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Bill Marchel: Good hunting on the 2020 duck opener

Flurries of action followed by quiet lulls seemed to be the theme of the day.

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Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, and Sally, his German short-haired pointer, are well-concealed as they watch for ducks on the Sept. 26 Minnesota opener. Photo by Bill Marchel

The pre-dawn sky was inky black, and low-lying clouds obscured the stars as Rolf Moen of Nisswa, his dog Sally, a German short-haired pointer, and I motored toward our hunting destination a half mile or so from the boat landing. The air was calm and mild -- about 55 degrees.

We had navigated roughly this same route for nearly two decades, so we knew it well.

This was last Saturday, the Minnesota duck hunting opener.

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A day earlier a friend and I had scouted this sprawling wild rice marsh. Obvious to us was that the rice crop was extra thick this year and, much to our delight, the shoreline was ablaze in fall color, perhaps at its peak. We also discovered some areas of the marsh were basically void of ducks, while over spots held reasonable numbers of birds, predominantly blue-winged teal and wood ducks, with a smattering of green-winged teal and mallards. One particular location in a large bay, we had noted, held the most ducks.

Now Rolf, Sally, and I sat in the dark in that very spot, awaiting legal shooting time. Rolf and I were sipping coffee, while Sally did what hunting dogs do -- bounce about the boat, anxiously testing the air for olfactory clues to what might lurk nearby, hidden in darkness. Far off, a great-horned owl hooted. Otherwise a hush hung over the wetland. No wood ducks whined, no mallards quacked, no whisper of wings overhead -- nothing.


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Sally, a 5-year-old German short-haired pointer, retrieves a drake wood duck from among stems of wild rice. Photo by Bill Marchel

But that would change shortly after the 6:39 a.m. legal shooting time began. Anyone who has hunted ducks knows at one half-hour prior to sunrise ducks flying low, below a near or far tree line, are nearly impossible to spot until they wiz past overhead. That was especially true on Saturday morning since dawn light was slow to come. Numerous ducks got past during the first several minutes.

Then, a small flock of blue-winged teal buzzed by. Rolf swung his shotgun and touched the trigger. Two ducks fell with his first shot, and his second shot went astray.

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For the next half hour action was moderate, but steady. We had downed seven ducks, a mix of teal and wood ducks, and one mallard. Other hunters were having success, too, evident by distant shooting in all directions.

Then things changed, dramatically, like someone hit the “ducks off” switch, if there is such a thing. The ducks were gone, and so was the shooting. East and west, north and south, it was eerily quiet. There were many minutes when we could not see a single duck in the sky, even in the distance. It was only 7:20 a.m.

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Wood ducks, like this colorful drake, attain their breeding plumage earlier than most duck species, and fully-plumed birds can be found on the duck hunting opener. Photo by Bill Marchel


Rolf and I discussed the situation. It’s not rare for the opening flurry to quickly taper off, but on Saturday, it ended particularly abruptly, we both agreed. This year, the wild rice was so thick, we figured ducks had found secure locations to rest and feed.

Time passed, and eventually a drake wood duck tried to sneak behind us. Rolf and I both shot, and the bird folded, splashing into the water about 40 yards away.

Sally leaped from the boat and swam toward the duck. She made a nice retrieve of a well-plumed drake.

Eventually, we moved to a different location. There was a brief flurry of action and I was able to add a blue-winged teal to the bag. Rolf and I both whiffed on a few others.

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Following another long lull, we decided to end our hunt with nine ducks bagged. As we motored toward the landing, we flushed many soras (rails). These fist-sized marsh birds are not uncommon, but because they inhabit thick aquatic vegetation, they are rarely seen. Between scouting and hunting, I estimate we saw roughly 150 of the odd birds. I’ve hunted that marsh since I was a teenager, and never have I seen so many.

Key to our hunting success was the scouting mission the day prior. We knew exactly where we wanted to be. Rolf and I reasoned we had a satisfying opening day, and I’m sure Sally agreed.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

Bill Marchel


Bill Marchel

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