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The legend of Libby Bay: dreams of heavy straps of divers lead to a morning spent retracing the footsteps of fabled duck man Gordon MacQuarrie.

"Out the back door, down the steep hill to the sheltered bay of the big lake, through the final fringe of willows on the shore and there, in the last of the waning tight, we saw them. Great rafts of bluebills and redheads resting on the leaded swells like flotillas."

-- The Bluebills Died At Dawn (1937)

THE LAKESIDE CABIN USED BY Gordon MacQuarrie and the President of the Old Duck Hunters Association is a shrine to many waterfowlers, and the same could be said of Libby Bay and the Hole-in-the-Wall, at the far side of the lake. On this day, we were following in the footsteps of the Old Duck Hunters, where many of Mac's time-honored stories originated decades ago. Disciples of MacQuarrie, we were on hallowed ground.

"I know where three lakes of north Wisconsin blue challenge the monotonous march of jack-pine and scrub-oak over the left-hand corner of the state ... less than two hundred yards separates one from the other ... they stretch east and west ... the one in the middle is the smallest but deepest."

-- Bluebill Day (1932)

A late afternoon sun broke through a gash in the overcast sky, painting the sere north woods the color of new honey. Standing in front of the cabin overlooking Wisconsin's Middle Eau Claire Lake, it wasn't hard to visualize MacQuarrie and the President. In the soft light, we could see them pull their old boat to shore, ready for the next morning's hunt. Along with bags of wooden decoys and live decoys, Lena and Tina would be secured before they picked their way up the hillside trail. If they were carrying ducks, they'd be late-season bluebills, fresh from the north. Maybe a drake mallard too, for "color" as the President called it.

The cabin still looked much like it did long ago. Vertical, yellowing pine logs cover the one-story structure. The old duck club has withstood the test of time as well as Mac's literature--even the old fieldstone fireplace remains. It doesn't take much imagination to see the President seated in front of it, nursing a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal before the hunt.

While the cabin site remains much the same, the rest of Middle Eau Claire Lake--in fact most lakes in northern Wisconsin--has changed dramatically. Rustic cabins such as MacQuarrie's are rare these days. Four-season "cabins" as the owners call them, with a footprint several times the size of Mac's have taken their place. Rustic wooden duck boats with battered and unreliable motors are no more, replaced with inflatable rafts and jet skis.

Regardless of these changes, early November finds the lake quiet, other than a few fall fishermen. Personal watercrafts and pontoon boats are distant summer memories, and snowmobiles speeding passed ice fishing shacks are still weeks away. And as waterfowlers, we planned to make the most of the lull. This was our time.

"The true devotee of the wind-swept waters hunts many other things besides ducks. He hunts the unfolding secrets of the dawn and the message of the wind. He hunts the curling waves and the tossing tops of suppliant trees. He hunts the poignant loneliness of a tender, departing season and the boisterous advent of one more rigorous."

-- A Pothole Rendezvous (1936)

Unlike in MacQuarrie's day, most of the lakeshore is now private. But, there still is public access. In fact, the state-owned boat landing is on infamous Libby Bay. Now all we needed was permission from a gracious landowner and a few flocks of divers.

We had done our homework, and knew exactly where we wanted to go; our destination was the point on the north end of Libby Bay where Mac and the President spent so many late fall days.

The owner of the property was a duck hunter himself and understood what we were really hunting for. He also understood that what a piece of paper says regarding ownership, was, in the long run, a temporary arrangement. Bless his soul, after pleading our case, he gave us the green light to hunt his point.

"Once a year, at least, I ought to make Libby Bay. There are places that shouldn't be passed up. The Hole-in-the-Wall is a quarter-mile long bay, oblong off Libby Bay to the west. A good quarter-inch of ice had formed over it in the night, though larger Libby Bay was ice-free. The blind was on a short, blunt point at the place where the Hole-in-the-Wall ended and Libby Bay began."

-- Make Mine Bluebills (1940)

Morning found us launching from a Ma and Pa resort not far from Mac's old cabin. A redneck rendezvous was what someone called it. Temperatures were warm and the lake calm when we began the mile run south to Libby Bay under a starless sky. Although this wasn't going to be a classic MacQuarrie day, we relished making the same run he did so many decades ago. We tried, unsuccessfully, I might add, to avoid the rock bar that Mac always detoured around. Fortunately we were going slowly, so the grinding of the motor into the rocky bottom didn't cause any damage, but we couldn't help glancing at each other with knowin: smiles.

Pulling onto the point, we unloaded our gear into the blind that had been there for generations, and then walked out into the gin clear water and hard bottom of the sandbar in front of us. Using our headlamps, it didn't take long to place four-dozen bluebill decoys. Unwrapping the last one near the edge of the shallow sandbar where the dark and seemingly bottomless deep water began, I saw something out of place. Just like a crow drawn to a shiny bauble, I reached into the frigid water and picked up the toothy jawbone from a musky big enough to make me blanch.

I dropped it in my pocket to be examined another day. We were thinking ducks, not fish, preferably bluebills and lots of them.

"One of the barrels was a large spic-and-span oil drum ... the other was an obese hogshead which had once served as a pickle barrel. I have hated dill pickles ever since; so now you know who drew the pickle barrel."

-- The Little Flight (1940)

The blind itself is located at the end of a 30-yard point with Libby Bay to the left and across from the Hole-in-the-Wall. Surrounded by alders and other natural vegetation, it provides better concealment than some we've huddled in on other wind-swept points in northwest Wisconsin. The owner of the point told us when he bought the property years ago, he removed the remnants of the old pickle barrels Mac and company used in those bygone days. While digging them out, they also found other relics of the past. Old high-brass paper shotgun shell casings lay in the bottom of the hole, shells used by the Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc.

But now it was our turn. Huddled in the blind at the north end of Libby Bay, looking across the water to the Hole-in-the-Wall, we felt our pilgrimage was now complete. The calm, flat water didn't bode well for a successful diver hunt, but so what. We weren't only in MacQuarrie country; we were literally standing in his boot rims.

Maybe that's why we were so surprised when the quiet morning was torn open by, as Mac called it, "the ripping of fine silk." It was a big flock of bluebills, the size that don't normally decoy into your spread. And so it was with this flock of nearly 100 birds. Three times they buzzed our decoys sitting motionless in the calm water, always a little out of range. After they moved on, we wondered aloud if we should have taken the shot on the last pass, but knew watching the birds as they wheeled over Libby Bay was a reward in itself,

Numbers were not the goal on this hunt, like Mac and the President, but we weren't going to pass up any good opportunities either. No one saw the single until he was committed. With feet down and outstretched wings, his landing was interrupted by a charge of steel shot from my more attentive partner. Wanting to soak up the entire experience, we watched the drake bluebill floating in the decoys longer than we normally would have, relishing our moment with Mac.

"Off to his right from the point lay the Hole-in-the-Wall, a quarter-mile reach of water lying against the larger bay like a remora on a shark. It provided maneuvering room for incoming ducks."

-- Man, Tired 1943

After picking up our spread, we motored over to the Hole-in-the-Wall, not far to the west on the other side of Libby Bay. The oblong shaped bay was a favorite of MacQuarrie's, since it "provided maneuvering room for incoming ducks." Drifting in front of the blunt point at the head of the bay, it was obvious there would be no more duck hunting here. The bay was completely developed now, with a shopping list of water toys and accessories secured for the season, replacing the jack pine and scrub oaks of days gone by.

We motored back across Libby to the landing with a small bag. Most wouldn't consider our light straps a success, but we had been hunting waterfowl history more than ducks that day. And in that regard, we limited out.
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Author:Zeug, David
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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