You’d about have to figure that “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” likely has tremendous waterfowl hunting history. It sure does! One hundred sixty years worth of duck club history and then some! Steve Knutson grew up an avid duck hunter in Otter Tail County, that has more lakes than any other county in the US. In today’s episode, he takes us on a colorful tour of famous lakes, prominent yester-year waterfowlers, historic duck camps, far-reaching traditions, and the much sought-after ducks that shaped Minnesota’s incredible duck hunting culture.  Have things since changed?


“Minnesota Duck Camps: 160 Years of History and Tradition,” costs $85, plus $9 shipping and handling for the first copy and $4 for each additional copy. For ordering information, contact Knutson at (612) 816-5156, by email at,

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The Evolution of Duck Hunting in Minnesota

They hunted entirely out of railroad cars and they had specially made rail cars that they used that sometimes the railroads themselves would modify these rail cars, like Pullman sleeper cars, they’d modify them specially for hunters and put in kitchens and coolers for the birds and kennels for the dogs and they’d supply cooks and porters and help to service the hunters. 

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, you got to figure that Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, don’t you got to figure there must be some ducks and some duck hunting history around that place. Boy, is there some old duck hunting history around the state of Minnesota. Joining us today is Mr. Steve Knutson, who authored a book, Minnesota Duck Camps 160 Years of History and Tradition. I got my hands on a copy of this book, let me tell you what, folks, it’s over 700 pages of documentation and history and pictures and artwork, it is an absolute compendium and it blew my mind. And there’s absolutely no positively way I can read this in one sitting or 10, but I learned a lot. And I wanted to share the history of Minnesota Duck hunting clubs and duck camps with you all today. So joining me is Mr. Steve Knutson and Steve, how the heck are you, man?

Steve Knutson: I’m doing great. How are you today?

Ramsey Russell: I’m good. Thank you so much. I came across this book because one of our listeners shot me a private message and said, hey, here’s a book, a topic I think you’d really like to get into. And I know us guys up here up north would enjoy hearing this story and that’s what led me to you was somebody that listens to our podcast and knows we love topics like this reaching out to us. And then, of course, you and I talked the other day and I’m like, man, this is amazing. I’ll start like this with you, Steve. You lead off the book and every time I talk to a historian, the same topic comes up. But you led your book off talking about the influence of railways, the railroad which has kind of run its course in American history this day and age. But why did you start the book talking about railway influence?

Steve Knutson: Well, after researching this topic for several years, I kept running into, especially in the early days, when the duck hunting was just sort of evolving in Minnesota, which was really shortly after it became a state in 1858. If they weren’t traveling to duck camps in a horse drawn carriage or a wagon, they were going by railroad. And every time I ran into some new history, the reason the duck hunters were there or how they got there, was the railroad had just come to that area. So the more I looked at it, the more that became apparent. And so that’s sort of why I led off with that. That was sort of the culmination of the 6.5 years or so that I spent researching it. It all seemed to come back to the railroads in the early years, of course, once it got to be better roads and vehicles, then it got to be a little bit different. But in the beginning, it was really all about the railroads. And we even had some hunting clubs that there was one called the Railroad Gun Club. And they didn’t have any kind of a clubhouse or a physical hunting spot that they went to. They hunted entirely out of railroad cars and they had specially made rail cars that they used that sometimes the railroads themselves would modify these rail cars, like Pullman sleeper cars, they’d modify them specially for hunters and put in kitchens and coolers for the birds and kennels for the dogs and they’d supply cooks and porters and help to service the hunters. And then those hunting groups could rent those special rail cars and go on any of the railroads that were going through Minnesota at the time. And that was starting even in the 1870s, when the railroads were first really going through Minnesota, going to the west, towards the Dakota borders with Dakota Territory and to the north and to the northwest, up into the counties like Otter Tale county, which that county’s got a thousand lakes by itself. And so some fantastic hunting locations. And in a lot of cases, there’s actually examples of when some of these railroads were going through an area, they actually changed the path of the original to where the tracks were supposed to go to run it right past a well-known duck hunting lake, Heron Lake in southwest Minnesota is a good example of that. They ran the rails right past the edge of the lake, so there could be a depot right on the lake, which would make it easier for duck hunters. The president of that railroad was an avid duck hunter, which probably had something to do with that.

A Little Hunting Background

So that’s how I got the initial duck hunting bug and all these years later, I guess I still got it.

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to circle back just a little bit. Steve, tell me about yourself. Obviously, you’re a duck hunter, you’ve got to be. Nobody would put together such a monumental book without being a duck hunter. What is your hunting background?

Steve Knutson: Well, you’re exactly right. I don’t think anybody that wasn’t a duck hunter would get into it quite like that. But I grew up in the west central part of the state, in Otter Tail county, about 20 miles from the North Dakota border. So I grew up on a farm, I started duck hunting when I was probably 14 years old, I guess, before I had a driver’s license. So I would just walk from pothole to pothole on our farm and go to the neighbor’s farm and go to the next place. And I guess, thinking about it, I probably walked for miles sometimes on those little trips. And I guess the good part of that was I wasn’t a very good shot at that point and the gun I used was an old single shot 16 gauge that somebody borrowed a loan to me. And sometimes when you pull the trigger, the gun would go off, sometimes it wouldn’t. So anyway, I didn’t really have to carry a lot of ducks on those trips when I went on those long hikes, but that’s how I got started. And I still hunt up in that area, actually, some of those same potholes and some other areas. So that’s how I got the initial duck hunting bug and all these years later, I guess I still got it.

Highlighting Minnesota Duck Decoys & Camps

 So sort of accidental is the way I describe it.

Ramsey Russell: I guess you do. What got you interested in researching Minnesota duck camps? How did that come about?

Steve Knutson: Yeah, so I never thought I would end up writing a book, I never had any intention to do that. But back in 2016, I guess it was, I had been going to the Minnesota State Decoy Collector Show for a few years because it was kind of a nice thing to do in the winter after hunting season. Duck hunting season was over, I went to the show one time, think it’d be interesting duck hunting related and they’ve got a lot of old antique wooden duck decoys and other hunting related things. So I started collecting a few decoys got interested in that. Anyway, there’s a national decoy collector show in Chicago each year, I had always thought about going to that. And then in 2016, there was going to be a presentation on the history of Minnesota Duck Decoys. And a friend of mine, Doug Lodermeyer, who’s written some books on Minnesota duck calls and duck decoys was giving that presentation, he’s pretty much the acknowledged expert on that. So I thought, I’d like to go to that show, sort of a bucket list thing and then I’d really like to hear what Doug has to say about the history of Minnesota duck decoys. So I went to the show and during his presentation, he mentioned he was going to be working on a new book, another duck decoy book, Minnesota Decoys. And in his books, he has some duck hunting history along with the decoy information, the carvers and history of the decoys. So he mentioned in his new book, he wanted to get some history on Lake Christina. And Lake Christina is a lake in the center part of the state, it’s one of the most historic hunting lakes in Minnesota. It sort of, its claim to fame is it was a canvasback stopping point still is, but in the early years, it was a really significant canvasback stopping point, they counted hundreds of thousands of birds on the lake at times. And anyway, he mentioned he wanted to get more history in the new book in the Christina area. So I thought, I retired not long before, I was sort of looking for things to do, so I got in touch with him and know I grew up not far from that area. And during the summer and during the hunting season, I drive by there all the time to our cabin and going hunting and so forth. And I said, I’d be happy to do some research on your decoy book if you want it. So he took me up on that. I started researching some decoy carvers and one thing led to another on, why don’t you check into this carver or this information? And while I was doing that, I came across some information on old duck hunting camps sort of related to the decoys. I’ve looked at that and I thought, this is kind of interesting information and I would set it aside, put it in a file and after a while, that kept happening over and over. After a while, the file got to be pretty big and I showed it to Doug one day, and I said, somebody should write a book on it’s before it’s too late. He said, yeah, I think you should write the book. He said, I’ll show you how to do it, I’ll help you out. And that was how it got started and about 6.5 years later is when the book came out. So sort of accidental is the way I describe it.

Ramsey Russell: No buddy of mine used to say and I love this saying, when you come to a fork in a road, take it.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, that’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You just start running down that rabbit trail and it’s fun where life will take it like that. I’m glad you stumbled onto this project, because I wish more states had books like this. I just love falling back into history and reading this stuff. When was Minnesota’s golden age?

Railroads: Catalysts for Duck Camps

 Again, when the railroads came through the state that opened up more areas, you had more duck camps and so forth, population got bigger, you had more duck camps. 

Steve Knutson: Well, as I was working on the book, I thought about that myself, actually, quite a few times I thought, how do we decide what the golden age is? And I’m a retired engineer, so I’m always looking at numbers and information and trying to think of it that way. And so one of the things I did, I looked at, when did these duck hunting camps start? When I find a new duck camp, what was its start date? And then we sort of track that over time. And even though we had duck camps that started in the 1860s, which I was actually surprised when I learned that, that it started that early, but it sorts of slowly increased over time. Again, when the railroads came through the state that opened up more areas, you had more duck camps and so forth, population got bigger, you had more duck camps. But anyway, when you look at when was the start date of all these camps when we discovered them, it looked to me like about 1915 to 1930 would be a golden age, if you consider how many new camps were coming online, which sort of indicates the kind of interest that there was from the hunters and so forth. So that would be one way of looking at it. The other part of it is it sort of depends on what was your station in life. Were you the president of a railroad, which those gentlemen really had a pretty nice situation. They had their own private railroad cars. Or were you the guy that was the factory worker, working long hours and long days? So, depending on your situation, the timeline of when the golden age would be might differ. The twin Cities, Minneapolis, St. Paul, the metro area, we’re right on the intersection of the Minnesota and the Mississippi River, which is how those cities got their start, really. But on the Minnesota River, there’s some tremendous hunting in the river bottoms. And even back in the early 1870s, there’s a little small town named Shakopee on the Minnesota River, about 10 miles from St. Paul, there were a lot of factories in that location. And at the end of the work week on a Saturday, they could walk from their houses in the small town of Shakopee to one of several really fantastic duck passes that were right along the river, the Minnesota River, in the bottom lands. And they had some kind of interesting names, there was the big fly pass and the little fly pass. Some of the descriptions they talk about of what the hunting was like, even in those early days was pretty fantastic. And those folks weren’t well off businessmen or anything, they were just the average working guy.

Ramsey Russell: I think, of going back to those days, who doesn’t dream of going back to those days? But at the same time, I think your point brings out, that era of time we’re talking about was an era of the railroads are expanding, wilderness is being penetrated. But if you look at it, the gilded age, that’s the age of Robert Barons and Rockefeller and a lot of tremendous generational wealth was being created in that era. So there was a lot of disparity, it really wasn’t a middle class at all, it was an extreme have and then just us regular folks. But at the same time, for a regular guy to be, if you had access, could walk or get to some of those lakes and wetlands, there must have been a tremendous amount of duck shooting opportunity. You didn’t have to be wealthy and jump on a car and go all these areas, you probably could just have some great duck hunting close to home. One thing that just dawned on me in this conversation and reading your book is it’d been nice to live back in those days, but I may not have been a Robert Baron and had that kind of access to money and that kind of, you know what I’m saying, to have the best places, I’d had to just settle for going out and shooting regular numbers of ducks back in those days.

Steve Knutson: Yeah. That’s one thing. And I think it’s because in Minnesota, there’s such a tremendous amount of habitat. Of course, there was more habitat back in those early years, but the amount of water and not just lakes, but sloughs and potholes and rivers and streams and everything, I think it’s the amount of habitat accomplished just what you’re describing, that if you lived anywhere near those areas and you were just the average guy, you had some great hunting opportunities. That Minnesota River area around the metro area was one example. There’s a lake, again, one of the most historic hunting lakes in Minnesota, called Swan Lake, that’s probably 70 miles south of the Twin Cities metro area. And it’s a huge lake and it’s more like a marsh, but it’s like 12,000 acres or 10,000 acres, I think it’s called the largest prairie pothole in the continental US, but it’s a huge complex. And even in the early years, 1880s, 1890s, that was more of a working man’s hunting area than some of these other lakes that we’ve talked about or I’m sure we’ll talk about. The folks that lived in the towns nearby there, Mankato, Nicolette, some of those areas, they’d get somebody, a service that had a horse drawn wagon, they’d get one of Those drivers to take them to the lake with their hunting equipment and they’d camp out for a week or so, and then they’d have the guy with the horse drawn wagon come back on a certain day to pick them up and then they’d go home with their wagon load or however mount it got to be of ducks. And again, that was not real wealthy folks that was just average folks. And then over the years, those tent camps sort of evolved into – these hunters would start building hunting shacks and they weren’t even called cabins, they were called shacks. And there are some pictures in the book of that and I’ve seen a lot of other pictures and I think shack is a good description on those early ones because there was nothing fancy about it. I’m sure they found some leftover lumber and threw together something that they could sort of live out of while they were hunting. And even to this day, the term that they use on Swan Lake for their hunting cabins is hunting shacks. And there’s well over 100 hunting shacks or hunting camps on Swan Lake and they’re still active today. There was that number probably back in the 1920s, that was a prime time in that area for duck hunting. And they still got a huge number of hunting camps on that lake. And there’s more hunting camps on Swan Lake than any other individual lake in Minnesota, it’s quite a place.

From Railroad Cars to Hunting

And 1883, there in Lake Christina and the Pullman company that made these really pretty elaborate hunting cars, they actually gave names to the individual cars. And the car that came through and hunted at Lake Christina in 1883 was called the Davy Crockett Car. 

Ramsey Russell: Who was the father and son that owned the railroad or a certain railroad line that had private cars? Can you talk about them a little bit?

Steve Knutson: Sure. I think we mentioned how I got started on this book is I volunteered to help do some research on Lake Christina, famous hunting spot, central Minnesota. I’ll maybe start with sort of an introduction into the railroad rail cars in that area and then that leads right into the folks you’re talking about. 1876, there was a group from Massachusetts that was already going – the railroads of Minnesota were just starting in 1870s, but by 1876, there was already a group from Massachusetts that was going through Minnesota hunting, duck hunting, other kind of hunting and all the way into the Dakota territory. And they had these modified cars, the Northern Pacific Railroad in that case, had developed because there was a lot of interest in hunters in doing this. So the railroads themselves would modify these cars and then offer them up for rent to these hunting groups a lot from the east coast, sometimes they came up from down south New Orleans and different areas of the country. And 1876, they were going through Minnesota doing that kind of activity with those special railroad cars. And then even in 1883, in the Lake Christina area, which, again, is the central part of the state and the tracks came there about 1881, so it wasn’t long after that. That’s when there was a railroad car that came through with a group of Pennsylvania hunters and that was a railroad car that was made by the Pullman Sleeper Car Company, specially modified for hunters. So it started out as a pretty comfortable railroad car because it was a Pullman sleeping car and they modified it for hunters. And 1883, there in Lake Christina and the Pullman company that made these really pretty elaborate hunting cars, they actually gave names to the individual cars. And the car that came through and hunted at Lake Christina in 1883 was called the Davy Crockett Car. That’s a car that there’s a lot of history to that. 20 years later, I think in 1890s, President Grover Cleveland was still using that car, hunting down south in Georgia. So these cars were pretty comfortable way to go duck hunting and a pretty interesting sort of thing that was occurring in Minnesota and other areas at that time. But to get to your point, some of the wealthier folks had their own private cars. And getting back to – there was a lot of activity in 1880s at Lake Christina. Again, 1883, there was a gentleman named Jerome Case, he was the founder of the Case Threshing Machine Company. He had a private railroad car and he hunted on Lake Christina. Again, the railroad tracks go right by Lake Christina and so it was real convenient. So he was there in 1883, the Case Threshing Machine company has now evolved into the Case IH tractor and equipment company for anybody who’s got an agricultural background, so there’s a lot of long term history there. Also in 1883, that’s when James J. Hill, who was the founder of the Great Northern Railroad, he was hunting in Lake Christina and his son, who you were mentioning is Louis Hill. And Louis Hill took over as President of the Great Northern Railroad when his father retired. So they hunted the Lake Christina area. And because the railroad tracks for his railroad went within yards, really, of the Lake Christina shoreline, the engineers, when they would go by with the train, would blow the locomotive whistle to scare up ducks. So any hunters that were nearby would get extra shooting just because of the commotion of the train going through. So Louis Hill is probably worth talking about a little bit, because Louis Hill from about 1890 to 1940 was probably the most well traveled duck hunter in Minnesota. He was an avid duck hunter and being president of the railroad, he had his own private rail. Just a commonplace occurrence for him was, say, on a Thursday, decided he wanted to go duck hunting up in Otter Tail County or all the way to the western border with South Dakota or down to Heron Lake, he would message the right folks to get his rail car set up and stocked with everything that was necessary for however big of a hunting group he was taking and then he would schedule that rail car to get attached to the proper train that was going to the area that he was going to hunt. It wasn’t necessarily even his railroad company, because they had arrangements where they could hook up to these other railroad lines as well. So he would do that on a regular basis and go to the nearest depot that was close to the hunting location they were going to be at and then park on the siding of the railroad siding at that depot. And then they’d go to their hunting areas and then in the evenings, they would go back to the private railroad car, where they had a cook and porter and they were taken care of. It was pretty comfortable accommodations, as you can imagine. And then the other part of that that I thought was kind of interesting was in later years, Louis Hill had that private railroad car modified with loading ramps in a garage so he could drive his Packard automobile into the back of the private rail car and then they would take that on these hunting trips. So then when they got to their destination, they had a vehicle to get between the depot and the hunting location. So, as I was looking through this, doing the research over time, and there were times when I thought to myself, okay, if I could go back in time for hunting, when would I want to do that? And I think I usually came up with the thought that if it would have been in these early years, like the 1870s, 1880s, when the railroads were first going through the state and so you’d be coming into these areas that had tremendous hunting, but nobody had really hunted there before, other than small numbers of people. Nobody had really discovered this hunting and it was fantastic hunting. And to be on those early train trips, obviously, it would have been more fun to be one of these well off folks and go in these private rail cars or these specially modified cars, visit these areas and see these sort of newly opened up areas of the state. Minnesota was kind of, in those days was sort of in the frontier and as the railroads moved out, kept moving west into the Dakotas and Montana and all the way to the Pacific eventually.

Ramsey Russell: What an amazing time. Next best thing to be in a railroad baron is having a friend that’s a railroad baron.

Steve Knutson: That’s exactly right, yeah.

Sought After Ducks to Hunt in the 1800’s

And the reason that it got the most attention is probably the most historic is because a lot of the prominent and well to do business folks from the Minneapolis, St. Paul area really had an interest in Heron Lake with its fantastic canvasback shooting and it had great access. 

Ramsey Russell: What when I think of Minnesota because of my old buddy Lee Kjos, who describes his dad and himself shooting blue bills on some of those lakes, when I think of Minnesota, I think of divers and I know there’s a lot of mallards, I know there’s a lot of puddle ducks, but what were most of these clubs back in that day, back in that golden age, what were they targeting? Was it divers, was it puddle ducks? What were the principal species they were chasing?

Steve Knutson: Well, in those earlier years, say the late 1800s and early 1900s, it really seemed that the bird that everybody was really most interested in was canvasbacks. And if you look at, I think we mentioned Heron Lake briefly and Heron Lake is in the southwest corner of the state and it was on the migration route for canvasbacks in those early years. And the reason that it got the most attention is probably the most historic is because a lot of the prominent and well to do business folks from the Minneapolis, St. Paul area really had an interest in Heron Lake with its fantastic canvasback shooting and it had great access. That’s the location that I mentioned where they probably modified the route of the train track so they could go right by Heron Lake. So it was a nice, pretty convenient access from Minneapolis, St. Paul to get to Heron Lake. And it wasn’t just Minneapolis, St. Paul folks, there were folks coming to Heron Lake in the 1800s from the east coast, there’s lots of examples of that. Again, getting back to the train method of transportation, these folks could come from the east coast or anywhere in the country really and get to some fantastic hunting. And it didn’t matter that it might take a few days to make that trip because in those earlier years it was common, they would go on hunting trips for weeks, not for days. But Heron Lake was really attractive because of the canvasbacks and they’ve got reports from Heron Lake that said 600,000 to 700,000 canvasbacks on the lake. 8000 acres, it’s a big lake, but that’s still a lot of ducks. So there got to be a lot of very prominent hunting camps on Heron Lake that were mainly, not entirely, but mainly made up of prominent businessmen from the Minneapolis, St. Paul area, although there was at least one camp in amongst those more well off camps that was strictly local folks. So there, again, there was a mix there. But what sort of happened over the years, James Ford Bell was one of these camp members on Heron Lake. He probably started there about, his club started probably 1903 right in that time frame. And he was a very wealthy businessman. He was the first chairman of General Mills Corporation, but he was also a conservationist. And so as the hunting kind of evolved on Heron Lake, about one of the guides that worked for James Ford Bell at the Heron Lake lodge hunt or hunted and guided on the lake for probably 20 years. So he wrote a great description of hunting conditions over time, which really kind of tells the story on some of those things, what happened to the lake. So he described it as from about 1906 until about 1914 in his time frame, he said, those were fantastic hunting conditions. The results were great, just years and years of fantastic shooting. But then he made the comment in 1915, it seemed like it was a little bit of a down year and the rushes in the lake and the celery and the other emergent growth, food for the ducks seemed to be a little less than it had been before. And then the next year, 1916, he said, was a poorer year for hunting, too. And that’s the first year that he noticed carp were in the lake. So he’s got one example. Harry Converse was a fantastic guide, tremendous shot and he didn’t have much of an education and reading his writing can really be a challenge. But it’s such a valuable piece of information that it’s so great to read it. But he had a description in 1916 that back then it wasn’t illegal to bait ducks. So they had put out, I think, 20 bushels of corn in the lake, they came back the next day to see if the ducks were using it. And his comment was, there weren’t any ducks, but there were about a billion carp and big ones he described. So that was sort of an indication maybe, of what some of the issues were there.

Ramsey Russell: John Ford Bell also was instrumental, he had moved up to Canada and he had gone to Canada. He was instrumental in the formation of the Delta Waterfowl research station. And ironically enough, talking about the water levels, talking about the celery, I hunted Delta Marsh last year with a friend that works for Ducks Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited has done a lot to get the celery back into that environment by eradicating carp because the carp had gotten into it and eaten them out of house and home, and we’re competing with that duck food. That’s very interesting, isn’t it? I mean, just kind of the parallel.

What’s a Duck Pass?

 So a duck pass is one example would be if you have two lakes or two bodies of water that have a narrow strip of land in between them, so it sort of creates a natural funnel or flyway for the ducks, that’s what we would call a duck pass. 

Steve Knutson: Harry Converse who was making those observations on how the conditions changed on Heron Lake, worked for the club that James Ford Bell was a member of. And so about that time, 1916, when they started noticing the lake was turning, that got the interest of James Ford Bell. And so in about 1922, he hired a waterfowl biologist from Wisconsin to come in and analyze the lake and take a survey of the lake to see if they could bring it back to what it had been. And that was a big study and a big report, got a lot of interesting information in it and they actually came up with some recommendations. But already at that point, James Ford Bell had acquired other hunting areas. He had moved up into the central part of the state, up in Otter Tail county to 10 Mile Lake, where there was a famous duck pass, Whitaker Duck Pass, it was called or 10 Mile Lake Duck Pass and his group hunted there for a few years and then, as you mentioned, he moved on and also acquired land up –

Ramsey Russell: Explain Duck Pass, because that’s not a common term. You mentioned it, to me, it’s not and maybe to a lot of the listeners, a Duck Pass, because you mentioned it several times in your book. Explain what the Duck Pass is.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up, because I sort of take it for granted. I’d say it’s a common term in our area of the country, but I guess that’s probably not the case everywhere. So a duck pass is one example would be if you have two lakes or two bodies of water that have a narrow strip of land in between them, so it sort of creates a natural funnel or flyway for the ducks, that’s what we would call a duck pass. Another example would be if you’ve got a big lake and let’s say, going down the middle of the lake, you got a peninsula or a narrow strip of land that sticks out into that lake. So the ducks are going to tend to fly over that point, that’s what we would call a Duck Pass. It could be any sort of configuration similar to that, where it sort of narrows down or funnels, where the ducks are going to pass over that location. So rather than having the ducks decoy in, so they’re settling right in or hunting in that fashion. The ducks, in a lot of cases, they’re just flying over, hopefully they’re low in shooting range and it can be challenging shooting, but that’s a pretty common occurrence in our neck of the woods here. So this description of the duck path for James Ford Bell, that was 10 mile lake up in Otter Tail County, there was essentially two lakes with a very narrow strip of land in between that was maybe 10 yards wide and maybe 2000ft long between these two lakes. So the ducks are flying across this strip of land or this duck pass and that was a fantastic location. The property that James Ford Bell and his group bought on that lake, including that Duck Pass, that was a hunting location starting as early as 1881, like a year after the train came to that area and it was a hunting hotel. It was the proprietor of a big fancy hotel in St. Paul, the Park Place Hotel, bought that property in 1881, moved up there with the idea of building a hunting and a fishing resort or hotel and that’s where he chose to put that facility. And it was primarily because of that duck pass. Just a little bit of a side note there, but the guest book for that hunting hotel still exists, it’s at the local historical society. And I’ll tell you, for a duck hunter, you flip through those pages and when they were hunting in the spring or fall, spring hunting was legal for many years, a lot of times the guests would put in the number of birds they shot, what kind of birds, the species, really interesting information. And sometimes you’d see they weren’t there for a day or two, sometimes they might be there for a week, maybe they’re there for longer. But some of the amounts of birds that were taken, and again, this might have been a group rather than an individual, but you’d see numbers like 300 ducks. There’s actually one entry in there and we don’t have any way of knowing if these are all exactly factual or true, but it’s what the hunters wrote down at the time. There’s one entry that is for, I think it’s 2100 and some ducks. And so that was about, I think, 1905 or something. But anyway, there was some tremendous hunting in those areas and those were mostly diver ducks. Those were deep water lakes with these duck passes, a lot of blue bills, although they had canvasbacks, redheads, pretty much everything used that particular area.

Canvasback Market Hunting

That was the time in history that a pair of canvasbacks at elite New York or European restaurants were selling for the equivalent of $850 in today’s money.

Ramsey Russell: When you mentioned canvasbacks in the time of day, we’re talking about where these canvasbacks were so prized, there was lots of celery, they were fattening themselves on this wild celery and at the same time that these gentlemen were going out and shooting those numbers of birds and duck passing or decoying or wherever have you. That was the time in history that a pair of canvasbacks at elite New York or European restaurants were selling for the equivalent of $850 in today’s money. $850 a pair for those fatten canvasbacks, which in that era was market hunting. So there had to been some market hunting going on, as well as just these elite camps.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, exactly. And going back to Heron Lake for market hunting, probably as good example as anywhere, again, when the railroads would come to these new hunting areas, the sport hunters and the market hunters would almost immediately show up and almost immediately there would get to be some conflicts between the sport hunters and the market hunters. I always thought that sort of grew over time, but you look at these early newspaper articles and the sport hunters didn’t like the market hunters pretty much from the get go. And on Heron Lake tremendous hunting, obviously, the market hunters were trying to control the whole lake, they would try to intimidate sport hunters because it was their livelihood, they were trying to make a living that way. So there got to be a lot of conflict between the market and the sport hunters and over time, then 1901, I think, is when the state of Minnesota started passing laws against market hunting, although it didn’t stop overnight, because there was a lot of built up hunting activity, market hunting and there was a lot of challenges for the game wardens back in those days to try to enforce that. But Heron Lake, particularly, when the laws changed, that’s when these sport hunters and these wealthier businessmen from the Twin Cities area, Minneapolis, St. Paul, they became more interested in Heron Lake. And to try to get rid of that conflict, the laws helped and then when the sport hunters were there, they had private hunting clubs and they had some open clubs where anyone could go, sport hunters, you just paid your daily fees. And then there got to be competition between the different hunting clubs and the guides from the different hunting clubs, because Heron Lake didn’t have any really dry land hunting, you had to go out in the boats and hunt on the shoreline where the open water started, where the reeds ended and the open water started. So there got to be competition where these guides would go out the night before and sleep in the boat at these preferred hunting spots on the open water.

Ramsey Russell: That sounds familiar to a lot of people listening, I can tell you if you hunt public land today, but go ahead.

Steve Knutson: Yeah. So these guys with the private clubs and so forth, it got more complicated. So now, instead of competition between the market hunters and the sport hunters, there was competition between the guides from different camps. So then they came up with these agreements that said, okay, rather than this business about going out and reserving these points by sleeping in the boats, we’re going to set up an agreement where we’re going to all meet at the boat landing at a certain time and a certain chosen time, we’re going to have a timekeeper that’s going to fire his gun and then there’s a race for these guides to paddle their duck boats out to the hunting spot and the first one that got to each spot was able to reserve that area.

Market Hunting vs. Sport Hunting

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act did not happen until 1918, it had to do and it all centered around these sportsmen and market hunting conflicts. 

Ramsey Russell: Hang on a second. I want to read parts of this agreement because it blew my mind that in 1906 in the early 1900s, 1901, 5 years prior to 1906, 1901 you had a lot of stuff going on with market hunting. A state game warden wrote, Heron Lake is a favorite resort for canvasbacks who come here to feed on celery, a quartet of Heron Lake, men have been monopolizing the lake, driving other sportsmen away and intimidating or annoyance, they’re all cracked shots and had pump guns, which did awful havoc among the ducks. And in 1903, there was a bust. 1903, 4000 ducks were confiscated. Now, I asked you the question before we started recording, because I think this is important. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act did not happen until 1918, it had to do and it all centered around these sportsmen and market hunting conflicts. They began to regulate or legislate the market hunters out of business. But in 1903, they were confiscating birds and busting market hunters, why is that? That’s way before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, Minnesota was sort of ahead of the game there on some of those laws. I think it was 1901 that Minnesota put in market hunting laws where you couldn’t be sending them across state lines and things like that. So in the case of Heron Lake, in the southwest corner of the state, is real close to the Iowa border, it’s probably 10 or 15 miles away. So in that case, what those market hunters were trying to do was they had shot the birds on Heron Lake and they were trying to get them to the border of Iowa without getting caught so they could sell those birds. But again, probably because of the conflict between sport hunters and market hunters, somebody let the game wardens know about that activity and those guys were caught in the act.

Ramsey Russell: And then within a 5 year period, just a few years later, 70,000 canvasbacks or tens of thousands of canvasbacks, prize ducks sitting on these lakes, now it’s club against club, hunter against hunter. And a lot of the conflicts we see all these years later in the year 2023 and boy, I just found this so interesting, you had this agreement, this copy of this agreement here and you all got to hear this, you all listen up. We, the undersign, realizing that our shooting on Heron Lake is being practically spoiled under present methods of late afternoon, evening and early morning shooting, sleeping on the points, as well as rowing across the open lake. We agree as gentlemen to the following and further agree to use our efforts to induce other shooters to follow the same rule. Number one, that we will leave the lake and not shoot on or near the same after 2:00 in the afternoon. Second rule, we agree not to get into or start our boats from the landing until 6:00 AM. And rule number 3, we will not cross open water at any time in boats and that we, as far as possible, will travel to the rear of parties who may be shooting at the open waterline again, as gentlemen. And note, ducks will not decoy to a location where they are not allowed to feed undisturbed during afternoon and nights. Mud hen shooting and long range wild shots cost the other fellas many a good duck, cut it out. Leave the birds alone afternoons and nights and twice as many people will each get twice as many birds as they otherwise would. Be it said to credit those solicited to signs the above agreement that not one refused when asked. 1906, these guys are getting together to increase the quality of hunting on Heron Lake, that’s just astounding to me. And you were telling me that a lot of the people that signed it were former market hunters.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, a lot of those names and there’s a bunch of them there. A lot of those names, at the time of the signing, they were hunting guides, but just a few years before, they were market hunters.

What was the Most Prestigious Duck Camp in Minnesota?

Maybe the most prestigious or one of the most prestigious for sure, would be the Long Meadow Gun Club…

Ramsey Russell: Talking about duck camps, what is the most prestigious duck camp? What would you say was the most prestigious duck camp in your research?

Steve Knutson: Well, it might be hard to narrow it down to one, but I’ll just mention some that come to mind, it’s prestigious as well as maybe the most interesting. Maybe the most prestigious or one of the most prestigious for sure, would be the Long Meadow Gun Club, which started in 1883 and one of the things that, at the time, the Twin Cities metro Minneapolis, St. Paul didn’t have a tremendous population like it does today. But one thing that I find pretty interesting is the Long Meadow Gun Club, the location of that, it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s a refuge at that location now on the Minnesota River. But the Long Meadow Gun Club would have been located less than a mile from the current mall of America Shopping Center, which is a huge shopping complex and it seems like it’s right in the middle of the city now. But back in those days, that was 15 miles maybe from the downtown areas, Minneapolis, St. Paul. So it was out in the sort of, so to say, boondocks at the time and they had a fantastic clubhouse up on a hill that looked over long Meadow Lake and tremendous hunting area. And anybody that was probably an avid duck hunter, that was sort of in the who’s who of businessmen of the day of Minneapolis and St. Paul was a member of that club. So that would certainly be one of the most prestigious. And I think maybe their clubhouse may have been the most prestigious looking clubhouse over time in Minnesota, even some of the modern day ones would be hard to match that. Another one that I would say was prestigious in the point of the members that they had is a club called the Rice Lake Syndicate.

Ramsey Russell: Rice Lake Syndicate.

Steve Knutson: And that’s a group, it got its start on Heron Lake because Heron Lake is where a lot of these sort of prominent hunters and early prestigious camps are located. But that group got its start on Heron Lake probably, I think, 1906. And it was called the Ho Camdi Gun Club. Ho Camdi was a native name for – the lake had a lot of Herons, obviously from the name Heron Lake and that was a native definition of Heron Lake. But Ho Camdi Gun Club was the start of that. And again, when Heron Lake started to slow down in its hunting the group that had that camp started looking elsewhere in the state for hunting. And we talked about Louis Hill earlier, President of the Great Northern Railroad, had his own private rail car, he was a charter member of that in 1906, that gun club on Heron Lake. Well, they started looking for other hunting places, they ended up in central Minnesota, north central, I guess, up in an area called Becker county. And today where that camp ended up is Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, it’s a refuge of, I think, 35,000 acres. But at the time, of course, it was not a refuge and they started a hunting camp up there on a lake called Rice Lake. And so they named their group the Rice Lake Syndicate. And the Rice Lake Syndicate was probably was made up of all kinds of prominent and some of the wealthiest men in Minnesota, but they were also probably the most secretive and under the radar group maybe in the state too, as far as hunting clubs, they didn’t want their activities to be very well known. So they were an interesting group, it was extremely difficult to track down that hunting camp, I spent a long time on that, maybe that’s one reason I think it’s interesting. But they had multiple presidents of railroads at the time, it was a lot of bank presidents, they had a titanic survivor, was a member, the first pilot in Minnesota was a member, there was a World War I fighter pilot for the French Air Force, was a member. Just a lot of interesting folks over the years. And they actually controlled entire lakes up in that north central area around Rice Lake. They had several lakes and other kinds of hunting that they controlled, they took their privacy pretty seriously. There was a river that ran through some of the lakes, they actually had armed guards where the river passed into their property. There was actually a court case, once they acquired a lot of this property, they closed down a county road that provided access into the hunting area and the county sued them and that lawsuit went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which I thought it was kind of interesting that a duck hunting case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Ramsey Russell: Heck, yeah.

Steve Knutson: That was just part of the activity that went on there. In 1935, the Fish & Wildlife Service got permission to form a refuge that would include the Rice Lake Syndicate duck hunting camp, as well as several other real prominent hunting clubs up in that area. And needless to say, none of those camps wanted to give up those great hunting spots that they had found and built up. So they had the wherewithal and probably political connections. Oh, yeah. One of their members was the president of the American Bar Association, too.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, they had connections. Yeah. It ain’t what you know, it’s what you got is who you know.

Steve Knutson: That’s exactly right. So, long story short on that, the refuge started acquiring land in 1935 and the Rice Lake Syndicate and some of these other hunting camps, they were able to hold off the federal government for about 30 years until the 1960s, before they eventually sold off their property.

Unique Duck Camps

The Railroad Gun Club was unique because they didn’t have any of that, they just went in the railroad cars and went to wherever the good hunting was anywhere in the state. 

Ramsey Russell: What a story. Now, here’s another question. What’s one of the most unusual or unique duck camps you stumbled across in your research?

Steve Knutson: I’ll say the one that comes to mind, maybe I’ll think of another one. We talked a little bit, I think, about the Railroad Gun Club, but that was unique in the sense that almost all other hunting camps, they had a physical location, they had a duck pass or they had a lake or they had property on a lake and they went out in boats and hunted that lake, that was pretty much universal. The Railroad Gun Club was unique because they didn’t have any of that, they just went in the railroad cars and went to wherever the good hunting was anywhere in the state. There’s a picture in the book, it’s pretty much a classic that the Railroad Gun Club, this was 1885 I’m pretty sure, they went on a hunting trip to western Minnesota, and there’s an area on the border with South Dakota and Minnesota called Lake Traverse and Mud Lake is another part of that watershed. And that was a fantastic duck hunting area. Again, when the railroads opened up access to that in the 1880s and this group hunted that area quite a bit, they went out to western Minnesota to the border waters and even into Dakota territory. And in 1885, there’s this picture of the Railroad Gun Club returning from that trip and it’s a railroad car where they have attached all of their bag limit. They’ve got all their ducks, all their geese essentially nailed up on this box car.

Ramsey Russell: I don’t think there were limits that would have been 1885, that don’t look like bag limit.

Steve Knutson: Limit is the long term, you’re correct. This is what they got on their hunting trip. And the side of the car is covered with birds and there’s piles of birds in the front of it. I mean, it’s a big hunting group, but it’s the Railroad Gun Club, it’s kind of interesting, it looks to me like they’ve got a buffalo skull attached to the side of the weathered buffalo skull attached to the side of the train car as well. But there were 634 ducks and 250 geese, I think and lots of other miscellaneous game. But that was the Railroad Gun Club and that was unique and unusual. And like I say, they didn’t have a particular hunting spot, they just hopped in the railroad car and went to where the best hunting action was.

Ramsey Russell: One of the most interesting club names I stumbled across reviewing this book is I Wonder. And I read the whole chapter trying to figure out, because I wondered how to come up with that name. Any ideas or guesses on where, I Wonder Duck Club, where the name came from?

Steve Knutson: I agree with you, that is an entertaining name. What’s interesting about that, that’s in the same area we were just talking about where the Railroad Gun Club went. Camp, I Wonder, is on the Minnesota- South Dakota border, it’s on Lake Traverse, although that particular part of Lake Traverse is referred to as Mud Lake now. But yeah, that article was extremely interesting because it was from a logbook that that hunting camp kept starting about 1900. And that’s a newspaper article that gives a lot of information about what hunting was like in those early years, how hard it was to get from Minneapolis to the western border and the adventures when they started coming by automobile because the roads weren’t any good and they drove on fence lines because the roads were out and the conditions that they had, it’s a great article, but you’re right, that is an unusual name. Camp I wonder, I cannot figure out how they came up with that name, I didn’t come across that information.

Ramsey Russell: You kind of got into your interest in researching Minnesota duck camps because you started off researching decoys and it circles back. Minnesota had obviously a very profound and powerful duck hunting history. And it’s really kind of far reaching. I mean, we talked about John Ford Bell and his connection to Delta Waterfowl and Delta Marsh and he’s also got a connection to the decoys. A lot of the decoys I’ve seen in parts of Illinois, also up in Delta Marsh, originated from Minnesota and I think a lot of it had to do with John Ford Bell. I don’t know if he brought the decoy from Canada to Minnesota or the decoy influence from Minnesota spread into Manitoba. Do you know?

Steve Knutson: Yeah, I think the best information we have on that is James Ford Bell had the Heron Lake Lodge Hunting Club on Heron Lake and the style of the decoy you’re talking about is sort of originated on Heron Lake. The early decoy carvers on that lake came up with that design, it’s pretty unique design, it’s sort of a humpback body, it’s got a large, prominent, sometimes referred to as a horse head because the head on it sticks up pretty prominently, so it stands out really good on the water. And then it’s got a real deep, heavy keel, so it rides nice in the waters on a big lake like Heron Lake.

Ramsey Russell: That’s the name of the decoy style, the Ducharme decoy.

Steve Knutson: Yeah. And the Ducharme name probably got attached sort of later in the life of those decoys because James Ford Bell had that style of decoy. I think the common belief is that he used an existing decoy style on Heron Lake and because he was the CEO of a big company, he had his woodworking crew or somebody put together a lot of decoys using that as sort of a design. And so they used those decoys on Heron Lake and then when he moved up to Delta Marsh in Manitoba, he brought that design with him. And I think some question on whether he actually physically brought a bunch of decoys or if there were duty issues or import issues at the time and he brought the design. But there was a family up in the Delta Marsh area called the Ducharme Family and apparently he had them create more of these decoys by whatever method they first got up there using that same style with real, you’ve seen them, it’s a real distinctive style with sort of the humpback and the deep keels and really kind of cool looking head on it. So there’s a path from Heron Lake up through Minnesota into the Delta marsh with that Ducharme style James Ford Bell Duck decoy design, it’s a pretty cool design, one of my favorites.

Ramsey Russell: To see them ride on water, a buddy of mine up in Manitoba carves them and to see those birds sitting on water, I don’t believe there’s ever been a better canvasback design ever. Just to see those things riding the water is amazing.

Steve Knutson: Yeah. Even those same designs, I keep mentioning Lake Christina because it was a real prominent hunting area, but we ran into some of that same design up on Lake Christina at a hunting camp, a farm family ran a hunting club for 80 years, I think and the original farmer that started that, he had a set of decoys that looked just like those Heron Lake decoys that probably came from Heron Lake originally. And those were his favorite decoys at this hunting camp because they had big waters that they hunted on, could be rough conditions. And this old farmer that ran the camp said, those are the best decoys for riding in the big water.

Ramsey Russell: Steve, if you had a time machine and could go back, having done this extensive research, if you could go back in time, what club would you choose to be a member of?

Steve Knutson: I think, boy, that’s a great question.

Ramsey Russell: Because I’m leaning towards the Railroad Gun Club myself, that just sounds like my cup of tea. Traveling around and hitting some new areas and finding buffalo skulls, I think I’d enjoy that.

Steve Knutson: Yeah, I would have to agree with you. I would put that and the Rice Lake Syndicate just because of the people involved with that one.

Ramsey Russell: Can you imagine the dinner conversations they had at the Rice Lake Syndicate?

Steve Knutson: Oh, yeah, that’s absolutely correct. There was another one that are sort of speculating. There was another camp that was a gentleman named Truman Ingersoll had. He was a photographer in St. Paul in the 1800s and he traveled the world taking pictures. He was in the far east, he took pictures of the Japanese Russian war and he was in the Mideast and all over. He was in Yellowstone National park in the late 1800s. Anyway, he was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and he was a friend of Eastman that developed the Kodak cameras and things like that. He was an interesting character, he would have been another person to go to his camp and visit with him just for the people he knew would have been another interesting character. But there were really a lot of examples like that, some really interesting.

Where to Find Minnesota Duck Camps

Ramsey Russell: Folks, will you tell everybody, Steve, how to get this magnificent book? Where can listeners find this book?

Steve Knutson: Well, yeah, we’re working on a website, but that isn’t quite ready to go yet. So the two easiest ways to do it would be to email me and I can send them an ordering form and information or in how to contact me directly. That email would be or my Facebook page is Minnesota Duck Camps.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I’ll be sure to post those both to the details for this episode, folks can look below the description and find it if they need to get in touch with you. I tell you what, I’ve enjoyed meeting with you a couple of times, I’ve enjoyed going through your book, I look forward to sitting down and reading more of it. It’s an amazing, I love to step back in time, I love to see what it was like 150 years ago in this great country. And thank you so much for coming on to Duck Season Somewhere and telling us some good stories.

Steve Knutson: Well, thank you for having me. It was great talking with you, Ramsay.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere where we’ve been talking to Steve Knutson, author of Minnesota Duck Camps, 160 years of history and tradition. And buddy, I’m going to tell you what, it’s over 700 pages long. It’s a big book, it’s a great book. See you next time.


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