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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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  • Ron Nicklaus and the author set a diver rig before dawn on Pool 9 of the upper Mississippi River.
    photo by MichaelFurtman.com
  • photo by MichaelFurtman.com
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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.

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