IN WEST CENTRAL MINNESOTA — On the wall of a duck camp here is a framed essay entitled, "What is a duck hunter?'' By turns the dissertation is corny and insightful, blarney and straight truth.
But one sentence sums up the type of person who shows up on opening day of a Minnesota duck season even when the odds of bagging a limit of birds are akin to those of rolling snake eyes on a craps table.
Without thought of background, position or economic status, the duck hunter likes people who hunt ducks two months a year and talk about it the rest of the time.
So it was here Saturday when a group of otherwise civic-minded Minnesotans focused their efforts solely on ducks and duck hunting. The former are the birds themselves, mallards, teal, ringnecks and the others. The latter, duck hunting, is far more encompassing and includes everything from campfire vigils to wet dogs leaping onto saggy beds and hot gun barrels on frigid mornings.
In the still-dark of the season's first day my pal Norb Berg emerged from the hunting shack's bunkhouse no more bleary-eyed than its other inhabitants. Norb says he's 90 years old. But without notarized documentation his age claim should be considered a possible marketing ploy intended to win him placement in the best blind on the pass.
Others in attendance Saturday morning were three of Norb's four sons, Mitch, Tony and Paul, as well as Kent Harris, Matt Slater and Tom Larson. Also present were Labrador retrievers in such number the quaint bungalow could have been confused with a kennel. Two of the canines had the same name, Ruby, and the handles of the others ran the alphabetical gamut, from Chance to Gypsy to Walter.
Shooting light was still a half-hour away, and camouflage pants and shirts were being belted and buttoned.
Friday morning in this part of the state a cold front had whistled though, accompanied by rain and a brisk westerly wind. The sky had subsequently cleared but the wind remained, and with it the hope a few birds had blown in from parts unknown. Contrary to popular belief, ducks are not put to wing by rain. Rather, wind is what motivates them, and under the best circumstances, lights their afterburners, increasing their speed and making for sporting shooting.
Advancing the rising sun, shards of saffron and cinnamon, ochre and scarlet bruised the horizon, illuminating our positions along a pass that divided a small lake from an even smaller marsh. Canada geese honked in the middle distance and scaup or other diving ducks paddling in the shallower water low-barked their oddly syncopated brrr, brrr.
At times in its history this was a great waterfowl camp, with 25 or 30 ducks collectively taken on some openers. Our hopes weren't that high Saturday. Certainly, the drought hurt duck production this spring and summer. Also, considerable habitat has been lost in Minnesota, the Dakotas and prairie Canada.
Add to these woes a penchant for season-fiddling by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The agency this year added a five-day teal season to an already established two-day youth season and a 16-day over-water goose season. As icing on the cake, or perhaps another nail in the coffin of duck hunting, the DNR allowed spinning-wing decoys to be deployed this year from the season's first day and also is allowing shooting until sunset.
A few birds were flying now, some high and out of range, but the occasional single or small squadron darted low enough to warrant shots. Light was faint and birds that emerged from it did so without warning. Some were seagulls, others, swans, and for a brief time even a pileated woodpecker offered its surprise silhouette along the pass, perhaps surveying our presence with disdain.
This was duck hunting, all of it, and though few ducks were overhead, the morning's enjoyment, ultimately, would not be defined solely by the number of birds killed.
We could say this, because we had memories of past hunts in which ducks were plentiful, and as necessary we could supplement the morning's slimmer takings with these recollections.
But pity the young hunter, or the new one. Aside from the sensory rewards that attend immersing oneself in a dank marsh, which are many, like a dog that gets no retrieves, these novices might wonder what exactly the point of the exercise is.
When we retired to the shack, a few green-winged teal, a merganser, a ringneck and two Canada geese were in hand.
Soon enough, Mitch and Tony tossed together an egg bake, fresh coffee was brewed and laughs were shared.
This was duck hunting, and a good time was being passed.
What is a duck hunter?
You soon learn that the duck hunter's call to the marsh each fall is as strong as the ducks he seeks.