Whatever other members of the Monticello High School football team did after their bus arrived home from Duluth late Friday night, they likely didn't discard their street shoes and clothes for waders and a camouflage jacket. This was at midnight or so Friday, and those were the togs Ryder Beckman changed into, duck-hunting clothes.
A running back for the Monticello Magic team that beat Duluth East 49-26 Friday night, Beckman, 18, was dressing for a date with two buddies, Trevor Unruh, 21, and Riley McAlpine, 18, both of whom already were clad in waterfowl hunting outfits in advance of the season opener Saturday morning.
"Our plan was to be on the lake by 1 a.m. Saturday to get our spot," Unruh said, noting that shooting wouldn't start until about 6:33 a.m. "So as soon as Ryder got home from Duluth and changed clothes, we drove to the lake and launched our boat."
By "the lake," Unruh meant Pelican Lake, a nearly 4,000-acre shallow body of water in Wright County, not far west of St. Michael.
Though Heron Lake, Swan Lake and Lake Christina might be among Minnesota's most storied waterfowling treasures, none enjoys a more glorious past than Pelican Lake, a place where decades ago blue-winged teal mixed profusely with mallards, wood ducks, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks and bluebills, among many other resident and transient birds.
Enthusiastically, Unruh, Beckman and McAlpine launched their boat not long after midnight Friday.
"But when we got to our favorite spot on the lake about 1, someone was already there," Unruh said. "So we moved to this spot."
As Unruh spoke, he, Beckman and McAlpine looked in the still-dark of early morning toward a small set of decoys whose intent was to draw ducks to within shotgun range.
This was about 6 a.m. and a low-hanging sky spat mist.
Already the young hunters had been on the lake nearly five hours.
I, meanwhile, was a more recent arrival, tied up alongside them in a boat of my own.
• • •
If Fred Bengtson has anything to say about it, and he does, Wright County's Pelican Lake will some day be the waterfowl magnet it once was.
Bengtson is the Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager helping to oversee a long-term refurbishment of Pelican Lake, the intent of which is to lower and, as necessary, control its water level so it can again grow the aquatic vegetation that ducks and other wildlife prefer.
One of just 55 designated wildlife lakes in Minnesota, Pelican nevertheless in recent years has been known less for the wildlife it supported than the winter panfishing it provided. The lake's crappies and bluegills were widely sought after and each winter attracted throngs of anglers who shuffled onto the lake to try their luck.
But, in fact, Pelican is not a fishing lake — or at least wasn't before farms in its watershed began sloughing water from their drained wetlands into the rivers, creeks and ditches that flow into Pelican.
The surplus water raised the lake's level, killing needed vegetation while supporting fish that contributed to Pelican's turbidity.
State and federal wildlife managers have long dreamed of a modern-day Pelican Lake that more closely resembles its former self. To that end, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired 1,250 acres around Pelican for conversion to waterfowl production areas. And the DNR, with the aid of various nonprofit wildlife and conservation groups, particularly Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, has bought about 1,400 acres for wildlife management areas.
Primary recent funding for the project, including an outlet water control structure and pumping station, has come from the Heritage Fund, created by passage in 2008 of the Legacy Act.
Is it working?
"It is working," said Don Soderlund, 72, an accomplished wildlife artist and decoy painter who has lived on the lake with his wife, Laurie, since 1972.
"Over the years, farmers had dug ditches and drained wetlands and ran it all into the lake," Soderlund said. "Because there was no outlet, the lake level rose."
The Soderlunds' home is at once a waterfowling museum and a shrine to Pelican Lake, nearly every acre of which Soderlund has hunted.
"I've hunted here about 50 years," he said. "I've recorded nearly every duck I've shot on the lake, and since the early 1970s, we've tried to shoot drakes only."
• • •
At about 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Unruh, McAlpine and Beckman chamber rounds in their scatterguns. A south-southeast wind buffets their backs, and they scan the morning's dank sky for ducks.
Near and far, gunfire crackles, some shots sharp-sounding like firecrackers, others muffled by the breeze. Soon ducks are in the air, mere shapes at first, then, with the morning light, gathering their specific featherings and colors.
History, it is said, repeats itself.
Or so it did this day.
Soon, Pelican Lake was giving up ducks to Unruh, Beckman and McAlpine, just as it had in years past to Soderlund and countless others.