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McFeely blog: Remembering Harold Duebbert: Passionate biologist, waterfowl hunter and author

Fergus Falls man died last week at 92; wrote a book detailing duck hunting in the Dakotas in the good old days

Harold Duebbert.jpg
<b>Harold Duebbert, an avid 74-year-old outdoorsman from Fergus Falls, Minn., holds a canvasback duck decoy that he carved.</b>
Mike McFeely / The Forum

I spotted an obituary in The Forum last week that both made me sad and triggered a wonderful memory.

Harold F. Duebbert, 92, of Fergus Falls, Minn., passed away. The name immediately made me dive into the obituary because I recognized it from an article I wrote many years and from a book that still graces my shelf at home.

Harold was an avid outdoorsman who was a longtime waterfowl biologist in North Dakota before retiring to Minnesota. He also carved decoys and gave them away to friends and family members. He also hunted, fished, hiked, bird watched, canoed and did many other things outdoorsmen in the Upper Midwest like to do.

I wrote about Harold in 2003, after visiting his home in Fergus Falls, because he authored a book called "Wildfowling in the Dakotas: 1873-1903." It was a collection of articles from old magazines — "sporting journals" in the lexicon of the time — that illustrated the heyday of waterfowl hunting in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

The book, for those who like to dream about a time when clouds of ducks filled the skies and cell phones and GPS didn't exist, is a wonderful trip into the old days. I still have the copy Harold gave me. A quick search showed "Wildfowling in the Dakotas: 1873-1903" is still available through Amazon and some secondary book sites.


Harold's obituary indicated he wrote another book that will be coming out posthumously. I look forward to reading it. Here is the feature story I wrote on Harold back in 2003.

Article originally appeared in the Nov. 23, 2003, edition of The Forum.

Harold Duebbert.jpg
<b>Harold Duebbert, an avid 74-year-old outdoorsman from Fergus Falls, Minn., holds a canvasback duck decoy that he carved.</b>
Mike McFeely / The Forum

Hunting romanticist

Retired biologist chronicles history of waterfowl hunting

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 says. "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 acknowledgement 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.

Hunting for history

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."


Wildfowling in Dakota pic.jpg
Mike McFeely / The Forum

Duebbert spent months traveling from Fergus Falls to the Minneapolis Public Library, which included the old publications in its collection. He would often 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.

Close to home

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 he fell in love with the lakes and marshes of Stutsman and Kidder counties.

Even after retiring in 1987, Duebbert has maintained his hunting camp in Kidder County, returning there every autumn to hunt his favorite sloughs.

So after reading more of Leffingwell's stories, Duebbert learned he had even more reason to love the writer. Leffingwell, it so happened, hunted the same area in which Duebbert pursued waterfowl for so many years — albeit a century earlier.


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<b>Some of the decoys Harold Duebbert is working on line his workbench.</b>
Mike McFeely / The Forum

"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 to someday turn his personal writings into a book, to actually 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."


We started, and as we neared a field we saw a sight which will long be remembered. A field occupied by hundreds and thousands of snow geese. We were attracted to them first by their cries, and then we saw them like ridges of snow. When some big flock would hover around them and then settle down, the shrill cries of all could be heard for miles. They utter a peculiar cry, similar in tone to a crowd of men wildly yelling at some political gathering, or sounding more like cheers, when the listener hears the cheers of a vast multitude of people at a ball game when a home run is made. Again, when they arose the noise was perfectly deafening, and shrill cries from thousands of throats sounded like a strong wind whistling through wires, only a thousand times louder. — William B. Leffingwell, Wanderings in Dakota No. 5 (1893)

I am sorry I cannot share Mr. Leffingwell’s enthusiasm regarding a permanent residence in Dakota. I have “been there” and prefer not “taking any in mine.” Although it is true that a part of the year, say from the beginning of September until the advent of cold weather, it may well be looked upon as an earthly paradise, yet from the beginning of Winter until the disappearance thereof, that country presents climatic conditions which are quite otherwise. The swelling and bursting of trees of the forest from the effects of the fearful cold, producing sharp reports similar to those of revolvers during cavalry action, and the terrific blizzards, making it dangerous for one to venture out of sight of his house, are some of the Winter attractions of that clime which, I ween, will not be much sought after by ordinary folks.A. Wall, M.D Game in Dakota in Olden Times (1894)

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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