‘X’treme Duck Hunting

Why write about waterfowl hunting now when everyone’s thoughts have turned to sizzling crappie fillets or smashing muskie strikes? But for the avid waterfowler, the season never ends; the shooting only “pauses.” If you want to experience some truly great hunting you’ll need to go where there are a lot of ducks and have access to the same type of habitat these waterfowl prefer to access. You need to be on the “X.”

Even hunters lucky enough to have their own piece of marsh are on this “X” only rarely, and those days may not even happen every season. While such special days are certainly worth waiting for, how much waiting can a guy stand?

For everyone who is stricken with waterfowl-hunting fever, there is a payoff for all the work, planning and expense getting on that “X” once in a while. The only way to give yourself a chance for that is to go to the ducks and put yourself in the hands of a professional guide who knows how to hunt that area.

The DIY hunters mentality rebels against asking another hunter for help, but I’ll share a little wisdom with you: get over it. You may be the best hunter in your marsh, but that’s no guarantee you will be in another. Find that expert and arrange to hunt with him. I learned this lesson years ago and it has paid off in some of the greatest hunts I’ve ever been a part of.

After 40 years of duck hunting, I had a hole on my wall that was reserved for a big bull canvasback. I have hunted in all four Flyways, but every time I asked about canvasbacks I learned was in the wrong place. I was determined to see that void on my wall filled.

One day I read a column written by the late Wade Bourne, Ducks Unlimited TV’s famous host. Bourne recommended Pool 8 on the Upper Mississippi River as one of the best places in the country to shoot a canvasback. He also recommended Matt Ellis for a guide, an expert who operates Dabblers and Divers Mississippi River Guide Service (dabblersanddivers.com) as the guy to put me on the “X.”

Within two days, I had arranged for a four-man group to spend two days hunting “cans” with Ellis. I was going to the ducks. Mississippi River Pool 8 lies between Minnesota and Wisconsin, just on the city of La Crosse, where Matt launches his 20-inch jon boat/blind within half a mile of a nearby motel. His preferred hunting grounds are a mere 10-minute ride across a protected stretch of the river. Pool 8 holds concentrations of 16 different duck species and a good population of Canada geese. More importantly, it’s estimated that 40 percent of the U.S. canvasback population stages in Pool 8 right here each fall.

We arrived the day prior to our hunt, a few days after Thanksgiving. After a good night’s sleep we were raring to go well before dawn the next morning. Matt had his boat blind hooked up and ready to roll. He launched at the ramp and soon we were anchored next to a small, rocky island in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge. His experienced Chesapeake retriever sat quietly at the bow, and this dog’s eyes never left the sky.

Matt quietly slipped into the chest-high water and began setting the 13-dozen decoy spread. We kept the dog company as Matt worked. The sky was barely turning rosy when he climbed back aboard and suggested we load up.

Shooting time and the first ducks came simultaneously, and the action heated up as the temperatures rose. The birds kept coming steadily until about 8:30 a.m. When the birds took a break, Ellis declared it was breakfast time. When we had no sooner devoured our grub, the ducks began to assault the decoys again and we enjoyed action right up to 1 p.m., the quitting time. We ended up with two-bird limits of canvasbacks each and six other species of divers.

The following day we again limited on canvasbacks, ending the day with 16 birds. I won’t go into how many came and went unscathed. Happily, we had come for a specific species of duck and we were successful. Our expenses were incidental, considering the valuable hunting equipment at our disposal, and Matt’s expert guidance. It added up to an unforgettable experience, and it was all good. So, if the “X” won’t come to you, find the right guide who can help you get to that place for those ducks.