On Nov. 23, we hunted ducks on the last day of the season, something I hadn't done for many years.
Once it was tradition. We'd go down to Rice Lake in Morrison County -- the only open water left in the area -- and see if any ducks were still around. Shooting was good some years, others it was slow, late-season duck hunting being a hit-or-miss proposition.
These days even early-season duck hunting is hit-or-miss. Pre-season reports say numbers are up, then we go afield on opening day and wonder where all the birds are.
In recent years I've hunted ducks for the first two weeks of the season and then moved on to other pursuits. Hunters who stick with it to the end often get great shooting for a week or two, and sometimes the end is better than the start. Today, I was hoping the ducks that weren't around in September and October would appear before the sun set on another season.
With me were two hunters who had stuck with it to the end: Tom Whitehead of Nisswa and Steven Weagel of Pequot Lakes. Two years ago they set out to build the ultimate duck boat, and the second creation of this undertaking is what we hunted from. The rig consists of a frame of 1-inch aluminum tubing mounted to the gunwales of a 17-foot duck boat. The frame is covered with commercial reed camo and it blends in great with wild rice and other cover.
Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
Tom Whitehead set a group of diving duck decoys on the last day of the Minnesota waterfowl season. Placing the decoys on a single line assures they will line up on the water similar to how real diving ducks do.
Prognosis for this final day of the season wasn't good. From all reports few ducks were in the area. The only good stories I'd heard all season had come from the Dakotas and northwestern Minnesota. Weagel, who hunts almost exclusively around Brainerd, agreed the local season could have been better.
"Early on we did OK," Weagel said. "We got some teal and pintails. But there weren't nearly the ducks around. Mallards were down. And the divers just never came through like they did last year. It was so warm for so long. What else could it be?"
Whitehead said the season had been unusual in that he shot gadwalls locally for the first time.
We launched on the river and motored south. The high walls of the aluminum frame cut the cold wind. On opening day we stood around in shirt-sleeves. Today multiple layers and chest-high neoprene waders were mandatory.
Brainerd Dispatch/Vince Meyer
Tom Whitehead motored his duck boat into a quiet bay. The bay was empty of ducks when he arrived and remained so as Minnesota's duck season came to a quiet end.
Decoys were set off a point that juts into a bay on the river. We set almost equal numbers of mallards and bluebills. Whitehead and Weagel lamented the lack of a good bluebill flight in recent years. The speedy divers are in decline and studies have failed to reveal why. Their diminished flights are sad news to late-season duck hunters, who depend on 'bills to provide shooting after most dabblers have gone south.
I've always treasured the hardy Canadian mallard, with its red legs and thick down. The arrival of the first flock is a special day on the hunting calendar. They look different somehow. People say they're bigger, but really they're not all that much bigger than a locally-grown mallard.
It's the coloration perhaps. Unlike early season locals, they're fully molted and their colors are richer, the white ring around their necks more defined. Ultra-wary, they're tough to decoy, especially in larger flocks. But maybe a loner or two would fall for the great setup we had assembled?
It wasn't to be. Whitehead, Weagel and I filled a few duckless hours with talk of other hunts. Yet three hours on the river, whether fishing or hunting, isn't wasted. The sky was the clear, hard blue of late November and the northwest wind foretold of snows to come. But it didn't bring one last flock of migrating ducks. The day was reminiscent of the opener, minus several degrees in temperature.
Late-season duck hunting is the appeal of the unexpected. A flock of birds that spent most of the year somewhere else appears on the horizon, then swings within range. Hunter and prey intersect for a few seconds. You shoot and either collect the downed bird or watch it fly off to who knows where, taking with it another hunting season.
VINCE MEYER, outdoors editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5862.
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