Bird hunting 2020: Keepin’ it close to home
By Tony Jones
Dragging a 16-year-old boy out of bed at 4:30 a.m. is no easy feat, especially when he was out late the night before. But we’d won the draw for a controlled waterfowl hunt at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area on Saturday, Oct. 3, so I wasn’t going to let him sleep in.
We’d drawn a spot last year as well, but the week before the hunt, my son, Aidan Jones, an Outdoor News Junior Pro Team member, had broken his wrist in a football game and therefore couldn’t hold a shotgun. Instead, I was accompanied by my neighbor, John Brost, and our dogs. On a late October day with whipping winds and sleet, we bagged two ducks and two geese in Area B of Pool 2, one of two controlled hunt areas.
This year, according to Jim LaBarre, DNR supervisor at the WMA located in the north metro, early in the waterfowl season vehicles are lined up at the access points to the open areas of Carlos Avery well before the 4 a.m. opening of the WMA.
“We’re known for waterfowl hunting here,” LaBarre said, “and waterfowl opener is our biggest day.”
He reported that the opener was even more popular than usual this year, likely due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, and the first 45 minutes of the season there was non-stop shooting.
Starting in 2010, controlled hunts have been offered in two areas: A and B of Pool 2 at Carlos Avery, with preference given to groups that have a youth or a senior on the application. According to LaBarre, the controlled hunts are meant to encourage younger and older hunters.
“You’re not going to shoot a limit of ducks,” LaBarre conceded, “but you don’t have to fight for your spot.”
We arrived at the parking area 30 minutes before legal shooting and hauled our decoys, guns, and stools to Area A. I waded into the wild rice on the north side of the pond and dropped the decoys by the light of a headlamp, and we were sitting in the reeds when the shooting began.
And there was a lot of shooting. Unfortunately for us, the ducks and geese populated other parts of the WMA and most didn’t make their way toward us. A couple of times, groups of mallards circled high over our decoys, but the hunters in Area B sky-busted them, shooting at the ducks well out of range and frightening them off. At one point, Aidan fell asleep in the swamp grass. By 10 a.m., we gathered our decoys, never having fired a shot.
Minnesota Valley NWR
On the south side of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge offers waterfowl hunting opportunities even closer to metro hunters. According the Joel Vos, a ranger with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wilke Unit of the Minnesota Valley NWR is the closest place to hunt ducks to the urban core, and 20 vehicles were lined up there, the occupants waiting for the gates to open on the duck opener.
“We’ve been doing a lot of hunter outreach,” Vos said. “We encourage people to come out, but because of the hunting pressure, we know that there is a lower rate of (duck) take.”
Vos encourages scouting, and he says that the farther hunters are willing to drive out of the Twin Cities and along the 75 miles of the refuge that his agency manages, the better the odds of success.
“The farther up river you go, the fewer hunters you’ll see,” he said. And, he added, “Until it freezes over, every single day is worth it.”
Regulations need to be observed, Vos cautioned, and he reminds hunters that the refuge has rules that supersede state regulations, such as using only nonmotorized boats and keeping dogs in control at all times.
Hunters should not hesitate to reach out to his office, Vos said. “Responding to hunters is one of the favorite parts of my job.”
A bit farther afield
I queried the Minnesota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Facebook Group about other waterfowl-hunting spots near the Twin Cities, and I received these helpful tips:
• Gores Pool No. 3 WMA: One mile east of Hastings, the WMA consists of marshes in the Mississippi and Vermillion River flood plains. Be aware that part of the WMA is a migratory waterfowl refuge and off-limits to hunting.
• Pelican Lake WMA: Three miles west of St. Michael, Pelican is a 4,000-acre shallow lake with a public boat launch and ample parking.
• St. Croix River: Offering both backwater and jump-shooting opportunities, the river that forms a portion of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin is known for resident birds early in the season and migrating birds later on.
On a personal note …
As well as posting my query to the BHA chapter, I also posted it on a Facebook group that is popular with Minnesota waterfowlers. I was met with scorn and ridicule. Some members sardonically recommended Lake Harriett and Lake Minnetonka, while others said that Outdoor News has ruined many hunting spots by popularizing them.
As an adult-onset hunter, I’ve found no endeavor more difficult than waterfowl hunting. The gear is expensive, access is often difficult, and, for some reason, duck hunters are often unwilling to help newbies.
And yet we read every year about the precipitous decline in duck hunters and the desperate need to recruit new hunters. The hunters who mocked me for asking about spots to duck hunt near the Twin Cities should know better; they should know that with fewer hunters, there will be less money flowing from license, gun, and ammo sales into conservation, and there will be less incentive for agencies like the Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep areas open for hunting.
The administrators of that Facebook group reached out to me privately to apologize, but I’d already taken down my post.
(Jones is the host of the Reverend Hunter podcast.)