In 1925, Minnesota waterfowl hunters were restricted to 12 ducks daily, with 36 in possession, excluding wood ducks (which were off limits.) The season ran from Sept. 16 to Dec. 31, during which hunters could kill 120 birds in aggregate, with no more than six live decoys allowed at a hunter’s blind at one time.
Headlines that year shouted the news of a tornado that killed 689 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, and chronicled the midwinter marathon from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, by Gunnar Kasson and his 20-dog team led by Balto, a black husky, toting lifesaving diphtheria serum 674 miles in five days.
Considerably less fanfare in 1925 accompanied the founding of what is now known as the Kasota Kan Klub in west-central Minnesota, not far from Willmar.
Begun by waterfowlers who knew duck water when they saw it, the club was sited on a spit of land alongside Little Kandiyohi Lake, which in 1925 was, and remains today, not a lake in the traditional sense but rather a stretch of shallow water rimmed by bulrushes and cattails.
“The club was handed down and handed down, and my dad joined in 1967,” said Bruce Bjornberg, a retired pharmacist living in Willmar. “I joined as soon as I finished college, in 1970. There were six members then.”
Among all states, Minnesota was a waterfowler’s haven during the first half of the last century, and the idea of owning a place to hole up while targeting mallards and especially late flights of canvasbacks, redheads, ringnecks and bluebills was commonly held, whether on the shores of the Mississippi or alongside lakes named Heron, Swan, Christina, Leech, Winnibigoshish or Pelican.
Saving their pennies, Kasota Kan Club members added to their good fortune by building a shack on Little Kandiyohi Lake in 1942 at a cost of $275. And while the many-times-remodeled walls of that small structure cannot talk, with their duck paintings and photographs of members past and present they nonetheless fairly scream the legend and lore of Minnesota ducks and duck hunting. Unfortunately, those good times are in the rearview mirror on the cusp of another expected so-so season, which opens Saturday one-half hour before sunrise.
“We call it Big Duck Eve, the night before the opener, and as long as I can remember, we’ve been gathering at the Shack — that’s our name for it, the Shack — on the evening before the season starts to cook steaks, have a drink and talk big,” Bjornberg said. “It’s a tradition, and I look forward to Big Duck Eve as much as I do Big Duck Day, which is the opener itself.”
To the uninitiated, one hunting shack might appear like another, and another. But not really. The ramshackle trailers, lean-tos and generalized two-bit hovels where duck hunters gather arguably imbue their tenants with deeper kinship and more indelible memories than do shacks housing hunters of deer, grouse and pheasants. The poet Robert Service described people who exist at odds with life’s humdrum as men who don’t fit in. Duck hunters are among these, eschewing work and family as they do from early fall, with its blue skies and teal and wood ducks, to early winter, with its snowy mornings and the arrival on blustery north winds of bluebills, canvasbacks and ringnecks.
“When my dad retired, he set a Shack record by hunting 13 straight mornings,” Bjornberg said. “When I retired last year, I did him 10 better, hunting 23 straight mornings.
Depending on their shacks’ locations, Minnesota duck hunters can be specialists. Old Bill Ward and the gang at the St. Paul Heron Lake Gun Club, founded in 1913, counted stockpiles of hand-carved canvasback blocks among their decoys, whereas at Minnesota’s farthest north latitude, on Lake of the Woods, Charlie Hays’ camp features bluebill decoys, bluebill decoys and still more bluebill decoys.
Earlier this week, in advance of Saturday’s opener, Bjornberg brushed up the Kasota Kan Klub’s collection of mallards, teal and other fake ducks. Duck hunting has fallen on hard times in Minnesota, and only two club members remain, Bjornberg and his brother-in-law, Daryl Fritz. Yet big membership or not, ducks or no ducks, the decoys will be spread Saturday morning and the camp’s tradition will continue, as it has for more than 90 years.
“My late wife and I were married at the Shack, and we honeymooned there, too,” he said. “Before that, when I was in college in Indiana, when the shooting ended on opening day, Dad would call me with a report. I would hang on every word he said, asking how many and what kinds of ducks they saw and which direction the wind was from. I wanted so badly to be at the Shack on the opener.”
Doubtless, in 1925, and later, in 1942, while lounging proudly in their newly constructed shack, Winchesters at the ready, the founders of the Kasota Kan Klub felt the same way.
Like Minnesotans before them and still today, they were men who didn’t fit in, and from early fall to early winter, they eschewed work and family, waiting for just one more flight.