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Hunters in the Take ’Em Club put lots of effort into their duck hunting, and it usually pays off

MORSON, Ont. -- The cry came from Phil Bakken's room just before 4:30 a.m. "Daylight in the swamp," hollered Bakken, rousing his fellow duck hunters. For good measure, Bakken reeled off a few riffs on his duck and goose calls. The world remained ...

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Casey Sunsdahl (right) of Soudan tosses a decoy to the front of his duck boat after a morning of hunting on Lake of the Woods on Oct. 4, 2016. His hunting partner is Brad Redmond of Virginia. Sam Cook / Forum News Service

MORSON, Ont. - The cry came from Phil Bakken's room just before 4:30 a.m.

"Daylight in the swamp," hollered Bakken, rousing his fellow duck hunters. For good measure, Bakken reeled off a few riffs on his duck and goose calls.

The world remained pitch black outside. Spoon, Bobby Clover's 4-year-old black Lab, stirred beside his bed, stretched and yawned. Another sweet October morning had begun at the Take 'Em Club, a gaggle of seasoned hunters who spend most of five weeks each fall in a waterfowl paradise on the backwaters of Lake of the Woods.

Bakken, 68, is a Tower, Minn., fishing guide who first began exploring the lake's duck-hunting potential in 1979. Clover, 67, is from Hibbing, Minn., and joined him a few years later. Casey Sunsdahl, 33, a Soudan, Minn., fishing guide, is a more recent addition to the clan, and on this trip he had invited his friend Brad Redmond, 39, of Virginia, Minn.

The camp stirred to life. The hunters shuffled around in various layers of camouflage, sipping coffee, casing shotguns, letting the dogs in and out. Sunsdahl's 8-year-old black Lab, Drake, would share retrieving duties with Spoon.

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The Take 'Em Club is no exclusive camp for well-heeled waterfowlers. No buy-in is required. No dues are charged. Just chip in for food and an occasional spinning-wing mallard decoy and gas for the outboards, plus cabin rental at the Pelican Landing near Morson. You're good to go.

Early days

When Bakken and a friend first came up here nearly 40 years ago, they camped out and shot plenty of ducks. Clover began accompanying Bakken soon after. For hunters from Minnesota's Iron Range, the endless bays and rivers and rice beds - and thousands of ducks - were like some kind of waterfowling heaven.

"My first trip up here, they took me up the river," Clover said. "I thought every duck in the world was there."

The club quickly abandoned tents in favor of a cabin and this one at Pelican Landing is the third they've hunted from. They launch their boats just 50 yards away and are usually setting up boat blinds within 15 minutes.

On this balmy October morning, the camp's two boats zipped up a rice-filled backwater and set up among taller stands of phragmites vegetation. Sunsdahl and Redmond put out a few goose decoys. They were hoping to shoot some Canada geese.

Bakken and Clover tossed out a collection of ring-necked duck decoys and a few mallards next to a spinning-wing mallard decoy. The first streak of pink foretold the coming day.

In the darkness, the sound of wingbeats materialized overhead as unidentifiable ducks buzzed the marsh.

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"They're flittering," Bakken said. "The Benelli will bark."

Flittering is Bakken's term for the furtive movement of ducks in the pre-dawn hour. Flittering ducks bear the promise of a good morning's shoot. The Benelli is his trusty shotgun.

Bakken sat in his boat seat, smoke from his cigar drifting over the set-up. Spoon sat amidships, his head poking out a Lab-size opening in the blind.

"This is my favorite time of the morning," Bakken said.

Bakken has been duck hunting since he was 11.

"I can remember my first duck like it was yesterday," he said. "Big drake mallard. I still have the black-and-white photo of me and that duck. I carried it all around the neighborhood, showing people that duck."

Reluctant participants

The shooting hour - a half-hour before sunrise - came on, and the ducks seemed to vanish. No more flittering.

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"It's like they know," Clover said.

Soon, though, a few began to move. Most remained high, untempted by Bakken and Clover's decoy spread.

Then a single mallard made the fateful turn and came barreling in toward Bakken's end of the boat. It swung over the decoys at the last moment, and Bakken dropped it. Spoon did the rest.

The boys of the Take 'Em Club, it should be noted, can shoot.

A single goose sucked into Sunsdahl and Redmond's spread.

"Big mistake," Clover said, watching the scenario unfold from a distance.

One shot tumbled it from the sky.

Before the morning was over, the four hunters had taken a half-dozen ducks and six Canada geese. It was a slow morning by Take 'Em Club standards.

Seeking mallard mother lode

"Some days we get four or five ducks. Some days we get limits," Bakken said later, back at the cabin.

And here is the beauty of hunting ducks for five weeks each fall: If the ducks refuse to cooperate in the morning, there is always the evening hunt. And tomorrow morning's. And tomorrow evening's.

The hunters have many places to hunt, each with a name that appears on no maps. Ladybug Island. Hee Haw. Benelli Bay. Camera Point. The High Dam. Smokey's Dam. Coop's Bay.

The hunters have been known to trek at great effort into remote beaver ponds where the mallard mother lode hangs out.

"We're always looking for that phantom glory hole," Bakken said.

Several times over the years, they have discovered those glory holes and shot limits.

"Every day is different," Clover said. "But there's always that anticipation - is today going to be the day?"

Old Yellow-Eyes

In the early years, the bluebills (scaup) rafted by the tens of thousands on the main lake and traded back and forth into the rice bays where the Take 'Em boys took 'em.

"It appears they've moved west," Bakken said. "Hunters in North Dakota say there are lots of bluebills on Devils Lake now. For many years, we didn't shoot many bluebills. Now, the last few years, they've been coming back."

The bluebills' movements, according Take 'Em Club lore, are always overseen by Ol' Yellow-Eyes himself, the granddaddy of all bluebills.

"Old Yellow-Eyes is gonna send 'em down tonight," Bakken will say.

Or, "Old Yellow-Eyes - he sent us those last four bluebills so we could get our limit."

Open-water divers

The next morning's hunt proved more productive. The two boats were tucked into cover on a wide bay that ring-necked ducks like to visit when they come off the main lake.

"Open-water diver hunting," Sunsdahl dubbed it.

Thirty diver decoys bobbed in a fresh south wind. Two fake mallards fed near a single spinning-wing decoy.

Early on, a flock of seven or eight ring-necked ducks saw the spread and made a wide swing.

"Fire up the barbecue," Sunsdahl says when he sees birds coming around for another look.

Here they came, low and fast, until the hunters rose and the Benellis barked and ducks came slapping down on the water. Four ringers for the grill.

Ducks kept coming through the morning, though there was plenty of time for stories between the flights. The hunters spoke to the birds with diver calls and mallard calls, and the spinner on the water offered the illusion of a duck landing in the safety of the decoys.

Three more ringnecks failed to leave with their partners when the flock committed to the set-up. A group of mallards took the bait and came in just right. Three fell.

"There's nothing like open-water decoy shooting when they pitch in like that," Bakken said.

Spoon and Drake did splendid work delivering duck after duck. When the hunters pulled up decoys, 13 ducks lay in the boats. Mallards, ringnecks, a wigeon, a redhead and a green-winged teal.

The following day, the Take 'Em Club had quite a hunt for ring-necked ducks in a little rice bay, Bakken would report later. The ducks just kept coming in.

"Thousands of ringers," Bakken said.

The four hunters shot their four-person limit - 24 ducks - in 45 minutes.

"Hundreds buzzing around," Bakken said. "They came in waves. We watched and were awestruck."

The Take 'Em Club had found themselves another glory hole.

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Spoon, a black Lab owned by Bobby Clover of Hibbing, Minn., returns to the duck blind with a wigeon during a morning of hunting on Lake of the Woods near Morson, Ontario, on Oct. 4. Sam Cook / Forum News Service

2877063+cookDUCKCAMP1009c6 copy.jpg
Spoon, a black Lab owned by Bobby Clover of Hibbing, Minn., returns to the duck blind with a wigeon during a morning of hunting on Lake of the Woods near Morson, Ontario, on Oct. 4. Sam Cook / Forum News Service

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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