Dennis Anderson: Fall Dakota days

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2011 - 3:48 PM

We had ducks. That, and everything else about fall in the state just west, led to a satisfying hunt.

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Few places in the world are as enchanting as a South Dakota marsh in October. A few decoys set, the hope is that ducks — well into their southward migration now — will appear, offering the waterfowler a shot, and a memory.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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Here on the prairie in late afternoon the few cottonwoods still standing throw ever-longer shadows across bending grass. Sunlight demurs gracefully, and at day's end, land, water, sun and sky galvanize in a blush of reflections. The bystander feels insignificant.

I had a young dog with me, or we did, my son and I. This was one evening last week, and we were about to hunt a shallow lake north of Aberdeen. The watery depression had gathered perhaps 200 gadwalls, mallards and pintails, a number we estimated while glassing with binoculars from a nearby gravel two-track.

The afternoon had been bright and clear with little wind. Waterfowlers watch the weather closely, and the previous six days the wind had blown from the north. You can see birds migrate on weather radar, and in the past week, ducks, geese and songbirds rode favorable currents out of Canada and into North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as Minnesota.

So we had ducks. As a bonus, from the road the lake we would hunt seemed a likely roost, and we believed ducks would pile into it before sunset. But reaching it through the sea of standing corn that separated it from the road would be difficult. We would travel lightly: two guns, 18 decoys, two blind bags and cameras.

The young dog's name is Duke. He's 2 years old and except for the part about licking, his training is complete. He licks anything and everybody. Were he starved for affection, his behavior would be excusable. But he's more popular in our family than I am, even though he doesn't dispense allowances, the one card I have left to play.

Visiting the Dakotas in October, as prairies nod toward winter, should be on everyone's to-do list. Undulating gently, the landscape seems endless. Grasses that were green in summer are goldenrod. The sky is bluer now, too, and against it, vast combines gather the harvest. In turn, grain trucks hustle the produce to bulging silos, dust plumes trailing. Everything is in transition, and an incandescent autumn light casts it in a painter's sheen.

It's here, then, that waterfowler meets waterfowl. Many ducks and geese that are hunted are residents. Others begin their journeys in the sub-Arctic or even Alaska. But most arrive from the northern latitudes of the U.S. or Canada. Duck hunters universally want to see mallards over their decoys, but that often doesn't happen in earnest until November. So far this fall among migrants over the Dakotas and Minnesota it's been mostly gadwall, widgeon and pintails, and some divers: buffleheads, redheads, canvasbacks, ringnecks and bluebills.

Our gear ready, my son, Cole, and I hoisted our decoys onto our backs. Eyeballing our destination, we stepped into the corn. Duke the licking dog was at my heel, and little by little he was learning the ways of the vagabond hunter.

Already on the trip he had bagged his first illicit motel room, tiptoeing through a side door of our rental establishment, out of the innkeeper's sight. Also, television broadcasts of the World Series, the sleep aid of choice among tired waterfowlers, seemed easily to knock him out for the night, even with the lights on. So he fit in.

Reaching the small lake, we arranged the decoys on it just so. Mystery pervades all of waterfowling, and among topics hotly debated is just how to sucker these birds close enough for a shot. Everyone with a pulse and an old Winchester, or a new one, has an opinion. Anyway, we got the blocks set. Then Cole and I dissolved into the tules that surrounded the lake, camouflaged.

The trip's surprise was that Duke stopped licking when the business end of a duck hunt began. I found a muskrat house to sit on and he snuggled alongside me, his eyes alternating between the decoys and sky. The shallow lake we hunted blended into a shallower marsh on one end, and I thought how different this hunt was than our hunt that morning, when icy fog hung low until nearly noon. Now the sky was clear and the early evening windless.

As if cued, overhead, a drake pintail slipped air through its wings and cascaded through fathoms of altitude, presenting a tricky shot.

Cole squeezed off one round, missing. Again he banged away, and again, and I lobbed a couple of good-luck tracers of my own. All the while, the duck put distance between itself and us, and would be decoy shy a long time.

The shank of the day enveloped us. Ducks in the area were unsettled. They lifted off nearby wetlands and dropped down again, looking for places to roost. Cole popped one that pitched into our decoys, then another, both gadwall that tumbled wingtips over webbed feet into the lake, splashing. Another pintail wheeled over us, wings cupped, and backpedaled feverishly when we stood, shouldering our guns, folding him. All the while to the east, darkness gathered. The shooting we had would soon be over. Alongside Duke were the ducks he had retrieved.

When it was ended we hung our birds in a game keeper and picked up the decoys one by one.

Somewhere in the distance cattle bawled, while from above, ducks, carefree now under a blanket of darkness, landed feet-first in the shallow lake, safe for the night. For the waterfowler, this was the heart of it: the dank marsh. The torched western sky. The yip of a coyote.

And a weighty game carrier slung over a shoulder.

Walking back to the truck through the corn we stopped once to rest.

I couldn't see the dog.

"Duke,'' I said.

As quickly, he licked my hand, and we moved on, bending against the weight of our gear.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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