Dennis Anderson
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RENVILLE, MINN. – Saturday morning in the Minnesota River bottoms south of this small town a few ducks flew about 10 minutes before sunrise. The state’s waterfowl season had been open only a short while, and Will Smith and his son, Harrison, discharged a volley from their shotguns that splashed a hen wood duck into the water just beyond their decoys.

Similar efforts were being recorded at the same time throughout the state.

Win Mitchell and Jon Schneider, for instance, were in western Minnesota, hunting near Marsh Lake. Dan Gahlon and his bunch were in Douglas County on Lake Christina. Bill Marchel and Rolf Moen were on the Mississippi River near Brainerd. And John and Gary Graupman were on Swan Lake, north of Nicollet.

In days gone by, these waterfowlers would have been joined by tens of thousands just like them. Historically a haven for ducks and duck hunters, Minnesota for generations led the nation in the number of waterfowlers it put in the field.

Falling duck numbers and changing times have driven a stake into the heart of duck hunting, and now Minnesota often is subordinate to Texas measured by the number of federal duck stamps sold.

An embarrassment, yes, but in the end, it makes no nevermind. As long as Minnesota has water, it will have ducks, and with them residents who are drawn each fall to the state’s wetlands and shallow lakes to seek thrills like no other while honoring a tradition that dates to the invention of gunpowder.

Mark.

Light was gathering more fully now against a low sky, and Harrison had alerted his dad to another squadron of wood ducks appearing over their decoys.

Again, shots rang out and again a bird arced toward its fateful end.

Given the lack of teal, wood ducks and mallards seen in these parts in recent seasons, this second bird, when in hand courtesy of my young dog, Rowdy, recalled the good old days of duck hunting in these river bottoms, when limits or near limits were routine.

The night before, on the eve of this year’s opener, Will, Harrison and I had gathered in the same Smith-family shack that housed Will and me and Will’s brother, Dan, on opening-duck-hunting weekends when we were only recently out of college.

These were festive gatherings fueled by outsized trigger-pulling expectations that were regularly realized. Will and Dan’s dad, Bill, and their mom, Mary Lou, joined in the fun, too, and the chili and homemade pies Mary Lou prepared for suppers at the shack rivaled the State Fair’s best.

In the years since, the Smith shack has grown still more character-rich. Gracing one wall are elk and mule deer antlers returned from the West decades ago by Will and Dan’s grandpa. On another wall are poetry verses dedicated to waterfowling and a cache of conservation posters and wildlife paintings. A few of my old columns wallpaper the place as well, including one I wrote in 1980 describing a day Willy and I and two of my dogs spent at the shack.

“Many people may not see this as a good time,’’ I wrote, “but to me they come no better. What more could one ask? The city is far enough away to forget and the country is close enough to soak up. What’s more, my dogs are nearby and because they stink real good they’re happy too.’’

The referenced pooches are long gone, and Bill and Mary Lou have passed on as well. Yet one and all they remain as much a part of the shack as its 2x4s, gas lights and wood stove.

It goes without saying that every Minnesota waterfowler wants to see beaucoup ducks, and sometimes the stars align, and they do.

But as important for Willy, Dan and me, Harrison and his brothers Matthew and Parker, along with Dan’s son, Neil, and my sons, Trevor and Cole, all of whom have been frequent visitors to the shack, gauge a hunt’s success not only by ducks bagged but by dogs petted, great food consumed and memorable sunrises shared.

“I saw a few ducks down here the other day when I was scouting,’’ Will said. “That was encouraging.’’

Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers in recent weeks have been encouraged as well, based on reports that Minnesota duck production this summer was believed to be good.

Saturday morning, in western Minnesota, near Marsh Lake, Mitchell and Schneider validated that characterization, saying that reasonable numbers of ducks flew early on the state wildlife management area they hunted.

Lake Christina also provided pretty good duck action, particularly on its south side. Also, the Mississippi River in north-central Minnesota attracted strong numbers of hunters, some of whom took limits or near limits of teal and woodies. And waterfowlers on Swan Lake averaged two birds apiece, or about double the number secured in some recent years.

Dan, Will’s brother, didn’t hunt Saturday. Instead he put still more finishing touches on a river-bottom shack he started three years ago.

On the deck of that shack, after Will, Harrison and I had stowed our guns and decoys, Dan grilled bratwurst for us, a great end to a memorable morning.

So it went.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com