The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 22, 2013

Ducks, water scarce in SW Minnesota on opener


The Mankato Free Press

---- — In Nobles County, located in extreme southwest Minnesota and just a stone’s throw from the arid Dakotas, water can be a scarce, precious commodity even in the best of times.

But that is especially so in years such as this, when rainfall has come sparingly over the summer months.

So Dale VanThuyne and I were not altogether surprised at what we found on Friday, the eve of Minnesota’s waterfowl opener, as we scouted Lake Bella, located seven miles south of Worthington.

After several months of meager rainfall, the man-made lake that was created in the 1960s as a reservoir to assist in recharging that community’s chronically thirsty water wells, was extremely low.

The wide expanses of mud that separated the thick ring of cattails from the water’s edge made it clear the lightweight boat we had brought along would be useless.

What’s more, even if we could have launched the craft, the area we had hoped to hunt — the upper reaches of the lake where a meandering creek widens to form the lake basin — was bone-dry.

Three years ago, we were able to motor easily to the spot. Hunting was excellent.

Two years ago, we could reach the spot, but only after closing the last several hundred yards with push-poles and middle-aged muscle.

But once there, the waterfowl hunting once again was worth the effort.

Last year, during the Drought of 2012, we didn’t even bother. Months with virtually no rainfall had transformed our hunting spot to an expanse of cracked, dry mud better suited to hunting pheasants than waterfowl.

In spite of the current low water conditions on Friday, we nevertheless were encouraged by several hundred blue-winged teal that bobbed on the waves, occasionally taking to wing, circling, then settling onto the water again.

Since teal are some of the earliest waterfowl to migrate from Minnesota, we presumed these were migrants taking advantage of the brisk, chilly northwest wind, the result of the weather change earlier in the day.

After scouting the area, we decided we could reach a good hunting area by making a short hike along the edge of the lake.

At 6:15, Saturday morning, duck and goose decoys placed, we tucked back into the high-and-dry cattails and waited for legal shooting time.

In the pre-dawn, a couple of teal settled briefly into the decoys, milling nervously before once again taking flight, vanishing into the fog that hung in the still air.

Legal shooting time finally arrived, heralded with the boom of distant shotguns.

A few minutes later, against the eastern sky, the silhouettes of four Canada geese loomed, heading straight for our set-up.

In range, they banked to the left. “Let’s take ‘em,” I said to my hunting partner. Shotguns boomed.

All four birds continued flying untouched as we exchanged excuses for our poor shooting.

Over the course of the morning, shotguns boomed sporadically to our north where several Wildlife Management Areas dotted the countryside.

To our south, where we could hear another party calling to what we presumed to be passing waterfowl, the guns were silent.

And mostly, so were ours.

Early on, a few teal ripped past us from behind, our middle-aged reflexes too slow to catch up with the speedy birds.

Finally, a trio settled into the decoys. I stood and scratched one as it flew dead-away.

Later, I tumbled one from the pair that sped by, left to right.

But apparently the hundreds of teal we had seen loafing on the lake the previous afternoon had headed for warmer climes.

Two teal, along with a lone mourning dove that VanThuyne tagged as it settled onto the mudflat, were the extent of our opening day action.

By 10 a.m., the fog was gone and under a high, blue windless sky, so were the ducks.

The seagulls, a few pelicans and myriad shorebirds that found the mud-ringed lake to their liking winged past us.

But the only waterfowl in the air were a few high-flying, hunter-educated Canada geese.

Curiously, during the course of the morning, we never saw a wood duck and only a mallard or two.

In Nobles County, water can be a scarce commodity.

So can the ducks.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at (507) 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.