You could say being left standing at the dike isn’t as bad being left at the altar, but I think it really depends on what you’re standing in. In this case, I was standing in two feet of water, 50 yards from shore in heavy reeds minus a boat, decoys and dogs with an angry mink cursing me out for disturbing his usual snack of mallard… All because of a dike.
This dike runs along the north side of a popular waterfowl marsh in Northwest Minnesota- Thief Lake. It separates the hunting zone from the refuge side of the lake and just happens to be the exit flyway for ducks and geese coming off the refuge in the morning. For several years, I hunted the lake (more of a marsh, but with ample open water for divers) with several friends from Bemidji, Minn. Since we are somewhat slow risers, we never got out there early enough to grab a spot on the dike. Hunters over there were usually holding down spots by 3:30 in the morning because shooting was great. Generally, we found spots on an island about 200 yards out from the fabulous dike and did okay.
But one year, we were just not getting the ducks or geese out over the island. After three days of below average shooting on our side, but ample action on the dike, we decided that we would, by God, get a spot over there, too. That night, after the usual chili dinner and brandy, we drew straws to see which of us would climb out of the bunks at midnight and hoof it two miles to the dike. Luck is never on my side, so at midnight sharp, another Jim and I dutifully arose and put on cold weather gear and waders, grabbed our guns and flashlights and headed out.
The plan was simple. He and I would wade out through the reed beds to open water and wait for the other four guys to show up at later that morning with two boats, decoys and dogs. In the meantime, we’d also wave off other hunters with our flashlights and a lot of shouting. We made it to the edge of the reeds about 75 yards apart around 2:30 a.m. The weather at that point wasn’t bad… high clouds, no wind and a temperature of about 40 degrees. If you’ve never had the experience of being in a duck marsh in the early dawn, it is a wonderful place to be- even the mink swimming around me for 30 minutes was a special part of the sights, sounds and smells. But that was the good side of things.
At approximately 3:30, we started waving off the other hunters. Some choice comments were hurled our way. It’s surprising what you can hear across water over the sound of outboard motors. Finally, 6 o‘clock came around, and we began looking for the rest of the boys. At 7:00, we continued looking for the boys. At 7:30, ducks began winging by, and we kept looking for the boys. Around 7:45, the guys on the island began shooting and still no boys. By 8:45 that morning, only scattered birds were coming by on the marsh and none along the dike- when finally, around the corner of another island, came our bunch. They looked a bit chagrined. Nobody set an alarm and too much brandy hit the heads. We Jims were somewhat irritated.
But all was not lost, right? Between two boats, we had more than 200 decoys. A big spread would certainly bring in the birds. So we placed dekes for another hour. At 9:45, we appeared ready to shoot. But, by golly, the temperature had just dropped to 31; the wind had come up; and it started to rain. Only one of us had a rain coat- me by good fortune. Although, it didn’t matter much since we were standing in two feet of water anyway.
Around 10:30, the temperature dropped to 25 and the rain had turned to snow. No birds were flying. No shooting happening anywhere. Six Canada geese came down the dike at 11:45 high and fast with 30 miles per hour tailwind. Two of our bunch took some shots and clipped one bird, but it proceeded to sail down the dike about 500 yards to plop right into another hunter’s blind… so much for that.
By this point, the six of us are hardly talking to each other. With almost silent mutual agreement, we started pulling decoys. That took us another hour. Jim and I elected to walk back to the campground rather than overload the boats. Snow and freezing rain continued. We arrived at the campground only to find that the large tent we used to house ammo, the decoys, dogs and extra clothing had blown over and soaked everything.
We rolled it all up into a huge, wet mess and shoved it into one of the pickup campers. Then, we climbed into the RV and slogged out of there back to Bemidji. Nobody said a word the whole way back. We didn’t hunt as a group at Thief Lake after that year. Still, the fond memory lingers.