by John Myers
We rushed halfway across Minnesota to get there before sunset. It was the evening before duck season, and I needed to get my bearings before nightfall.
More than a decade had passed since I'd hunted Bakers Lake in the farm country of central Minnesota's McLeod County—far from Duluth, which has been home since 1986. A guy forgets things over that much time. Where were those little bays the ducks used to favor? How far is that far shore? Can all of us—me, my sixth-grade daughter, Maggie, and our dog—make it safely across the water in a wind? All in Dad's little, old, wooden duck boat?
What's Wrong With Bakers Lake?
The boat landing was vacant when we arrived in our truck. Maggie stretched, looked around, and asked about dinner. We let Bigsby, the chocolate lab, run free after the four-hour drive. And I wandered away from the truck, mumbling to myself.
Did those trees always overhang the trail to the lake? Were the cattails always so tall that they blocked the view of the lake? I was in the right place, I was sure; but nothing seemed the same.
Then I caught a whiff of something at the water's edge, and the memories all came pouring back to me. It was that putrid, wonderful smell of decaying duckweed and other assorted muck that fills your nostrils in waters like this. And it made me think of the basement-bound smell of old, brown duck-hunting coats, the liverwurst sandwiches Dad always packed for opening day, and sweet pickles wrapped in waxed paper.
Only a couple of feet deep, a mile long, and a quarter mile wide, Bakers Lake doesn't have walleyes and isn't much to look at. But its heavy cover of cattails and aquatic plants once attracted scores of ducks. Early in the season, Dad and I would see local blue-winged teal, wood ducks, mallards, and spoonbills. Later in the fall, migrating mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, and even some bluebills would stop to eat and rest.
Dad's job selling feed to farmers took him across much of southern Minnesota from the 1940s through the 1980s. He scouted hundreds of duck sloughs and hunted many, yet he always came back to Bakers Lake. He and a farmer here, Leonard Winterfelt, were friends. In exchange for a bottle of brandy each year, Leonard let us keep our duck boat leaning against his shed for the season, and he let us cut across his land to get to the lake. It was easy access to great hunting.
I came back to Bakers Lake not so much to find lots of ducks but to retrace a connection to the past. This is where I first tagged along on duck hunts 40 years ago. It's where I shot my first duck. It's where I wanted Maggie to shoot hers. Fresh off answering 49 of 50 questions correctly on her Minnesota firearms safety exam, she was ready to do more than watch. She had dutifully practiced on clay pigeons with her new, single-shot .20 gauge. She knew a mallard from a mud hen. She was ready.
It was never a conscious decision to stop hunting Bakers Lake. Dad and I eventually lost our private access after Leonard died. By the 1980s the ducks had stopped coming like they used to; and in the drought of 1988, the lake nearly dried up.
I still made the trip a few times in the 1990s, dragging my newlywed wife and a new dog with me down from northern Minnesota. Burly, a big chocolate lab, had his first retrieves on Bakers Lake when he was just 7 months old, a couple of ejected shell casings to start, then a few teal and mallards. Then Dad died and Bakers Lake gradually lost its attraction. There were new places to try with the promise of more ducks. Suddenly, a dozen seasons had come and gone without a trip back to Bakers Lake, and that now needed fixing.
Maggie woke up to the smell of motel-room coffee. "Daylight in the swamp," I called, echoing Dad's duck hunt wake-up ritual. We layered on camouflage clothes by the light of the Weather Channel on the TV.
It was still dark when we got to the lake, three hours before the 9 a.m. season starting time, and there were already three trucks ahead of us. We wouldn't get the prime pick of hunting spots, but I had backups in mind.
Maggie and Bigsby sat low in the middle of the little boat, while I push-poled from the stern, trying to side-slip a northwest wind to the nearest protected bay. I had done this a hundred times before, but not in many years, and it takes a little balance and some getting used to.
Low clouds were spitting rain, and a memory of an opening day 25 years ago came rushing back. It was in the early 1980s, when openers started at noon. It rained all day. We shot our ducks, collected our decoys, and ordered the dog, a big springer named Charlie, to sit still on the bow of the little boat. We had just enough freeboard to float if Charlie stayed put.
Of course, he didn't. We were nearly back to the landing when a coot half flew, half ran across the water, right past Charlie's nose. Charlie sprang from his spot, more than enough motion to cause a day's worth of rain to slosh backward in the boat. The stern went under first and, faster than you could say bad dog, we were swamped.
Dad was nearly 70 at the time, and I was worried he might have a heart attack from the cold water. Our waders filled with water, but the lake was only 3 feet deep. I helped Dad get to a muskrat house and then hurried to rescue the boat and gear. I grabbed our cased shotguns and pickle buckets and decoy bags and seat cushions before they floated too far away. I managed to flip the boat over, empty out the water, and get things righted.
And all the while, unnoticed in my panic, Charlie was retrieving all of our ducks that had floated away, bringing them back one at a time to the muskrat house. Dad proclaimed we would keep the dog after all.
Maggie and I carefully set a couple of Dad's decoys among the plastic pretenders. The faded faux mallards, more than 70 years old now, were usually relegated to the fireplace mantle. But it seemed right to bring them on this trip. Dad's old decoys. Dad's old boat. Dad's old lake.
Maggie and I shared a snack of granola bars and a juice box and talked about everything and nothing—about ducks and geese and cormorants and muskrats and cameras and soccer and Taylor Swift's latest song. We wondered how Mom and little sister were doing at home. We could hear some teenage boys up the lake, laughing and hollering at their dog. Across the bay, a man and two boys were shooting the breeze.
Then it was time to start the season. I shot the first duck, an immature drake woodie, which Maggie didn't see over the cattails. After Bigsby's retrieve and some quick pruning of cattails, Maggie was ready for the next duck. Another drake wood duck flew up the lake, swerved into our bay, and dipped over our decoys, offering a 20-yard shot. Maggie stood up, swung as she'd practiced, and fired.
The bird dropped, Maggie grinned, and her dad let out a whoop. A high five was in order. By the time I gave the dog the command to retrieve the bird, the rings were still rippling on the water, but the duck was gone. Apparently, it had dived underwater to escape. Bigsby dutifully swam in circles where the duck had dropped and then started hunting about in the weeds. He looked for a good five minutes, and still no duck.
I called the dog back and apologized to Maggie. Dad, not daughter, had made the rookie mistake. Before celebrating, I should have watched the duck until the dog was on it. Losing the duck was a lesson for all. Maggie and I shot a few more times that morning and ended up with two wood ducks in the bag. A few mallards and geese flew high but never dropped in. Teal, which filled the sky on past opening days, apparently had left a few days earlier, riding a north wind to Missouri or Mexico.
At the end of the day, Maggie helped pick up the decoys, pretending she wasn't cold. I poled us back to the landing. We snapped photos to mark the occasion. Then we pushed the little boat on top of the truck and shed our boots and coats.
We talked with other hunters who also wondered why there weren't more ducks in the area. Then we got back into the truck, ready to roll. If we hurried, I noted aloud, we might make it home in time for her play-off soccer game that evening. Maggie nodded yes, and we were off.
I hope Maggie will hunt with me for a few more years at least, until piano or sports or boys or college or all of the above steal her away. Yet as we drove down the two-rut road back to the highway, I wondered if we would ever make it back here together. Even if we don't, though, I've got an indelible new memory of Bakers Lake. And I think a new duck hunter does too.