Dennis Anderson
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IN SOUTHERN MINNESOTA – Pulling a disappearing act, Kurt Zins was upright in a marsh the other day, then he wasn't.

Hoping to roust a pheasant, he had followed his golden retriever, Blackie, onto the ice-covered wetland. But the further he vectored toward the slough's middle, the more honeycombed its frozen surface. Finally, the footing gave way. Zins broke through and soon was soaked to his knees, and beyond.

Though not warm, the day was sunny, with a cobalt sky arching high above, horizon to horizon. Late-season pheasant hunting doesn't often unfold under prettier circumstances, soaked pants notwithstanding.

Not far from Zins, two of his buddies, Fred Froehlich and Duane Otto, were sloshing in their boots as well. But like Zins, they bore the rewards of their discomfort in their hands: a pair of long-spurred roosters, the uplands' wiliest and most colorful trophies.

"The ice was solid for a while," Zins laughed.

Lifelong buddies, Froehlich, 70, Otto, 73, and Zins, 51, each grew up in or near Nicollet, Minn., population 1,139. Today they make their homes in the same area. Given a recreation choice, they'll throw down for duck or goose hunting, or chasing pheasants. But ducks on nearby Swan Lake have been harder to come by in recent years, and honkers have winged it south. So, on this day, and in this month, December, it's pheasants, with no complaints.

"My dad first took me hunting on Swan Lake when I was 5 years old,'' Froehlich said. "I didn't have a shotgun, of course, just a BB gun. But we had ducks back then, lots of them. Not as many as when my dad was a kid, when he got caught in the Armistice Day Blizzard on a slough north of town. Still, when I was young, Swan Lake was something.''

Originally called Mara Tonka by the Sisseton Sioux who inhabited the area when French explorer Jean N. Nicollet arrived in 1838, Swan Lake at the time was one of the continent's major duck rearing and staging areas. Surrounded two centuries ago by "big woods" that have since been largely cleared, the lake today, framed as it is by section upon section of croplands, and visited by far fewer ducks, in some ways sprawls near the center of Nicollet County like a 10,000-acre open wound.

Froehlich's dad, Fritz, along with pals Reinie Volk, Herb Michels and a half-dozen others, likely couldn't have imagined such a landscape transformation when they gathered above the Opera House Bar in Nicollet in 1942 to form the Nicollet Conservation Club. The "club," as it were, would subsequently shift its meeting place to the town's old fire hall, before being given the hook from those premises in 1962 for liquor-related infractions.

Common as their upbringings are, with each graduating from Nicollet High School, the tie that binds Froehlich, Zins and Otto today is the same outfit that was formed above the Opera House Bar 77 years ago, the Nicollet Conservation Club.

The difference now is that the group's emphasis on conservation and conservation funding is perhaps unparalleled for what is commonly called a local or regional "sportsmen's club."

"When the club was evicted from the fire hall, they came out to Swan Lake and built a 20-by-40-foot clubhouse," Froehlich said. "Since then we've added on a number of times, most recently in 1994 when we built a two-story addition."

Situated hard by the Swan Lake shoreline, the club's modern iteration features a lighted boat ramp, two lighted trap fields and an interpretive center. It's perhaps the only organization of its size to donate more than $100,000 to Ducks Unlimited. Last year the club raised more than $42,000 for conservation, while also giving $16,000 to the Nicollet Fire Department and the local school — the latter underwriting everything from a new scoreboard to scholarships funding students' trips to environmental learning centers.

"The club is great not only for wildlife but for the community," Zins said. "And the club has been really strong in supporting the school's high school trap team."

Arguably, in fact, few of the hundreds of prep trapshooting squads that travel to Alexandria, Minn., each June for the state championship do so in the style Nicollet shooters do, with their gear packed into a snazzy trailer bearing custom graphics that proclaim "Nicollet Conservation Club/Swan Lake. Proudly sponsoring Nicollet High School Trapshooting Team."

"Fred [Froehlich] has been really important to the club's conservation efforts," Otto said. "He's been a leader for a long time."

To that end, a second group Froehlich helped form years ago, the Swan Lake Area Wildlife Association, focuses specifically on the lake's restoration. Aiding that effort, in 1985, the Department of Natural Resources formulated a 10-year plan that hoped to return Swan Lake to its once heralded stature. The Legislature kicked in $2 million in 1987.

The other day, on a small piece of ground in Swan Lake's 108,000-acre watershed, Zins, Froehlich, Otto and I completed our boot-soaked hike with roosters in hand. A good time, to be sure, and an important part of the give-and-take upon which the area's deeply ingrained conservation ethic is formed.

"There are about 3,000 acres in state land around Swan Lake, and about 4,000 acres in private land," Froehlich said. "Twice we've worked with farmers at auctions where we've bought the shoreline, to help keep the lake clean, and the farmers get the cropland back from the lake. We'll keep working at it."

Then Froehlich said, "And don't forget. Our pork-chop fries are held the third Saturday of every month. We feed about 350 people, all with volunteers. We've been doing them at least 35 years. They're open to the public, and only $11 for a dinner. They're good fundraisers."

Dennis Anderson •