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Looking Out For Ringnecks

Duck Hunter Enjoys Season Amid Minnesota Wild Rice

On Big Rice Lake, Near Virginia, Minn. — Morning is just breaking over Big Rice Lake, and John Backman is right where he loves to be. He’s semi-reclined in his layout boat, surrounded by more than 2,000 acres of golden wild rice and three dozen bobbing decoys.

His Winchester is uncased and ready for the morning’s duck hunt, but Backman, 47, is in no hurry to shoot.

“I’m not a first-light guy,” he says. “I’m an incorrigible looker. I love to watch ‘em fly.”

A single ring-necked duck — that’s a “ringie” to Backman — buzzes the decoys. The duck easily is within range for a few seconds, but Backman makes no move for his shotgun. He merely watches the duck pass, its primary feathers wrestling with the wind as it carves the dawn just over the rice stalks.

“A beautiful sight,” Backman says.

Ducks are moving all over Big Rice on this late September morning, six days into Minnesota’s duck season. Many of them seem to be rising near the channel where the Rice River comes in from Little Rice Lake nearby. Lots of ring-necked ducks are moving. Teal. Gadwalls. Mallards. Black ducks.

“I’ve already seen a hundred ducks,” Backman says before the sun has risen. “There are sheets of mallards getting up over there. This is a spectacle you miss if you start shooting.”

A St. Louis County deputy sheriff from Pike Township, Backman hunts ducks on many of his days off this time of year. He’ll travel to potholes near Lake Winnibigoshish, northwest of Deer River. Or he’ll hunt a nearby river system. Or he’ll be here, out in the rice on one of Minnesota’s largest rice lakes.

Ducks and Decoys

Lots of ducks love to eat wild rice, most of which has fallen from the stalks by now. The brown grains of carbohydrate and protein lie on the shallow lake bottom, free for the picking by hungry mallards, black ducks and other species.

Despite that annual bounty of nutrition, duck hunting success has declined on Big Rice Lake in recent years.

Some hunters said they believe that the movement of boats with outboard motors disturbs the ducks, both locals and migrants, causing many to leave sooner than they might otherwise. After hearings on the issue in the past year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently banned the use of outboards on Big Rice Lake from June 15 to Nov. 25.

To reach the spot near mid-lake where Backman and I are hunting, we paddled or rowed our flat-bottomed layout boats for about 15 minutes, tucking them into the cover of the wild rice and pickerel weed.

The decoys around him are a handsome collection of mallards, black ducks, ring-necked ducks, redheads and teal. Some of them are hand-painted by a friend.

“I like decoys,” Backman says.

He has been guilty, like most duck hunters, of putting out an excess of decoys on occasion. And if he sees a young hunter he admires, he has been known to give away several of his decoys.

Layout Boat, Ringnecks

When the day’s light has increased a few candlepower, a ring-necked duck swings past, inspecting Backman’s decoys. Backman misses it twice and shouts at the departing bird.

“You won’t do that again!” he hollers in jest.

Moments later, a pair of blue-winged teal comes whiffling past us. Backman makes a hard swing to his left, and one of the birds tumbles into the rice. Lucy, a yellow Lab, makes quick work of the retrieve, and we all get back to watching the sky.

There may be no more comfortable way to hunt ducks than from a layout boat. Backman’s is a rare 1954 Alumacraft Ducker, a shallow, flat-bottomed boat fashioned from aircraft aluminum; it’s 12 feet long, 44 inches wide. If you can find one online, it might carry a $2,000 price tag. Backman picked his up for much less. He has festooned his layout boats with grass for camouflage.

The beauty of a layout boat is that, if there’s sufficient cover on a lake, you can set up virtually anywhere.

A single redhead drake makes the fatal mistake of taking a close look at Backman’s decoys. He drops the bird with his second shot. Backman originally thought it might be a drake ring-necked duck.

“Ringies are my favorite,” Backman says. “They fly nice. They eat rice. They decoy well. They’re absolutely gorgeous. You can hunt ‘em on small water. To me, they are the northern Minnesota duck.”

Backman isn’t alone. Ringnecks usually rank third or fourth in the bag of Minnesota hunters, and Minnesota typically ranks No. 1 among all states in the harvest of ringnecks, says Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.

Birds on the Move

Ducks continue to move over the lake, although few are drawn in by our decoys or calling. Some days they decoy. Some days they don’t.

The birds move as singles, pairs or small flocks. Canada geese call in a bay behind us. From behind us, on an island and from the west end of the lake, we hear occasional shots from other hunters. Everyone is getting some shooting.

A blue-wing teal screams past, offering what would have been an easy shot if we had seen it sooner. It happens on almost every duck hunt.

“No doubt if you sat out here all day, you could shoot a limit,” Backman says.

That isn’t particularly important to Backman. He’s happy. He’s sitting in his vintage duck boat among the shafts of rice. He’s watching ducks fly.

When rain begins to fall before mid-morning, we pick up the decoys and travel silently back to the landing.