Upper Mississippi River Revisited

The author returns to the big river to hunt ducks on the anniversary of the Armistice Day Storm

By Gary Koehler

 There is much to be said about timing, both good and bad. That's why I have one eye on the calendar and an ear tuned to the weather forecast. This is, after all, the eve of the 72nd anniversary of the infamous Armistice Day Storm, the deadliest single weather event in history in terms of duck hunters lost.

Conditions are eerily similar to those of long ago as I wind my way through southwest Wisconsin's coulee country en route to Genoa, a festive yet humble outpost perched along the banks of the Mississippi River. The temperature is somewhere in the 50s, and a light jacket provides plenty of comfort. A soft but steady rain pelts the windshield. 

A false sense of security doomed many of the old-timers on November 11, 1940. Weather forecasters had predicted mild weather. Gunners headed for the river without heavy parkas or other nasty-weather apparel. 

Devastation ensued when winds roared, the temperature plunged, and sleet turned to snow. With that fateful day in the back of my mind, I can't help but wonder what tomorrow will bring.

I'm scheduled to meet with outdoor writer and photographer Michael Furtman and our hosts, Ducks Unlimited zone chairman Karl Duex and former DU regional director Ron Nicklaus. Together they boast more than 70 years of experience hunting on Pools 8 and 9, albeit in completely different ways. Nicklaus is a big-water guy. Duex favors the backwater marsh.

We convene that evening at the Great River Roadhouse, a classic out-in-the-country oasis, where the pizza and other delicacies prove worthy of a high ranking on my list of best travel meals. No one leaves hungry. But the duck report is not encouraging.

"Usually, canvasbacks start arriving by October 15," says Nicklaus, a former Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officer who later worked 18 years for DU. "But not this year. I don't know how to explain it, but we just haven't gotten large numbers of birds yet."

Canvasbacks retain trophy status across the nation. Few places can rival the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge when it comes to sheer numbers of these birds. At the peak of the migration, more than 200,000 cans have been known to stage here. That's what we'll be after on day one. Bluebills are also welcome.

The wakeup call comes early-bleary-eyed early. Nicklaus has a special locale in mind. He's worried, however, that someone else might stake claim to the spot. This is public hunting: first come, first served. 

A 15-minute boat ride in the darkness takes an abrupt turn when Nicklaus spots a light at the end of the island where he wanted to set up. He reverses course and heads in the other direction. 

I'm pleased to be joined by a fourth cast member, Ludwig, a mild-mannered Chesapeake Bay retriever who encourages considerable nuzzling and ear-scratching during our voyage. The temperature has dropped into the low 20s. Accustomed to the balmy Mid-South, where I've lived for the past 17 years, my aged bones and thinned blood already feel the chill. Furtman, who resides in frosty Duluth, Minnesota, says he decided at the last minute that he probably needed something more than a T-shirt to brave the elements, but not much more.

"I have seen a lot of changes out here," says Nicklaus, who has pursued Mississippi River canvasbacks and other waterfowl for nearly 40 years. "Many of the islands we used to hunt are gone. Erosion and high water have taken their toll out here."

Nicklaus dutifully finds his desired island. We'll set up off the point. Ludwig leaps out of the boat to scout the shoreline and take care of personal business. Furtman begins sorting camera gear on shore. 

My job is to help with decoy deployment duties.

"If we're going to do this, we can't be timid with the decoys. We have to put out enough decoys to be serious," Nicklaus says as dozens of blocks are pulled from the bow and sorted. "But if there are no ducks today, having to pick all of them up is going to be a chore. Nobody ever likes that part of it."

Our hopes are buoyed just as morning light begins to break. "Look up," Nicklaus says as I fumble to untangle decoy lines. Sure enough, canvasbacks. Thousands of them, it seems, are sky-high over Pool 9, probably heading out to feed. We all hope they'll stop by later.

After all the decoys are set, Nicklaus walks the boat down the far side of the island and ties it off. I gather all my gear and select a spot to sit. The camp stool is a welcome sight. Frozen fingers dig through my blind bag in search of a facemask. Someone proclaims that it's legal shooting time.

Shortly thereafter, a single shot rings out. Nicklaus downs a bulky greenhead, which must have liked the look of the decoys. This is a good sign. Ludwig goes to work. A drake pintail catches us by surprise and skirts the decoys, unscathed. Lucky duck.

The wind kicks up three or four notches, and snow flurries arrive-sideways. This activity is far shy of the fury of the Armistice Day Storm, but it does have the look of a perfect diver-hunting morning. We settle in and wait.

The closest we come to a canvasback occurs hours later, on our way back to the boat ramp. A single drake flies behind us, mockingly, for more than a mile. When we beach the boat, the can seems to sneer at us before heading off for parts unknown. 

"That's duck hunting," Nicklaus mutters. 

SNAILS IMPLICATED IN COOT DIE-OFF While Karl Duex attached camouflaged wood panels above the gunwales of his hybrid boat blind, I noted two coots lying dead in the reeds behind the boat. "That's nothing," Duex said. "I can take you to places where there are hundreds of dead coots." The coot die-off has been recorded since 2002 by federal wildlife officials. The root cause is thought to be a trematode, an intestinal parasite carried by the faucet snail, an invasive species that may have been brought to North America by ships from Asia and Europe. Tens of thousands of coots, and large numbers of ducks, have perished after consuming faucet snails. Birds become infected when trematodes burrow into their intestines. Susceptible waterfowl can die within three days after ingesting a lethal dose. To date, no remedy has been discovered for ridding the river system of faucet snails. Poisoning is out of the question because of the impact that would have on native mussels. Fortunately, there are no reported health risks to humans handling waterfowl infected with trematodes. Waterfowlers are, however, advised to wear gloves when handling sick birds.

More than 70 years ago, hundreds of duck gunners taking advantage of the Armistice Day holiday (now called Veterans Day) headed to the Mississippi River. They had no idea how that day and the next would unfold. When the weather turned ugly, many became trapped on islands by gale-force winds and a raging river.

According to one report, 60-degree temperatures the morning of November 11 were followed by single-digit readings by the morning of November 12. Mild weather ahead of an intense low-pressure system tracking from Kansas to western Wisconsin was quickly followed by a raging blizzard. Up to 26 inches of snow fell in Minnesota. Winds ranging from 50 to 80 miles an hour were recorded in parts of Wisconsin, NebraskaMinnesota, Iowa, and Michigan. More than 150 deaths were blamed on the storm. Many of those who died were duck hunters along the big river. Fifty-nine sailors died on Lake Michigan. 

"The winds of hell were loose on the Mississippi Armistice day and night," wrote Gordon MacQuarrie, outdoor editor of the Milwaukee Journal and Wisconsin's outdoor poet laureate. "They came across the prairies, from the south and west, a mighty, freezing, invisible force. They charged down from the river bluffs to the placid stream below and reached with deathly fingers for the life that beat beneath the canvas jackets of thousands of duck hunters."

ADVANCE WARNING Weather forecasting has come a long way since 1940, when scores of duck hunters perished during the Armistice Day Storm. With today's technology it's unlikely that hunters would be totally unaware of an impending storm of that magnitude. Up-to-the-minute weather reports are at the tips of one's fingers. There were no warnings for the Armistice Day disaster. Back then, the Weather Bureau's Chicago office issued only four forecasts per day for eight midwestern states. The morning of November 11, a moderate cold wave warning was issued. That storm, and another the following March, brought about a change in the way storms were forecast. Political pressure led to Weather Bureau staff expansion that distributed responsibilities to regional centers in order to provide more timely weather predictions. The Armistice Day Storm, however, still serves notice to duck hunters to be aware of possible changes in the weather before going afield.

MacQuarrie detailed the carnage in his inimitable writing style in the story "Armistice Day Storm." Duck hunting had been slow until that date. The early stages of the storm held promise for a great outing. 

Ducks poured into the river valley, riding the wind from the west. 

"The wind did it," MacQuarrie wrote. "The cold was its ally. Mother Nature, sometimes a blue-eyed girl with corn-colored hair, was a murderous mistress Tuesday night on the Mississippi.

"The ducks came and men died. They died underneath upturned skiffs as the blast sought them out on boggy, unprotected islands. They died trying to light fires and jumping and sparring to keep warm. They died sitting in skiffs. They died standing in river water to their hips, awaiting help."

A government tug boat, the Throckmorton, and other rescue boats were sent to retrieve marooned hunters. Famed aviator Max Conrad flew a Cub training plane over the river, relayed information to the boats about where to find hunters, and dropped supplies to many of those who had been stranded overnight. Communities rallied behind the rescue crews. Lives were saved. But this catastrophe remains duck hunting's darkest day.

"There were long prayers by the Mississippi's banks Tuesday," MacQuarrie wrote, "the day after Armistice, when the ducks came and men died." 

Karl Duex wasn't even born until more than 20 years after the tragic storm, but he has spent the past 35 years duck hunting the backwaters, primarily along Pool 8. He has seen the river turn fickle. And he has seen habitat degradation change the look of the region he holds dear.

"The vegetation is about gone," Duex says as we motor into the darkness on day two of our quest for some duck hunting action. "There used to be huge lily pad beds out here. Triangle-reed islands are dying, too. And many of the old islands are long gone. The high-water years take everything out."

Duex, a design development engineer by trade, began gunning the Mississippi with his father at age 16. Over the years, they created a customized boat blind system designed for low-profile gunning while anchored at the edge of cattail and reed beds. Bigger does not always mean better in the marsh.

"We started with a 12-foot boat, and I've stayed with it because it's easier to hide and to handle out here in the shallow water," Duex says. "I couldn't manhandle a 14-footer like I can this boat. I can do anything in this thing."

Because the water is so shallow, getting out of the boat to push it up against natural cover is a matter of course. Clearly, this is not an old man's game. The mud here rivals anything that Louisiana has to offer. This is unyielding, boot-sucking muck. Duex flits about like a heron, while I plod along like a tipsy buffalo.

"If we see ducks, the flight will be early," Duex says after scattering a couple of dozen decoys and climbing back into the boat. "That's the way it's been going. You either get them early or you're done."

Sure enough, a small flock of teal blow through before shooting time. Three more ducks, of indeterminate species, hover over the decoys. At legal shooting time, five mallards swing by. Guns belch. And that's it for the morning.

"This is a typical day out here after a snowstorm," Duex says. "Nothing."

There is much to be said about timing, both good and bad. Posters around town tell us that we just missed the Third Annual Vernon County Mullett Fest, which benefits the local food pantry. The coming weekend will celebrate the Deer Widows' Ball, scheduled for a venue on the main drag. Timing may be everything, but being tardy for the one event and early for the other doesn't rankle like missing the big flights of diving ducks

Maybe next time.

Excerpts from Gordon MacQuarrie's "Armistice Day Storm" were reprinted with permission from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where the story originally appeared in November 1940.

DU'S BIG RIVERS INITIATIVE At 240,000 acres and 261 river miles long, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is among the priority areas for Ducks Unlimited's Big Rivers Initiative. DU is seeking to raise $5 million in philanthropic funds to achieve its conservation goals throughout an eight-state region (see map). Funding will enable DU to conduct important science, public policy, and outreach efforts related to the region and the habitats important to waterfowl using this landscape. DU's research and evaluation efforts are the foundation on which its direct conservation programs are based. Conservation work under the Big Rivers Initiative will focus on maximizing benefits for waterfowl populations by restoring, enhancing, and protecting wetland complexes on public and private lands. For more information, visit ducks.org/bigrivers.