There had been talk of the trip for a few years but like many things it was only discussed with good intentions and little follow through. Now, it was finally coming to fruition. My dad and I left on a Friday afternoon and headed to Swan Lake for a weekend of duck hunting. It would be my dad’s first experience hunting ducks and I didn’t know what to expect form the lake. I had heard plenty of stories of what Swan Lake used to be like, a mid-western duck hunting Mecca where one of the nation’s largest prairie potholes drew hunting enthusiasts from all over the country to chase the countless numbers of migrating birds. This was all in the past and a far cry from its current reputation. Agricultural pressures had caused much of the water-covered area to be drained for access to the fertile farm ground that stood underneath. With the water went many of the ducks. What was left was no longer the consistent gathering grounds for large migrating flocks, instead, it had become home to coots, local birds and what seemed to be the birds that had lost their way. The hunting on the lake had become inconsistent at best and no longer drew the respect it once deserved. My dad had long forgotten how to get there as our napkin directions through Nicollet led to a road that went straight through a farm. With the sun quickly setting, I was concerned that we were wandering in the wrong direction. With his head out the window Dalton’s ears perked up. My guess was he must have smelled the water. I had learned more than once to pay attention to his instincts and visible signs. We continued through the farm, just beyond the last barn I saw the duck hunting community that we were searching for. Hidden in the distance was a history of duck hunting shacks. We slowly made our way down the gravel road as we found the place that we were looking for and parked outside of Club 21.
When we got out of the truck we were met by the booming voice of Tom Clemets, Proprietor of Club 21 and one of my dad’s high school friends. Tom’s grandfather had built the shack in 1921 and it had been in their family ever since. Greg, another high school friend was also along for the hunt and a frequent visitor at the shack. As I was given the tour, Club 21 evoked memories of Gordon MacQuarrie’s “Old Duck Hunters”. The shack consisted of four walls, a deck and an outside outhouse. The design was any thing other than complicated; essentially it was one big room. The kitchen seamlessly tied in with the dining room, which was just a step away from the bunk beds. It had a gas stove and electricity but it avoided the luxury of running water. Every thing in the shack had a story behind it and was not likely to be replaced by modern conveniences or upgrades unless absolutely necessary. The interior design was deliberate and was like stepping back in time. The rafters were filled with old decoys that had been gunned over for decades; the walls were covered with faded maps and old photos of a youthful Tom, Tom’s father and grandfather during previous hunts. Multiple generations had found the same solace at the shack. One of the photos stuck out more than the others. Tom’s grandfather was using a push pull to navigate the large water, a moment captured in the arduous duck hunting past. With almost a century of memories a different story supplemented each item or photo. Among these images were two empty frames with a piece of paper inside that simply read, “future hunt”. I sensed that in a way the shack was used to pay homage to the way others hunted before and a promise to carry on those traditions. After the gear was unloaded we ate dinner and drank a few beers as we discussed what the following morning would bring and where we would hunt. With a plethora of options we would leave those tough decisions to those familiar with the lake. Even for them making the decision was not easy. They tried to calculate the moon phase, temperatures, wind, time of year and what all of this had brought the previous years as we sat and waited for our guides to conclude the conversation.
The morning came quickly as we packed our gear into the boats. With the number of people and size of the water we would set up multiple spreads. My dad would hunt with Greg and I was paired with Tom and his aging Carhartt pants. The pants were accompanied by suspenders and appeared to stay on all weekend long. Another boat housed Greg’s younger brother Steve and his son. We found a suitable spot and put our blind up, trying to blend in the best that we could. I found out quickly that Tom paid very close attention to the small details as he made sure to get the blind perfect before loading his gun. The sun rose quickly as we were greeted by clear blue skies and a warm morning. After about an hour a single drake mallard greeted us. Out of the range of our boat we saw it fly in the direction of the boat captained by Greg. From a distance we saw the bird drop instantaneously as we were met with sound of a single shot reverberating off the large water. That would be the only bird taken on the day. Dalton was frustrated with the slow morning as he impatiently sat in the boat, wanting to work. We hunted until noon and with the prospects looking bleak, we went to find another spot for the following morning, which doubled as a tour of the lake. You could see Tom reliving past hunts as he pointed out spots where he had been before. Each location had a different memory as vivid as it had occurred the day before. After we had docked the boats, we found out that my dad, the rookie, had taken the shot and was rewarded with his first duck.
That afternoon we walked down the road to look at the other shacks. Like Club 21, most had been there for a long time, passed down through families and housing many stories of their own. There were no more shacks to be put up. The rarity of one being sold was the only way to acquire a spot on the hallowed grounds. There was no gate but this was a tight nit community of its own. My fiancé had warned me to keep an eye out for the Rochester Boys, as she worked with one of the hunters who also had a shack on Swan Lake. Knowing the size of the lake I thought I’d never see them. Coincidence would have it I ran into them but missed her co-worker by a few hours. Instead I met his son and his grand-dog Blue. More proof of how small the world can be and how hunting can bring strangers together. The afternoon passed slowly as Tom and Greg patiently sighted in an old .22 for no reason other than to get it working properly. It was in their meticulous nature to get it just right, no matter how long it took. The only time that seemed to matter at the shack was the time you woke up.
The next morning we set off to try a new spot. After the first day my expectations had been curbed. Maybe everyone was right about Swan Lake. Maybe the best thing about it was recollecting the good old days. Maybe old habits die-hard and the tradition had more pull for the hunters than the waning success rates. Maybe it was time admit what Swan Lake was and stop comparing it to what it used to be. We set the decoys and the fog slowly lifted as the sun began to rise. The day started much like the first with very little action, all of that stopped as soon as the fog disappeared. From out of nowhere the teal arrived, I had never seen anything quite like it. Within a matter of minutes the sky was covered with blue-winged bombers. The teal were coming from every direction as Tom and I tried to communicate as to which ones we were looking at and when we were going to take a shot. With three separate boats and set ups we were all spread out but, equally enjoying the action. The smell of warm gunpowder stuck in the air as we tried to bag our limit. Dalton was enjoying the non-stop action that Tom and I were able to provide him. As soon as he would come back from one retrieve he was off on another. A few times he was able to grab two birds on one retrieve. His efforts were outstanding as he went on blinds and recovered birds that fell into thick cover as well as chasing down the birds that sailed into the big water. All together we were able to take 30 teal in a fury of shooting. We did not lose a single bird. Soon after we had shot our limit the birds disappeared. Just as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone. As we sat in disbelief of what had just occurred the evidence was strewn across the boat in the form of empty shells and bird feathers. It was a beautiful chaos.
Picking up decoys is much less of a chore after a hunt like that compared to getting skunked. As we plucked the birds, Tom and Greg found it difficult to recall a hunt that Swan Lake had produced like that in a recent history. We talked to other hunting parties and we seemed to be the only ones that morning to experience the miraculous flight of teal. Like many things in life, we were fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, everything had come together and we got lucky. The result of such a thing is now a memory that is etched into each of our minds. The evidence will now be replacing an empty photo frame in Club 21, hanging amongst the other photos and memories for others to see and the story to be told in the future.