Two hours of sleep was all Trevor Montez could manage as he floated in his boat on a muddy backwater of the Mississippi River in the midnight hours before the Minnesota duck opener.
His long flat-bottomed vessel sealed off the only channel to a wood duck hole that was begging to be hunted at the crack of dawn. The 22-year-old public lands hunter from Cottage Grove arrived late Friday afternoon to stake it out. Like always, he was flanked by a second boat operated by his older brother, Tyler. Their makeshift, open-air camp set the stage for yet another autumn of family duck hunting.
Meet the Montez boys — four brothers who as youngsters were introduced to duck boats, swamps and shotguns by a father who was mentored the same way. In an era when conservationists and wildlife managers are yearning for an injection of youth to reverse a decades-long decline in waterfowl hunting, Tyler, Trevor, Travis and 16-year-old Tanner Montez are bucking the trend.
Not only do they participate in duck and goose hunting, they’re nuts about it.
“It’s kept our kids on track and out of trouble,’’ Troy Montez said. “Seems like we spend about every weekend together in the fall.’’
According to a 2017 report by Delta Waterfowl Foundation, resurgent duck populations haven’t solved the “looming crisis” of historically low numbers of duck hunters. For decades, public coffers fed by duck stamp sales and other forms of hunting helped build the U.S. system of national wildlife refuge areas and protect waterfowl breeding grounds.
In the report, Delta Waterfowl executive John Devney laid down a challenge to those still active: “You have to replace yourself as a duck hunter.”
Troy Montez, who works as a supply chain manager at North Memorial Medical Center, could be a poster child for the movement. He was taught the traditions by his father, Thomas Montez, a former factory worker at the old Gillette plant in St. Paul. Thomas was a West Sider who moved to the East Side to raise his family. He found it difficult to break into what was then a clannish duck hunting scene until a front-office manager at Gillette showed him the ropes.
At 4 a.m. last Saturday, Trevor backtracked to the Mississippi’s access point north of Hastings. Waiting in the parking lot were his dad and youngest brother. Up the river they went, passing scores of other boats parked in the shadows along the way. At the end of their 5-mile ride was a well-camouflaged blind located on a horseshoe-shaped canal. Wearing headlamps and shining flashlights into the darkness, they overcame the final stretch of knee-deep water by getting out and pulling the mud boat over logs and sandbars.
Ten minutes after official shooting hours opened, a speedy flight of wood ducks swirled into the tree-lined swamp. The Montez family and two friends stood, fired quickly and squatted back into cover. The scene repeated itself four or five times in the first hour before Tyler and Trevor trudged into the muck-bottomed slough for a retrieval.
Fewer and fewer ducks ventured into the horseshoe as the morning passed. In between shooting opportunities, the boys reminisced with their dad about past hunts. When a small prop plane flew overhead, one of the boys looked skyward and paused. “Grandpa would say, ‘There goes the game warden.’ ’’ The others chuckled.
The group’s opening day hunt ended around noon with a harvest of eight birds.
“A little disappointing,” Trevor said. “But there weren’t many that got away.”
On the whole, Montez family duck hunting keeps improving. The boys have no sisters and they live with their dad and mom, Tamara, under the same roof. They reside in a Cottage Grove neighborhood tolerant of their growing collection of boats and trailers. Tyler, 24, is a journeyman plumber while Trevor is employed as an apprentice. Travis, 20, is following in their footsteps while Tanner plays hockey and concentrates on his studies at Park High School.
Trevor said co-workers have needled him about all the money he spends on duck hunting. “They want to know if my parents get mad,” Trevor said. “I’ve gotta laugh and say, ‘No, my dad appreciates it.’ ’’
The expense of gearing up for duck hunting has contributed to the sport’s decline. But the Montez family clears that hurdle by sharing and updating equipment as a collective. They typically hunt together every Saturday and Sunday of the duck season.
When metro area hunting pauses by regulation in October, they spend weekends at a family-owned trailer near Lake Winnibigoshish north of Deer Lake.
The big lake not only affords them the continuation of duck hunting but also a bit of afternoon walleye fishing.
Tyler said family duck harvests were lean for many years as the boys took turns learning from their dad. But the tide has shifted in recent years toward reliable success.
“There were years when we’d kill under 10 birds,” he said.
The trips to “Winnie” and to “The Spring” north of Hastings started for Tyler and Trevor as preschoolers. They both remember bringing Halloween candy and wearing snow pants to stay warm. The boys were younger than 10 when they first shouldered a shotgun.
“I never really had to force them to go,” Troy said.
His own passion for duck hunting survived a dismal period in the 1980s when ducks disappeared.
“You could go out and barely see a duck,” Troy said. “I remember some years you were lucky to fire a shot all season.”
Troy’s father, who at 83 years old still joins a few hunts, became attached to the sport during annual fall trips to the McGregor area. They would camp with cousins and hunt along rivers. As a little kid on those adventures, Troy remembers the town’s roads being clogged with cars, trucks and boat trailers.
“You don’t see that today,” he said.
If Troy is considered a dedicated duck hunter, his two oldest boys are gonzo.
A year or two ago, Tyler and Trevor loaded up their gear at 2 a.m. on a Friday for a roving hunt of snow geese in South Dakota. The birds’ spring migration is difficult to predict and the brothers refused to give up until they encountered a huntable flock. Fog and fatigue didn’t stop them from covering 1,200 miles in less than three days, asking farmers along the way for permission to hunt.
During their high school years, Tyler, Trevor and Travis skipped homecoming activities in order to camp out on the Mississippi for ducks.
The older boys also have established an ironclad custom of hunting on the morning of Thanksgiving. And for a tuneup to the duck season, Trevor has joined friends within the city limits of Woodbury to hunt Canada geese in local farm fields. This year’s outings — OK’d by the city and the farmer — included a morning when the group shot 25 geese in 30 minutes.