RENVILLE COUNTY – The bird the eagle stole was a drake wood duck resplendent in colors a painter couldn’t imagine. The boys, Harry Smith and my son Cole had cartwheeled the woodie as it banked high over their decoys, splashing it 30 yards or so from their blind. This was Saturday morning, a little after 7, the first day of the Minnesota duck season.
Had another duck, a blue-winged teal, not appeared from an opposite direction just then, I would have sent our black Lab, Del, immediately for the downed bird. But this was a little burst of activity a half-hour or so into shooting time and I didn’t want to mess it up for the boys. So I watched a few long moments as the teal flirted with our setup, dipping one wing, then another, before disappearing with a whoosh of its wings. Such aerobatics transfix waterfowlers, and I watched intently. But the darting bird was gone nearly as quickly as it appeared, and now it was time for Del to earn his keep.
Which is when the eagle appeared.
Unknown to us, it must have watched from a vantage point not too distant as the wood duck the boys shot somersaulted into the Minnesota River backwater we were hunting. Will Smith, of Willmar, along with his brother, Dan, of Rapid City, S.D., have owned the property since the early 1970s, and the three of us have hunted it together since that time, when Will and I were in college together.
Now it’s the next generation’s turn, and Will was on site Saturday with his three boys, Parker, 13, Harry, 17, and Matthew, 19, as was Dan and his son Neil, 30, and I with Cole.
“Dad, that’s an eagle,’’ Cole said, drawing Harry’s attention, and mine, to the unlikely sight of an immense bird slipping air through its primary feathers and, with an angel’s grace, descending 100 feet or so. Aligned then with our bellied-up wood duck, the winged predator drew a bead on the dead bird as straight as a meridian, its talons extended.
Just like that the duck was vanished from our dinner menu. Nevertheless, we considered it a good trade, one wood duck for such a memorable sight. The wonder, really, wasn’t so much that the eagle had so easily absconded with a meal but instead how effortlessly it regained cruising altitude with the duck carried below it like a torpedo.
“He made that look easy,’’ I said.
And he did.
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In the historical scheme of things, Renville County never has been a wingshooter’s paradise.
Surely years ago, before so much of its land was cropped, seasonal soggy depressions and even permanent and semi-permanent wetlands were present in sufficient quantities to attract reasonable numbers of waterfowl. But the county never did boast a Heron Lake or Swan Lake or Lake Christina, the state’s long-recognized hot spots for mallards, canvasbacks and other ducks.
Yet the Minnesota River that snakes through the county, and the occasional sloughs that pockmark its margins, have over time provided some pretty fair shooting. Years ago, Willy, Dan and I always concluded our hunts with a handful of mallards to our credit, rounding out our tally with teal and woodies, also the occasional shoveler, gadwall or wigeon.
But no matter the birds in hand, the real attraction of hunting in this part of the state always has been the chance to gather in the Smith boys’ old shack that sits atop a rock outcropping in this very rocky country. Pretty much four walls with a more-or-less A-frame roof, the structure suggests hillbilly architecture of the type usually conceived on the back of a bar napkin. But there you have it.
Friday night, in anticipation of the opening day’s hunt, Willy and his boys and Cole and I fired up the grill that stands just outside the shack. Lori, Will’s wife, had stopped out and would join us for dinner, which in some variation always consists of meat and beans. The boys have joined in this fun since each could walk, or thereabouts, and fall quite easily into the rhythm of it all, which variously also includes target shooting, tall stories and generalized horseplay.
Considerable negotiations ensued after dinner regarding the time our morning alarms would ring. Legal shooting was about 6:37, we figured, so, given the gear we had to assemble and the long trail through cedar tangles we had to cross to reach our hunting water, 4 a.m. was the chosen hour. Breakfast would be oatmeal and then, soon, one more time, cartridges would be slipped into magazines, with one in the chamber, and the best time of the year would begin anew.
Of course we couldn’t know that an eagle would steal one of our ducks, or that we would see only about half the number of woodies and teal we saw a year ago on the opener, or that we would see so few mallards.