PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. — Dawn came to the great river in a windless hush, the low sky brushed with muted pink and orange.
As light filled the backwater, a gray, cottony mass drifted overhead, obscuring the tops of the bluffs. Mist settled into the slough.
Mother Nature is a master at balance. As we sat in the damp stillness, the slate-colored sky came alive.
Flock after flock of waterfowl streaked over the horizon, wings ripping air as the birds banked and flared.
The first couple groups were blue-winged teal — tiny, feathered torpedoes that blew through by the dozen.
They were joined by flights of wood ducks, in twos and fours, their rapid wing beats matched with whistling calls.
The season hadn’t yet opened, but we had early confirmation — ducks were in good number.
Together with five other hunters and two dogs, I opened the 2011 Wisconsin duck hunting season on Pool 10 of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
Mike Pettit, piloted boat No. 1. Pat Kalmerton and I joined Pettit. Our canine companion for the day was Sadie, a 7-year-old Labrador retriever owned by Ryan Kossman.
Kossman had to tend to family obligations Saturday morning but didn’t want to keep Sadie from her favorite activity.
The other boat included Dean Crom, Mike Thun, Eric Mathes, and Lucky, Crom’s 6-year-old Lab.
We met at Campion Landing at 6 a.m. and discussed our plan for the day.
Pettit, who was born and raised in a hunting family in Prairie du Chien and knows the river as well as any man his age, suggested we motor south to an area called Gerndt Lake.
The backwaters had produced good hatches of wood ducks, mallards and teal this year, Pettit said, and most were still holding in the area.
His plan was met with wide approval and a few jabs.
“Are you going to run out of gas?” asked Kalmerton, as we loaded gear. “Or is this the year you forget to put the drain plug in?”
The dogs paced excitedly at the sight of gun cases and decoys. They had enough notches on their collars to know — a new season was at hand.
In fact, no dog or hunter had experienced such an opener. Last Saturday was the first day of duck hunting in the newly created Mississippi River Zone.
After decades of duck hunting regulations that split the state into North and South zones, Wisconsin adopted a third zone this fall.
The Mississippi Zone covers a narrow slice along the river, south of Highway 10 and west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks. It may be the smallest of the three zones geographically, but per square mile it’s the most heavily used by ducks and duck hunters.
The boats powered off and slalomed through the dim backwaters. We passed massive beaver lodges and smaller muskrat huts, islands capped with willow and silver maple, and expansive mud flats.
“She’s come down,” said Pettit, noting the river level. “Wouldn’t want to see it any lower this time of year.”
Pettit’s 18-foot jon boat was fitted with a short-tailed mud motor. Never was the power source’s name more apt. Or needed.
The river was at flood stage earlier in the year. Now, in the give-and-take of land and water, the water was yielding. But it wouldn’t be exactly right to say the land was winning.
The most common feature of the sloughs was an amalgam of liquid and solid, a molasses-like mud that threatened to suck the boots off your feet.
We settled the boats about 600 yards apart in a corner of the slough and placed vegetation around the hulls.
As the sun rose it peeked between cloud banks, periodically highlighting Pikes Peak State Park on the Iowa side of the river.
We watched the day unfold, waiting for the season to open at 9 a.m.
The hills were dotted with the first reds, yellows and oranges of autumn. The sky was peppered with black streaks, lending credence to waterfowl population estimates.
The 2011 breeding duck survey found a record 45.6 million ducks in North America, up 11 percent from 2010 and 35 percent over the long-term average. The Wisconsin duck population was estimated at 513,746, 33 percent higher than 2010 and 17 percent above the long-term average.
At 8 a.m. we set out a couple dozen decoys; some of the blocks sat crooked in inch-deep water.
At 9 a.m. we loaded our guns. “I’m ready,” Kalmerton said.
A few distant shots filled the air.
“I’m still ready,” Kalmerton said at 9:05 a.m.
Moments later, the waiting was over. A flock of 15 blue-winged teal circled close to our spread. Our shotguns barked and Sadie made her first retrieves of the year.
Her feet sunk deep into the mud and she labored to and from the boat. Once aboard, she shook and sprinkled a brown patina on her fellow hunters.
Five minutes later a trio of wood ducks flew low overhead. A hen fell to Pettit’s shot.
Ducks kept us on constant alert for the first two hours, mostly teal and wood ducks but also a few pintails and mallards. Most birds stayed high or wide of our spread.
As the morning wore on, fewer birds moved through the backwater. At noon, we called it a day with six ducks — four blue-winged teal, one green-winged teal and one woodie — in the bag.
Our companion boat hunted the full day and returned with 13 ducks.
Advocates of the Mississippi River duck zone hoped, among other things, it would provide hunters with additional opportunity for early-migrating teal and wood ducks. Viewed from this corner of Pool 10 on opening day 2011, it worked.
A new season and a new zone had been ushered in, with a fittingly rich Mississippi mix of mud, water and the abundant wildlife it produces.
(c)2011 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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