Devils Lake is where the ducks are for this waterfowl crew

ON DEVILS LAKE -- The decoys are set just outside the cattails on this unseasonably warm October morning. A couple pods of dabblers in close. A couple strings of divers stretching toward open water.

Lily Yellow Lab
Lily, Dave Kent's yellow lab, returns to the boat with a duck during a morning of hunting on Devils Lake. (Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune)

ON DEVILS LAKE -- The decoys are set just outside the cattails on this unseasonably warm October morning. A couple pods of dabblers in close. A couple strings of divers stretching toward open water.

Now, in the first seeping gray of the new day, the hunters wait. Their three small boats are tucked in the cattails. Six hunters. One fox-red yellow Lab named Lily.

Some of these hunters are from Duluth: Kelly Fleissner, Dale Sellner and Dave Kent. They are joined by Sellner's brother, Keith Sellner, of Dalton, Minn., and his grown sons and one daughter-in-law.

All of them have risen early in a little farm house about a mile away, on the shores of Devils Lake. It was a short haul across a field of wheat stubble and a 15-minute boat ride to these cattails where they had shot 35 ducks the morning before.

These moments before legal shooting hours are filled with the sweet anticipation of the coming hunt. A teal comes slicing over the decoys and disappears down the lake. Mallards quack somewhere in the endless cattails behind us, discussing the day's feeding destinations. The hushed banter of the hunters circulates from boat to boat as they ready guns and survey the sky.


Finally, someone announces that it's legal to shoot. You can hear the soft snick of shells being loaded and the shotguns' actions closing. The hunters are ready.

Almost immediately, ducks are in the air. Three redheads barrel at us low and from behind. Tony Sellner, Keith's son from West Fargo, N.D., reacts first and drops two of them with improbable twisting shots. Then a pair of blue-wing teal buzzes too close, and Tony drops one of them.

Lily, just 1ยฝ and still figuring things out, hits the water and finds the teal.

"Bring it to daddy," Kent croons.

And Lily delivers it to her proud master.

The action slows as the sun rises. These are local ducks, not northern migrants, and they are growing more cautious by the day. No wind blows to stir the decoys. The sky is clear, the temperature on its way to 80 or so.

This is crazy, hunting ducks without being cold.

"You can appreciate this weather," Dale Sellner had said that morning, back at the farm. "But you'd rather it be snowing."


The hunters continue to pick off a duck here and there through mid-morning.

They know they could probably kill more ducks if they split up and hunted separately. It's hard to hide three 15-foot boats parked near each other in the cattails. But this gang has far too much fun hunting together to go their separate ways. They salute each other's good shooting and chide each other for missed opportunities.

They will finish with 18 ducks in all -- redheads, teal, bluebills and gadwalls. A fine morning, but a slow day by Devils Lake standards.

Place on the prairie

The Sellner-Fleissner-Kent contingent hunted ducks in Minnesota until the mid-1990s, when Minnesota's duck hunting began its precipitous decline. They hunted near Fergus Falls, on lakes near Keith Sellner's home. But when hunting grew poor as the quality of Minnesota's wetlands deteriorated, Fleissner and Dale Sellner began looking for options.

They briefly considered Canada, then decided to try North Dakota in 1998. They contacted outdoor TV and radio host Tony Dean of Pierre, S.D., for his recommendations, and he steered them to Devils Lake.

They spent three years hunting Devils Lake while staying at motels and resorts, asking locals where they could find some bluebills, a favorite target.

"You must be from Minnesota," Devils Lake locals told them.


Devils Lake was already rising in a spell of wetter than normal years that began in 1992. The lake has risen 32 feet since then and quadrupled in size to nearly 200,000 acres. Ducks found a smorgasbord in the flooded farm fields, and the waterfowl population grew.

Before the cattails took hold, the hunters would just tie up to a grove of flooded timber and throw out a string of diver decoys in the Minnewaukan flats. Bluebills would pour in.

"Flocks of hundreds came in one after the other," Fleissner said. "We thought we'd gone to heaven."

The Sellners, Fleissner and Kent together bought a farm on 10 acres in a national wildlife refuge near Minnewaukan in 2002. They've converted a shed to a bunkhouse and built a roomy metal storage building after a tornado took out the barn.

This time of year, the farm is a duck camp. In summer and in winter, the families come out to fish Devils Lake northern pike and walleyes.

"It's been beyond our wildest dreams," Dale Sellner said. "We didn't know you could catch fish here, too. Now, the young people are coming up behind us, and they have a place to come."

The previous afternoon, Tony Sellner's wife, Anne, had caught a 27-inch walleye, and five smaller walleyes became shore lunch.

The lake changes every year as the water rises. Cattails that were huntable the year before are now too flooded to offer good cover.


"We have to keep changing," Fleissner said.

North Dakota's duck hunter numbers, bolstered by frustrated Minnesota hunters, grew dramatically. The state's nonresident waterfowl hunter numbers hit a high of 30,029 in 2001 but had dropped to 23,624 last year. Devils Lake is a popular destination, as are the hundreds of potholes surrounding it.

"You could jump-shoot potholes all day and get your ducks," Fleissner said.

The hunters face little competition for spots on Devils Lake itself, however. There's plenty of room out there.

Nonresidents are allowed to hunt waterfowl in two seven-day periods. The Sellner-Fleissner-Kent group typically hunts the non-resident opener in early October and another week at the end of the month when the northern ducks have come down.

One more hunt

The last morning, most other hunters in camp have departed with heavy coolers. Fleissner and Kent and I go out for one more hunt. It's another summer day, but at least there's some wind. As we await shooting time, the decoys swim on their tethers, appearing to have some life.

Even fewer ducks are flying today. There's plenty of time for stories, including tales of college days at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where both Kent and Fleissner played football under legendary coach Jim Malosky.


The stories were interrupted at intervals when cooperative pairs of gadwalls or buffleheads or a single mallard found our decoy set appealing. Lily had plenty of action picking up downed birds. Her marking skills are still being refined, so Kent carried a bag of small rocks with him. If you tossed a rock in the direction of a downed bird, the splash led Lily right to it. From there, it was all instinct. She's going to be a good one.

We picked up and moved to another back bay where we had seen lots of mallards leaving. It's hard to fool mallards on a sunny day, but we picked up a shoveler and two Canada geese for our efforts.

Near morning's end, the bottom of Fleissner's boat looked just right. It was a semi-organized conglomeration of extra decoys, spent shell hulls, gun cases, shell boxes, life vests and cattail fronds, all wet from Lily's comings and goings.

It was a happy boat, bearing hunters who were mighty happy to have discovered Devils Lake.

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