IN WEST-CENTRAL MINNESOTA - The answer is: 2:30 a.m.

And the question:

Just how early would Minnesota waterfowlers take to the state's public waters if the duck season opened a half-hour before sunrise, as it did Saturday, as opposed to 9 a.m., as it has in recent years?

Two-thirty was the time Saturday morning when I was awoken from an otherwise comfortable sleep at a federal Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) in this part of the state.

My son Cole and I had arrived at the empty parking lot of the marshy complex the night before and slept in our pickup camper, setting our alarm for 4 a.m. Legal shooting was about 6:40, and we figured the difference between the two times would be sufficient to gain us an early foothold on a good hunting spot.

We were right, we were wrong.

Right in that, paddling into the dark at 4 a.m., we found a great spot to set our decoys and wait for sunup and, with it, good shooting.

Wrong in that we were far from the first hunters on the marsh.

Among those on the water ahead of us were Josh and Brian Van Abel. Proving their mettle, the brothers hadn't passed the night restfully nodding off in a pickup camper, either.

Or, really, anywhere.

Instead they arrived at the WPA having departed directly from their homes in the Twin Cities -- pulling an all-nighter, as it were, for perhaps the most important subject they've studied: duck hunting.

In this part of the state Saturday, thanks to bountiful numbers of teal and sufficient flights of mallards and wood ducks, nearly everyone aced that class.

"We did have one problem,'' Josh said. "Shooting time came and Brian's gun wouldn't work.''

Cole, 15, seems able to handle most surprises. But had his 12 gauge not engaged when the first blue-winged teal arrowed over our spread of blocks Saturday -- given all we had done to position ourselves correctly on the season's first day -- mayhem might have ensued.

But discharge his scattergun did, and the speedy teal, banking into the bruise of crimson, orange and yellow that bled across the early eastern sky, somersaulted in a broad arc before splashing to its demise.

"Ben,'' I said, and our aging black Labrador, hunkered in the camouflage-painted canoe we had folded into the bulrushes behind us, vaulted into the chilled water.

Cole and I were weren't first on the marsh to shoot. Maybe third, fourth or fifth. Regardless, only minutes into the season, barrels heated up in all directions.

Among them was a 12 gauge shouldered by Fred Meyer. Sixty-nine-years-young and in the marsh alone, Meyer, of Bloomington, is originally from Mankato, near where many hunting seasons ago he bought a waterfowling shack for $60 on Swan Lake, once one of the world's duck-hunting Meccas.

"I later sold it for $360,'' he said.

Saturday, Meyer's return on investment was higher still. Hardly an hour into the season, he exited the marsh with his six-bird limit, standing in his canoe as he did, push-poling the craft smoothly in the morning's gathering light.

By then, the gunless Brian Van Able had struck a deal with his brother, Josh: You shoot a limit of birds first. Then I'll use your gun to do the same.

In some parts of Minnesota, where ducks have been scarce in recent years, that agreement might have relegated Brian to observer status the entire day.

But soon enough Saturday, Josh was handing over his semi-auto to his brother, and by midmorning the brothers' 12-duck combined limit had been attained, with three Canada geese added for good measure.

Perhaps opening the season earlier by a week, as the Department of Natural Resources did this year, accounted for the good numbers of ducks we saw Saturday, because blue-winged teal and wood ducks -- early migrators each -- were fairly abundant.

Perhaps also allowing hunting to begin a half-hour before sunrise, rather than at 9 a.m., also helped.

Either way, early Saturday, after deploying our decoys and pulling our canoe into the tall rushes, Cole and I for about an hour sprawled on our backs in the canoe, together with Ben the dog, and counted shooting stars.

Absolutely black save for a sliver of moon, and festooned with brilliant stars, the mesmerizing sky posed a dark riddle.

Four shooting stars. Then five. And six.

This was just before another waterfowl season opened.

When it did, we locked and loaded the old meat-getters, as my dad used to say.

And put ducks on the table.