By Chris Larsen
As a group, hunters are an enthusiastic bunch. We have to be. We get up early in the morning and slog through muck, mud, and anything else in our way just to sit out in the elements and hope our target game gives us an opportunity. It would be a heck of a lot easier to fight for a parking spot at the local Piggly Wiggly and buy our meat in a plastic tray. But for most of us, the meat is just icing on the cake. We’re there for a connection to the outdoors, a link to our ancestors, a chance to feel like a hunter-gatherer in a society of debit cards and shopping bags.
For duck hunters, the process is even more important. We live for the moment wings lock and feet drop as the birds make their descent into our decoy spreads. We see the individual beauty in every bird as we inspect the feathers. We recall the way they took an extra pass before deciding our flock of imposters was the real McCoy. But when we share photos of our hunt they look like any other duck to folks who don’t know any better. There are no big duck contests at the local tavern. There is no song called The Thirty Point Duck. The glory in duck hunting is being there, in the moment. Some moments are better than others.
I craved a sneak hunt on the Kinnickinnic River from the first day I laid eyes on it. The Kinni is a legendary trout stream in Western Wisconsin. But come October 1, the trout season is over and trout anglers hang up their creels for another winter. I have kayaked the river several times and chased up plenty of ducks and geese on it as I passed by farm fields, stands of cedar and hardwoods, and upland habitat. But I have never hunted it… until today.
I called Foremost Outdoor TV ProStaffer Jesse Windmiller to gauge his interest in a sneak hunt. He is easily coerced into doing things most folks would have the common sense to avoid. True to form, he was up for it this time too. The plan was to pull on our waders and hike slowly and methodically up the river while looking for loafing waterfowl around every corner.
About 15 minutes into the journey we could hear muffled quacking. However, the river straightened and we thought it would be better to climb out of the water and slip through cover to get closer to our potential quarry. As we approached the target zone, the quacking grew louder and we anticipated touching off a volley of shots. I visualized mallards lifting off the water and attempting to escape. The shooting would be more like pheasant hunting than duck hunting.
As we eased closer to the ducks, we were busted… literally. There would be no shooting. Sure, the greenheads we envisioned were still there. They offered easy shots as well. In fact, they never lifted a feather let alone a wing. These magnum mallards were spared thanks to their snow white companions. We successfully stalked a flock of rogue farm animals. They probably waddled down to the river from the barn just upstream from us.
We stopped to swallow our pride and regroup. As we continued up the Kinnickinnic, it‘s reputation as a trout stream was confirmed. Trout scattered at our boots. They say this stretch of the river is home to 5,000 fish per lineal mile. That’s about one fish per foot for those of you scoring at home. Judging by our experience, that estimate may be a lowball guess.
One of the issues facing this and many other rivers like it is development. We decided to turn back when a handful of homes appeared around another bend. Our game strap was empty but we did have a moment of heart pounding excitement during our livestock sneak. Jesse and I headed downstream with anticipation of an easier walk. Your legs work hard while trudging against the current of a river like the Kinni. Our return trip would be eased by the water helping to move our legs.
However, the crystal clear water becomes muddied when awkward rubber boots slog through the remaining vegetation and muck. We could no longer see what was ahead of us. Trout streams have shallow riffles and rapids broken up by calm, deep pools. These characteristics are vital for trout. They also make the river a popular haunt for waterfowl in late winter when ponds and lakes freeze over. We made note of a few places that would be great spots to drop in a few goose decoys late in the year. I like to use small spreads on these bodies of water. When everything is froze up, all you need is a few honks and a handful of big decoys to set the trap.
Seconds later, the trap was surely set. Jesse located the deepest pool on the Kinni. Panic rushed to his face as he lifted his gun over his head to prevent his beloved BPS from taking on water. I shouted instructions to him as he waded to the nearest shoreline. The water kept getting deeper and he nearly floated his hat. I thought I would have to assist him just as he began stepping out of the depths. We were both relieved, but only one of us was dry. Jesse was soaked all the way to his neck and we still had a long walk. Neoprene does a nice job of keeping water out in most cases. It’s also incredibly insulating. As long as we kept walking, he would remain warm. With temperatures in the mid-40’s it was a little scary, but not life threatening as long as we kept moving.
The hunt was over and we made it back to the truck with no further problems. I felt guilty for putting Jesse through this and apologized. It was one of those days that you should have stayed in bed, where it’s warm and dry. But Jesse is a sportsman. He knows the highs and lows of life as a hunter. When I said, “we should have stayed home,” he quipped, “No, we should have gone pheasant hunting."