A northern Minnesota blast and cast adventure.
Climbing into Craig's duckboat at the backwoods landing felt like stepping through a time warp. Though in my 60th year, I felt every bit as giddy as a 12- or 13-year-old kid would on his first duck hunting adventure. I don't know why, And I sure can't explain it. But that's what happens to me every time I get a chance to do something different, to try something new in our wonderful world of wildfowling. An odd sensation? Maybe. But it's one I never hope to lose.
Though we were past the middle of October, the damp, mild air wedged between the steaming marsh and the low-hanging scud felt foreign and downright unpleasant given our northern Minnesota latitude.
Though I gave it little thought then, the unseasonable weather wasn't going to prove the only surprise on this trip.
I was invited by a longtime friend and owner of McArdle's resort on Minnesota's famous Lake Winnibigoshish, Craig Brown.
While most of our conversations over the years have naturally revolved around the essence of how, where, when, and on what Big Winnie's walleye, perch, and pike are biting; we were forced to stray from fishy subject matter, to that of Craig's professed, but seasonal passion for northwoods waterfowling. And that piqued my interest.
It was only natural that I found his tales of gunning the ringneck flight in the area's rice lakes and marshes particularly compelling. Partly because if they'd have come from anyone else I'd have quickly dismissed them as totally unbelievable, and partly because it sounded like so much pure and simple fun. Given the facts, I really had the itch to see and experience it for myself.
Now, understand that Craig is one of the top-producing fishing guides on Big Winnie. Day in and day out, he simply goes about his job in a very unassuming, matter-of-fact manner. And it's from the same low-keyed, understated perspective that he speaks of his rice lake hunting.
"It happens every year at about the end of the third week in October. One day the marsh is empty, the next it's full of ringnecks. Sometimes they come in overnight. Then the next morning, packed tight in with the coots, they're literally bouncin' right off of the boat as you motor through the rice under pre-dawn's cover of darkness. Heck, I've seen 'em so thick we reached out and caught 'em barehanded as we motored along," Craig explained.
Like I said, if I'd heard this from anyone but Craig, I'd have blown it off.
"In other years, even on light-winded, bluebird days," he continued, "I've sat out in the swamp getting little more than sunburned, when first one flight of 20 or 30 birds suddenly appeared in what had for hours, been an empty western sky, only to dive-bomb into the rice like it's their long lost home, in the span of mere seconds.
"Aw, we'd probably have missed anyway," Craig noted as a matter of consolation.
Craig Brown motoring through the marsh. A shallow water motor works best when hunting in areas chock-full of wild rice.
This vanguard flock is soon followed by another, then another, then still more as, in an amazing ringneck parade, the sky never empties the rest of the day. And before it's over, this part of their migration'¦one that would seemingly have no explanation other than that the calendar simply called for it'¦would have our rice lake fairly littered with ringnecks. And that's when the real fun begins!"
When the ringnecks are in, the word spreads like wildfire. "Early on, the shooting is next to nonstop," according to Craig. "But it's definitely not easy. Still, it's not a matter of if you'll get your birds, but rather when and with how many shells."
While a few birds will give his stool of diver blocks a look, most will just do a high speed flyby in flocks of one to 20 or so birds.
Sometimes the little buzz bombs are well within range. But more often than not they're on the margin, departing the rice each morning to parts unknown, apparently to feed unmolested. Then they return each evening running'¦'er'¦flying the gamut in a command performance as they go to roost.
"You wanna be set up 'Right Down Broadway,'" Craig emphasizes, "Smack dab in the middle of their flight path, if you can."
Though spectacular while it lasts, hunting pressure can put an end to the festivities in a matter of days, sending the ringneck flight further along its migratory way. "Timing," Craig offers seriously, "can be everything."
Long story short, I knew the spin Craig put on his rice lake hunting meant we could be in for something special that first morning.
But after setting our mixed rig of ringneck and mallard blocks bulldozing into the tulies and erecting the boat's blind, the day's only grudgingly gathering light showed my partner's face to have an unsettling look of concern. I had to ask.
"Well," Craig offered, "Things don't look good. We'll have to see. But we sure didn't move a lotta ducks on our way in here."
"It'll be what it'll be," I replied adding, "Don't worry. We're huntin' and that's all that matters. I'm just happy to be here."
I really was, and I think Craig knew it.
So we enjoyed a morning in the marsh that unfolded as a throwback to many of those of my eastern Wisconsin-based youth.
The stark exception being the world of wild rice in which we were set up. The cattailed, mucky, bottomless marshes I grew up in were rice free.
The day's first birds, a knot of teal of all things, totally surprised us. Streaking in low and from behind over the tall tulies, they nearly flew our hats off. Not a shot was fired. Then two small flocks of blurr-winged divers--mere black silhouettes, darting low and temporarily lost against the dark background of the distant tree line--shot by at fringe range, leaving us to only shrug our shoulders and shake our heads.
With the fullest of harvest moons rising, my host suggested we might forego some of the evening's sleep in favor of a little after hours pluggin' for walleyes. I was all over it.
Dawn's sunrise brightens any decoy spread.
Wound tight by then and somewhat on edge, I suddenly caught a glimpse over my left shoulder of a pair of birds rocketing our way. Without time to warn Craig, I popped up, swung hard to pull some daylight on the leader, and touched one off. My first Minnesota duck--a ringneck appropriately enough--cannonballed the rice 30 yards out.
Sadly, that lucky shot proved atypical of those that followed.
There weren't a lot of birds to begin with, and those that were there offered marginal shooting at best. Complicating matters, as is typically the case in marsh hunting, was that we were more than a little indecisive.
But we were careful; careful not to drop birds into the thickly matted rushes thriving on the floating bog behind us. I had my Lab with me, but I'd been warned, and I could see why. That tangle of ugly stuff was no place for a dog, particularly an old and deaf one like Tanner.
By mid-morning, the flight, such as it was, had come to an end. Though we had but one limit between us--a mixture of mallards, bluewings (that should have been long gone), and ringnecks (the bulk of which were apparently yet to come)--we'd made some memories and agreed all was pretty right with our world.
A morning which had brightened into a beautiful Indian Summer day had us thinking in terms of Craig's backup/bonus plan; a little late season fishing.
After a quick sandwich back at the lodge, we jumped into Craig's big Lund. With its 200 horse Merc Verado hummin' us along, we slid over Big Winnie's becalmed waters. We were one of only three boats we could find on its entire 70,000 acres. Unlike during the season, it was nothing to have the spots to ourselves.
Now, we didn't light 'em up by any means, but we had no trouble pickin' up enough fat, jumbo perch and eater walleyes for a suppertime fish fry. It proved a pleasant couple hours, and a welcomed late season bonus to the year's angling. But while we fished, I constantly kept my eyes glued to the skies; pretty, but empty skies that didn't bode well for the morning hunt.
And if disappointment was what we expected, well, that second morning didn't disappoint.
Under high, blue, cloudless skies, the hunt was a bust, except for a solitary greencap and the one of two ringnecks that decoyed so nicely right at shooting time and we should have had.
Still, it was hard to complain. It was a beautiful autumn morning in Minnesota.
Craig had some business to take care of that afternoon, and a nap suited me just fine.
With the still balmy conditions, we passed on the evening hunt.
Knowing this was no whim on Craig's part, I suspected we might be in for something special.
Where those fish were during daylight, I can only imagine, but it was after dark that evening that Winnie's 'eyes, in numbers and in size, came out to play. Craig had 'em wired, and rarely did we motor more than a few minutes down the targeted breakline that one of us didn't either hookup, or experience a swing and a miss.
A couple divers that looked at the author's spread a little too closely.
With the latter being just as common as the first, it was strange to have so many fish pound our stickbaits, full of sharp trebbles and traveling at nearly 2 mph that did not get hooked up. But with all the excitement, there were no complaints.
Time flew as we landed walleye after chunky, gold-plated, hard-fighting Winnie walleye, all of which were released. We boated a good number of 23- and 24-inch fish, and Craig capped the outing with a well-fed 26-inch beauty that still fell short of his professed, and I could see realistic goal for the evening of a trophy 30-incher. Though not always the case, nighttime proved the right time for some outstanding fall fishing.
The 'eyes were still biting when we reluctantly packed it in. A few hours of sleep suddenly became a pressing need.
With a decent, but still warm breeze, and a high, thin cloud deck, the next morning's outlook was much-improved from that of the day before. Still riding the night-fishing high, we were more than ready to take whatever the rice would give us, looking for the frosting on the fishing cake.
Just after shooting time, several bunches of bluewings worked us tight, surrendering a bird or two to each volley. A couple loner mallards--the only two we'd seen show any interest in robo duck during all our hunts--hit the water hard, and a solitary drake woodie--one of a pair trying to sneak by from behind--didn't make it past my end of the boat.
The good news was that there were a few more flocks of ringnecks around. Some would have provided decent shooting if we had seen them in time. Others sucked us into some tough, ineffective long range gunning.
"Aw, they were really out there," one of us would offer an excuse for yet another whiff.
"Those were too long," the other would add after more of the same happenings.
That was our excuse on those 40-yard crossers...and we were stickin' to it.
Our last day's hunt proved a sampler of what could have been.
It was a classic raw, dark-clouded affair, with a wind that for the first time had a little bite to it. We were on our toes at shooting time, ready to go to battle. But the enemy, at least at first, was a "no show." Then it started to happen.
A trio of ringnecks shot by well out of range, then hooked back as they should have, locked in on their Judas brethren.
A mixed bag in the Minnesota rice.
Our guns spoke in unison, and the leader folded like it hit a wall. The second bird in line splashed down head-up, drawing followup fire that let the third escape. It was a cripple claimed...if only we'd have remained that lucky.
The next flight of ringnecks caught us both looking in the same direction. The wrong direction. "Darn'¦I hate it when that happens," Craig muttered, although somewhat amused.
When we made the same mistake only minutes later it didn't strike us as quite so funny.
Now, it's going to happen--some birds are always going to sneak through. Especially in the relatively tight confines of the rice marsh where cover can be at a premium, and hunters, of necessity, have to hunker down tight. While missed opportunities are part of the game, nowhere is it written that you have to like it; especially during times when you're presented with precious few.
Tough as blown opportunities are to swallow, missing is even worse.
Knowing it was our last hunt, we were probably pressing a bit. But that's not an excuse.
And there were a few times--most notably when we made our move too late and had to rush our shots--that we did little more than blow holes in the sky, or in the water behind the streaking ducks.
After one such volley, we just slumped back down, looked at each other and laughed, not really questioning why.
When I mentioned as much, Craig replied, "I think my son Nate nailed the answer to that question one day last season. After we'd once again come up empty he asked with a knowing grin, 'Why is it when we shoot and miss, we laugh about it?' Then he answered his question with another. 'Because it's fun?!'"
Well, Craig and I continued to have fun that morning.
Yeah, we missed some more, and we scored a few more times, too. But we lost three birds as well; one which we folded just out over the open rice, but not far enough to prevent the gusting wind from blowing it back, and out of reach into the thick stuff.
And two that we dropped, but being only wounded, dove immediately upon impact, never to be seen again. As much as we hate it, lost birds are part of the rice marsh hunt.
Though not a slam dunk, that last morning in the rice had a little of everything.
We hunted. We shot. We missed. We laughed. And counting our lost birds as bagged, we still came up a couple of birds shy of a two man limit. While the result in terms of birds bagged was decent at best, the overall experience was more than every bit worth the effort.
In the end, it's the potential of this rice lake hunting--potential for tons of pure, simple, good old fashioned wildfowling fun--that impressed me the most.
And sure, it's no doubt it would have really been something to have timed the migration perfectly. But then, being a rookie in the rice no longer and still having The Big Show to look forward to is not such a bad deal, either.