A pair of mallards rocketed toward the two young hunters hunkered on a narrow pass between two lakes.

The brothers fired their shotguns, dropping one of the ducks.

"I hit it!'' said Gabe Olson, 11. "You said aim for the bill and I aimed for the bill,'' he told mentor Tom Magnuson.

"I know I hit it,'' protested Gabe's brother, Sam, 14.

"You both got it,'' said dad and peacemaker Jayson Olson of Minnetonka. "Watch for more ducks.''

Gabe and Sam were among an estimated 5,000 youngsters age 15 and under who hunted waterfowl Saturday on the 20th annual Youth Waterfowl Day — a one-day special hunt designed to encourage youngsters to try waterfowl hunting. Sixteen kids, including the Olson brothers, hunted with mentors at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where there was no shortage of waterfowl.

"There are ducks flying over every five minutes, said Magnuson, 54, of Mendota Heights, an avid waterfowl hunter and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who has mentored youngsters on the Minnesota Valley Refuge the past six years. "I hate to tell them that's not usually the way it is with waterfowl hunting.''

He brought the boys to this hot-spot pass. "The ducks funnel right through,'' he said.

And fly they did. From legal shooting time a half-hour before sunrise to around 10 a.m., it was nearly nonstop action. The boys fired primarily at wood ducks and mallards, as well as some teal and Canada geese. "They went through four boxes of shells between them,'' said their dad.

When they called it quits at 10 a.m. to attend a picnic with the other young hunters, the boys had five ducks in the bag, plenty for a meal. Overall, the 16 youngsters, which included four girls, shot 37 ducks.

"There were lots of smiles on faces,'' said Tom Cooper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional migratory bird chief and hunt coordinator.

While Youth Waterfowl Day is open to any youngster age 15 and under accompanied by a nonhunting adult, the Minnesota Valley refuge hunt was the culmination of a Young Waterfowlers Program sponsored by the Minnesota Waterfowl Association and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The youngsters attended six classroom sessions, earned their firearms safety certification, and learned about waterfowl hunting, duck identification, ecology and habitat.

They then get access on Youth Waterfowl Day to the Minnesota Valley Refuge, hunting from Carver to Shakopee to Bloomington on prime waters normally closed to waterfowl hunting.

With jets and small planes flying overhead, the din of cars on nearby highways and Valleyfair's 275-foot Power Tower looming nearby, the Olson brothers found urban hunting at its finest.

The Fish and Wildlife Service allows youths who went through the Young Waterfowlers Program to return during the regular waterfowl season to hunt Blue Lake on the refuge, where boats, life jackets and decoys are provided.

Said Jayson Olson: "It's an incredible privilege for the kids to get this kind of hunting access so close to home.''

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Ducks Unlimited also sponsors annual mentored youth waterfowl hunts, which occurred Saturday from Detroit Lakes to Windom to the Twin Cities metro area.

Has it worked?

In 1995, when Youth Waterfowl Day was launched, Minnesota had 119,000 duck hunters. That number peaked at 122,000 in 1999, and since then has slid to an estimated 75,000 last season, a loss of 44,000 hunters, or 37 percent, over those 20 years.

Other hunter numbers have fallen over that time, too. The number of Minnesota's pheasant hunters has dropped from 96,000 to 58,000 last year — a 40 percent decline. And the number of ruffed grouse hunters has fallen from 116,000 in 1995 to 83,000 last year, a 28 percent decline.

But critics of Youth Waterfowl Day — and even supporters — say there's no evidence the special day has helped stem the decline in duck hunters.

"Would we be in worse shape if we hadn't done this?'' asked Dave Schad, DNR deputy commissioner, in an interview last week.

Said Schad, an avid waterfowler: "I think it's been really positive. I've talked to a bunch of kids and parents who have participated, and they thought the experience was wonderful, and helped do what we hoped — to get kids excited about duck hunting, and hopefully stimulate a lifelong interest.''

Some hunters believe the shooting and disturbance on Youth Waterfowl Day hurts hunting on the regular duck opener two weeks later. Schad said he doesn't believe it's a major factor.

Cooper, who has been involved with the Young Waterfowlers Program for 18 years, was in the field Saturday making sure everything ran smoothly. He thinks the youth hunt is worthwhile.

"It's tough to tell if we've recruited hunters, but it's a great opportunity to get kids outside, hunting, with all the attention on them,'' he said.

Still the decline of Minnesota waterfowl hunters and opportunities is undeniable, and the effect of early-season disturbance remains controversial.

Schad said a lack of ducks probably has hurt Minnesota duck hunter numbers. Despite recent record continental duck populations, "there's all kinds of changes [that have occurred] that affect duck distribution and abundance,'' Schad said. "We've observed it in our own hunting. We don't see the number of birds in Minnesota. And when they do come through, they don't spend as much time here as they used to.''

He said efforts to improve habitat on some major waterfowl lakes — including Swan, Christina and Pelican in Wright County — should help.

Doug Smith doug.smith@startribune.com