(MCT) — ON HAZEL CREEK, Mo. — Sitting in a duck blind early Saturday morning, Shag Grossnickle was thrilled by a show he has seen many times before.
Clouds of ducks darted in and out of a fog that hung over Hazel Creek Lake in northeast Missouri. Retrievers panted and whined as they watched the waterfowl in the distance. And hunters loaded shotguns and began to blow on duck calls.
Grossnickle has seen more of them than most hunters you’ll meet. At age 97, he has greeted the duck season just about every year since he started hunting when he was 10 or 11.
He’s a walking history book of waterfowl hunting. Yet, he welcomes every opener like it was first.
“I still have a lot of kid in me,” he said with a smile as he readied for the opening of the Missouri season. “I may be old, but I don’t feel that way when I’m out here hunting. This is part of what keeps me going.”
So, how long has Grossnickle been at it? Consider that in some of the first years he hunted ducks, he used live decoys.
“We would put collars on the drakes and stake them in place in the marsh in front of us,” he recalled. “Then I would take then hen mallard in the blind with me.
“When the ducks I had staked down would start calling, I would let that hen loose and she would fly out and lead that flock of ducks in the air right in. Then she would come right back to the blind. I had her trained. I fed her shell corn and she knew where her meals were coming from.”
That method resulted in memorable duck hunts, but the use of live decoys was banned in the mid-1930s. Grossnickle agreed with that move. It made duck hunting too easy, he said.
“We were killing too many ducks,” he said. “It wasn’t sporting.”
And now? Well, the sport is intriguing enough that Grossnickle can’t give it up, even at his age. Of course, there’s a lot that he can’t give up. He still drives, plays golf three days a week, works out at a fitness center in his hometown of Kirksville, Mo., and fishes.
And in the fall, he continues his obsession with duck hunting.
I’ve shot a lot of ducks over the years,” he said. “I’ve seen years when our duck lake was covered with so many mallards that you would think there wasn’t room for another one to land there.
“That’s what keeps me coming back – memories like that. I just love being out on a duck lake early in the morning.”
This summer’s hot, dry weather made it tough on Grossnickle. The heat steadily reduced the water level in his duck lake until it eventually went dry — one of only two times he has seen that happen.
So Saturday, he joined his friend, Kirksville police chief Jim Hughes, Ray Jagger and Cody Fuller at their blind on Hazel Creek Lake. For Hughes, it was an honor to host Grossnickle. “The word got around,” Hughes said. “Everyone I talked to knew that Shag was going to hunt with us.”
It was a big day for Hughes in another way. His young yellow lab, Dee You, was on her first duck hunt.
“She has retrieved a lot of orange dummies,” Hughes said. “But she hasn’t retrieved a duck yet.”
She got her chance Saturday. Not long after shooting hours started, a flock of widgeons swept down on the decoys as Hughes and Grossnickle called, and Hughes hit one of the ducks and watched as it splashed to the lake.
A short time later, the hunters downed another duck and Jagger’s dog, Dooley, bounded out to retrieve it. For Grossnickle, the morning ended without getting to fire a shot. But that was no problem. He still thoroughly enjoyed another day in the duck blind.
“It all evens out,” he said. “Last year I got my limit of six ducks on only seven shots on the opener.
“But I don’t need to shoot ducks to have a good time. It’s more about getting out with friends, watching the dogs work, calling the birds in. … That’s what makes it fun.”
Such experiences only add to Grossnickle’s rich history of waterfowl hunting. Go to the insurance agency that he ran for years — and that his son still runs — and you’ll see mounts of everything from ducks to bobcats to big turkeys adorning the walls. Enter the clubhouse at his duck club and you’ll see the same thing — mounts of Canada geese hanging from strings, various ducks and wildlife art serving as the interior decorating.
For Grossnickle, it is a reminder of a glorious past.
“When I first start hunting, our family lived near Carlisle, Iowa, not far from the Des Moines River,” he said. “I was down at the river hunting or fishing all the time.
“But it wasn’t just for fun. It was to put food on the table. We had a family of 12, and times were tough. We had to live off the land.
“I would use my dad’s old Winchester shotgun, and I got good at hitting those ducks. I couldn’t afford to miss. What the cost of shotgun shells what they were, I had to hit what I aimed at.”
After live decoys were banned, Grossnickle and others went to wooden decoys. But once lightweight decoys came on the market, Grossnickle tossed the wooden ones into a grain bin. One day he came across them and decided to discard them.
“I just put some kerosene on them and burned them,” he said. “Do you know what those decoys would be worth today if I had kept them?
“Oh, well, I wasn’t in it for the money anyway. I just loved to hunt.”
And he still does.