License-sales data mined by the Department of Natural Resources suggests as many as 243 waterfowlers age 80 and older will be hunkered in marshes or alongside wetlands a half-hour before sunrise Saturday when the latest edition of Minnesota duck hunting begins.

That’s how many small-game licenses, in combination with federal duck stamps, have been sold so far by the DNR to an age group that begins at the bottom end of the octogenarian decade and extends north to 93.

The 243 figure is impressive because duck hunting is in most instances physically challenging. No one on a lark rises at 4 a.m. or thereabouts and pulls on waders and heavy clothing before clambering into a two-bit camouflaged boat or blind. This is sport, yes, but also work, and rarely undertaken casually.

Yet perhaps the addictive nature of waterfowling and the passion with which it is pursued each fall by true believers explains the participation still of so many old-timers. Watching ducks, after all, and watching for ducks, is a habit that once formed is not easily broken. The sky and its limitless conformations are a part of this, as are, often, rising and setting suns. Silhouetted against these, a mallard or canvasback or wood duck reveals itself in ways both splendorous and mysterious. Either you understand this or you don’t, and those who do can’t get enough.

David Maass and Arnold Krueger, the former of the west metro, the latter from Le Center, will be among the 80-plus cohort who will be alert Saturday morning with scatterguns in hand when waterfowl become legal fare.

Lifelong friends, and men of artistic bents, the two first shared a duck blind in the mid-1960s. They’ve been inseparable on opening mornings every year since.

“For most of those years, a third friend, Barney Anderson, who is the retired chair of the Owatonna High School art department, also has been with us on opening day,’’ said Maass, a famed waterfowl artist.

The three met early in Maass’ career when he worked at Josten’s in Owatonna and painted wildlife on the side.

“I had already hung up my gun for the season,’’ Maass said. “It was November and most everything was frozen up. But I ran into Arnold, and he said he had a place we could go the next morning where there might be birds.’’

Born and raised in Aberdeen, S.D., Krueger from a young age bore varied tastes and interests. Fascinated by the thunderous flocks of ducks that pitched and whirled in autumn along South Dakota’s James River, Krueger was equally smitten by music. He took voice lessons at age 6, played piano at 7, and in eighth grade stroked his first violin. Majoring in music in college, he earned a master’s degree in the same discipline, and from 1950-2000 was orchestra director and string teacher at Owatonna High School.

Anderson, who has a few years on Krueger and Maass, and who has slowed a bit, thereby missing recent duck openers, taught Krueger to carve decoys and instructed him also how to paint the fake ducks.

So it has been for more than five decades — as it will be Saturday — that a couple dozen or so hand-carved wooden blocks will grace the waters in front of the blind shared by Krueger and Maass; decoys whose intent is to lure teal and wood ducks to within shotgun range.

The 230-acre wildlife mecca on which the pair will hunt was purchased by Krueger and his late wife, Erlys, in 1972. On the property is a 45-acre marsh and adjoining ponds; resources that over many decades have been managed and improved by Krueger with an eye to benefit not only waterfowl but all wildlife.

“My place is not for anything but the birds and animals,’’ Krueger has said.

Maass, meanwhile, a two-time winner of the federal duck stamp competition and acclaimed worldwide for his wildlife paintings, particularly those of ducks, says that as much as a fifth of his artwork has been inspired by his first-day hunts with Krueger and Anderson.

“Barney, Arnold and I are all alike, that’s why we hit it off,’’ Maass said. “After all these years, Arnold still lives for ducks and duck hunting, and Barney and I do, too.’’

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com