Upper Mississippi River Revisited

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

From the Ducks Unlimited magazine Archives

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 theinfamous 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 MississippiRiver. 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 than70 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 leaveshungry. 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 toexplain 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 themigration, 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 intothe 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 hedecided 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 highwater 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 noducks 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 digthrough 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 surpriseand 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. Wesettle 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 usbefore 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 wouldunfold. 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 trackingfrom 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, Nebraska,Minnesota, 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 theprairies, 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 thecanvas 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 totallyunaware 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.