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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Be careful in placing decoys in cold, sometimes choppy waters. © Robert Queen

October 2008

Don't wing it

Plan for waterfowl hunting success and safety.

Natasha Kassulke


Be careful in placing decoys in cold, sometimes choppy waters.

© Robert Queen
Safety still an issue | Blindsided by the big storm
A prescription for cold weather | Other points in your prehunt plan
Know your target

It was one of the most dangerous storms of all times. November 11-12, 1940. The Armistice Day Blizzard. Mild weather ahead of an intense low pressure system tracked from Kansas to western Wisconsin, quickly followed by a raging blizzard. People were caught off-guard by the storm's fury and plunging temperatures. Many were not dressed for the extreme weather as 50 to 70 mph winds and five-foot waves pounded their encampments. Winds whipped up 20-foot snow drifts. More than 150 deaths were blamed on the storm; most were duck hunters along the Mississippi River who lost their life-and-death struggles. Some hunters were stranded on islands without food and froze to death in their blinds, their dogs by their sides. Others tried to make it to shore but drowned when their boats capsized. "Many came in with frostbitten fingers or toes," the Eau Claire Leader Telegram reported. "Cherished guns, boats, decoys and other hunting equipment apparently counted for nothing in what became a fight by hunters to save their lives."

Safety still an issue

Each fall, about 85,000 waterfowl hunters venture into Wisconsin's waterways, wetlands and fields to harvest 300,000 to 500,000 ducks and geese. Despite modern technology, a few waterfowlers still perish each year, particularly when boats are overloaded and life jackets are left at home.

"Waterfowl hunters don't always think of themselves as boaters," explains Roy Zellmer, DNR boating safety administrator, "and that can really get them into trouble if they aren't prepared."

The Boat Owners Association reports about three dozen waterfowl hunters die each year nationwide from water-related accidents, most from drowning and hypothermia. Some fell overboard because their boats were overloaded, or they moved around their boats unsafely. And too many hunters still fail to wear Coast Guard approved life jackets while traveling to and from their hunting blinds. In fact, 91 percent of sportsmen who died in boating accidents between 1995-2000 were not wearing a life jacket.

Consequently, conservation wardens are called upon to make dramatic rescues at a time of the year when most emergency responders have put away their patrol boats and water rescue equipment for the season.

"Every person I've had to rescue or pull off an island thought it wouldn't happen to them, but I know how it happens," says retired Green Bay area conservation warden Roger Hanson.

An avid hunter himself, Hanson says, "There are times I look at my hunting partner – often my dog – and ask, 'Are we crazy for going out in this?'"

Waterfowlers are willing to take their chances because the ducks fly low when the wind is blowing so hard there is a small craft advisory. Some days it's calm when you head out early, but the wind picks up as the day progresses.

"Sometimes it seems like we can't help it," Hanson says. "There is just something about going out and sitting on the open water. We don't even care if we get a duck."

Conservation warden Ben Treml recalls one rescue in early December 2005 when the winds kicked up and temperatures dropped, stranding two hunters and a dog in a boat that became ice-covered. The Coast Guard called in Treml and the Brown County Sheriff's Office.

"That boat was full of decoys and there were three to four-foot waves," Treml recalls. "We rescued the hunters and headed for shore, but on the way my boat started to ice up too. We risked our lives and wound up beaching our boat on ice then walking to shore from there." "I'm sure it will happen again," Treml says. "We'll get a bunch of northern mallards coming down in December and it will make for fantastic hunting. But the weather can turn quickly on you. People don't understand how severe it can get even in protected areas."

His advice? Hunt with two boats using the buddy system, and hunt in craft that are big enough and high enough for the water body. If one boat motor conks out, you still have a back-up. Make sure to tell someone exactly where you are going and when you plan to be back. Pack flares.

Treml recalls one hunter who had a medical emergency while in his blind. Since his wife knew what time he was supposed to be home, she called for help when he was late, and rescuers found him in time.

Blindsided by the big storm
"1940 Armistice Day Blizzard" is a two-minute video from Wisconsin Public Television's Wisconsin Stories.

To hear former conservation warden Harold Hettrick's story of the Armistice Day Blizzard, visit Weather Stories.

Today, weather information is more accurate, we have access to forecasts in real-time, we have warmer outdoor clothing and technology affords some reassurance from cellular phones to GPS navigation. But many lessons are still frozen in history from that Armistice Day storm. Meteorology, like hunting, can be a humbling passion. Preparation is key to success and outdoor survival. The best hunters emphasize safety over reaching bag limits.

A prescription for cold weather

Bad weather can make for the best hunting. "That's why we call it duck hunting weather," says Tim Lawhern, DNR hunter education administrator. But the cool, raw weather of late fall can lead to injuries, such as exposure, frostbite and hypothermia. "To be safe, plan your hunt, then hunt your plan," Lawhern says. Since fewer people boat in the colder months, it greatly reduces the likelihood of a prompt rescue. You need to buy yourself more time if things start to go wrong, Lawhern says. Take a charged cellular phone, check that you get a signal on water and pack the phone in a waterproof bag with flotation. Notify people in several ways detailing when you expect to return. Leave a map at home indicating your plan. Also place a card with your emergency contacts and hunting plan on the dashboard of your vehicle.

Keep a first aid kit on board in a dry bag, and don't forget some high energy snacks.

Carry a marine VHF radio as a backup to your cell phone, especially if you plan to travel out from shore. The VHF radio can deliver a call for assistance, provide the latest weather report and keep you in touch with other boaters on the water.

Waterproof clothing like float coats, life preservers and waders are essential to duck hunting. If you need to stand in shallow water to place decoys, you will need chest waders to stay dry and you need to practice how to get out of them quickly in an emergency. If you stumble while placing your dekes, waders fill fast and the cold water is a real shock. You can quickly get in trouble, especially if you have to remove the coat before trying to get out of the waders.

If you are shooting from a boat or on-water blind, equip yourself with newer lightweight life jackets and float coats that are more comfortable for hunting.

"Wear a hat, too," says Greg Dobratz, hunter education instructor from Wautoma. "You lose a lot of heat from your head." He also suggests layered clothing including wool so you can adjust to changing temperatures throughout the day. Pack extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag.

Even with good gear, you have to be ready for the cold. Dobratz teaches his students who hunt along the Wisconsin River how to ward off hypothermia if they fall into the water and can't scramble back into a boat. He describes how to roll up in a ball to reduce surface area, by pulling their knees together and hugging them close to their chest in the HELP position (heat escape lessening posture). If two or more people are in the water, huddle together so the sides of your bodies are close together.

"A duck hunter must always be prepared for changing weather," Dobratz warns. "Always check the forecast before you head out because you need to plan what to do in case of fog, wind, intense sun, lightning and darkness, as well as rain and snow. Use a GPS or compass. Some mornings get foggy quickly, and hunters have become confused and lost."

If storms are predicted, plan to hunt from shore. If you do get caught in a squall, head for shore moving diagonally to the waves and avoid crossing large bodies of water. Count on waiting out the squall once you reach shore. You can't safely load your boat if wind and waves are pounding an unprotected launch site, and trailers can get stuck in mud and sand. Just tie up your boat and wait out the worst of the storm.

Even shoreland hunters need to attend to the weather.

Jeff Nania, a hunter safety instructor and president of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, recounts when foul weather caught up with him.

"I only had a couple of hours to hunt. I was walking across a frozen marsh and thought the waters were shallow. I didn't know that I was crossing a drainage ditch and just under the snow lay flowing water topped with ice. I plunged neck-deep into very cold water.

"It was about 20 degrees outside, and I had to take off my coat and waders," Nania says. "Nobody knew where I was, and there was little potential that anyone would come looking for me in a timely manner."

Nania suggests telling someone specifically where you will be hunting and calling them when you reach the site. "don't just say 'I'm hunting the Wisconsin River today.'

"Most hunters know what they should do to be safe, but only some of them practice it," Nania says.

Other points in your prehunt plan

Safe shooting zones – When hunting with a partner, establish and communicate a safe zone of fire before ducks are flying overhead. If you are in a boat or canoe, do not stand to shoot if your partner is shooting from a seated position. And be considerate of other hunters and people on shore. Your shot may travel up to 400 yards, and you don't want shot raining down on others in the area. Give yourself and others enough space.

Boat train your retriever – With any luck, one of your hunting buddies is your dog. Train your four-legged friend from an early age to lie or sit still en route to the blind, when crossing open water, when drifting a stream or river and when heading back to the landing. Tim Lawhern related stories of accidents where hunters laid a gun down in the boat only to have an excited dog hit the trigger and "the dog became the shooter." A boat offers close quarters, and retrievers need to get accustomed to the boat before the hunting season.

Check your gear – Firearms should be cleaned and closely inspected for any signs of mechanical wear that could result in a problem in the field. Clothing and other equipment should also be inspected for signs of wear and tear. Anything that might compromise your safety should be repaired, discarded or replaced. That includes the boat and boat lights.

Use the right boat for open water hunting – The waterfowl skiff you use on inland waters may not be big enough if you are waterfowl hunting on the near shore of the Great Lakes. "People underestimate the Great Lakes," Treml says. "I've seen hunters out in small boats in dangerous conditions with high winds and waves. A really fun day can become a devastating day all too quickly," he says. "The wind can knock up, you lose your motor and then you either have to call for help or just wait for help to arrive."

Modern small layout boats provide stealth on open water, but they are vulnerable to wind and waves. © Mike Neal
Modern small layout boats provide stealth on open water, but they are vulnerable to wind and waves.

© Mike Neal

Conservation warden Mike Neal, stationed in Sister Bay, notes that open water hunting from a boat surrounded by decoys has dramatically increased since he started hunting more than 30 years ago.

"Fifteen years ago, I used to be the only guy out there with a small, low layout boat, but not anymore," Neal says.

Liberal bag limits, home development near wetlands and loss of habitat explain why birds are becoming more wary near the shore. Hunters are moving to deeper waters and using smaller craft searching for birds that are less spooked.

Portable duck hunting blinds are also more widely available, giving hunters more flexibility to simply move to different waters rather than building a new blind at each site.

You need to leave elbow room. Most duck boats are flat-bottomed and smaller than fishing or ski boats. They are lower to the water with less freeboard to the top of the gunwale, so they are more vulnerable to swamping in rough waters. It's very easy to overload a small jon boat with decoys, equipment, dogs, hunters, guns and game all vying for space.

Make sure the gear doesn't get in the way of having a good time and sharing a great experience. "If we believe in our traditions, like hunting, and think they are important, thenwe need to pass them on," says Jeff Nania. "We need to do that with safety in mind, keep an eye to the sky, and remember that responsible hunting just begins when you buy a license."

Natasha Kassulke is creative products manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Know your target
It's really difficult to identify ducks and geese species on the wing, but hunters have to learn that skill to harvest legally and responsibly. Each bird's size, flight pattern, call, location and height above the water provides clues. But in low light conditions and in rainy, snowy, windy weather, waterfowl ID is tricky. It is especially challenging for inexperienced hunters early in the season.

"If you don't know, don't pull the trigger," Lawhern says.

Dobratz suggests that before the hunting season, take a good field guide with you and spend some time glassing birds at local parks to watch and listen to the different species you are likely to see on the water. These field guides are recommended:

Ducks at a Distance, a pocket-sized free booklet developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is out of print. But DNR Service Centers may still have a few copies, and you can also download it online for free at Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. Outdoor Empire Publishing Company also reprinted it in 8 11" format, and KE Publications includes it in their "Wildlife Identification Pocket Guide" series. Visit KE Publications.

Waterfowl Identification in the Central Flyway was published by states and provinces of the Central Flyway. Most member states and provinces supply complimentary copies to hunters. Contact DNR Service Centers to learn if copies are available, or visit Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.

Once birds are in the hand, consider the LeMaster Method of Waterfowl Identification to become a more knowledgeable hunter. Richard LeMaster made life-size drawings of the shape and color of duck bills to provide a guide for recognizing species. To better identify ducks and geese on the wing, LeMaster charted the flight height that various species use over open water. His renditions of heads, wings and silhouettes of ducks in flight further aid in identification.

If you are new to waterfowl hunting, try to find an experienced mentor and start by hunting over decoys. "It's easier to identify ducks when you are using decoys because they bring wild birds in closer," Dobratz says.

When Jeff Nania mentors new hunters of any age to have safe, enjoyable hunts, he starts with the basics and takes the LeMaster book along to give the newcomers something to do while waiting for the birds to come in.