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Get a Jump : An Early-Morning Hunt Means Camo to School

Duluth, Minn. — It’s a Tuesday morning in early October. Alex Culp, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has an 11 a.m. communications theory class.

Perfect. Plenty of time for an early-morning duck hunt on a lake north of Duluth. Culp hauls himself out of bed at 4 a.m., picks up a hunting partner at 5 and has 18 decoys on the water 45 minutes before sunrise.

“I hunt alone a lot,” says Culp, who grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville. “A lot of people don’t want to get up so early.”

Culp, who has been passionate about waterfowl hunting since before he passed firearms safety, steals his hunts wherever he can. His Chevy pickup and his 14-foot camouflaged duck boat always are ready.

“Duck season has been open for 16 days,” he says, as the two of us watch the new day emerge over a lake near Duluth. “I’ve hunted 13 — no, 12 — days.”

And that doesn’t count the early Canada goose season. With a little sleep deprivation, Culp has proven that he can blend his passion for waterfowl hunting with his pursuit of a degree in writing studies at UMD.

On opening day of duck season, he and some buddies shot their limit of ducks from the same spot where Culp and I are hunting. But, as typically happens in a northern Minnesota duck season, the early-season flurry of action has given way to a slower period. Local ducks are wise to hunters. Some early migrants like teal and wood ducks have left. Few northern ducks have arrived.

But Culp scouted this bay full of wild rice the evening before and saw a couple hundred ducks settle in.

Now, after legal shooting time arrives, few ducks are moving. The day is clear and almost calm. Too nice. Culp is concerned that we aren’t seeing more ducks. He knows the odds are against us. But he knows he has to be out here.

Starting Young

Culp’s father introduced him to duck hunting when he was just a kid. Culp’s dad, although not a serious duck hunter, recognized his son’s passion.

“He took me every Saturday and Sunday of my youth,” Culp says, “even though it wasn’t his big thing.”

One of his early hunts hooked him.

“I remember my first hunt over decoys, seeing those ducks come wobbling in,” Culp says. “We were shooting wood ducks. Ever since then, it’s been an addiction.”

He began doing a lot of field shooting just minutes from his home in Lakeville, and eventually began guiding a few hunts. After starting with a youth-model 20-gauge shotgun, he’s now shooting a 12-gauge Remington Model 870 given to him by an uncle. He began acquiring decoys. He bought his boat in eighth grade and painted the camouflage on it himself.

Now he’s on the pro staff for Lynch Mob, a Michigan company that makes duck and goose calls and waterfowling apparel.

“He puts in a ton of time,” says hunting partner and fellow UMD student Jake Hintze.

“When most guys are out drinking beer and playing softball in June and July, he’s out on the lake looking at how many ducklings there are, seeing how the hatch was.”

Part of the reason for his success is that he prepares diligently.

“My big thing is scouting — going out the night before, scouting, finding a big bunch of birds and going to bed with that thought in my mind,” he says.

Hintze, a frequent hunting companion, has watched the way Culp approaches his hunts.

“He’s one of those guys who’s not going to hunt a spot unless he knows there are ducks there,” Hintze says. “I can’t tell you how much money he’s run through in gas just for scouting in the last two years.”

As we chat, we scan the sky for ducks. A motorized spinning-wing decoy hovers in perpetual landing mode just over the decoys, its wings whirring. Culp intermittently tugs on a line connected to two of his floating decoys, giving them lifelike movement.

A single teal buzzes us at eye level, but he’s gone before we can throw our guns up. A pair of mallards, high, seem to give the decoys a passing look, but keep moving. Finally, a single teal plops right into the decoys, unannounced. He swims contentedly among his plastic friends.

Culp is up and shouting at the teal to flush him when a mallard swings by. I’m busy missing the mallard when the teal flushes and Culp drops it in the rice. Dogless, Culp wades out and picks up the teal, a green-wing.

“Good. We’re successful duck hunters,” he says. “It’s nice to have something in the bag.”

Morning
On the Marsh

The morning is splendid, if not ducky. Aspen and birch across the bay are golden in the morning light. Where we stand in the shade, the morning’s dew collects in single drops at the tip of every cattail frond. The air is cool. Canada geese call. The marsh smells like ooze from the Pleistocene, which, if you’re a duck hunter, is an altogether pleasant aroma.

While we’re not watching ducks fly, Culp and I talk about his aspirations to one day work in the world of waterfowling. And he has more immediate goals, too.

“My dream would be to get a new truck and a trailer and fill it with full-body goose decoys,” he says. “Maybe 200 of them. You could do some serious damage. You’re going to decoy a lot of birds with that spread.”

As mid-morning comes on, Culp’s highest priority is to get his decoys picked up and make that communications theory class by 11 a.m. It isn’t unusual for Culp to hustle into class wearing his camouflage from the morning hunt, carrying a cup of coffee to keep him awake.

“There have been times I run into class with (camouflage) face paint on,” he says. “You get some looks.”

It’s 10:38 when Culp pulls his boat from the water and heads down the highway toward campus.

“It’s going to be close,” he says.