By Jason Abraham. Photography by Tom Thulen.
Clicking off my headlamp, I'm enveloped in cold, predawn darkness. Moonlight illuminates a paddle-width channel through the bulrush-choked slough. To keep from soaking in sweat, I strip my coat and begin pushing my canoe—loaded with a 95-pound Labrador retriever, a dozen duck decoys, and a roll of tank camouflage—through skim ice at the edge of McCarthy Lake Wildlife Management Area.
As with most WMAs, this one allows neither motors nor motorized spinning-wing decoys. On this 2,800-acre Mississippi River backwater north of Weaver, hunters paddle canoes or push-pole in skiffs. From their open boats, they must decoy their quarry to close range for a sure shot—crippled birds can be quickly lost in the lake's dense vegetation.
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After an hour of alternately paddling and push-poling, I reach a promising spot and catch my breath before I unfurl my tank camouflage blind. With four wooden poles, I secure the canoe to McCarthy's muddy bottom. There are no lights from neighboring hunters. On this corner of a large public duck slough at the height of fall migration, I'm alone.
Many hunters avoid places like McCarthy Lake, and instead choose grounds where technology can maximize their chances for success. Some guess they can improve their chances by covering more ground with a motorized boat or an all-terrain vehicle. Some count on motorized spinning-wing decoys, which have been proven to lure more ducks to shooting range. Others say more permanent, heated stands allow them to enjoy the woods longer.
But for many hunters, trading sweat for solitude is a hunting tradition.
Mille Lacs WMA resident manager Dick Tuszynski counts himself among the devotees of this 38,000-acre public hunting ground, where bicycle-riding hunters pedal their way to deer, bear, and grouse.
Each fall, Tuszynski says, an eerie glow from bicycle lights and reflectors seems to float through the woods as hunters seek their stands in predawn darkness. During a typical 16-day firearms deer season, Mille Lacs WMA draws up to 3,000 hunters, he says.
"Between 60 and 80 percent of hunting pressure occurs within the first mile or two of the parking areas around the WMA," Tuszynski says. "Hunters on bicycle can get farther back much faster and kind of get away from the crowds." A good hunting bicycle, according to Tuszynski, has thick tires to keep from sinking into muddy trails and a sturdy frame to withstand bumps.
Grouse hunters in the 1970s were probably the first to penetrate the WMA interior on bicycles, Tuszynski says. Deer and bear hunters soon took their cue and also began biking to their spots. Some hunters wheel their harvested game out strapped to their bicycles. Others haul their game on pull-behind carts.
"Over the years, I've seen a lot of different contraptions," Tuszynski says. "Everything from a custom-made cart from a machine shop, to guys riding around on banana-seat bikes designed for kids.
"Rolling through the woods, listening to owls call in the moonlight—who wouldn't appreciate an experience like that?" says Tuszynski, who has hunted the area since 1985. "There's a certain sense of accomplishment when you do something like this, even when you come home empty-handed."
Although bicycling to hunt is common on Mille Lacs WMA, Tuszynski says the trend hasn't spread to many others. "This WMA is fairly flat, and the trails tend to be dry and firm, so it's good for biking," he says. "That's not something you find at most WMAs."
For some hunters, even bicycles are too much technology. They prefer the oldest form of transportation—their feet. Ely mayor Roger Skraba likes to keep it simple when he hunts the rugged forests near his home. Not that he doesn't have enough reasons to love high-powered hunting gadgets. He owns an outfitting company, Ya Ta Hey Outdoors, and is president of a local ATV club called the Ely-Winton Stump Jumpers.
"I've got no desire to own a four-wheeler," Skraba says. "Personally, I don't like a lot of equipment. I believe we need ATV trails for people to use, but I don't want to use one. There's room for all types of hunting."
Skraba hunts deer on the islands of Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where federal law prohibits motorized travel. He slowly walks circles on portage trails, as members of his hunting party wait in stands.
"This way I'm pushing deer, but not so hard that they actually run," Skraba says. "On average, I walk about eight miles a day. I've snuck up on deer in their beds. I see moose, marten, often hear wolves."
While Skraba admits his methods aren't the most efficient for putting venison on the table, he says a simple hunt holds great appeal. He sees more wildlife and enjoys the outdoors in quiet. "I don't think I'd see the same things if we all ran ATVs back and forth to our hunting stands," he says. "We prefer to hunt this way, but it's just our preference."
Betty Wilkens uses old ways of hunting to extend her seasons. During the fall she walks trails and hunts on the wooded farm she and her husband own in Kanabec County. By taking up archery and muzzleloader as well as rifle hunting, she has been able to pursue deer from mid-September through December. That's about 12 weeks of hunting in addition to the firearms deer season.
"I hunt almost every day of the bow season, rifle season, and muzzleloader season," says Wilkens, a retired teacher and school administrator who started hunting about 40 years ago. "You get a good feel for how the critters get around out there."
Aside from extending her hunting seasons, Wilkens says hunting on foot has other benefits, including a chance to pursue deer as they travel on natural game trails. "It's good exercise, and it has a very natural feel," she says. "When I hunt I want to be in the deer's natural habitat. I don't want to make them part of my habitat."
The DNR walks a fine line when it comes to providing experiences for all types of hunters, says Dave Schad, director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Hunting is not a one-size-fits-all sport," he says. "It's important that we try to provide opportunities that meet a variety of interests."
As an example, Schad cites the hunter walking paths established 20 years ago to ameliorate tensions between grouse hunters who walked with dogs and those who rode off-highway vehicles. Jeff Lightfoot, now regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids, worked throughout the 1980s with county and DNR foresters to establish hunting trails just for walking.
"We believe the majority of ruffed grouse hunters who are walking with a dog prefer to hunt old roads or at the edge of clear-cuts. Many times, this led to conflicts with off-highway vehicle users," Lightfoot says. "The goal was to develop trails in grouse habitat where hunters would not have to worry about motorized vehicles."
An avalanche of telephone calls and requests for trail maps quickly followed creation of the trails. The footpaths remain popular today, especially among hunters looking for a place to start becoming familiar with an area, Lightfoot says.
To provide appropriate hunting opportunities, Schad says, DNR needs to understand what motivates people to begin hunting and what drives them to leave the sport. "In a way our hunting traditions have changed to reflect a more hurried society," he says. "With more organized activities for children and families, we have less unstructured leisure time. Hunters today might have only one or two days to spend, but they still want a great hunt. That's very different from years ago when spending two weeks at deer camp was more common."
The DNR conducts hunter opinion surveys and takes input at annual meetings on how to improve hunting opportunities. In addition, Schad says, DNR Wildlife focuses on recruiting and retaining hunters.
"The DNR is kind of a steward of our hunting traditions. They're important to hunters, and we have an obligation to help maintain those traditions when possible," Schad says. "At the same time, we don't want to dictate people's values. We have to listen to everyone and consider our regulations carefully."
The sweat and icy mud from my hour-long paddle on McCarthy Lake are forgotten as a wintry sunrise brings the slough to life. Mallards trade back and forth, while trumpeter swans glide against snow-filled clouds. A greenhead sets toward the decoys. He tumbles with the shot, and my Labrador scrambles into the water. Later, when ice forms at the edges of the canoe, I pull my decoys, anxious for the warmth of the long paddle back to dry land.
I leave, knowing that I'll remember this morning, not for the sweat or the cold or even my lone mallard. Weeks from now, when winter is at full blast, I'll remember this day for the satisfaction that comes from escaping the crowd and finding solitude amid the fall migration.
Jason Abraham, a staff writer for the DNR divisions of Ecological Resources and Fish and Wildlife, contributes frequently to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
When a new hunting technology emerges, Ed Boggess often helps guide the debate about its efficacy and ethics. Over the years the policy chief for DNR Fish and Wildlife has participated in decisions to allow retractable broadheads for archery hunting and the limited use of spinning-wing decoys for duck hunters. More recently, he has been involved in the debate about whether or not scopes should be allowed during the muzzleloader season.
Technology discussions often begin when hunters notice a new, particularly effective device on the market, Boggess says. The DNR typically consults with biologists, conservation officers, manufacturers, and conservation groups, as well as individual hunters and anglers, before proposing regulations on a new technology. Those consultations also involve legislators—who have the final say on hunting laws.
The recent decision to ban spinning-wing decoys on wildlife management areas is a good example of limits placed on technology to afford equitable opportunity for hunters. A study showed spinning-wing decoys increase the number of ducks harvested, but daily bag limits and season length protect ducks from overharvest. Nevertheless, Boggess says, the DNR and legislators felt the devices could interfere with hunters who choose not to use them.
"Hunters with spinners are more likely to attract ducks," Boggess says. "That means neighboring hunters set up without spinners are at a disadvantage." Hunters may use spinning decoys on private land, state forests, federal waterfowl production areas, and national refuges after the first eight days of the season.
"We have no ability to stop all new technology, nor should we even try," Boggess says. "We do need to look at where technology affects game populations or where it intrudes on others' ability to hunt. The goal is to provide quality hunting opportunities to as many different types of hunters as possible."