GRAND RAPIDS, Minn — It’s a spectacular morning for a paddle. Surely, Duluth’s Darrell Spencer, in the solo canoe ahead of me on the river, must feel the same way.
If you’re not a duck hunter, you might miss out on a before-dawn paddle like this. We glide along in complete silence save for the gurgle of our paddle strokes, each of us in a canoe loaded with decoys.
Spencer has an added 72-pound payload — his 8-month-old black Lab pup, Ike.
We have left Spencer’s cabin in the woods well north of Grand Rapids and are paddling the river to his duck blind on a piece of water nearby. A waning moon hangs like a shard of ivory in the western sky, allowing me to just make out Spencer’s form up ahead. Ike is invisible. The night sky is awash with stars. The temperature is one degree above freezing, and clouds of mist rise wraithlike over the river.
Somewhere in the woods along the river, Spencer’s son, Alex, and his friend Auston Crist, both 17, are making their way to a duck blind by land. Spencer and I will meet them there, toss out a few decoys and hunker along shore to await the morning flight.
The Spencer family has had its cabin for six years. It’s in the heart of northern Minnesota’s duck, deer and grouse country. The exact location must remain somewhat vague. There’s a poster at the cabin that reads, “I don’t always tell people where I hunt, but when I do, it’s a lie.”
The country around the cabin is largely wild and lightly used.
“It’s about the closest you can get to wilderness without going into the Boundary Waters (Canoe Area Wilderness),” Spencer says. “In a typical year, this river gets paddled about a dozen times, and I’m paddling it 11 of those.”
For Duluth East High School students Alex and Auston, buddies since preschool days, it’s a paradise for hunting.
“You don’t see many people up here,” Alex says. “You’re all on your own.”
The family had a good duck opener on the river last weekend. Alex’s brother, Jack, 12, and friend Jacob Ulvi hunted with Darrell. They saw about 150 ducks on that Saturday and shot a dozen. The next day, they saw 50 to 75, Darrell says, and shot three. On Minnesota’s Youth Waterfowl Day this year, Sept. 12, Jack and friend Tyler Anderson shot six ducks.
Waiting and listening
Now, on this midweek morning, Alex and Auston ready the blind. Darrell Spencer puts out a half-dozen Canada goose decoys, a few wood ducks, a couple of teal and the seven bluebill decoys that Jack carved himself this fall. The puddle-duck decoys look good in the rice along shore. The divers ride high in the open water.
We’re ready a few minutes before shooting time, sitting quietly and listening to the wingbeats of songbirds flitting along shore. Darrell Spencer pours a cup of coffee from his Thermos.
“It feels good to have cold hands,” he says.
Every duck hunter knows these poignant moments just before shooting hours, when the sky is still dark.
“I like getting up early in the morning, hearing those first ones come in,” Alex says. “It’s cool.”
Just before shooting time, a flock of diving ducks passes over the blind unseen. But the sound they make with the air rushing over their wings is a sound that sends a happy shiver down the spine of duck hunters. It’s hard to believe that air and feathers can generate such volume.
Right at shooting time, a pair of wood ducks makes a now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t flyby over the blind. They’re gone before anyone can raise a gun.
Ike, who retrieved the six ducks on Youth Waterfowl Day, may understand the significance of these early fly-overs, but if he does, he doesn’t let on. He’s still figuring it all out.
Learning to shoot
Auston doesn’t come from a hunting family, but he’s been tutored in hunting by the Spencers.
He took his firearms safety class from Darrell, who’s been teaching the class for 20 years. Now, Auston has hunted deer and grouse and ducks.
“It’s all them,” Auston says of the Spencers. “I kind of went trap shooting with them. Darrell got me into guns. I got a gun. I took the class from him.”
Light creeps into the day from the east. Not a hint of wind stirs the water. As the sun rises, the decoys are reflected perfectly on the still water. It is not the kind of day a duck hunter hopes to get. It would be better if the wind was riding hard out of the northwest, jostling life into the decoys, making the ducks want to fly — and fly low.
For a couple of hours, we sit and wait and watch. Not a single duck appears in the sky. From downstream, we hear the resonant notes of trumpeter swans sitting somewhere on the water. Some mornings, geese move an hour or two after sunrise, but no geese are on the wing over us today.
Our suspicion is that this hint of cold weather has sent packing the woodies and teal, which were prevalent during last weekend’s opener. At mid-morning we decide to find out. This is the usual routine for the Spencer crew — a couple of hours in the blind, followed by a jump-shooting paddle downstream.
Darrell Spencer paddles stern with Ike. Alex rides up front, his 12-gauge Benelli ready. The idea is to sneak around each bend of the river, hoping to surprise ducks on the water. When they flush, the shooter up front gets a shot.
At a bend where the Spencers put up 40 woodies on opening weekend, two flush now. But they leave too early, and Alex gets no shots.
The hunters surprise four otters farther along. Indignant about the intrusion, the otters appear and reappear in the water, popping their heads up and hissing their displeasure at the hunters.
On one bend, a wood duck flushes within range, but it eludes the three shots Alex throws at it.
It’s the last duck we see that morning.
Classic hunting literature may not be among the assigned readings at Duluth East High School, but someday Alex may run across this passage from Gordon MacQuarrie, who long ago was a much-revered outdoors writer for both the Superior Telegram and the Milwaukee Journal. Duck hunting was MacQuarrie’s passion.
“A hundred bluebills, maybe twice that, who knows, came straight in without once swinging, and sat,” MacQuarrie once wrote. “We never touched a feather as they rose. I have done it before and I’ll do it again and may God have mercy on my soul.”