BUTTERFIELD, MINN. – Near this southern Minnesota burg Saturday morning, Gary Lunz emerged from his hunting shack to begin his 74th consecutive waterfowl season. Having just made breakfast for a small crew of buddies, Lunz flicked off the generator that powered the shack’s lights and ambled toward the shore of a nearby lake.
Growing up on a farm on the outskirts of nearby St. James, Lunz didn’t teethe on the brass end of a 12-gauge shell, but he could have. He was 5 when his dad first took him pothole shooting near the home place, returning, often, with as many mallards as the two could tote. He loved it then, and he still loves it today.
Joining Lunz, of North Mankato, for the first day of Minnesota’s early goose season were Chris Hart of Mankato, Lee Carlstrom of North Mankato and Fred Froehlich of Nicollet. For 30 years, on a handshake deal, Lunz has leased the land beneath his shack from a farmer, and Hart, Carlstrom and Froehlich are among frequent guests.
Whether we would see geese in the air when the sun rose was anyone’s guess. A nearly full moon had graced a cloudless sky Friday night and early Saturday morning, clearing the way for area honkers to put on the feed bag overnight, if they chose, rather than wait until morning, when Lunz, Hart, Carlstrom and Froehlich could intercept them while the big birds traded in airborne conga lines between resting and chow-down areas.
“Also there’s no wind, and that’s not good,” Lunz said. “Wind gives the decoys a little movement, and geese like that.”
An eclectic bunch, Lunz was a high school science teacher in Mankato before retiring, often sneaking in morning duck hunts, then racing to school to teach first-hour chemistry. Hart sells Freightliner trucks, thereby keeping America’s wheels turning during the pandemic. Carlstrom owned a commercial construction company before retiring to a life of worldwide hunting and fishing adventures. And Froehlich, retired from the U.S. Postal Service, is mayor of Nicollet, population 1,167, where he rules with wisdom, benevolence and a strong desire never to be featured on a national news broadcast.
As night yielded to day, we saw geese on the big lake, but they appeared unmotivated to rise and shine, content instead to pass the good time treading water.
“Usually the goose hunting is pretty good here, and we used to get some real good duck hunting, too,” Lunz said. “In fact, I can tell you the exact date over the years that canvasbacks showed up: Oct. 17. But the grand passage of ducks that used to migrate through, we just don’t see it anymore.’’
Well camouflaged, our blind was outfitted with more gizmos and gadgets than the Space Shuttle. Light switches. Electrical outlets. Batteries. Soon also, when the cold comes, heaters will be reinstalled, Lunz said.
Perched on one end of the blind, Hart served as our go-to lookout who alerted us whenever geese took flight from their watery roost. Most of these were false alarms. But as the sun climbed ever higher into the morning’s cobalt sky, more geese departed the lake, with a few angling closer and closer to our blind.
Finally, one of the big black-and-whites succumbed to Froehlich’s skilled calling and winged too close. Shots rang out, and the goose splashed into the lake perhaps 30 feet beyond our decoys.
I had brought a young yellow Labrador, 11-month-old Fella, to expose him to the rigors of goose hunting, and a successful retrieve here, I figured, would be a step forward in his training.
Yet as I heeled Fella to the shoreline to direct him on what would be about a 40-yard blind retrieve, I considered, and not without justification, the many ways this exercise could go wrong in front of my hunt mates.
Ping-ponging also in my head was my dad’s long-ago admonition about canines that still in many ways governs my relationship with these animals.
“Never brag about a dog unless he’s dead or 2,000 miles away,” Dad said.
Still, with bravado I commanded Fella into the water, where he eventually — emphasis on eventually — encountered the goose. But instead of retrieving the bird, he chose to circle it repeatedly, barking.
In time, with encouragement, Fella held the goose in his mouth and progress was recorded.
By midmorning, when the hunt was halted, six more honkers had been tallied for a total of seven.
So it went for Gary Lunz on his 74th waterfowl opener, and as he shuffled back to his hunting shack, he was thankful for the opportunity, and for friends to share it with.