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A tour of Tamarac NWR brings back memories

A few days ago, we made a ritual trip through the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. It's as good as any place around Detroit Lakes where one can tour the woodlands to observe the fall colors. Yes, there has been a lot of wet weather and high winds, but the fall foliage was good, and the best is probably yet to come. The aspens, birch, poplars, firs and maples all added their colors. It was a great foliage trip, but not the best if, as a hunter, one is looking for waterfowl.

We didn't penetrate the hunting coverts in search of ruffed grouse, which, reportedly, could be approaching its cyclical peak this autumn. But we searched for ducks without significant success. Indeed, we saw less than twenty ducks on a four-hour tour of areas where, in the past, we have hunted ducks with significant success. The populations of waterfowl are supposedly regaining numbers on the North American continent. Such improvements are not evident in Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. We did not probe into Flat Lake northeast of the refuge headquarters, which is indeed a safe refuge for waterfowl, but we did stop and glass a number of areas which have had large numbers of waterfowl in past years.

Three decades ago, we hunted in the heyday of waterfowling. Partners with such marksmen/conservationists as Harry L. Johnston, Dr. John Arouni, Arnold Bud Larson and Harry's sons, Mike and Patrick, we produced waterfowl bags, which will not be easily repeated. We never took the limit of legal birds, always stopping at least one short of what was allowed by the regulations.

Upon completing each day, we had a satisfying bag of ducks in a good variety. Many times they were the copious ring bills, the bread-and-butter duck of this area, along with mallards, teal, widgeon, gadwall and wood ducks.

The varieties were many and the numbers were great. Three decades ago, the hunting pressure was great. A group of teachers from the Detroit Lakes system made it a practice of taking their barbecue grills, cooking utensils and paraphernalia to the area on the southeast shores of Pine Lake. This was to become known as "Teacher's Point," as the educators laid claim to the very good waterfowling early on every Friday evening, in order to be in place on a shoreline come Saturday morning. We observed no birds at all when passing that area on our aforesaid leaf watch. No teachers were doing any outdoor cooking.

The Blackbird Trail was always a treasure of waterfowl. Particularly abundant were the ringbills and bluebills. But on the road in, ruffed grouse were legal until you encountered the southeast shore of Blackbird Lake. But when a dense cattail slough appeared to your right (west) side, exiting the vehicle always resulted in an explosion of mallards, which choose to reset into cover of a similar nature on the north side of Blackbird. Here was the Zenith of bluebill hunting. It soon became known to many, resulting in an influx of hunters, local and from a distance. They came with and without dogs. Some in shirtsleeves and without waterproof footwear.

But the loss of birds was alarming. It was before the heyday of steel shot, but many were inadequately equipped for the task, which was long-range gunning. Many ducks were grassed, but only hunters with retrievers were able to put birds in the bag. Some obviously successful shotgunners were often rewarded with a bird or two by ethical hunters who did share the take.

This was waterfowling at its worst, and a lawyer named Francis Schroder, teamed up with Conservation Officers Orville Nordsletten and Pat Patterson to exercise some sort of control and management of a situation that was ripe for control and correction. "Tennis Shoe Pass" was soon under control. A local conservation order was soon in effect without negotiation. It was indeed a necessary solution, and it did correct the problem. Waterfowling on Blackbird did continue, in more conventional forms. Eldon McLaury, the manager of Tamarac Refuge, hunted with us on the west shores of Blackbird.

Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge constructed and provided many places for hunting rigs to access to the east shores of Blackbird, as hunting here was peerless. Alas, I saw not one duck or coot on my foliage trip. On one occasion, Conservation Officer Tom Atkins was hunting here and unearthed a new Remington 870 shotgun submerged in the mud of a boat landing. He continues to use it to this day! Blackbird Lake was the place to hunt ducks.

We took the 1/8th of a mile drive to the east end of the Tamarac Dike. The "dike" was an earthen barrier built by the Department Of Labor's unit known as the Job Corps. This was a program, which employed young urbanites from the cities of the eastern United States. These young men were taught the use of earth moving machinery such as the bulldozers, grader and front-end loader. The dike was built at a location of low water, and effectively created a north and south Tamarac Lake. With water control depth, the lower (south) lake became a loafing-breeding area, while the North side of Tamarac was wild rice rich and held mallards, wood ducks and bluebills in abundance. Hunting along the dike was permitted in its early days.

October 12 was always a holiday for employees of the Highway Department. Consequently, Bernie Revering, Orrin Brendal, Jim Thomas, Harry Johnston, Ron Wagner, Dick Moen, Lyie Leegard, and some others were aside the dike at an early hour. I recall the incident when all of these gunners fired at an approaching flock, downing every single bird.

Perhaps this was an omen we should have heeded, but waterfowl was very plentiful, every bird was recovered and appreciated by the several families.

This gunning bonanza too, was too good to continue, and restrictions were soon in place. Shotgunning along the dike was restricted to a distance beyond the natural growth of bulrush and wild rice. It was a necessary and wise decision.

In its heyday, the location of the eastern terminus of the dike was the location of many prestigious hunting lodges. I recall that before the dike was built, Harry Johnston of Detroit Lakes insisted that I hike the half mile through dense woods to the site of hunting lodges, their stone lodges still in place, after the acquisition of these pristine lodges by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in readiness for the establishment of the future Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

The establishment of the system of national wildlife refuges is a great idea. The existence of Tamarac provides sanctuary for wildlife of all kinds, including white tail deer. The Tamarac management has always been top-notch, and we have become acquainted with a number of them. The absence of waterfowl at Tamarac this season is not the fault of anyone but the serious decline ducks on the North American Continent. The ducks go where the water is, and that continues to be the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, and the south areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Alas, Tamarac is simply not a place where waterfowling will be great this fall. But it's great for colorful leaf watching. Do make a trip out that way and bring your camera.