Here in Northeastern Minnesota, a significant number of the people in my demographic are avid deer hunters. Though I love spending as much time out of doors as possible in the fall, that’s one activity in which I’ve never developed an interest, and despite the potential danger posed by the unsafe trigger-happy minority of deer hunters, early November is by far my favorite time of year to sit in the duck blind. Over the last 10 years, I’ve stumbled into the observance of a sort of tradition during the 1st weekend of the firearms deer season, and once again the week after Halloween found me scurrying about my garages assembling the needed gear for a long weekend at a quintessential Minnesota wilderness deer camp. A friend of mine has a county lease and a rustic shack on the banks of what I’ll refer to for the sake of confidentiality only as a “Great Northern River,” and while he and his partner and their dashing young crony headed up for the weekend with ATVs in tow to search of big bucks, Lucy the Lab and I arrived at the landing at 4 a.m. and set out into the darkness in search of ducks with the promise of a hot meal, good sauna, and warm bed at the end of the long journey upstream.
The River possess a number of characteristics that would suggest a living, breathing entity, and with the passing of each season come changes that affect the movement of fish, the habits of wildlife, and the safety of navigation. It was once a major artery of transportation for the logging industry that thrived around the turn of the last century, and innumerable sunken White Pine boles lay at the bottom awaiting their time to fill with the gasses of decomposition and partially rise to the surface. This was the first time in 2011 that I’d been on the River, and I had no idea where the year’s hazards lurked, and as I drove my small, heavily-loaded jon boat through the mist, I quickly came to the somewhat troubling realization that my powerful spotlight was useless in the light fog suspended just above the water. I continued on in total darkness on that moonless morning using only the reflection of the stars on the water to search for deadheads. My motor droned on, the tree lines loomed and then receded, and the miles slipped by.
After about 30 minutes the sky opened up as my destination drew near. At a spot where a large wild rice-filled bay joins the main river channel, I cut the motor and slid up on the floating bog to unload some gear, debark Lucy, and prepare the decoy bags for business. Tossing out 4 or 5 dozen duck decoys in the dark is potentially hazardous and is best done with as little extra weight or important gear in the boat as possible. Lucy, who knows the routine very well, curled up on the bag of camouflage netting and kept an eye on me from shore, and the occasional glint from her eyes illuminated by my small headlamp provided a ready reference as to where the blind was in relation to where the decoys were being placed. At this particular spot a large mud flat of water two feet deep or less drops off dramatically to a maximum depth of nearly thirty feet, and that poses a number of problems where decoy anchor lines are concerned. After nearly an hour of setting, resetting, tying, and untying, I set about the back breaking work of pulling my boat completely up on the bog through knee-deep muck, and after some quick work with the camo netting and abundant dead grass, I left my concealed boat, carried my bucket and gun over to where Lucy was waiting, and poured a cup of coffee. Five minutes into legal shooting hours, the coming day had more than announced itself, and I was acutely aware of the fact that I’d neither seen nor heard a duck all morning.
To reveal a curious truth, I planned and packed for this trip with the full knowledge that, as in previous years, I would very likely come home with few or NO ducks, and that was just fine. For me the goal of that weekend was to hang out at deer camp, have miles of beautiful river all to myself, enjoy good company, and sit in the duck blind to the point that I was darned good and sick of it for the year. The migration patterns of waterfowl in North America are currently in an erratic state of flux, and while locations long revered as “hot spots” across the State have been reduced to “hit or miss,” more marginal areas like the River, though consistently “not too bad” in the past have become virtually devoid of significant numbers of ducks. I was prepared to take home only photos and memories, and the numerous Tundra Swans and occasional small flocks of Hooded Mergansers (some of the last waterfowl to fly south) revealed that the migration was coming to a close. Lucy watched all of these birds with great interest, and although I generally don’t shoot ANY type of Merganser, I decided that if that was the only duck I was going to see all weekend that one in the bag would be ok. As a single Hooded drake rocketed by high and outside, I drew a bead, and it crashed down on the other side of the river. Despite the 28 degree air temperature and 37 degree water, Lucy plunged in with great resolve, and after a long retrieve, she went to heal and deposited it in my hand…and then shook off all over me.
|Buck and Me in November 2004|
A few cups of coffee, two sandwiches, and a couple pieces of pilfered Halloween candy later (standard duck blind time increments), I heard a motor in the distance, and about 10 minutes later a distinguished older gentleman in a well-worn Filson hat maneuvered his small boat carefully through my decoys. It was Ted, the owner of the shack, and his Chocolate Lab “Buck,” and they were making their last trip upstream to the shack for the year. "Good morning, Eric!" he said with a big smirk on his face. "Say, if you have a pile of ducks you'd like me to run to the shack for you, I'd be happy to grab them." I found this reference to the sad state of duck hunting on the River most amusing and laughed out loud, and we chatted for a couple minutes. I asked about the position of any deadheads on the river, additional hazards caused by the very low water level, and the whereabouts of the rest of his party while Lucy jumped annoyingly in and out of his boat in an effort to greet Buck. Standing to start his motor, the cheer briefly left his face as he solemnly spoke his parting words. "Be alert." To a person all alone miles from rescue without wireless capabilities and with plans to travel in the dark, those words carried great weight and served as a powerful reminder of the potential hazards inherent to my situation. "I will be. See ya in a bit..." was my reply.
As the sound of his motor faded off into the distance, I stood in my somewhat shoddily constructed blind and looked hopefully for any ducks set to wing by his passing, but none came. As the sun crept higher in the sky and noon approached, I stretched out on the large mat of dead grass assembled for Lucy with the intention of grabbing a quick 30 minute nap. I dozed off quickly and slept for an hour or so until a few quiet but serious "ruffs" from Lucy brought me back to life. I slowly regained my senses and realized that she was "ruffing" AT something...a familiar sound...a sort of...burl...the kind made by...a duck? I poked my head around the blind to see an impressive Ringbill Drake bellied up to one of my prized hand-burlaped Herter's decoys, and I slowly reached for my gun. Now, one of the things I find most confounding about the art of shotgunning is my personal tendency to connect with difficult targets on the outside of my range while at the same time ineptly bungling the easiest shots imaginable. Suffice to say that this particular duck went safely on his way, and all I was left with was the very distinct feeling of being stared at...by a dog...which I was. "What?!" I asked indignantly. Lucy looked away.
About an hour later I missed a surprise Mallard, and then a Green Winged Teal flew by followed by a couple more. By the close of legal shooting hours, I was both happy and surprised to have observed 50 or more ducks, and the three in the game bag - all retrieved by Lucy - made the day an unqualified success. After struggling in the mud for 10 minutes freeing my boat from the bog, I pushed out and started to collect decoys, and in the gloam of that early November evening, a phenomena known only to duck hunters in quiet, swampy places materialized before my eyes. I have no idea where they spent the day (Pelican Lake? Lake Vermilion? Voyagers National Park? Beyond ALL of those?), but literally hundreds of ducks in groups of 20 to 80 started to pour into the rice bay to spend the night. I learned a long time ago that, in the exact style of a Warner Brothers cartoon, those ducks were "un-huntable" and would have left the rice in the 20 minutes before the start of shooting hours the next day, but it was an amazing sight none the less. I felt blessed to have been there there to witness it, and as I collected my dog from shore and cracked the first beer of the day, I was overwhelmed by the joy that came from the great start to an exciting trip. I adjusted my boat seat, cinched up my life vest, and turned my little boat upstream.