SACRED HEART, MINN. — Waterfowling here Saturday bore some of the trappings of a good duck and goose hunting day. A brisk wind blew, mostly from the southeast. Plenty of scattergunners showed up to keep birds moving. And, as a bonus, the shallow backwaters of the Minnesota River that we hunt were gin clear for the first time in decades, the result of a big carp die-off last winter.

With luck, the clear water in coming years will enhance growth of sego pondweed and other vegetation favored by ducks, and populations of these birds will rebuild in the area, after a long downturn.

Any such recovery would be roundly welcomed.

Saturday, our crew saw some birds, though not many. Wood ducks, mostly. Some mallards. A smattering of teal.

"I think the cold weather during the past week pushed a lot of birds south," Will Smith said. Will, of Willmar, and I have hunted hereabouts on the opener for nearly four decades.

He and his brother own a shack among the river valley's cedars and oaks, and it was there that he and I, together with his sons -- Matthew, Harrison and Parker -- and mine -- Trevor and Cole -- gathered Friday night along with Will's nephew, Neil, of Babbitt, Minn.

That Neil would drive seven hours to hunt where ducks are relatively scarce speaks to the valued tradition our bunch has established hunting together over the years on the season's first day.

Joining us for the first time this year was Parker, a fourth-grader who, in an apparent nod to expediency, pulled his hunting duds on Saturday morning over his pajamas. Then he marched to the breakfast table and quickly dispatched an order of sausage and French toast before reaching for his BB gun and declaring himself ready for the morning's hunt.

Last year on the opener, this same crew (minus Parker) ended the morning with nine ducks. Willy and I generally let the kids do the shooting, which made the size of that bag all the more satisfying.

This year, only five ducks -- woodies and teal, each -- fell to our guns.

Indications early Saturday were that we would do a tad better than that. Before the season's 9 a.m. opening bell, small squadrons of birds buzzed up and down the oblong waterway we hunt.

But steady shooting in the area only lasted about a half-hour or so once the season began. After which, the skies were mostly empty, and the guns silent.

Hunting with his dad, Harrison provided two morning highlights, killing his first two ducks as they approached the set of decoys the pair overlooked.

A drake wood duck felled by Cole also offered up a dandy surprise because of the florid bird's late-season plumage.

We had hoped for a grilled duck dinner Saturday night.

We settled for chicken, with barbecue breast of duck, marinated and wrapped in maple bacon, as a first course, minimalist as it was in its presentation.

Dennis Anderson •