As the eastern horizon warmed with the approaching dawn, Samuel Nelson, 14, of Sartell, Minn., cradled his shotgun, hoping that a duck or goose would come in range. But instead of hunting over a remote marsh in a rural county, Nelson was sitting in a cornfield owned and maintained by the city of Anoka.
Nelson and a dozen other young hunters were participating in the Waterfowl for Warriors youth hunt Sept. 7, an initiative of the Anoka Parks and Recreation Department. Another dozen adults volunteered, arriving before 5 a.m. to set up hunting blinds and place decoys in the field and a nearby section of the Rum River.
At 5:55 a.m., in a shelter at the Anoka Nature Preserve, Scott Wahl stood on a picnic table and gave a safety talk, reminding the young hunters to point their gun barrels up, load only one shell, and fire only after the pit boss calls the shot. The camouflage-clad kids and mentors then climbed into trucks and were shuttled out to their hunting spots.
Six years ago, Wahl, 55, a Minnesota state patrol trooper, and George Walker, 43, an Anoka police officer, approached the Anoka City Council with a proposal to use city property for veterans and active duty military officers to hunt. Their idea was warmly received, and then-council member Jeff Weaver, 61, joined Wahl and Walker in planning and running the first Waterfowl for Warriors hunt.
“We’ve had hunters out here who’ve served in every conflict from World War II through Afghanistan,” Walker said. “Some of these guys have been in some pretty nasty stuff, and a lot of them don’t care if they ever fire a shot. They just love being out here.”
Jeff Nelson, 51, is a lieutenant colonel in the Minnesota Army National Guard 84th Troop Command, stationed in Cambridge, and he’s participated in several of the Waterfowl for Warriors hunts. “I’ve gotten to talk to guys who were in Desert Storm, Korea, and World War II and hear their stories,” he said.
As the event grew, the Anoka Parks and Recreation Department took it over, and two years ago it added a hunt on Youth Waterfowl Day for the children of service members. That is what led Samuel Nelson to be sitting next to his father, Jeff, when the first two mallards flew over at 6:25 a.m. But the ducks whizzed by too fast for anyone to even shoulder a gun.
Around 7:30, a pair of Canada geese cupped their wings and put out their feet, preparing to land among the decoys. Shots rang out, and someone at the other end of the line dropped one of the geese. The second honker, undeterred, circled the setup, and Samuel, a member of the Sartell High School trap shooting team, felled the bird with one shot.
More ducks buzzed the blind over the next hour, but they all escaped to safer landing spots. Meanwhile, many shots rang out from the other half of the group, set up a few hundred yards away along the Rum River. At 8:30, the field hunters and the river hunters switched spots.
Samuel took a seat in a folding chair behind a thatch of sticks and brush along with other kids as young as 10, overlooking a secluded pool of the Rum peppered with floating decoys. Solo wood ducks occasionally teased the hunters, landing past the decoys and out of range. Then a mallard hen flew in for a closer look, and once again Samuel did not miss. Weaver sent his chocolate Labrador retriever, Chippy, into the water, and the dog ably retrieved the duck.
Back at the picnic shelter after the hunt, volunteers grilled burgers and hot dogs for the young hunters and their chaperones. Jon Zinnel of Federal Premium Ammunition, an Anoka-based company that supplies all the shotgun shells for the group, handed out hooded sweatshirts to the kids.
Smiling after a successful morning, Samuel said it was nice of Anoka to allow the hunt. He looked proudly at the duck and goose at his feet. “We’ll make jalapeño poppers with these,” he said.
Tony Jones is a writer and theologian from Edina. Reach him at ReverendHunter.com.