Scrinck…crunch…scrunch, the echo of the sheet ice breaking before our bows tore through the November darkness in ghostly fashion. The soft splash of the paddles in the frigid water behind made a haunting harmonic rhythm. My brother stopped paddling ahead, his headlamp pointing down to the ash grey water below. Heaving his anchor and line over the edge of his craft, his low voice echoed back “bout twelve feet”. Peering back to the shadowy shoreline, I could tell that we had gone beyond what we originally had intended as our destination. “Good enough”, I whispered back, and we began our preparations. It was our second attempt to try layout hunting for diving ducks on Mille Lacs Lake, and the calm conditions were finally on our side, or so we thought.
In the predawn stillness, the soft resound of decoy bags could be heard from my friends, beginning their decoy deployment. Carefully setting the long line anchor to the sandy bottom, I began to unfurl the gang rig drops from their decoy keels. Finishing the clip on the twentieth decoy, I peered back to scrutinized the front of my line in disbelief. The first two decoys were forcefully dipping under water, pulled down by the weight of the anchor. Frantically paddling back to the front of the line, I snapped off a few of the sunken blocks and began testing the depth of the water. My stomach promptly produced a knot. With a twenty-five foot anchor rope, I could no longer detect the bottom of the lake. With little to no wind, we had drifted over 100 yards from our original location in a matter of ten minutes. “Evil Lake”, my brother said with his usual candor. Painstakingly towing the lines back to a shallow depth, we set our back boat anchors to weight the lines and settled into our small crafts.
As we loaded our shotguns and made last preparations, I produced my canvas cloth to lie over my boat. My brother peered in my direction and said, “Man, you really blend in with the water”. In preparation for the endeavor, I had bought a cheap canvas cloth from a hardware store and streaked it with a darker battleship grey. The results were astonishingly accurate, as I appeared to be a spot on match of the surroundings. Unfortunately, we had forgotten the other canvas sheets at our lodging and decided the two camouflage boats may be low enough to the water to conceal our location. Seconds after the admiring exchange, a faint whistle filled our ears. Careening out of the western horizon, a flock of 25 goldeneyes dipped low to investigate the lines resembling their kin. With twenty minutes before legal shooting time, we sat back and enjoyed the acrobatic display. “Eyes up boys”, my brother said with an excited tone. I gradually turned my chin to the sky, and was amazed at what I witnessed. Seemingly swinging through the air, large swaths of ducks pushed from east to west, and west to east across our view. Common Mergansers, Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, and Canvasbacks showed their aerial ability amidst the desolate horizon.
Easily discernible, a group of tiny bufflehead suddenly winged to our decoys with the speed of an arrow. The lead drake was met first by all three of our barrels, and a belting barrage left three hens still on the water. Pulling up my anchor, I paddled quickly to retrieve our prizes. Either by some devious trick of nature or the tumultuousness of this large lake, the drake bufflehead that we had all pummeled flipped from his back to his stomach and started to fly away from my steadily closing boat. Utterly appalled, I quickly produced my shotgun and sent the bird to the water. My brother followed suit, and hit the hearty water beast once again. Certain that we had dealt the final blow, I grabbed the first of the hens from the water. I was stunned to hear a gunshot to my right. Out of the corner of my eye I watched in disbelief as a drake bufflehead skimmed the water in flight across the pale water. “Was that the same duck?”, I shouted back to my brother. Shaking his head back and forth, I could barely hear him say, “Evil Lake”.
Over the course of the morning we had limited opportunities to add to our bag, as the unconcealed decks of the other boats sent birds flaring at an unethical distance. After two hours, the northern wind sped across the shoreline, and our previously teetering boats began to bob on intimidating waves. Post haste, anchors were drawn and long lines gathered. Paddling with the ferocity of a Stanford rowing team, we traversed the stretch of water back to our access point. The waves sprayed our faces with icy wrath, and the wind bit at our already numb fingers. Landing on the powdery sand beach, we relished in the firm foundation, and all took a few minutes to gather ourselves.
Even though we were exhausted, I could still see the joy in my brother and friend’s eyes as we stowed our gear and examined our rewards. It’s the adventure that grips us in our hearts and to our bones. The intangible feeling of going against the grain to prove that we have what it takes, and to do so with the ones closest to us.