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Shallow Bay Pilgrimage

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A bluebill hunt on Gordon MacQuarrie's home waters brings the stories of the Old Duck Hunters' Association to life

By Keith Crowley

A late night phone call from north of the border prompted the decision to go. “Every duck in southern Manitoba departed last night at sunset.” It was an old friend with important news. “The marsh froze over today, and the wind is howling from the west. Divers left the big lake by the thousands. Get your gear together and get ready. They're on their way!” This was welcome inform-ation from a friend who knows his ducks. He has lived his entire life next to Manitoba's famous Delta Marsh and he is not inclined to hyperbole. When he told me he hadn't seen a massed flight like that in 30 years, I paid attention. When he mentioned the potent west wind, I made up my mind.

Diver hunting in northwest Wis- consin can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Of course, there are always the local mallards and ringbills. Wood ducks, wigeon, and teal also visit the potholes and marshes of the North Country, but without a well-timed, easterly shove from mother nature, the bigger flocks of divers tend to pass us by, choosing instead to follow the big rivers in Minnesota and points west. It has been that way for a long time. You take your chances, and hope some birds will work east. Maybe then they'll rest awhile on the vastness of Lake Superior before turning south into Wisconsin.

With the next morning came the sudden realization that I wasn't ready. There are few worse things for a duck hunter than being caught unprepared for the big flight, but other responsibilities had seized my attention. It's a sorry state to be in, but there I was. Half my gear was with me at home, half up at the cabin. I spent an hour gathering things and worrying. As I headed north I could only hope nothing vital was left behind. I took solace in the fact that all I really needed was a gun and the dog. Decoys, ammunition, and the boat waited for me at the lake.

On the drive I scanned each pothole and marsh I passed, looking for evidence that the flight was indeed arriving. I may have been initially caught off guard, but the signs were good. Many of the small wet places held birds. The wind, enough of it to buffet the truck and demand attention, kept up its relentless push from the west. The temperatures hovered in the 30s, cold enough to feel like duck weather, but not cold enough to freeze the bays and marshes of the North Country. That was crucial. October had been unusually cold. Some of the smaller marshes had already frozen over and then reopened when the weather moderated. I knew that precious few hunting days remained, especially where I was headed.

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