SACRED HEART, MINN. – An hour before dawn Saturday our decoys were set on the backwaters of the Minnesota River not far from this farming town, population 527. This was the first day of duck season and a small bunch of us had gathered at a shack the night before, grilling dinner and talking old times. We slept on cots and in the still-dark of early morning we lit a match beneath a pot of coffee and pulled on our waders. This was a celebration we have known for decades and we were excited to know it again.
The water we hunt requires a long walk through tangled cedar, headlamp beacons leading the way, and we made this pilgrimage in single file. Dan Smith and his son Neil carried buckets laden with ammunition and duck calls, ear plugs, drinks and snacks. Will Smith toted one of these as well, and also a satchel of decoys. Will’s sons, Matthew and Harrison, rounded out our group, and when we reached our darkened hunting water, we fanned out.
Minnesota has duck camps and duck hunting traditions scattered from Winton to Worthington, Weaver to Warroad.
On Saturday, for example, Bill Marchel and Rolf Moen were hunkered in Mississippi River rice beds north of Brainerd. Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, and his son, Hunter, were farther north still, on Mud Goose Wildlife Management Area. Norb Berg and his bunch were northwest of Willmar. Fred Froehlich was on Swan Lake. Greg Fecho was near Herman in west-central. And in the far west, along the South Dakota border, near Lake Traverse, Dean Stier and others gathered, waiting, as some 75,000 Minnesotans did early Saturday, for sunup.
The point was to see ducks and to drop a few. Early morning in a dank marsh is intoxicating, especially with a wet retrieving dog alongside, and when added to this a squadron of blue-winged teal takes wing, or a wood duck or two, or when a mallard descends over decoys, the exhilaration is palpable.
Which is why people who know these experiences anticipate the first day of duck hunting with such enthusiasm, eyes upward, the forged steel of a favorite shotgun cold in the hand.
“I hope we see a few,’’ Neil said.
A geologist, Neil lives in Babbitt, in the far northeast, and along with his dad and me, he whiled away the last moments of pre-dawn watching our decoys’ dark shadows swing from their anchor strings.
West of us 100 yards was Willy, and Matthew and Harrison were beyond him the same distance. The shooting we would get, if we got any, would be tricky, birds flying left to right or right to left, dipping their wings, but rarely decoying.
Everyone afield Saturday knew that Minnesota duck hunting is not what it once was. You can’t do to the state’s land and water what we, all of us, have done for the last century and expect these resources to be as fruitful as they once were, not in the numbers of ducks they support, or songbirds or bees or butterflies. Or clean water.
Having for decades sounded alarms about the broader ramifications of these losses, waterfowlers are pleased now that the pope, the president and the governor, among others, are adding their voices. We’ll see what happens.
A pair of wood ducks banked in our direction, arrowing in the half-light, and as quickly drew gunfire. Nary a feather was touched, reminding us again how sporting duck shooting is, which is part of the attraction.
Following these missed opportunities, Del, my black Labrador, and Jade, Neil’s yellow Labrador, hung their heads, ashamed that their masters, as too often is their custom, had yet again catapulted no ducks from the sky.
Ideal for a touch football game or a day hike or a paddle in the boundary waters, Saturday, with its high temperature near 80 and scant winds, was not a good duck day.
Morning-long, we didn’t see one teal, which usually provide the bulk of our opening day bag. Mallards also were absent, leaving woodies the only birds we put in our hands.
Reports elsewhere varied. The Bergs northwest of Willmar also saw relatively few ducks. Ditto Bill Marchel and Rolf Moen north of Brainerd.
The group Greg Fecho hunted with near Herman, meanwhile, had good success, with 10 hunters filling their six-bird limits. In the far west, the Dean Stier group experienced similar fortune, with nine hunters filling out.
So goes duck hunting: The birds are gregarious, and you find them where they are, when they’re there.
The traditions these fowl inspire, however, remain constant.
For some hunters, a shack is part of this, as it is for us, its walls covered with yellowing photographs of past hunts, some showing dads who now are grandfathers beaming with birds in hand, others similarly depicting proud boys, now men, passing the good time.
For them, as for all who have known ducks and particularly the first day of duck hunting, the exhilaration is palpable.