ORTONVILLE, Minn. —
The first thing you notice when you step out into the 19-degree air at 6:15 a.m. on is the stars -- what appears to be millions and millions of bright stars.
Many of us have forgotten how striking this is, as we live in small or large cities where the man-made light stays on through all hours of the night and blurs our ability to take in this sky show. You don’t have to keep your eyes skyward long before a “shooting star” -- a meteor burning through the Earth’s atmosphere - grabs your attention.
But then you quickly are reminded of the task at hand, as you hear the sound of Steve Lee’s 25-horsepower Mercury outboard motor pushing his wide, 16-foot-long Fisher boat toward the landing at one of Minnesota’s 11,842 lakes larger than 10 acres. No, Minnesota’s motto of “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” isn’t an exaggeration.
The one we are hunting this day shall remain nameless, for obvious reasons to any duck hunter. You just don’t give away your duck hunting spots on the Internet, no matter how many lakes are scattered through this Mississippi Flyway state. Let’s just say it’s near Appleton, Minn., and leave it at that.
As you begin to see how the morning would progress, you’ll doubly understand why floating the exact name of this water body would be an act of idiocy.
Lee, 40, likes to get here early. No one is allowed to launch before 5 a.m. on these public waters. But oftentimes Lee will arrive at the landing at midnight. He’ll grab a few hours sleep in his pickup truck, made possible by the assurance that he will be first in line to launch at 5 o’clock.
And that primo hunting spot changes with the wind, like everything in duck hunting.
James Overstreet and I had never met Lee until the day before. Although cell phone service was intermittent, Lee at least knew we had arrived in Ortonville. In this no-stoplight-town of just over 2,000 residents, Lee simply drove around “until I saw somebody who looked that they were lost,” and he found us. It didn’t take long.
He pulled out a map to show us where we’d hunt the next morning. Depending on wind direction, he pointed out the two most likely spots where he’d lay out his decoy spread.
And even in the darkness of 6:30 a.m., we could see that Lee’s was no ordinary decoy spread. It included three dozen Canada geese and another 12 dozen duck decoys. Lee had hand-painted almost every single one, either to touch up fading factory paint jobs or put or more realistic appearance on decoys straight out of the box. For instance, many of his Canada goose decoys were originally snow geese.
We had received a break in the weather. It was supposed to get down to 17 degrees that night. The extra two degrees of warmth felt significant to the two Arkansas travelers who had left Charleston, S.C.’s mild weather to fly into Fargo, S.D., the day before. We had seen snow on the ground during the approach to Fargo. There was none on the ground when we landed, but the brisk 28-degree wind in the rental car lot reminded us of one thing: It was duck season.
It’s duck season, more correctly waterfowl season, and bass fishing that Steve Lee lives for. He’s never been married; he has a girl friend, “but she’s been married before and doesn’t seem to anxious to change me,” he noted.
His hunting season will extend into March, in northeast Arkansas, where he’ll end up for the second year in a row to guide snow goose hunters on a lease he’s procured there.
With the decoys already bobbing on the water, we still had enough time to add some caffeine to our systems with a Diet Mountain Dew each and get better acquainted. There was still almost an hour until legal shooting time. Lee showed us how we’ll make individual blinds among the thick cattails lining the lake. The hole he’s left between the Canada goose and duck decoys has created the most likely landing zone for incoming waterfowl.
And as a brilliant orange-and-purple sunrise emerges in the east, we start to get a better view of Lee’s method. It’s obvious that he believes the hunter with the larger decoy spread has an advantage. We will see nothing the rest of the morning to disprove that theory.
“I think those guys are a little early,” said Lee, as we heard the first distant “whoom, whoom, whoom” of a shotgun volley. A glance at his watch confirmed that, but it was close enough for us to get hidden and load our guns.
The hunting day started slowly. We began to see a variety of waterfowl flying - mallards, greenwing teal and bluebills, Canada geese and snows - but none seemed moved by our decoys or calls. Lee was concerned about the lack of wind, but little else.
It’s still corn harvesting time in western Minnesota.
“A lot of birds will fly early,” Lee said. “They’ll leave the roost and go out in the corn fields. They’ll spend the first two hours feeding in the fields, then, when it’s sunny and dry, the ducks desperately need water. That’s why mid-morning can be so good.
“From around 7:30 until 8, you’ll see the big wads going out, but they may not respond to calling or decoys. Around 9:30 is typically when they start coming back in.”
Lee emphasized how important it was to scout in order to find out which fields the birds were heavily feeding. Once you find that, it’s fairly easy to figure out a lake that will be attractive to them the next day.
Lee said he’ll average four or five hunting days a week during the Minnesota season, which typically runs from early October through early December. The other days he’s scouting or “fixing stuff,” that’s “stuff” as in various duck hunting gear. He also noted that the lake we were on today would be frozen solid by mid-November and littered with ice-fishing shacks.
Lee is adept at blowing both duck and goose calls, “and I’m working on my bluebill calling,” he said.
Early that morning, he brings a single Canada goose to the spread, then later, a pair. All three are added to our bag. A fast-moving group of teal gets on us and out without a shot being fired.
A spoonbill comes into the spread, and somewhat reluctantly, the “smilin’ mallard” is added to our bag.
Now it’s 9:30. The Coleman hand-saving heater has been turned off. We are drenched in the sunlight of a cloud-less sky. And the wind starts to pick up a bit from the northwest, which is perfect for our perch on this lake.
Just as Lee predicted, big groups of mallards begin working our decoys. The sound of ducks low overhead is often described as “whistling wings.” But if you’ve been under low-flying ducks, you know it’s more like a small jet engine you hear roaring over your head, signaling you to remain perfectly still, with eyes trained over the decoys, never glancing up for fear of ruining what you know is about to happen.
For the next hour, we will work groups that are joined by other groups circling over our decoys. Occasionally, they are flared by the shots of other hunting parties on the lake. But mostly they circle and land.
That’s the ultimate sight for a duck hunter - to see mallards splashing into the decoy spread. Some hunters aren’t patient enough to witness this. A duck within shooting range is reason to shoot. And, admittedly, there are times when that is a better strategy for success. Wary birds or frequent shooters nearby can foil this method. But we are seeking the ultimate here in Minnesota today. And we achieve it - time and time again.
By 10:30, we are shooting only photographs. Three limits of mallards are filled. We are short only two “off” ducks, after a group of teal surprises us, and all but one escape. Our total for the day - 12 mallards, 2 gadwalls, 1 greenwing teal and 1 spoonbill and 3 Canada geese. For the next 90 minutes, we’ll photograph various size groups of mallards working and often landing in the decoys.
For our first day of Minnesota duck hunting, it’s hard to imagine anything better. It’s time to slowly wade through the water of this lake, which has a potential cold-ending littered with granite boulders, and pick up Lee’s decoy spread. Despite frequently stubbed toes, no one takes an icy dive. Success.
The following day, we go through the same routine. But it is 28 degrees when we assemble at the lake. One of Lee’s hunting buddies, Ron Feyo, a machinist from the Twin Cites area, joins us shortly after shooting time.
But we will look at mostly a lifeless blue sky on this morning. The cold front that left us chilled, but moved ducks, is gone. There is no need to even think about the Coleman heater today. Small panes of ice still litter the lake shore, but this warm front, accompanied by no wind, has given us a lesson in why it’s called “duck hunting,” and not “duck shooting.”
Like any such day, it leaves more time for the camaraderie that bands duck hunters together, no matter where they live. Feyo was here in the 40-mile-per-hour winds that blew Sunday and had a splendid hunt.
“I called about 70 specs in,” Feyo said, noting that specklebelly geese aren’t that common here.
And Feyo provides an unbiased source for Lee’s bass fishing exploits. In an annual big tournament for bass anglers at Lake Minnetonka called “The Classic,” Lee has been a three-time champion and four-time runner-up.
“He’s pretty darned good,” Feyo said. “There are three guys in the state that really stand out, and Steve’s one of them. Those three always go at it.”
Our total on day two is 5 mallards, 1 Canada goose and 1 snow goose. It’s nothing to complain about, and we aren’t about to, especially not after yesterday’s memories are still fresh in our minds.
“Today, for the average Minnesota waterfowler, this would be an excellent day,” Lee said.
Lee has been hunting waterfowl for 20 years in Minnesota. He understands that one slow day for him simply means more scouting.
“When the Dakotas are dry, more ducks come through this way,” Lee said. “You have to cover a lot of ground to see what the (Minnesota) population is really like.
“I think too many guys relate it to just the area they hunt all the time. They’re not getting the overall picture.”
We hunted just one of Minnesota’s 11,000-plus lakes. We left early feeling like we hadn’t begun to see the overall picture. But we had gained a quality snapshot, thanks to Steve Lee - a duck hunter’s duck hunter.