Public Pond Opening Day

By Michael Sullivan

Blasting ducks on opening day is as American as the Big Gulp—or at least it is for my family. We’ve hunted a small private marsh in northern Wisconsin for 60-plus years, and being the third generation to hunt it, opening day is a sacred day for us. However, this year the state split its season … and now we have two sacred days.

Not wanting to disrupt our deer hunting location, we scouted a public marsh pond that I’d duck hunted late in the previous season. What I didn’t know was that evidently opening day in this marsh is more popular than free bags of meth handed out in the Motel 6 parking lot. 

So 3 a.m. arrived and I bolted out of bed scaring the piss out of our Bernese mountain dog. He’s too much of a couch potato to understand what’s happening. Gear, gun & decoys in the car, I rolled out blasting Metallica with a big mug of coffee in hand.

I pulled up to the marsh to see 10 cars slammed into a five-car parking lot. Great start. Determined to get to the spot I scouted for weeks, I hauled some decoys and the rest of the gear down the road toward the hidden watering hole that, a few days prior, was littered with mallards and woodies.

About 100 yards down the half mile road I ran into three guys sitting in the middle of the road, plopped in the only unclaimed parcel they could find. Not being the first person to wander up on them, they informed me that they’d been camped out since 1:45 a.m. Insanity. 

Tail between my legs, I scuttled back to the car and drove around the marsh trying to find another spot. Pulling up to the marsh’s main entrance, I see another 15 cars. One small pond and 15 trucks, still three hours from opening … Not happening. Peeling out of that parking lot, I found a spot a few hundred yards up the road that was shockingly empty. A great duck hunting spot? No. A spot on the small river that may get us lucky with a residual bird? Yes. 

With generations of hunting luck behind me, our 8-year-old Mojo decoy decided to permanently break on this very morning. Too deep for the decoy strings, I launch a four decoy pull-string across the river. Beats nothing. I got everything else set up before the rest of the crew rolled in around 4:30. With two hours to kill, we patiently exaggerate hunting stories and watch our 8-year-old lab pounce around like a puppy until we get a speckle of daylight. Shooting time is exactly 6:20. 

At 6:19 we hear the first blast. To be expected, some trigger-happy old schlep has to beat the other 30 hunters on the two-acre pond. We had seen more headlights pull off to the side of the road, and headlamps light up the trees surrounding the marsh but I never expected the amount of gunfire that followed. One by one the cannons went off as it ramped up to sounding like a malfunctioning hillbilly Fourth of July show lit off a plywood pontoon. 

I couldn’t help but laugh knowing I wanted no part of that chaos. But it kept going. Three whole minutes later when it finally subsided, we looked at each other in complete shock. That was the single most chaotic thing we had ever heard. Doesn’t compare to the pitter patter of rifles you hear on opening day of rifle season in Wisconsin, the one day of the year we could classify our state as a war zone. 

On one hand, this was an experience. We eyeballed a couple birds tearing out of their slumber like fighter jets that wouldn’t sit down until they hit Indiana. No prayer of a shot, but we set up, told stories, and dealt with the light drizzle that early October often throws your way in Wisconsin. It was good to be out there. 

On the other hand, I will never do that again. It wasn’t a hunt; it was a firework show without the color. Any bird on that marsh had no chance of being edible. The amount of steel that filled that sky could’ve supplied an Arkansas outfitter for a season. Safety aside, that couldn’t have been fun. 

We didn’t wait long to call it quits, at which time we hit the local diner for a brat-filled skillet and another mug of black coffee. The Wisconsin special. We hadn’t heard a single shot from that marsh since the three-minute cluster fuck at opening light. 

Lesson learned: If you’re going to do opening day, do it right; hunt private land.