– The autumnal equinox didn’t occur here Saturday until 8:54 p.m. But Arnold Krueger, age 90, celebrated fall at a much earlier hour not far from this southern Minnesota burg, population 2,445.

Krueger, a retired Owatonna High School orchestra leader who still practices his violin regularly, grew up in Aberdeen, S.D., and it was there he honed the fine art of rising early on the opening of duck season, which this year in Minnesota was on Saturday.

An appreciator of fine music, a painter, sculptor, decoy carver and winemaker, Krueger qualifies in all regards as a renaissance man. But more important he is a duck hunter, and during his many autumns he has with great enthusiasm chased teal, wood ducks and mallards, as well as ringnecks, scaup and canvasbacks.

“My dad was German, but my mother was Norwegian and Danish,” he said. “Norwegians don’t talk a lot, and they can be stubborn. My dad had a saying, ‘You can tell a Norwegian. But you can’t tell him much.’ ”

An enshrinee in the Minnesota Waterfowl Association Hall of Fame for his remarkable conservation efforts, Krueger delivered these words with a twinkling eye while chatting up a visitor early Saturday morning over coffee, toast and lingonberry jam. This was in his farmhouse kitchen, surrounding which, on trees, poles and outbuildings, are 58 wood duck houses.

“Thirty-one of the houses hatched ducklings this summer,” Krueger said. “About average.”

When Krueger was a boy, South Dakota was filled with ducks, and he knew something about how to bring a few mallards and other fowl home for dinner. In the 1950s when he and his confirmation-class-sweetheart-turned-wife, Erlys, moved to Owatonna, these skills transferred readily, and Krueger hunted before and after school and on weekends, oftentimes returning home wet, stinky and late for dinner.

Now Krueger was about to witness another opener.

“You and your dog sit here,” he said, pointing in Saturday morning’s half-light to a makeshift blind overlooking a pond on his farm. “I’ll be” — he threw an arm toward a similarly brushy location 10 yards distant — “over there.”

The Department of Natural Resources had issued an upbeat prediction for Saturday’s opener, reporting that duck nesting conditions were good this spring. Hungry for positive news on this front, Minnesota waterfowlers likely turned out in force for the opener.

Certainly, Fred Froehlich of Nicollet was looking down the barrel of a scattergun, and in fact Saturday morning was hunting with Karl Satterlund, a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College. Farther west, in the Minnesota River bottoms, Will Smith and his son Matthew were perched in a blind. And among tens of thousands of others hunting in central and northern Minnesota, Bill Marchel and Rolf Moen were on the Mississippi upriver from Brainerd.

But few if any of these wingshooters were hunting over hand-carved wooden decoys, as Krueger and I were.

“I would only ask that when you shoot,” Krueger said, again, with his eyes twinkling, “that you don’t shoot into the decoys.”

I had brought Jet, a black Labrador, and contentedly the young dog settled in alongside me as the sun revealed itself in a bruise of bittersweet, salmon and vermilion. A southeasterly breeze fluttered the treetops, and the mid-40s temperature confirmed autumn’s onset. That everyone in the state wasn’t aligned similarly adjacent to a pond or wetland savoring the new day was the morning’s real surprise.

We heard shooting in the distance. But early on, over our decoys, nothing flew. We would learn later that Will and Matthew Smith saw few teal Saturday morning but took their limit of six wood ducks. Froehlich and Satterlund did better still while hunting a private slough between southern Minnesota’s Swan Lake and Middle Lake. Seeing several large flocks of teal and a smattering of wood ducks, they finished with 10 teal and a spoonbill. Marchel and Moen, meanwhile, ended their morning outing with three teal and six wood ducks.

In a fairer world, Krueger would have been covered up with wood ducks on this opening day. His nesting boxes had hatched more than 400 ducklings this summer, a momentous shot in the arm to the local population.

“But those ducks scatter,” he said. “They don’t stay right on my farm. I do get good numbers of ducks at various times of the year. But they’re not here all the time.”

That said, every duck on Saturday morning that banked into our decoys, wings cupped and feet backpedaling, we killed.

And Jet retrieved.

And a dandy retrieve of that lone blue-winged teal it was.


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com