ORTONVILLE, Minn. —
The wait for shooting time was pure agony. A mix of green-winged teal and gadwalls constantly buzzed the decoys, the rush of air over their wings piercing the still and quiet of the marsh. They dropped so low that several appeared close enough to reach out and grab, and the distant greeting calls of hen mallards added to the suffering.
But agony is a natural part of duck hunting.
Some days are worse than others. But there was nothing about this Duck Trek hunt in western Minnesota that indicated it would be any more insufferable than your average cold, damp outing to a duck marsh.
It was no doubt cold enough to cause discomfort. The truck's dashboard said 19 degrees when we arrived at the boat ramp, but the digital readout only provided precision. It was one of those crystalline mornings when you know it's cold before you ever step out of your ride.
There wasn't a trace of the early snowstorm and gray skies that pushed across the northern plains the previous day. A waning crescent moon in the eastern sky looked brighter than it should have, and a stunning array of stars and planets, including a surprisingly distinct arm of the Milky Way, painted the darkness.
The set-up looked ideal: A shallow reed-lined pocket just off the main lake, a small decoy spread situated right in the middle of it, and a light east wind blowing in from behind us.
The ice surrounding the little hole we stomped out in the dark gave some cause for concern, but that disappeared more than 15 minutes before shooting time as ducks started working low over the decoys, their silhouettes barely visible in the darkness.
It seemed the cold would be the biggest adversary. Or so I thought. Sometimes your worst enemy lies just beneath the surface.
Into the darkness
Steve Lee steered his johnboat across the lake an hour before shooting time. The drone of the outboard seemed quiet compared to the coarse sound of ice crumbling under the aluminum hull and the bright clink of ice chunks falling on the still-frozen surface outside the boat's narrow path.
With one hand wrapped around the tiller and the other wielding a Q-beam, Lee instructed me to lie in the floor while photographer James Overstreet kneeled in the back. The boat crawled across the surface for several minutes.
Our slow pace made perfect sense when I returned to a sitting position. As Lee waved his light's beam across the lake, it bounced off sporadic granite boulders the size of doghouses.
"I know where most of them are," Lee said. "But it's the ones you don't see ... "
"Like that one," Lee said with a smile.
The outboard immediately cut out, but a couple of tugs on the pull-cord brought it back to life, no worse for wear, and we slowly continued across the lake. Not far from our destination, the outboard bogged down in shallow water, and we all climbed out and pushed the boat onto a reed-choked shoreline.
Gathering our guns and decoys, we started toward a small pocket of water between two points. I started walking a few feet off the bank while Lee headed through the pencil reeds.
"You might want to walk on the bank," Lee said.
Western Minnesota, like the rest of the state, is dotted with shallow lakes, some big and some small, comprising a network of wetlands that attract waterfowl for a variety of reasons. Vast agricultural acreage and land set aside through conservation programs add to the attraction.
Like the Dakotas to the west, this part of the state serves as a breeding area for waterfowl, the starting point of the annual migration. But the area also serves as a waypoint for ducks hatched farther north in places such as North Dakota, the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the Great Lakes region.
Minnesota is designated a part of the Mississippi Flyway for bureaucratic distinction, but it's also closely connected to the Central Flyway. Whether they're Minnesota products or ducks just stopping along the way, they end up in a lot of places. When cold fronts or hunting pressure push ducks out of the area, some head east and then south down the Mississippi River corridor through Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Others filter down the Central Flyway through places like South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Traditional wintering areas from the Mississippi Delta to the Gulf Coast eventually receive ducks that have spent part of their lives in Minnesota.
Leftovers from agricultural production provide duck food in the form of waste grain, and harvested fields offer hunting opportunities, but as with any waterfowl hunting area, wetlands acreage is critical to attracting ducks.
Minnesota's lakes are a big part of the habitat picture. They provide open-water habitat where ducks stage during migration and important marsh habitat with a combination of food, water and shelter.
Fluctuating water levels allow seed-bearing plants to grow and flourish, providing a natural and easily accessible food source.
The marshy lake backwater before us appeared to have the right combination of duck attractants. There was open water in the main lake where ducks could rest undisturbed, and aquatic vegetation in the form of smartweed filled the shallow pocket where we planned to set up.
"It's in a pretty good migration corridor, too," Lee said. "You get a lot of new birds coming through there."
Fast and furious
Lee lives in eastern Minnesota, not far from the Twin Cities, but duck season carries the veteran guide all over the state. One of the most hardcore duck hunters you'll find, Lee often sleeps in the bed of his pickup under a camper-top on the night before a hunt. After the hunt, it's customary to see him heating a can of beef stew or some other ready-to-eat can on his truck's engine block.
"I like to keep it simple," he said.
He also likes to kill ducks and puts in countless hours scouting the best locations. His scouting report on this public lake, which will remain nameless at Lee's request, called for a high likelihood of green-winged teal with a chance for other dabblers and perhaps the occasional diving duck.
"The teal have been in there feeding on smartweed," Lee said. "I don't think they've gone anywhere. It should be good."
The marsh's location in a productive flyway was a bonus, especially in light of the cold front that had passed the previous day. With any luck, the blast of snow and cold air stirred some ducks off their summer potholes in search of more temperate climes.
Lee and I deployed the decoys — a dozen greenwings, a pair of mallards and two pintail drakes. By the time we finished breaking open a hole in the ice and tossing out the blocks, the arches of my feet ached from constantly pulling them out of the lake's muddy bottom.
"This mud's something else, huh?" Lee said. It wasn't really a question, and I didn't answer. My labored breathing said enough.
We set up on a short point about 20 yards from the center of the decoy spread, hiding in thick reeds that stood more than six feet tall. One finger of the small pocket of water extended left about 125 yards, another curled around the point to the right and was bordered by another short point about 75 yards to the right.
Lee finally glanced at his cell phone and announced we were legal.
"You can go ahead and load up now," he said.
I was already loaded, and within seconds a group of greenwings came in low over the decoys from right to left. Lee called the shot, and despite several misplaced rounds, two teal dropped to the ice in front of us.
We had barely reloaded when the next group circled in front of us and tried to land in the decoys. For the next several minutes, flights of teal and gadwalls constantly bombed the hole. Some groups worked out front and came in from right to left. Others circled close behind us, an unnerving situation with so many birds in the air.
The action was intense, but that hardly does justice to the scene. We barely had time to reload, and on more than one occasion I was glad I hadn't run my shotgun to the plug on the previous salvo.
Our shooting wasn't anywhere close to perfect, but 16 minutes after legal shooting time, there were two limits — seven gadwalls and five greenwings — on the water.
The action slowed a little as the sun eventually climbed over the horizon, but only a little. We watched large groups of divers settle down in the main body of the lake, but the gadwalls kept working our hole, as well as scattered groups of widgeon.
Some responded to our calls, while others seemed hell-bent on landing in the spread despite our silence.
Less than an hour and a half after we started shooting, three limits lay on the ice or in the small hole of water in front of us.
It was almost too good to be true for a Southern boy on his first hunt of the season. And maybe it was.
Paying your dues
"Nothing left to do but pick 'em up," Lee said.
I'd become so giddy about our success that I completely forgot about the thick black mud lining the bottom of the lake. Without a dog and no way to access the shallow pocket by boat, we'd have to wade through the muck and the quarter-inch ice to pick up 18 ducks scattered all over the marsh.
Ice is bad enough by itself. You have to pick your feet up high out of the water to bring them back down and break cleanly through the ice. The mud beneath the ice made it torturous.
I wasn't prepared for the endeavor. Though I've chased ducks through swamps and sloughs and other sundry backwaters for more than 30 years, I had never encountered mud quite like the mud in this Minnesota marsh.
It had the viscosity of cold roofing tar and was only slightly lighter in color, a true primordial sludge if there ever was one. I sank nearly to my knees with every painstaking step, and that was only half the battle. Extracting my foot and lower leg from the muck to take the next step was equally taxing.
I immediately regretted my decision to take off for the longest retrieve of the day, a gadwall hen that fell about 75 yards to the left of our hiding spot. Ten minutes after heading toward it, I had covered only two-thirds of the slog. And I still had several more steps and the return trip.
But according to Lee, the sludge is part of the reason the marsh is such a productive duck hole. On five hunts there this season, Lee and his guests have bagged 69 ducks.
"It's a relatively difficult area to hunt because of all the mud and rocks," he said. "Not too many people want to deal with that, so it allows the ducks to stay in the area. They've always got some place to go in here. Birds can build up and not get all spooked out."
Plodding back to our hiding spot on terra firma, steam escaping from under my hat and collar, I understood why so few hunters would toil like this to shoot a duck.
I'm not sorry I did it, but I've never been so happy to set foot on solid ground.