DELTA MARSH, MANITOBA – Everything is as it always was, here at the Sports Afield Duck Club, founded by Jimmy Robinson.
Framed photos of famous and not-so-famous duck hunters line the club’s walls, along with vintage artwork and cabinets full of wooden duck calls, and fading posters of hunters raising their guns in advance of winged fowl banking toward decoys on cold mornings.
And through a narrow, winding hallway, behind the big gathering room with a fireplace … that’s where Jimmy’s guests played gin rummy after dinner. And told stories.
From Jimmy’s “Bull Cans of the Delta”:
Wife Clara and Edith were busy closing up the camp for the season and Walt Bush and I were the only hunters left. Outside the clamor of the Arctic wind made us smugly content to be safely inside by a glowing stove and occasionally sampling the aroma of roast canvasback wafted in from the kitchen.
Then, even the wind seemed still by comparison with the human juggernaut that burst through the door of our hunting hack. Walt even dropped his gin rummy hand to stare at the intruder.
“Cheemy, da big bull seelver cans are here!” It was Rod Ducharme, the giant, black-thatched French Canadian from nearby St. Ambroise.
“What’s here? I’m sleeping in the morning.”
“Seelver cans, Cheemy. Da big bulls. I tol’ ya about dem. Ya said t’ be sure t’ let ya know if dey come or ya break my neck. I come here as fast as my truck go.”
Jimmy is Jimmy Robinson, born in 1897 in Kent, Minn., and died in 1986 in the Twin Cities. Diminutive and given to gab, Jimmy was a legend while alive, and remains one in death. He wrote for Sports Afield magazine, raised millions of dollars for waterfowl conservation, was a friend of luminaries coast to coast, and spent no hour as an adult, whatever the season, not thinking of waterfowl.
This was particularly true at his duck camp here on Delta Marsh, about an hour’s drive northwest of Winnipeg.
Jimmy founded his original camp in 1935 in an old farmhouse near Portage Creek, toward the marsh’s west end, before replacing it with the current structure in the village of St. Ambroise in 1958.
This second location allowed Jimmy’s French Canadian guides better access to both the east and west ends of Delta, which measures some 50 miles long, and up to 4 miles across.
That Jimmy became pals with Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Robert Stack, Annie Oakley, Babe Ruth and hotel magnate Barron Hilton, among other notables, might seem surprising, given his small-town roots.
But in his day, trapshooting and particularly skeet shooting were sports that conveyed a particular social status, and Jimmy, through his writings, largely controlled who was celebrated in those sports and who was picked for national shooting honors. So his stories in Sports Afield were closely followed, and his favor curried.
In addition, by all accounts, he was a great guy.
A letter Hemingway sent to Jimmy, datelined Cuba, April 11, 1957:
There’s been no current in the Gulf Stream here so fish haven’t run and I’ve been working hard. Take good care of yourself Jimmy and give our best to Clara. Mary was sorry to miss you both in Minneapolis. She had no time for anything except be with her mother. I’d love to get out and shoot with you and Homer Clark if we aren’t in Africa. Will keep in touch. Best always. Your friend, Papa.
Though Jimmy was well-known for the millions he raised for ducks, fewer realize he was instrumental in starting Pheasants Forever.
The year was 1982, and one day I was visiting Jimmy at his home in St. Louis Park, explaining the bird club’s concept.
Already on my annual trips to Delta, I had been stopping at his camp to chat. Usually this was after my friend Willy Smith and I had finished a morning’s hunt, and before we returned to our motel in nearby Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
During those visits, to my delight and Willy’s, Jimmy entertained us in the fireplace room, recalling hunts past and people known, often over a finger or two of tanglefoot.
Later, after hunting season, at Jimmy’s home, he interrupted my Pheasants Forever dissertation and reached for a phone.
“You’ll need money,” he said, and he called Bob Naegele, owner of a large outdoor advertising firm that bore his name, and a close friend.
“Ya, Bob, there’s a boy here who needs $3,000, and he needs it now. Make the check out to Pheasants Forever and mail it,” Jimmy said. Next he called Vern Aanenson, owner of Old Dutch Foods and, like Naegele, a duck hunter and friend, and issued a similar demand.
“That seemed easy,” I said.
Said Jimmy, “There’s more where that came from.”
• • •
On Thursday, I stopped again at Jimmy’s old camp, after many years away.
This time I was hunting Delta with my son, Cole, and his pal, Max Kelley, both 18, the three of us freelancing on the big marsh, just as Willy and I had done years ago.
In showing the boys Jimmy’s place, I wanted them to gain a sense of Delta’s history, and the history of all duck hunting, and of conservation.
And gain a sense as well how places and people can join to form important traditions worth retaining.
“Come on in,” David Reese said.
David, of River Falls, Wis., a retired Twin Cities law firm administrator, is manager of Jimmy’s old camp, which is now owned by Rick Wallin of River Falls.
Jimmy bequeathed the camp to Rick’s dad, Dick, for good keeping, and when Dick died, Rick took over.
As Jimmy did, Rick runs the Sports Afield Duck Club (www.jimmyrobinsonsducklodge.com) as a commercial operation, open to the public. And, this season, to great hunting, already including big flights of “da big bull seelver cans,” otherwise known as canvasbacks.
One guy on site this week was from Montana, a couple were from Illinois, and more from Minnesota.
And just as Jimmy did, Rick and David employ members of the Lavallee and Ducharme families, among other locals, to guide, cook and clean — duties they perform with pride and dedication.
Noting the camp’s pristine condition, I said to Max and Cole, “This is as much a museum as it is a hunting club.”
So it is. And in good hands, too.
For which Jimmy, I’m sure, is grateful — eternally.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org