SACRED HEART, MINN. — More than four decades have passed since Willy Smith and I first hunted ducks in the Minnesota River bottoms not far from this west-central Minnesota town, population 510. Hereabouts, fire whistles still blow at noon, and in Sacred Heart itself, on the north side of Hwy. 212, breakfast is served all day at Kathy’s Place, with a smile.
Friday evening when Willy put a match to the gas lights in the hardscrabble shack that has tended our bunch of duck hunters over many years, three of us were present: Willy, his son, Matthew, 23, and I.
The shack sits high atop a granite outcropping overlooking a small marsh flush with cattails. Inside are cots, a bunk bed, a gas stove for cooking and wood-burning stove for heat. Decorating the walls are antlers of deer hunts long past, including those of Willy’s grandfather, a sportsman who traveled West each fall and sometimes returned with an elk. Copies of the New Yorker and Field and Stream are strewn about in equal numbers, helter-skelter.
We had come to hunt ducks on Saturday’s first day of the season. Matthew had made the trip from South Dakota, where he is in pharmacy school, but Willy’s other two sons, Harry and Parker, couldn’t dodge their university obligations.
My two sons, Trevor and Cole, had grown up duck hunting here on the opener as well. But according to a text I had received from them, they were tented in a snowstorm, holed up in Montana, hunting elk.
“The mosquito problem is new,’’ Willy said, swinging the shack door open while holding a plateful of grilled brats. “They’re horrendous.’’
Darkness by then had gathered over the shack and the tangle of cedars surrounding it, and the bratwurst, along with baked beans, were soon washed down with a finger or two of tanglefoot. To the west, a July 4th-worthy lightning show was playing out against an ominously thunderous sky, suggesting the morning hunt might be a washout.
Contrary to popular belief, ducks don’t fly in the rain.
“I hope we see a few birds,’’ Matthew said. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. But some.’’
When Willy and I were Matthew’s age we regularly killed limits or near-limits of ducks on the opener in these same backwaters. Willy’s late mother, Mary Lou, and his dad, Bill, would meet us at the shack afterward with a pot of chili and a freshly baked pie. Bill owned the hardware store in nearby Renville and kept us supplied with shells and other necessities, no charge. As a bonus he also cleaned and wrapped the ducks Willy and I killed and sent them with us when we returned to school.
It’s been many years now since we’ve shot limits of ducks on the opener along the river the Dakota called Mnisota Makoc.
The water still looks like it did in the early 1970s. But save for the odd teal or wood duck, the birds just aren’t here anymore. Perhaps the water is too high, inhibiting growth of aquatic vegetation favored by ducks. Perhaps too many carp swim here. Or maybe the Minnesota and its backwaters are too awash with farm chemicals to support ducks.
Perhaps all of these and more.
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Dousing the lights, we departed the shack in the still-dark of early morning and wound along a bushwhacked path through the thick cedars.
Willy keeps two rowboats stashed in the backwaters that mostly don’t leak, and when we reached them, Jet, a young black Labrador of mine, clambered into one, along with Willy and Matthew and a mishmash of wood duck, teal and mallard decoys.
This was about 5:45 a.m., and throughout Minnesota, 75,000 or so other duck hunters were similarly engaged — their expectations in check but their hopes high.
For Willy, Matthew and me, legal shooting time came and went under an overcast sky against which we saw no ducks.
When a volley of shots rang out a mile or so to our west, we imagined a squadron of birds might soon pitch and wheel over our decoys before banking with wings set and landing gear down.
Not far away, at another camp, nine friends were by then seeing only a relatively few ducks, before ending the morning with six, mostly woodies. Farther north still, near Brainerd, the story was similar, with two friends scratching out six ducks.
Willy, Mathew and I passed the morning hidden among shoreline trees bathed in autumnal hues of yellow, orange and fading green, while Jet the black Labrador sat attentively.
Passing on some geese, we finished the outing with one wood duck in the bag.
This took most of the morning, each hour of it pleasantly passed, during which we relived previous openers and thought about Mary Lou and Bill and the others who for one reason or another didn’t make this first day of the season.
Doubtless, they thought about us, too.