Biologist chronicles history of waterfowl hunting

Harold Duebbert's passion for the past comes out in his volume on the glory years of hunting in the Dakotas

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - Harold Duebbert does not stop at loving history. He lives it. He still hunts ducks out of a boat he made 40 years ago. He shoots a 1912 L.C. Smith Model 12 shotgun. The decoys over which he shoots ducks were carved by his own hands. He prefers old-style tan waterfowl hunting jackets and caps to the modern computer-generated camouflage prints.

The bookshelves in Duebbert's home are lined with vintage volumes that date back a century or more.

When outdoors television personality Tony Dean dedicated a segment of his show to the retired waterfowl biologist a few years back, he fondly called Duebbert a "traditionalist" and a "romanticist."

Those are descriptions the 74-year-old proudly embraces.

"I like old things," Duebbert said. "I have a passion for history. I am fascinated by what happened before we were here."

That zeal was the engine behind Duebbert's most recent acknowledgment to the way things used to be, a book titled "Wildfowling in Dakota: 1873-1903."

A collection of articles from The American Field and Forest and Stream, sporting journals of the 1800s, the book paints a fascinating picture of the glory years of waterfowl hunting in Dakota Territory - what was to become North Dakota - and western Minnesota.

A rapacious reader since his childhood in Missouri, one of Duebbert's favorite writers was William B. Leffingwell. An Iowa hunter who traveled often to Dakota, Leffingwell authored several books in the 1880s and '90s. Duebbert obtained copies of two of the books - "Wild Fowl Shooting" and "The Art of Wing Shooting" - from a favorite great uncle.

For more than 30 years, however, Duebbert searched in vain for another of Leffingwell's titles - "Wanderings in Dakota." Duebbert asked antique book dealers, searched countless used bookstores and even queried the Library of Congress in search of Leffingwell's lost writings.

It wasn't until several years ago, when Duebbert was paging through an 1892 edition of The American Field, that he stumbled across an announcement of a series of articles written by Leffingwell collectively titled "Wanderings in Dakota."

It turned out "Wanderings" was a series of five articles in 1892 and '93 chronicling Leffingwell's hunting exploits in Dakota Territory.

"It was kind of like hunting. I was flipping through these old magazines, not knowing what was going to be in there," Duebbert said. "And then finding what I was looking for was just like making a good shot. I felt the same satisfaction."

Duebbert spent months traveling from Fergus Falls to the Minneapolis Public Library, which included the old publications in its collection. He often would spend 12-hour days paging through copies of Forest and Stream and The American Field. He figured he looked through 3,200 copies of the two magazines, about 30 years' worth.

He discovered that Leffingwell wasn't the only writer who ventured to Dakota Territory in pursuit of game. There were dozens of articles extolling the virtues of Dakota hunting.

And he found out the articles interested others beside himself. After showing copies of the articles to friends, they expressed a similar interest.

"They said, 'You should put these in a book,' " Duebbert said. "Couple that with the fact that some of these publications were 130 years old, getting very brittle and probably wouldn't be available for public viewing for much longer, and I thought this is a piece of history that should be recorded."

The articles long since became public domain and Duebbert decided to collect them in book form, with personal comments sprinkled throughout.

Duebbert spent much of a distinguished three-decade career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service living in Jamestown, N.D. It was there that Leffingwell, it so happened, hunted the same area in which Duebbert pursued waterfowl for so many years albeit a century earlier.

"My favorite article is 'The Plateau du Coteau du Missouri' because it places Leffingwell right smack in the middle of marshes I've hunted for 30 years," Duebbert said. "That just blew me away when I read it."

Duebbert has recorded all of his hunts in diaries. He hopes someday to turn his personal writings into a book, to turn his life into history.

"We live history every day and I think we sometimes fail to realize that. Someday maybe people will look back at my 45 years of hunting in North Dakota with awe, the same way we look back at these old stories with awe," Duebbert said. "We need to have a keen sense of history, an appreciation of history. Waterfowling history is just an extension of that."

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