BY GABE LICHT
LORETTO, MN Duck-hunting season is Art Thole’s favorite time of the year.
What makes it even better for the 94-year-old Loretto man is that his son, grandson, and great-grandson have all joined in his pastime.
“It means I did my job,” Thole said. “It makes me so happy to see those guys get so enthused about hunting.”
Thole started hunting in 1938, when he was in high school.
“One of my buddies said his grandpa wanted him to duck hunt, so the four of us got together,” Thole said.
They went to a slough near Zimmerman that is now Lake Fremont.
“I walked to the middle of the slough with waterproof boots on,” Thole said. “The swamp was loaded with birds. Ducks started flying when they started shooting. All of us shot a box of shells and didn’t hit one, except for our friend Hank. He was using my brother’s 410 single-shot. Hank raised it up and shot, and it folded.”
That started a tradition for Thole and his friends.
“My brother-in-law Pete got into the act,” Thole said. “He, Hank, and I started going every year, mostly by Green Isle at Washington Lake. There’s a big access for hunters. We’d get up at 3 a.m. to get the best spot. Otherwise, the locals would beat us. The center of the lake was the best spot. You’d hear the wings all of a sudden.”
Thole’s hunting career has had its share of scary moments.
Shortly after he started hunting, he was shot by his own gun.
The incident happened while hunting ducks near Belview in southeastern Minnesota.
“I had an old hammer gun,” Thole said. “I had found out two weeks before, while hunting rabbits, that if you bump the hammer, it would fire. I said, ‘I gotta get rid of this gun.’”
Despite his concerns, Thole kept using the gun. After rowing his boat across a slough, he got out and left his gun lying on the floor of the boat.
“It started to slide while it was pointed my way,” Thole said. “I pushed the boat away. The gun slid and shot one time. It hit me in the side. It had taken skin off my hip. The doctor said six pellets went in me. It missed my appendix by half an inch.”
Thole went to the doctor later, and was given a double tetanus shot.
He learned his lesson.
“I got good guns after that,” Thole said.
Another mishap was more humorous than it was dangerous.
“One time at Bell Lake, Pete had to sit on the front of the boat with his feet in the water,” Thole said. “He got too excited and tipped the boat over. He was on his tip-toes holding the gun up, with water up to his neck. I was using shell boxes to dip the water out. He hung his clothes on the bushes, and was shooting ducks from the shore.”
Thole said he was happy the farmer who owned the property didn’t stop to see how they were doing that day.
That wasn’t the only time he and Pete had bad luck at Bell Lake near Hutchinson.
“The wind was blowing in on us,” Thole said. “The decoys blew in within 15 minutes. The bluebills tried to land. We weren’t hitting them well. The farmer said, ‘What’s wrong? I hear shooting. You should be done.’ I gave him a gun. He shot six times and didn’t hit a duck.”
In addition to hunting with Pete, Thole enjoyed hunting with his kids and wife Susan.
“Hunting was my sons’ thing from the moment they took the gun test,” Thole said.
Susan enjoyed hunting, too, but she did it on her terms.
“She was a very good shot,” Thole said. “But, if other hunters were ever there, she didn’t want to ‘spoil it’ for them. I said, ‘That’s the point.’”
Thole still remembers the first time Susan hunted with him.
“She wanted to hunt,” Thole said. “She hadn’t shot a gun before. She shot it, and it dropped 10 feet from her. She said, ‘Did you shoot?’ I said, ‘I watched you shoot, and it was an excellent shot.’ My wife was small, but she shot the same gun I did.”
Initially, Susan wasn’t a fan of the taste of duck, but she learned to like it.
Now, Thole hunts with his son Art Jr., grandson Chris, and great-grandson Zach.
The four-generation group traveled to Ashley, ND twice this season.
“We came back a day early because we had 68 ducks,” Thole said of the first trip.
To start that trip, he and Art Jr. drove 140 miles looking for ducks.
“A third to a half of the sloughs were dry,” Thole said. “We knew they’d be concentrated somewhere. Everyone else came up at night, and we told them where to go.”
Before noon, the group had shot 30 ducks.
They finished the trip with 32 more from that slough, plus six more they found while driving around.
Before the first trip, Thole wasn’t sure he’d be able to go, but he was assured he’d still be able to hunt.
“The guys said, ‘We’ll get you out to the blind,’” Thole said. “If the grass is too long, I’ll hook my foot and fall. Zachary and his buddy, one on each side, pick me up and take me to the duck blind. I had a chair with arm rests.”
He had pretty good luck.
“I shot the biggest Mallard,” Thole said. “My son and grandson were on the left. I figured where they’d shoot and shot a little ahead of them. Each of them thought the other shot, but I got it. I think I got four. When you shoot and it folds, you think it’s you, but that’s not always true.”
His second trip didn’t go as well. Not only did the group only shoot about 25 ducks, but he also hurt himself, as he tripped and fell into a vehicle, bruising his ribs.
But, that doesn’t keep him inside, and he’s hoping to keep hunting even when he’s 95.
Whether he’s done hunting or not, he has instilled a love for hunting into younger generations and he is confident the legacy of duck hunters in his family will continue.
“There will be more hunters,” he said.