harps strumming from another, also car horns and various techno beats that have no place whatsoever in a backwoods shanty. Soon, oatmeal and orange juice were on the table. We wanted to eat more poorly, really laying into eggs and sausages. We just didn't have time.
Across Minnesota on Saturday morning when the state's most recent duck season opened, some waterfowlers surely had only short distances to cross from where they slept to where they hunted. This did not include us. Tangles of cedar and buckthorn needed conquering to reach our waters. Thankfully, the younger among our crew were happy to break trail, bags of decoys on their backs, trigger fingers itching.
With me were Parker Smith, a Willmar eighth-grader, and my son, Cole, a high school junior. On another stand overlooking a different portion of the same waterway were Matthew Smith, Parker's brother, and Neil Smith, the boys' cousin. We had another good gun not far away: Harrison Smith, brother to Matthew and Parker, and not far from him, Willy Smith, dad or uncle to all Smiths present.
Shooting time for us Saturday was 6:34 a.m. But the morning was dark. And cold. And windy, with strong gusts whirling from the north and northwest. Our decoys, once set, bobbed in mini-whitecaps, and I worried they might not attract even a whiff of winged fowl: Any blue-winged teal or wood duck worthy of its name should have ridden these nor'westers to Iowa and points south already on Friday.
Yet as the gloom of first light arched overhead, ducks took wing. Mostly these were teal. But reasonable smatterings of mallards also outlined themselves against the brightening sky. Watching every wing beat, Cole and Parker were as alert as sentries.
The morning's earliest fliers teased the two boys, who flamed their barrel ends but drew no feathers. But they chambered more cartridges, and more still, and soon a smattering of hard-luck ducks peeled away from their squadrons and somersaulted into the boys' decoys, dead.
Back, I'd huff when this occurred, directing Duke, the young black Labrador at my side, to retrieve.
The appeal here is to all of the senses: Smell, with the marsh's pungency; also the sight of waterfowl arrowing over water; the explosion of gunfire; and, finally, the telltale splash of a duck cartwheeling into water, a retrieving dog soon also on the crash site, eager to fulfill his birthright while earning a pat on the head.
Mark, Cole said, signaling that birds were approaching.
This was a tight knot of mallards he saw, banking hard against the chilled breeze before slipping air through their primary feathers and losing altitude.
Bang. The boys' shotguns echoed.
And twice more: Bang. Bang.
A big duck fell, and the boys reloaded.
Meanwhile, Neil, Matthew and Harrison, and Neil's good dog, Jade, also were having a day of it, jacking an occasional mallard but folding mostly teal before sleeving their scatterguns in late morning.
In the end, this was a day for brothers, cousins and friends, collecting as they did some 25 birds. Willy and I mostly looked on, as our next generation of waterfowlers, and the next generation still, entombed forever memories of big days over decoys.
The dogs were tired. We cleaned the birds. The sun set. We fired up the grill.
Before us soon was a duck feast on paper plates, the birds marinated first, then braised delicately, salad and beans on the side.
Harps strumming, ducks quacking, techno beats pulsating.
Sunday morning at 4, we looked forward to hearing each.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org