Brainerd, Minn. – One of my uncles gave me a bolt-action, 20-gauge shotgun 48 years ago. With that gun I shot my first duck.
A friend’s dad took us to a sprawling wild rice marsh not too far from town on the opening day of duck season. I downed the duck (a redhead) shortly after the noon opener. When the duck hit the water, I jumped in the boat and rowed like I was possessed to pick up my prize. Actually, I was possessed.
The event doesn’t seem all that long ago in my mind.
I clearly remember my friend’s dad saying, “I’ve never seen anyone row so fast.”
What’s the point?
Since that opening day 48 years ago, I’ve missed only one opening day on the marsh. Some nonhunter decided to get married on the coveted day.
My friends and I didn’t just hunt this marsh. We would go just to watch ducks during the spring migration. At first, we were too young to drive. Then, one of our parents would drop us at the marsh. “Pick us up after dark,” we’d tell them.
Even now I continue to visit the marsh in the fall to hunt waterfowl. In the spring, I photograph them. But it’s not the same. The ducks are no longer abundant.
We witnessed ducks by the thousands back then when our timing was right. Sometimes the sky would be full of ducks, ringnecks mostly, but most species were represented to some degree. We marveled at the resonance a flock of ducks, especially scaup and ringnecks, made as they descended from on high, their cupped wings tearing the sky like some sort of fighter jet.
During the 1970s and ’80s, before the duck opener, we’d hunt ruffed grouse in the woodlands along the shore of the marsh. It was not prime grouse habitat; we knew that. Yet we hunted there because, at sunset, we’d stand on shore, eyes to the sky, and watch ducks. There were thousands.
Remarkably, over 48 years, the wild rice marsh has not succumbed to man’s destructive intrusion similar to what’s happened to prairie potholes and grasslands in parts of Minnesota and other states. I’m amazed at how little the marsh has changed. Wild rice still grows profusely, and duck weed covers the water’s surface in calm bays. Sadly, the only things missing are the ducks — at least, large numbers of ducks.
Sure there have been down years. Sometimes the wild rice crop was a near failure, and ducks thinned like the stems of rice. And during drought years, waterfowl numbers suffered. I recall a few years when the daily bag limit was reduced to a mere three ducks.
But, on average, each year the marsh has attracted fewer and fewer waterfowl.
So, where are they? It seems not even the waterfowl experts, those that oversee our duck populations, can agree on how many ducks actually exist.
Most ardent hunters agree that the youth waterfowl hunt and the hunting of Canada geese over water before the Minnesota duck opener moves some ducks out of the state.
More puzzling to me is where are the ducks in spring? And why the seeming steady decline at the marsh where I shot my first duck on opening day all those years ago and where I started my photography career in 1981?
Recently a friend and I had a conversation about the topic of the dearth of ducks in spring. “You need to look at life with your glass half-full, not half-empty,” I was told.
“Glass half-full?” I replied.
Consider this: Where once I hid in the rice with camera in hand and shot hundreds of images in April, I now shoot none.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.