Duck hunting can take you back in time when huge flocks of migrating waterfowl blackened the sky. Market hunters fed Minneapolis, Chicago and New York, using punt guns, small cannons loaded with buckshot, nails and anything else metal, tied to skiff that when fired pushed the boat back from the cannon’s roar. Stealthily crafted sneak boats and ancient dug outs with hunting dogs without pedigree that could easily stand up to biggest raccoons worked those same wetlands. Real duck hunters today, chasing ancient memories, are just as happy watching ducks fly as they are shooting them. Albeit massive flocks in the distance, smaller groups on their final approach with wings set or singles that are in and out of a decoy, spread faster than a hunter can react and then are gone with the wind. More often dogs with eyes on the skies tell camoed hunters when to take the safety off because they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads.
Those are reasons why duck hunters today carry, along with loads of gear, equal appreciation for just watching ducks warily circle a spread of decoys as they make that final approach. After the shooting is done there’s a certain appreciation of the masterpiece in your hands. Feathers blended of greens, rusts, browns, reds, grays, yellows with thin articulated lines stand out. The blended colors change from subtle hues to metallic bursts as light changes from shade to bright sunshine. No artist could come close to creating what is held in a hunter’s hand.
Prairie potholes and winds go hand in hand. Corn rustling, cattails rattling with waves racing to shore. Grey clouds tell stories of things to come. North winds bite bare skin as guns roar. Suddenly a snow squall is riding the prairie winds. Ice bites cheeks and snow builds up on the backs of decoys. And ducks wrapped on down still come oblivious to the cold.
Those same wet shivering dogs watch the sky ready to bust through cattails to retrieve what falls on command. You wonder if the shivering is from the cold or is the dog just that excited? Guns roar, birds fall and a whistle blast are followed by voice commands. Fetch. Dead bird. Back. Over, over. They understand and obey. Moments or several minutes may pass as the dog vanishes into thick cattails on the other side of the wetland and run ashore. You hear noises, splashing, ice breaking, weeds move and then suddenly the dog reappears with a bird in its mouth to deliver to the hand of the hunter, an act completely opposite of what happens in the wild.
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.