SWAN LAKE - Ducks were everywhere.
Buffeted by a howling south wind and peppered by rain drops, flocks of teal, mallards, wood ducks and redheads crisscrossed the gray sky over Swan Lake on Saturday.
The staccato of gunshots crackled like thunder around the lake, a barrage that didn't let up for an hour. It sounded more like a shooting range than opening day of Minnesota's duck season.
But opening day it was.
And it was an opener the 400 or 500 hunters on the sprawling 10,000-acre lake last weekend will recall fondly for a long time.
"It was one of the better openers we've had in many, many years," said Mike Hunziker, 60, of Lakeville, as he cleaned ducks. He and his hunting partner, Lee Carlstrom, 60, of Good Thunder, Minn., each shot their six-duck limits in an hour Saturday.
Hunters averaged 3.32 ducks, according to a Department of Natural Resources bag check that has been done since the early 1960s. "I believe that's the highest we've ever recorded," said Joel Anderson, DNR area wildlife manager. "Most years it's under two."Man, they were everywhere for a while," said Dan Kirchner, 51, of Mankato, who hunted nearby with Fred Froehlich, 58, of Nicollet. Dennis Simon, 55, of New Prague, and I hunted in a third blind.
The five are friends who are among hundreds of hunters who migrate like the ducks they love to Swan Lake in Nicollet County in southern Minnesota, one of the premier waterfowl lakes in the state and the largest prairie pothole marsh in the nation.
It's a place steeped with waterfowl hunting lore.
About 135 duck shacks with names like Mallard Hole, Quack Shack and Pintail Palace dot the lakeshore. Hunziker and Carlstrom own one, as do Simon and his brother.
Last weekend, the shacks -- some fancy, some spartan -- were filled with hunters gathering to renew a tradition.
A duck smorgasbord
When in prime condition, as it is now, Swan Lake is 10,000 acres of duck heaven -- shallow water brimming with vegetation. These days, however, only about half of those acres are covered with water. The rest is cattails or vast stands of grass.
That's because the DNR controls water levels at Swan, and it drew down the water last year after carp were discovered there. Carp uproot aquatic vegetation and degrade water quality. After lowering the lake to less than half its normal size, the DNR sprayed it with rotenone, a chemical that kills fish. The cost: about $200,000.
The carp appear to be gone. Some bullheads remain. The water is clear. Hunters could almost use a riding mower to traverse the lake instead of a boat -- it's that lush with vegetation.
"There's lots of wild celery and sago pond weed," said Anderson. "Everything is right at the surface for them to eat."
Those conditions attracted 20,000 ducks -- including about 16,000 teal -- to the lake before Saturday's opener, Anderson said.
Gaining access is difficult