TOWN OF EAST TROY, Wis. -- The sky holds no secrets on this particular morning, even at oh-dark-thirty.
The celestial stage is dominated by a crescent moon in the east and the million white dots of the Milky Way overhead.
The stars, it must be said, are present and accounted for.
But here on the ground in northeastern Walworth County, Sally's Marsh is playing a game of "now you see me, now you don't."
The mercury overnight dropped into the 30s, leaving frost on windshields and pumpkins.
The water in this fertile wetland, though, still holds the warmth of recent sunny days.
As Mother Nature works to settle the difference, the marsh sends up great plumes of steam.
Dale Arenz of Delafield points the bow of his weathered duck skiff into the opaque netherworld and looks for glimpses of the familiar.
"There's that snag," Arenz says as we glide past a fallen tree. "We're on the right course."
Arenz dips his oars in the water and we push on.
The value of even the best GPS unit pales in comparison to the knowledge my hunting partner carries in his head.
"Not unusual here, this fog," Arenz says. "We'll actually be grateful for it this first hour or so before the sun takes over."
It's Day 3 of the 2010 Wisconsin southern zone duck hunting season. We have met to try our luck on Sally's Marsh, a 220-acre property owned by Arenz and five partners.
The spring-fed wetland covers about 120 acres; it's named for the previous owner.
The water eventually flows into Honey Creek and the Fox River.
At 6 a.m. we have traveled about 500 yards from the launch, through stumps and past grassy high ground and nosed the skiff into a point of cattails.
Painted on the hull of the skiff is "The Old Duck Hunter."
It's part personal affirmation, part homage to the fiction of Gordon MacQuarrie, outdoors writer extraordinaire of the early to mid-1900s, whose works included "Stories of the Old Duck Hunters."
Arenz, 76, pushes hard on the oars to drive the skiff deeper into cover. The cattails yield.
"We believe in muscle bending," Arenz says of his "old-school" duck hunting partners. "It's how I stay in shape."
We toss out three Canada goose decoys and a quartet of mallard blocks. Then it's time to wait, watch and listen until the clock, or the light, allows for hunting.
Wings whistle past in the dark. Somewhere in the distance, a hen mallard quacks and wood ducks talk.
Arenz and I sit back, breath in the rich marsh air and strike up a conversation of our own.
A native of North Prairie in Waukesha County, Arenz was drawn to waterfowl hunting from an early age.
He remembers stopping at a barber shop almost daily after he'd finished his newspaper delivery route.
The barber had tables full of sporting magazines; the young Arenz would pore over every article in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and other outdoor periodicals.
If his mother asked where he'd been, he'd tell her that's how long it took him to deliver the papers.
He used his bicycle for more than deliveries. At a young age, he would throw his father's side-by-side 12-gauge over his shoulder and pedal to Eagle Marsh in western Waukesha County to hunt waterfowl.
The hunts would rarely turn out like the tales in the magazines.
"If I was lucky, I'd bring a duck home," Arenz recalls.
But the fire within the young waterfowler was well lit. For a time, Arenz thought about becoming a writer, not in small part because of his love of outdoor literature. But he decided a law career offered better financial prospects.
He took a hiatus from hunting while focusing on his law studies and establishing a practice.
In 1984, an opportunity to purchase Sally's Marsh presented itself. Arenz assembled partners and bought 220 acres of muck or paradise, take your pick.
"Some think I'm nuts," Arenz says. "But this is the best investment of my life, all the enjoyable memories I've had out here."
Arenz also made an investment in wetland conservation beyond the marsh. He served as president of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association for eight years, most recently in 2009, and has been on its board of directors for 15 years.
"I love the work the group does," Arenz says. "Wetlands are so beneficial."
Sally's is managed for a wide range of wildlife. It features 52 wood duck houses and eight mallard nest platforms, but the dryer ground is also planted with high bush cranberries and shag bark hickories. A plot of corn is also planted.
Each year, the marsh is home to herons, egrets, grebes and bitterns as well as dozens of aquatic species, says Arenz.
About 6:30, the veil has partially lifted, exposing nearby points and allowing us to see streaking birds.
A group of green-winged teal banks hard to our east, out of range.
Gradually, more birds eye our spread. Over the next half hour, we have three shooting opportunities, resulting in an adult hen gadwall and an immature drake wood duck.
By 7:30, the sun has burned off the fog; Sally's surface is a bright mirror.
Now it's the marsh and its hunters that are fully exposed. The ducks loll in distant portions of the wetland and stop flying.
One bird does pay us a visit, though. A marsh wren flits around the skiff, working for its breakfast.
"They're good company," Arenz says.
About 8 a.m., we decide to head in. Arenz again works the oars, and we pick up the decoys.
"Great sunrise, wasn't it?" Arenz says. "For me, duck hunting is about the ambience, and the marsh delivers in so many ways."