When Chris Melberg’s phone alarm rings at 3 a.m. Saturday, the strict choreography of opening day at his duck-camp cabin near Thief Lake in northwest Minnesota will swiftly unfold — and likely without a hitch.
Everyone, Melberg said, knows their part. His boys — Mathew, 13, Andrew, 11, and William, 10 — will quickly get dressed, waders and all, their clothing arranged in orderly piles the night before. His wife, Sarah, will prepare “duck sandwiches” — a Melberg gastronomic tradition of sausage patties slapped between two small pancakes — and fill a Thermos or two with hot cocoa or apple cider. With his 18-foot john boat and trailer already attached to his truck, Melberg will start loading gear — including his indispensable 7-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dusty. Off to the public boat landing they’ll go.
“I like to have my decoys set about 45 minutes before shooting time — and I like beating the rush so I can get my spot,” said Melberg, 37, of Pequot Lakes.
He said he is confident of his plan when his headlights hit the public landing, and campers then start preparing to hunt. “Getting there early gives us time to settle in the blind, watch the stars and wait for the marsh to wake up. It’s fantastic.”
For the Melberg clan, Saturday isn’t just the duck opener. It’s the duck opener on Thief Lake — a 7,100-acre shallow lake between Thief River Falls and Roseau that is part of the 55,000-acre Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). A lake that once was critical on the continent as a bluebill stopover for food and rest as they migrated south. A lake with its own rich waterfowling history that has been overshadowed by Minnesota’s more celebrated duck-hunting lakes such as Christina, Swan and Heron. A lake which was drained in the early 1900s for agricultural production (it failed miserably as a crop-producer), and is now surrounded by native vegetation and public land, helping keep it clean, shallow and aquatic-food rich for migratory birds.
“Thief Lake is underappreciated as a duck-hunting destination … and I think that’s because it’s in such a remote part of the state — it’s probably seven hours from the Twin Cities and wasn’t connected by railway decades ago like Christina and others,” said Steve Cordts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) waterfowl staff specialist. “But it’s the best public hunting area in Minnesota for ducks and it rivals any public area in the Mississippi Flyway, and that includes some of the better areas in Missouri and Arkansas.”
Melberg said he only knew Thief Lake by “rumors and reputation” and that he didn’t start hunting there until his favorite duck holes became despoiled and bird numbers waned.
“The hunting at Thief is consistently good for a public area. The marsh is vast and has a learning curve, with lots of opportunities for both divers and puddle ducks,” said Melberg. “After a few years of hunting Thief, we just fell in love with the lake and its history.”
In fact, he and his wife bought an old trapper’s cabin in 2015 near the lake to have a season-long duck camp. Doing so is a Minnesota tradition that is slowly fading as hunter numbers continue to decrease.
Thief Lake shouldn’t be mistaken for just another body of water, Melberg said
“You don’t have to squint too hard to see the landscape as it was a hundred years ago. It’s like going back in time,” said Melberg, a student of waterfowling literature. “At any moment you’d expect Gordon MacQuarrie to row past in a wooden boat sporting cork decoys and a fresh tobacco pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth. It’s a marsh no one should take for granted.”
Meeting for bluebills
In early October, Tom Keefe, 65, of Caledonia, Minn., will drive nearly 10 hours to hunt ducks with old friends — a coterie who in the late 1970s dubbed itself the Thief Lake Bluebill Club. The name comes from the bulbous-shaped diving duck that once graced Thief Lake by the thousands each autumn, a bird romanticized in Les Kouba paintings, a bird that still has a special identity in Minnesota waterfowling lore.
Keefe said club members met after college as budding natural resource professionals. They took jobs as temporary laborers with the DNR, working the WMA’s goose check station and conducting bag checks during the hunting season. They stayed at the WMA’s barracks and made little money. Of course, they hunted plenty of ducks on Thief Lake, mostly bluebills or scaup, which Keefe said once “blackened the sky.”
“October of 1977 was the best fall I ever had or will ever have,” Keefe said. “There were five of us who stayed in the barracks and we bought one pound of hamburger all month. Otherwise, we hunted and ate what we shot.”
That included grouse, ducks, moose hearts (which they got from working the wildlife area’s moose check station) and the occasional Canada goose.
“During that time, you have to remember Canada geese were trophy birds, unlike today,” Keefe said. “There were only two places you could reasonably expect to shoot a Canada in Minnesota: at the Lac qui Parle WMA and at Thief Lake.”
The goose hunting became so popular that state wildlife officials started a controlled goose hunt at Thief Lake WMA. Hunters from across Minnesota mailed in reservation postcards for the specific day they wanted to hunt. If chosen, the lucky hunter showed up at the WMA at 5 a.m. and waited to be assigned a blind. Hunters were allowed to carry only six shotgun shells. The daily bag limit was … one Canada goose.
“It was primarily pass-shooting on the refuge border,” Keefe said. “Most hunters weren’t successful but loved the chance to see lots of geese. If you got a Canada goose it was a big, big deal.”
This October marks the 43rd consecutive year that Bluebill Club members will meet. Through the years they tented at the WMA. Older and wiser now, they’ve opted for more comfortable and warmer digs.
“I bought a fifth wheel (camper) a few years ago,” said Keefe. “It used to get really cold up there. We had to keep the beer in coolers at night so it wouldn’t freeze.
“I had only hunted ducks a couple times before I first arrived at Thief Lake … and got hooked on seeing all those bluebills and other divers pile into the decoys,” he added. “For me every year, it’s like going home. Nowadays, I tend to watch more than shoot. The bluebills don’t use the lake liked they once did, and the crowds aren’t nearly as big, but it’s a great northern marsh to experience with old friends.”
For Melberg, Saturday can’t come fast enough. “There’s always a lot of excitement before the opener, and I expect the hunting to be good,” he said. “My boys are ready, that’s for sure. My oldest son, Mathew, got into a little trouble recently when he blew his duck call in math class. I gave him a talking to, but who can blame him for being excited about duck hunting?”
After all, he is his father’s son.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.