– Sometime in the late 1990s, Jay and Gary Haut of Jamestown, N.D., went to a team goose shoot in Bottineau, just south of the Canadian border. Unfortunately, geese hadn’t yet started to migrate. The hunt was a bust. But the idea got the brothers thinking. Their family roots were in Gackle, 200 miles south, known for sloughs, potholes and abundant local ducks.

The Haut brothers gathered a couple of other guys, formed a committee and in 2002 they launched Duck Fest, an effort to give their struggling small town an economic boost, and to improve the often tense relationship between hunters and landowners.

“It really helps the businesses in our little community,” said Warren Zenker, who’s farmed near Gackle since 1986. “I’ve had land in Duck Fest for the last 15 years, and you build the relationship with the hunters.

“All we ask is that when you come, you ask permission to come on the land, and you show respect. The respect from the out-of-state hunters in particular has been fantastic,” he said.

In the inaugural festival, 12 four-man teams competed. The second year, registration was capped at 30 teams, many from Minnesota. That limit still stands. And on the wall at the Gackle American Legion Hall, headquarters of Duck Fest, hangs a list of 33 teams on the waiting list. They’d better not get their hopes up, because teams rarely drop out. The combination of great hunting and a party-like atmosphere breeds loyalty among the participants. The whole event has the feel of a family reunion.

Gackle, population 312, is like many small towns, a shadow of its former self. Half of the buildings on Main Street are closed, leaving little more than a bar, a Tastee Freez, the senior center, and the American Legion Hall. But the area does have loads of ducks, and that’s because it has water.

Minnesota farmers are draining their fields of standing water through a process called pattern tiling at ever-higher rates. While that allows them to harvest more crops, it’s pushed a lot of waterfowl out of the state. In south-central North Dakota, on the other hand, fields of corn, peas, soybeans and wheat are pockmarked with sloughs too deep to drain — basically a duck’s dream habitat, comprised of both food and water.

Every year on the waterfowl opener, dozens of hunters descend on Gackle for Duck Fest, including about two dozen Minnesotans. Among them is Jeff Weaver of Anoka. In 2003, he was invited to be on a team. He loved the experience so much that he came back the next year with a team of his own. This year, his team was comprised of his cousin, Tom Weaver of Anoka, their nephew, Colin Webster of Elk River, and Jim Johnson of Brainerd (and of NHL fame, including a stint with the North Stars).

On Thursday night before the event, the Hauts hold a lottery drawing, matching each team with a farmer’s slough. This year it was Oct. 9. On Friday, teams set out to visit their slough and scout. “Oh, we’ve analyzed it,” Jeff Weaver said that night. Because they didn’t find thick cover, they decided to employ the unconventional tactic of using layout blinds, usually reserved for field rather than water hunting.

Teams, which put up $500 to participate, attended a chili feed and a rules meeting Friday, at which Jay Haut made it clear that game wardens in the area take a special interest in Duck Fest and will be out in force in the morning. “We run an honest event,” he said — twice.

The next morning, Team Weaver departed the house it rented in Gackle at 5 a.m., in a couple trucks packed blinds, decoys and three Labs.

Later in the morning, teams began arriving at Gackle Country Club, a nine-hole course south of town, just after 9:30 a.m. to check in their ducks. There’s an award for the first team in, as well as for the biggest goose, the ugliest coot, and the most species shot. Jeff Weaver’s team rolled in at 11:30 a.m. with its limit of 24 ducks. Shooting is allowed at 30 minutes before sunrise, which was 7:03 a.m.

“The coolest thing,” Weaver said, “was right at that time, it was boom-boom-boom-boom.”

Other teams came and went before the 1 p.m. deadline, some with a full limit, one team with a single duck, and others in between. A trap shooting competition was canceled owing to weather (41 degrees and raining), but two foursomes did play in the Duck Fest golf tournament. And inside the clubhouse, arguably the most important part of the competition took place: Jay Haut rolled dice for each species of duck, assigning each a value from one to six. Although Weaver’s team shot a limit, 10 of those ducks were gadwalls, and Weaver was unlucky with the dice. Gadwalls were worth only one.

That night at the Legion Hall, the scene was standing room-only, with the equivalent of the town’s population in one building. Hunters and residents of Gackle ate a prime rib dinner downstairs, while the bar hopped upstairs. Donated raffle items included highly sought Jack Daniels barrels, shotguns and two football helmets signed by Philadelphia Eagles quarterback (and former North Dakota State star) Carson Wentz. Federal Ammunition of Anoka is a major sponsor, gifting 120 boxes of shells, a connection made several years ago by Jeff Weaver, who sits on the Anoka City Council. The Hauts donate all Duck Fest proceeds, more than $3,000, back to Gackle civic organizations including the volunteer fire department and the July 4th celebration.

While Team Weaver didn’t place among the finalists based on points, it got a consolation prize for bagging the most species with nine. No doubt the Weaver clan will return next year.

The Duck Fest waiting list will have to wait some more.

 

Tony Jones is a writer and editor in Edina. Find him at ReverendHunter.com.