November–December 2021

Essay

Moments in Between

When the fish aren't biting and the ducks are shy, I'm content to be a quiet observer.

Bill Klein

As a hunter and angler, I’ve learned that you’re bound to have days on the water when the walleyes have lockjaw. Or mornings in the duck blind when shotgun shells are optional and your retriever gets in a nice long nap. But I rarely write off these days as total losses. Far from it. Slow hunting and fishing days can cause you to notice nature’s players doing things you would have missed if you had stayed home. Here are a few such moments from my outdoor journal.

I.
Anticipation was all that was keeping me awake on an early November duck hunt. I was hoping to find late-season mallards on a favorite slough near Morris, but ducks were few and far between. My Labrador, Doc, had succumbed to the inactivity and was sound asleep on the floor of my duck boat.

Then a brown head popped up amid my decoys. A mink. It eased effortlessly onto a shelf of ice and slinked its way onto a muskrat house. Then the mink dove into a pocket of open water, emerging seconds later with a ravaged muskrat. Leaving its prey atop the house, it raced to another muskrat house. Same result. Then a third, before the mink disappeared entirely, leaving all three muskrats behind. It appeared to be caching a few meals before the next cold front made underwater hunting impossible. 

An hour and no ducks later, a northern goshawk appeared, searching the shoreline with its familiar flap-flap-flap sail flight pattern. He pirouetted into the wind and hovered directly above me. Then a shrill ki-ki-ki call and a steep dive. At first, I thought it wanted the mink’s muskrat meals, but then I realized its target seemed to be me! I cowered with my arms over my head, peeking just in time to see its talons sink into the plastic foam of a Herter’s mallard decoy.

Doc barked. I screamed. The decoy went airborne, its anchor swinging crazily behind the goshawk. The bird flexed its primary feathers for altitude, reaching a height of about 30 feet before deciding this was not worth the effort. It dropped the decoy, sending it crashing through a patch of skim ice.

Before driving home from that late-season duck hunt, I rested against a large round bale of marsh hay on the shore of the slough. Doc and I shared the sunset and a turkey sandwich. The clouds were resplendent in end-of-day hues. Then a soft guttural growl from Doc interrupted my reverie. We peeked around the edge of the bale. A red fox approached, its puffy tail luminous in the low-angle light. I hushed my dog and watched the fox hunt toward us, stopping 50 feet away. It sat and stared at the weeds, unaware of Doc and me. After two or three minutes of statue-still patience, the fox suddenly launched itself into the air in an arching attack. Its nose and forepaws hit the ground in unison. It trotted away with a fat field mouse on its dinner menu.

I had spent the day hunting for food, as had the mink, goshawk, and fox. And though I had failed, I felt privileged to have had a front-row seat to their hunts.

II.
On a quiet June day on Lake Vermilion, a friend and I were trolling for walleyes near Ely Island. Activity was slow except for a few small perch, which we were releasing. One of these fish had evidently been hooked too deep and was floundering near the glassy surface of the lake.

My friend puckered his lips and let loose a short, high-pitched whistle. From the island, a mature bald eagle answered his call, then flew toward us and plucked the ailing perch from the water, not 20 feet from our boat. It ascended with ease and flew the fish meal back to its nest. I was in awe of the predator’s beauty and grace in flight, yet fearful of its breathtaking size and power. My friend mentioned he had called the eagle in for a free meal several times before.

III.
Another day, another duck slough, this one in Douglas County near Hoffman. Blue-winged teal were providing some action on this early-season outing, flying so low and fast they often got past me before I could react. A trio that had snuck by decided to land in the middle of the slough. I watched in amazement as they hit the water flying downwind! They bounced along the surface like pinballs, splashing to an awkward stop. Ducks, like airplanes, always land into the wind. That’s the first and only time in 50 years of watching ducks that I have witnessed pilot error in waterfowl.

IV.
I was hiding in my neighbor’s cornfield in northern Washington County, partaking in the early Canada goose hunt. The bugs were finally on the wane that chilly mid-September morning. Geese could be heard for miles through the still air, but none came near. I stuck my head through the last row of 8-foot-tall cornstalks and scanned the hayfield where my decoys stood.

Fifty yards down the line a whitetail doe sniffed the air for danger. Then a pair of fawns exploded out of the corn and past her. The view through my binoculars was a kaleidoscope of creams and tans. When they went too far, the doe called them back. I couldn’t hear the calls, but they were visible in the deer’s frosty breath. The fawns returned to their mother’s side.

Later that same fall, I was hunting ducks near Graceville. There had been an influx of northern ducks in the area, and I was hoping to get under a few. When a nice flock of mallards circled high above, I pled with them on my call to take a closer look at my decoy rig. They showed mild interest but eventually landed far out of range. I was astonished to see a completely white duck among the others: my first albino mallard. I studied the flock through my binoculars and recalled the classic book The Ugly Duckling. But there was no shunning of the white duck by his wing mates. It seemed completely welcome even if its head wasn’t brown or green like the others.

Walking back to my truck in the waning light, I noticed a hawk jumping around in a picked bean field. I put Doc up and approached the bird to see if it was injured. As I got closer, the bird of prey tried but failed to get airborne. I could now see it was a red-tailed hawk that had caught a young woodchuck that was too much cargo for a safe takeoff. The hawk arched its shoulders and spread its wings over the rodent, mantling, in fear that I was going to steal its dinner. Edging away, I was impressed by the courage—or was it hunger?—that made the bird stand its ground.

With darkness now falling on the prairie, Doc and I headed for home. Our game bag was empty, but we had seared more of nature’s wonders into our memories.