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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Upper Mississippi River Revisited

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

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