Waterfowling Across Wisconsin
September 30, 2010
Do you want to get in on some good hunting for late-season ducks and geese? Then come on along because we're headed for the Mississippi River, Lake Michigan and points in between!
Photo by Michael Mauro
By Ted Peck
Mrs. Veith never intended to help me hone my hunting skills. But her constant admonishment to quit looking out the window worked wonders on my peripheral vision. Our sixth grade classroom was located on the northwest side of our old brick schoolhouse, not far from the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi flowed just a couple of ridges away from that window, with a gray November sky holding the promise of migrating ducks. Those days when you could feel the snow coming were the very best, because there was an excellent chance Dad would pull me out of school at the second recess bell for a wild ride over graveled hills to a vast corn field that southbound mallards found hard to resist with winter snapping at their tailfeathers.
Duck hunting was profoundly important to my dad, who was a truly intense student of waterfowl behavior. He never owned more than three dozen decoys in his life. And the ones he had were a motley mix of everything from old wooden Perdue's to Victor Majestics to cork Herter's blocks with the beaks busted off - probably from bouncing around in a gunny bag in the trunk of our 1957 Chevy Bel Aire.
Although the Old Guy was nothing short of amazing when he needed to get on the D-2 Olt call, which was forever around his neck, most of his calling when he hunted that pit blind in the corn came from shaking an alluring chuckle out of the Scotch call tethered to the bottom buttonhole of his old tan coat.
"The whole key to killin' ducks is gittin' to where they want to be before they show up," he used to say, "and then maybe give 'em a little chuckle to say 'Yep! This is the place!' "
Dad always dug the chest-high pit at the highest point near the middle of the vast picked corn field, marking the correct row with a couple of spades of overturned earth at the field's edge. We seldom toted decoys out to the pit. Dad and his main hunting partner, Beezey Guenzler, kept maybe a dozen plywood goose silhouettes out there for rapid deployment as confidence decoys for the mallards.
Corn provided ample enticement for the webfeet, with Dad sweetening the pot a little by piling a couple of bushels up about 40 yards out from the blind at several different locations "just so we know when them critters are in range." Of course, rearranging harvested grain is a violation of game laws. Other than this transgression against "man's laws," my father was a man of great honesty and integrity who learned most of his waterfowling savvy from an old market gunner named Tony Miles.
The key to finding consistent success on ducks between now and season's end is doing most of your traveling with your eyes once you've discovered where the ducks are working. If you go to where the ducks are, you'll get some shooting - even if it's just early and late in the day when shortstopped ducks that are waiting for weather to drive them out and bring new birds in can be fooled when they are moving to food or loafing areas.
Migration corridors through Wisconsin narrow as they progress southward. The Mississippi Flyway sees the largest migration of ducks. Many geese work their way down through central Wisconsin, stopping over at the Horicon Marsh. Some ducks and quite a few geese move along our eastern border of Lake Michigan, too. But just about every county has good places in which to find some ducks when the wind is blowing from the northwest and the birds are on the move. By asking around you can find out when the bluebills push through Burnett County, when the widgeon are working Lake Winnebago, and when ringbills are rolling with the waves on Lake Koshkonong in Rock County.
But keep in mind that the much-heralded arrival of favored species is driven by weather, food and available water. A day or two after a major northwest wind pushes through marginal to moderate waterfowling areas, the ducks will be gone, too.
Filling a limit with the species du jour means forsaking all other commitments and "gittin' to where the ducks want to be before they show up." This means paying close attention to The Weather Channel and other reliable weather information sites. When the weatherperson says "northwest winds at 20 to 30 and a chance of snow," you go duck hunting - forget the open-heart surgery, court date or wedding day.
It's unfortunate that my wife's birthday is on Nov. 2. The "little flight" tends to push through America's Dairyland about that time. Our major migrational push is always around Thanksgiving - also known as the firearm deer season to most of us accustomed to cold turkey and ornery looks. There are many on which days to bag that buck, but only one or two during which to pile up the greenheads. When these days arrive, you hunt ducks. If the winds are northwest at 30 mph on Nov. 27 and Thanksgiving dinner will be the last time you see Aunt Lou for a year, that's her problem. It may be the last time you see great duck hunting, too - especially along marginal migration corridors.
With a trailer located midway between Stoddard and Ferryville on the Mississippi River, I am fortunate to be able to chase ducks when they are flying and walleyes when the ducks aren't flying. Those of you planning a waterfowling trip to Old Man River during November would be wise to pack the fishin' gear - even though this area is the epicenter of duck hunting in Wisconsin. Frogging around for crappies on a couple of backwaters near Stoddard one sunny afternoon last October turned up a great waterfowl loafing area not far from the stumpfields that ducks really like and hunters haven't found yet.
There are many similar spots where you can anticipate great chances for success, but you need to find them on your own. A great spot in which to start looking is the Bright Spot Cafe in De Soto. Owner Jim Boardman has perhaps the best Friday fish fry on the planet and a terrific hunter's breakfast. Boardman and his kin are duck hunters above all else. Although the official policy of duck hunters here - and elsewhere - is "don't ask, don't tell," you can certainly get started in the right direction at the Bright Spot.
Jim's brother, Jerry, is even more serious about ducks, and his boys are beyond help in this regard. Jerry runs the Swing Inn tavern about 10 miles south of De Soto on Highway 35, known for its famous soups and giant burgers.
Department of Natural Resources regional offices are another solid source of waterfowling information. Most of the field level personnel have a great deal of knowledge on the areas they are assigned to, with many of them hunting waterfowl as an avocation.
Wisconsin is blessed w
ith thousands of acres of public hunting grounds and waterfowl management areas (WMAs), with the sound of whistling wings less than two hours from your toasty warm bed. Herein lies the kicker: You're only an hour's drive from good public duck hunting. But getting to ducks unwise to the ways of hunters at this point in the season will likely take another hour's romp through the swamp in pre-dawn darkness to reach potholes and ponds in the nether reaches of WMAs that lie beyond comfortable hiking distance from the parking lot.
All DNR regional offices have free maps of public hunting areas in their area. These maps provide a basic idea of habitat. However, getting the real skinny on where ducks will be when the northwest wind blows will require some legwork. The easiest way to do this is by obtaining the services of a small private airplane. Chances are you can find a pilot who loves to fly and will take you up in exchange for a few bucks for expenses.
This duck's-eye view of the marsh will be very revealing. Twenty years ago my hunting partner and I went on just such a mission over the serpentine Sugar River in south-central Wisconsin. In a half-hour flight we noted more than 20 ponds and potholes within yards of the riverbank, just out of sight of those who would prospect the river by canoe or cartopper. The ducks still visit these spots today.
Beyond the hawg-heaven conditions that exist over on Old Man River, the next best place a serious duckster might hang his waders would be up in the north country.
The Crex Meadows Area, which is part of the sprawling Glacial Lakes complex in Burnett County, has piles of ducks staging right now. Like almost all public areas, Crex gets pounded early in the season, with those who find no joy in chapped lips and split-open fingertips nowhere to be found when the ducks of November arrive.
Powell Marsh in Vilas County and the Thunder Lake Marsh area not far away in Oneida County provide one of the first stops for ducks passing through Wisconsin. There is a good chance waters there may be frozen now. But many years there are warm windows that open ahead of the next front, which open the water, providing habitat that is just too good for these migrants to pass up.
A perfect cocktail offered up to an old duck hunter after a prime rib dinner at the High View Inn outside of Medford proved to be the key to access on several small ponds not far from Lake Esadore, which always provides sure-thing limits on greenheads, widgeon and the occasional pintail. When it gets just a little colder, the Flambeau, Jump or Black River is where these ducks will be. Ice just moves ducks around. Northwest winds push 'em south.
Mead Wildlife Area - which covers parts of Portage, Wood and Marathon counties - and the McMillan Marsh in Marathon County are other great places in central Wisconsin where you can add weight to the duck strap.
To the west is the Tiffany Wildlife Area in Pepin and Buffalo counties, next to the Chippewa River - a primary "on ramp" for ducks headed down the Mississippi.
Our Lake Michigan coast is a primary migration route for geese and diving ducks, including sea ducks like oldsquaws, eiders and scoters. The sea ducks pretty much call Lake Michigan home, with just a few parties of layout gunners waiting just offshore in the midst of rafts of decoys, especially this time of year.
Weather patterns are notoriously unstable in November. And big water is no place to be when it's rough, especially Lake Michigan, but also "smaller" waters like the Winnebago Chain and 10,000-acre Lake Koshkonong in southern Wisconsin. Plan an outing here carefully. Don't even think of tempting fate. And have a "plan B" ready to go if any rough weather blows in. Options include the Rat River Wildlife Area in Winnebago County and Collins Marsh in Manitowoc County.
A number of public hunting opportunities also await just inland. Bong State Recreation Area in Kenosha County and the Vernon Wildlife Area in Waukesha County provide excellent waterfowling in November in highly populated southeast Wisconsin, as does the Sheboygan Marsh just another hour north up Interstate 43.
You will also find a lot of geese and some ducks in the vast Theresa Marsh in Washington and Dodge counties, along with the great Horicon Marsh being in a class by itself.
Hunters all but forget about duck hunting in Fond du Lac County's Eldorado Wildlife Area this time of year. There are also few cars in parking lots around Grand River Marsh in Green Lake and Marquette counties when the big flight arrives around Thanksgiving time.
Green Lake's Mike Norton is known statewide for his ice-fishing adventures on our deepest inland lake, with Big Green one of the last inland lakes to freeze up each fall - sometimes remaining somewhat open until almost February. Before freeze-up has Norton thinking about ice-fishing again, you'll find him within sight of the lake every morning, quietly filling a limit of mallards and divers, just a few hundred yards off of the well beaten path of this popular resort community.
Like the Chippewa River in the northwest part of the state, the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway in the southwestern part of our state is a major "on ramp" for ducks headed down the Mississippi Flyway. Puddle ducks are the major draw here, with hundreds of backwaters and potholes that see almost no hunting pressure when November arrives. Although there is generally good boat ramp access below Lake Wisconsin - like the adequate ramp in the Pine Island Hunting Area - the profoundly shallow nature of our namesake river keeps waterfowlers away in droves. Most hunters target backwaters just a short run from the ramp with a cartopper or canoe. This gives those with a larger craft - like my tunnel-hulled flat-bottomed boat with a jet-drive outboard - what amounts to a key to the refuge. The reward for being the only waterfowlers occupying several hundred acres of marsh or wetland is priceless. But getting there is never easy, even though exceptional waterfowling may be just down the road.
Wisconsin's duck hunters are among the hardiest breeds of outdoorsmen in North America, but 90 percent of those who buy waterfowl stamps wash out of the program by the last couple of weeks of the season, when hunting really starts getting good. Duck hunting is always labor-intensive, getting progressively tougher as the days continue to march toward winter. It doesn't matter if you're in a grain field blind, hiding behind a pile of stones on a windswept point of a big lake, or hunkered and shivering in waders back in the marsh, physical discomfort is part of the program.
Cold and chill take on new meaning in a canoe or scull boat on a river, or a layout boat on the big water. Even those hunters hiding in a cabin cruiser camouflaged to look like an island have a fair concept of human misery.
Some people thrive on this condition. I frequently hunt with one of the world's clumsiest humans, who managed to fall into the marsh on eight of his nine outings last season. On the one hunt he didn't self-baptize himself, he slammed his thumb in the truck door. He maintains that getting soaking wet enhances the experience, which is
far beyond most of us who are content to just slightly enhance the chill with leaky waders.
Why would somebody want to invite excessive misery? To make the sound of chuckling mallards in the howling wind even sweeter. Nothing in life compares to a swarm of those big green-headed, orange-legged ducks working your decoys when season's end is just days away!
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