Rice is nice for ducks on Nett Lake

NETT LAKE -- In a rosy mist rising from the Nett Lake River, Glenn Merrick and I paddled a well-used Grumman Sportboat toward Nett Lake early on a recent October morning. We both knew we should have been there a few minutes earlier.

NETT LAKE -- In a rosy mist rising from the Nett Lake River, Glenn Merrick and I paddled a well-used Grumman Sportboat toward Nett Lake early on a recent October morning. We both knew we should have been there a few minutes earlier.

Many thousands of ring-necked ducks gather on Nett Lake each fall to feed on the lake's abundant wild rice during their migration.

"We've got good news and bad news," said Merrick, of Duluth. "The bad news is that it's already shooting time. The good news is that no ducks are flying."

One could have argued that the good news was actually bad news, too. We had committed to hunt this day, along with Merrick's dad, Bill Merrick of Duluth, and our Bois Forte band guide, Gene Boshey of Tower.

The morning was beautiful -- and decidedly unducky. It was cool at 32 degrees, but it was calm and cloudless. Another guide had estimated as many as a quarter of a million ducks were on Nett Lake, feeding on its ample stores of rice. But they probably were rafted in the middle of the lake.


On a calm, soon-to-be-warm day, they had little reason to get up and go looking for a protected shoreline.

But that is duck hunting. Or almost any kind of hunting. You show up. You see what happens.

We tossed out about four dozen decoys -- ringnecks and canvasbacks -- and tucked the canoes behind some cattails. We were looking east into a brilliant rising sun. We had just enough cover to break up the glow on our faces.

"Here come three," Boshey said.

The ringnecks flew like all ringnecks, fast and low, bearing down on our decoys, swinging at the last minute. Bill Merrick was the only one with his gun loaded, and he dropped one of the ducks at the edge of the decoys.

Merrick is 78 years old and has shot waterfowl from Minnesota to Manitoba to Saskatchewan. He's reserved by nature, but he has seen a lot of ducks over the years, and years of trapshooting have honed his skills in the blind.

He has hunted Nett Lake, usually once a season, since 1967. He's had some excellent hunts there.

"When your timing is good, you can have some awfully good shoots," Merrick said. "The best hunting is right before it freezes up, I'd say about the third week of October."


As a young man, he hunted divers on Nettley Marsh at the south end of Lake Winnipeg. Later on, he hunted many years in Saskatchewan and on Minnesota's Red Lake for bluebills.

"That was unbelievable bluebill shooting, probably the best in the world," Merrick said.

That's where he introduced his sons to duck hunting. Merrick loves the challenge of ducking hunting.

"It's a challenge to make a decision where to set up and how you're going to set up, and the shooting is an extra challenge," he said.

Local history

Boshey, 52, has been hunting Nett Lake since he was 9, tagging along with his father, another Gene Boshey, who also guided here for years. The younger Boshey also harvests rice every year on Nett Lake, hand-parching it himself.

"The ducks come in after ricing, about the third week of September," Boshey said. "We see teal and mallards earlier. And now we have a good population of trumpeter swans. We never used to see those."

The swans, of course, are protected. We saw several flying over the lake throughout the morning and heard their low, nasal hooting.


Long periods of inactivity stretched between sporadic sightings of ducks, and Boshey talked about Nett Lake, wild rice and duck hunting. The tools of duck hunters have changed over the years, Boshey said.

"I can remember back to my grandfather, everybody used wood decoys. I can remember my grandfather carving them and hand-painting them. Now those are valuable," he said.

While we waited for ducks, we could see across the lake to the community of Nett Lake, home to headquarters of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. The band has worked hard to improve the wild rice harvest on the lake, using water-borne machines to remove other aquatic vegetation such as lily pads, Boshey said.

The results have been good, he said, with wild rice flourishing two to three years after the weed removal.

"It's nice to hunt at a place that has everything 100,000 ducks need for two weeks," Glenn Merrick said.

Sporadic shooting

The ducks came by in small bursts. Three wigeons from down the river, too wide. A couple of more wigeons from the left, here and gone before anyone could get a gun up. A couple of mallards from the river, high and wide. A couple of small groups of ringnecks buzzed our set-up, but not close enough for shots.

The wind did not come up. The sun shone. Nobody wore gloves.


Boshey said he had rarely seen the lake so flat.

"It's funny not to hear shooting," he said.

A hunter on Nett Lake can usually hear the rolling thunder of volleys from around the lake when the ducks are moving. Occasionally, we saw big groups of ducks get up at mid-lake, but they simply sat down again in the same place.

Finally, we locked onto a decent squadron of a dozen to 15 ringnecks coming straight at us. They were behaving perfectly, homing straight for our decoys. But when the shooting was over, none of them had dropped from the formation, and we had no excuses.

A single duck looked our spread over, but wouldn't fully commit. As it buzzed the outer fringe of the decoys, Bill rose and took it -- a hen redhead.

That was all the shooting we would have, but we hung on for another hour or so, hoping against the odds that something would happen. We were reduced to re-shooting a lot of ducks and geese from past hunts, which may be the next-best thing to a good duck hunt among friends.

Some days you shoot ducks. And some days you just go duck hunting.


Nett Lake map

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