November–December 2022

Back to the Point

My daughter and I spend a memorable morning on a hallowed hunting ground.

Craig Bihrle

An “evil-smelling swamp.” That’s how the late Minnesota author Eric Sevareid described Mud Lake—which forms a few miles of border with South Dakota on the edge of Traverse County—in his seminal 1935 paddling book Canoeing with the Cree. But I had grown used to the smell, having visited the lake dozens of times since my dad took me there on my first duck hunt more than 50 years ago.

The odor in question hung in the calm air over Mud Lake as I cut the boat motor in front of a wall of cattails on an early October morning in 2021. The cattails stretched more than a half-mile to the south, ending just north of where I beached the craft so my daughter Laura and I could unload our gear. Beyond that, the shallow open water of Mud Lake stretched west and north until it ran into the shoreline across the border into South Dakota.

“So,” I said to Laura after the motor’s rumble ceased, “this is the point.”

“I’ve never been here,” she said from the boat’s middle seat, surrounded by duck decoys and flanked by her black Lab, Summer.

Laura had, however, accompanied me on many other hunting outings as a youngster in our home state of North Dakota. Later, when she moved to the Twin Cities to work as a registered nurse, she started deer hunting on the Traverse County farm where her great-great-great-grandparents staked out a homestead more than 120 years ago. She had hunted ducks elsewhere on the farm, but at age 32 she had not yet bagged one. So getting a bird was her quest on this second weekend of Minnesota’s duck season.

We hid in a blind a few feet from the edge of the cattails on the point. It occurred to me that if Laura did indeed connect on a bird, it might fall somewhere close to where a drake mallard tumbled from the sky after I shot it on a late October morning some 52 years earlier. The night before that memorable morning, my dad told me I could go hunting with him and his friends. He said if the birds were flying, I wouldn’t necessarily have to get to school on time.

Luckily, that morning, the birds were indeed flying. The wind roared out of the northwest, stirring up chilled whitecaps that rolled past the end of the point to the north. In the calmer waters next to shore, my dad and his friends placed two sets of decoys, with a landing zone between them. They hoped to direct the migrating flocks of mallards into the front of the cattails where we hid.

The mallards arrived before the sun came up. This was different than sporadic early season teal and spoonbill flocks. These seemingly giant “northern” mallards circled around and then, urged on by pleading duck calls, banked into the wind and glided into the open water.

I don’t remember if someone would bark, “Take ’em!” or if the adults just knew when to shoot because they had hunted together for so many years, but when the time was right, it was a frenzy of fluid motion, with guns going off and ducks falling. By the time I cocked the hammer on my 20-gauge and poked the barrel through the cattails, the wind had either already carried the flaring birds out of range, or the duck I was aiming at fell to someone else’s gun before I could get off a shot.

This happened again and again until I finally saw a greenhead pushing westward against the wind, struggling to make progress behind us. It was still in range by the time I turned around, shouldered my gun, and fired. The bird stopped mid-flight, the wind blew it backward on its descent, and it landed not 10 feet from where I stood. My first greenhead, the kind you hold up with a smile while someone takes your picture. If I wasn’t hooked on duck hunting before that, I was thereafter.

Since then, I’ve come to view the point with great reverence. I’ve walked a mile with a sack of decoys on my back to get there when the water was too shallow to boat over from the other shore. A group of us once pushed and pulled a loaded canoe some 600 yards through inch-deep water and mud to get there. I’ve driven there in my pickup and ATVs on dry years. I’ve stood in the cattails and sat in platform blinds and boats.

Though I’ve hunted up and down both sides of that point, and in adjacent harvested crop fields, there’s no spot like the very end of the point. And that’s where Laura was positioned that fall day. Typical for that time of year, Mud Lake wasn’t holding many ducks, but Laura maintained her enthusiasm.

We spent the first couple of hours watching the sun—the only moving object in the sky except for a few gulls and cormorants. I reminisced about how many different sunrises I had photographed and decoys I had tossed in the water at that same spot.

Eventually, I saw a single dark speck just above the cattails to the south. I watched for long enough to determine it was a duck heading up the shoreline toward us. I alerted Laura and told her to get ready.

She saw the bird and ducked down for a split second before it came into range on a straight path that would take it right in front of the blind, maybe 15 yards above the water. Laura stood up and aimed at the streaking bird moving from right to left. When it was just about straight overhead, she swung her 20-gauge pump and fired.

It was an impressive effort—a crossing shot at a single, full-speed duck at a distance where the shot pattern was barely starting to spread. Both of us were a bit surprised when the bird hit the water a few yards off the end of the point, likely within 20 yards of where I had retrieved that single greenhead more than 50 years ago.

I waded the short distance through the shin-deep water, picked up the green-winged teal, and brought it into the blind. We excitedly took photos and kept hunting, but no more ducks came by.

Normally, two days with one duck in the bag is not a memorable hunt. But on that day, one was all it took to create another special memory from a special place—even if it did smell a bit like a swamp.