In the blind with mallards in the air

WATERHEN, Manitoba — Early morning. Windy. A low sky suggesting rain.

On a cut barley field about four hours north of Winnipeg, three pickups idled loudly, their headlights auguring tunnels in the dark. In and out of the lights strode silhouettes of hunters carrying armfuls of decoys. Scores of decoys and scores more, one placed in the ground, then another.

Alarms had rung at 4:30 in cabins nearby, and shortly thereafter guns and ammunition and layout blinds and heavy coats and a retrieving dog were loaded, tailgates slamming and taillights following taillights down a long driveway before turning, eventually, onto the barley field.

Not far away on Lake Manitoba and especially atop rivers leading into it were rafts and rafts of redhead ducks. Other diving ducks bobbed atop these waters also. And massive flocks of geese roosted nearby; a few snows but mostly Canadas.

But we wanted mallards, ducks that had arrived from more distant lands still, from the ponds, marshes and muskeg near the northern Manitoba towns of Flin Flon, The Pas and Thompson. Some mallards also would have begun their journeys in the Northwest Territories.

“We need a few more decoys over here,” came a voice in the dark. “And more straw to cover up the blinds.”

En route to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana in autumn, mallards will circle and land, wings cupped, in countless crop fields. But near Waterhen, they encounter some of their very first plantings, an important distinction, and they tend to stick around, fattening up.

A dozen hunters were in our group, six gathering in this barley field and a half-dozen a few miles away. These included Sam Achee and his son, Sammy, 13; Travis Breaux and his son, Connor, 12; and Lanny Ladet and his son, Brett, all of Houma, La. Also along were my brother Dick Anderson of Eveleth, Minn., and his son, Brian, of Champlin; John Weyrauch of Stillwater; and my two sons, Trevor, 16, and Cole, 14.

With us as well was Matt Halvorson of Winnipeg, who’s great with a call.

Outlined faintly in the distance and surrounding the cut barley field were birch and poplar woods and cattle operations, sparse country. The walleye fishing is exceptional in the nearby Waterhen River. But everything else in this part of Canada is far apart, town from town, farm from farm. And unless Matt from Winnipeg and his friend Dan Ryan, also from Winnipeg, count as locals, not many people in the area hunt ducks or geese.

When we had placed the decoys we removed the trucks quickly to a windbreak paralleling a gravel road about a half-mile away. Mallards needed nothing more than their own nervous selves to keep from sucking into our U-shaped arrangement of fake birds. So the trucks were hidden well out of sight.

We dissolved into our layout blinds.

The blinds are coffin-like contraptions ingeniously developed and refined by people who seek nothing so much as invisibility. Constructed of heavy nylon, they are camouflage in color. But even more ingeniously each blind is covered with dozens of loops, through which hunters pull grass or corn stalks or, as on this morning, barley waste. This provides the blinds’ true deception from above and allows hunters to mask their presence from approaching ducks and geese, waiting until the last moment to throw open their trap doors and shoot.

The morning was cool but not cold and in its aggregate, thrilling.

Sunbeams bled through clouds above the distant trees, throwing a thin seam of orange, black and blue along the horizon.

The first mallards appeared silently.

“Out front,” someone said.

Matt went to his call, also Trevor and Cole, low, raspy greeting barks imitating hens.

Quack. Quack.

Circling, the mallards outlined themselves in the gathering light, their wings a blur. They swarmed left, like a flock of oversized sparrows, before as quickly collecting themselves in the opposite direction.

Some of the birds craned their necks, double-checking the decoys, the sound of their wingbeats clearly heard.

Matt called more quietly now.

Quack. Quack.

Waterfowl hunters are anticipation junkies, and for them the run-up to moments like this happily consumes months of deliberations. Blinds and guns and specific types of ammunition are considered, also waders and camouflage jackets and bibs, blind bags, calls, hearing protection, headlamps and batteries.

Exactly where in October or November the birds will be hunted also must be determined.

A few birds banked now for our decoys, their wings set, feet down.

Brook, the yellow Labrador retriever, lying quietly in his own barley-covered hunting blind, focused intently on the shadowy figures.

When the birds were in range, someone yelled, “Take ‘em.” Layout blinds popped open like jack-in-the-boxes. Firing pins cracked against primers. Three ducks cart-wheeled to the ground.

Brook retrieved one, then the others before returning to his customized hut.

More mallards were incoming, in vast numbers.

Everyone folded themselves into their blinds.

Still early morning. Still windy. With ducks in the air.

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For information about waterfowl and big game hunting near Waterhen, Manitoba, contact Agassiz-Waterhen River Lodge and Outfitters at agassizoutfitters.com or 1-888-468-3394.

Dennis Anderson/Star Tribune (MCT)