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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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  • Public hunting opportunities abound on the Mississippi River, but a seaworthy boat and a healthy respect for the elements are required for safety.
    photo by MichaelFurtman.com
  • photo by MichaelFurtman.com
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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.

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