The voice broadcasting over the truck radio exclaimed with a degree of concern, “Winter storm watch, falling temperatures throughout the day, wind shifting to the north at 20- to 30-mph with stronger gusts, snow likely.”
Weather changes in the Midwest are expected but major winter storms in November are rare. There’s no explaining the lure of such a day to those who are not members of our fraternity, but a prediction of bad weather not only fires up the hunter; it moves the hunted.
Duck season had gotten off to a slow start with very little action after the local birds and early migrators had taken a pounding. October was truly Indian summer and November was off to one of the mildest on record. This November morning the temperature reading at 4:30 a.m. was an almost balmy 50 degrees with a light wind from the southwest as my son, Todd, and I headed 60 miles north to Calhoun County for a day at our Wild Wing Club. Was the “weather guy” pulling our leg? Could we really trust him on this? We both agreed; any change would be welcomed. How little did we know.
The trip to the farm club was smooth with light conversation about hunting tactics, decoy placement and calling. Every 15 minutes the radio would again mention snow. We welcomed the weather change but waterfowl hunting in snow is usually a case of feast or famine. Ducks are like people; if it gets too bad, they just hunker down.
Regardless of the weather, we were ready for the challenge that included the necessary essentials: guns, shells, calls, insulated waders, camouflaged rain gear and an assortment of snacks. “We got charcoal, Dad?” asked Todd as the headlights lit up the gate to the duck club. Since I’d forgotten the main fuel source for heat in the blind, my comeback was, “I doubt that it’s going to get as cold as predicted; I left the bag in the garage.” I did have the small one-burner Coleman to make the coffee; the pot, coffee and water were inside the blind’s storage box. My doubts about the weather forecast somewhat eased my mind concerning heat. Granted, we’ve all had to “eat a little crow” in our days afield, but mine would be a double dose by dark.
The ducks on our rest lake were “quackin’ up a storm” as we loaded the ATV for the bumpy ride to the willow-covered hide on Short Slough. “Hear all that racket, son?” I asked. “Yeah, sounds like they listened to the same weather report that we did,” was Todd’s reply. A light rain began to fall as we started down the lane toward the slough.
The first light of day revealed what we had hoped for; waterfowl on the move. Ducks seemed to be everywhere, flying as singles, pairs, small bunches and large flocks. “Big” ducks, teal and some divers appeared in the cloud-covered heavens, all heading south. We hastily arranged the decoys to our satisfaction, commenting as we worked about seeing more birds this day than we’d seen all season.
The wind had turned due west by shooting time, a cold rain stung our faces as we loaded the Brownings and waited for action. With the assortment of 100-plus decoys dancing to the tune of our calls we had our first shots of the morning. A small group of green wings with the wind at their tails buzzed the blocks at some 30 yards.
“Wow, hope that’s not an indication of our marksmanship,” exclaimed Todd as the small squadron of teal, still intact but somewhat confused, headed skyward.
“We’ll do better,” I said. “Increase your lead, take your time and concentrate on one bird.”
Our first bunch of decoying mallards yielded better results. Three drakes tumbled out of the group.
“At least we didn’t get skunked,” I smiled, as Todd finished off a cripple with a water shot.
Most of the ducks ignored our “highballs and hail calls” as the morning progressed, but periodically birds would drop to the bouncing look-alikes as if to beckon them to join in the flight southward. Shooting in the heavy wind was tough, each chance a challenge and by nine o’clock the rain had turned to sleet. During one of Todd’s retrieves of the kill, I lit the little Coleman for hand-warming and coffee brewing. His ice-covered waders indicated the temperature as the empty charcoal heater sat frozen in the corner of the blind.
By late morning the hunt had truly become special; the weather, the ducks, father and son locked in their passion of waterfowling, “We only need two more for a limit,” I said, counting the dead hanging from the duck stringers. We were indeed a part of a major migration, perhaps even witnessing a grand passage. The waterfowl term “grand passage” had been credited to internationally known waterfowl biologist Frank Bellrose, founder of the Illinois Natural History Biological Station located on the Illinois River near Havana. Bellrose personally led his team from 1938 until retirement in 1991, trapping, banding and studying migrating birds. According to Bellrose, each fall, usually in November, a mass migration of waterfowl occurred during a three-day period. He concluded that the “grand passage” was based on three factors: advancing winter weather, food availability and birds’ physical status. Memories of our passage day would last a lifetime.
Watching the storm intensify, ice forming around the edge of the pothole and snow collecting on the struggling decoys, our conversation turned to a similar day: Nov. 11, 1940. That Armistice Day will live in infamy in the rich history of waterfowling. A major blizzard caught the upper Midwest totally off guard. The fast-moving storm with hurricane-force winds and blinding snow saw the temperature drop from 54 degrees mid-morning to 9 degrees by evening. Hunters, both waterfowl and upland, as well as fishermen became victims of the elements. Trapped by the howling wind and blowing snow, the results were tragic.
Imagine, if possible, that day on the waters of the Mississippi or a tributary, with none of today’s technology. No outboard motor, no cellphone, no high-tech warm clothing, only a man-powered wooden boat for transportation. Those hunters and fishermen caught offshore did everything possible to keep from freezing to death. They burned decoys, blinds, even boats, but in the end 163 perished and many others were scarred for life. Without a doubt, it was the most tragic one-day outdoor event of the 20th century. What those river men experienced, history recorded on Armistice Day, 1940.
We were shocked back to reality as a pair of mallards suddenly appeared from the snowy sky into our kill zone. The daily bag was now complete; it was time to gather the gear and accept the adventure of the journey home. The pothole was almost completely frozen and the decoys were ice-covered, motionless statues, locked in time as we said farewell to Short Slough.
Getting the doors of the truck open required a little Yankee ingenuity, but finally we had shelter and soon warmth from the heater. The trip was slow and treacherous, to say the least. Although the heavy snow had somewhat abated, the roads were covered with some 6 inches of frozen precipitation. Thankfully, there was little traffic; our top speed, 35 mph. It was late afternoon and darkness before long when we reached the Great River Road, the final leg of our homeward journey. Only a guardrail separated us from the muddy, white-capped waves of the Mississippi. The temperature had fallen, headed for single digits. Unoccupied open water duck blinds were visible from the unplowed road and I wondered about the warriors who had started their day on the big water. Hopefully, they quit in time to make it safely to shore. We need no replay of 1940.
To this day waterfowlers discuss, suggest and read about those bone-chilling events and the consequences. We’ll always wonder what we would have done considering the circumstances. Would we have been able to endure Mother Nature’s assault? The quote of a Greek philosopher may say it best: “History is the witness that testifies to time.”
When Todd and I tell the story of our “Storm Day” hunt, we don’t mention any of our misses; we focus on the cold, the snow, the wind and the ducks. Todd never fails to mention, “Dad forgot the charcoal.”
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs at noon Sundays on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM/94.3 FM with live streaming. Larry also is a representative of Illinois River Valley Calls (info@DJCalls.com).