POOL 5, MISSISSIPPI RIVER -- The canvasback is North America's fastest duck. Either that or it isn't. Around here Thursday, pushed by a strong northwest wind, everything that flew was fast, even tundra swans, but more so the thousands of ring-necked ducks that traded up and down the Mississippi -- also the scaup but most magnificently the canvasbacks, some 300,000 of which will gather along this part of the river in coming days.
For eons, most North American "cans" have treated the Mississippi near the Minnesota and Iowa border as a great funnel through which they fly south to the Gulf Coast, or, curiously, a jumping-off point from which a portion of them arrow east, to Chesapeake Bay. A wondrous sight, this gathering of so many canvasbacks in one place: My thinking Thursday morning at 5 when my alarm clock rang was that I wanted to see it for myself.
My idea also was to hunt. So I tossed the old Winchester into the pickup, loaded a dog and also hooked up my johnboat, nominally powered. The limit on canvasbacks in Minnesota is one daily. So they really are trophies -- the "bull," or male, can in particular, with its rust-colored head and canvas-toned back suggesting, accurately, artistry on wings.
"Let's see what happens," I thought, and pulled out of the driveway.
The temptation always is to say one's musical tastes run more upscale than country-western, with its frequent meanderings about momma, trains, trucks, prison and gettin' drunk. But even musicologists can't easily dismiss a genre that has produced lines like, "Walk out backwards so I think you're walking in," and "Billy broke my heart at Walgreens and then I cried all the way to Sears." So it was country I listened to as I drove downriver, the Mississippi somewhere on my left, in the dark, and Ben, the black Lab, where he should be, riding shotgun, snoozing.
When I hunt ducks alone, my wife worries. At least that's what I thought she said, yawning. Nevertheless, in a nod toward good sense I pulled on a life jacket after setting adrift the old Wards Sea King at the public launch site on the Mississippi just downstream from the village of Weaver. The early morning by then did indeed portend the coming winter: steel-gray sky, northwest wind, cold.
Hunting alone sharpens the senses. You really can't be daydreaming in situations like these. Atop the big river was a mild chop and we -- Ben and I -- plowed through it, moderately weighed down. I had 15 oversized Herter's canvasback blocks in the bow, and a dozen mallard decoys.
Also aboard were a push-pole and paddle, extra gas, shells, calls, the gun, a two-bit sandwich, an apple and a thermos of coffee. Ahead of us, coots by the multiples of thousands cleared a path, running atop the water.
The heavy rains that fell in September put the Mississippi in flood, and along this part of the mighty waterway wiped out sizable stands of fragmites, particularly those anchored toward the middle of the river. These were places that in previous years hunters could hide their boats while positioning themselves near routes commonly flown by canvasbacks, ringnecks, scaup and other divers.
When I left the landing, four pickup-and-trailer rigs were there, in addition to mine, and hunters from none of these were perched toward the middle of the river, as they might commonly be. Instead, like me, they were forced to hunt from the marshlike cover along the Minnesota shoreline of the Mississippi.
Not bad. But not the best.
This stretch of the river, basically from Wabasha, Minn., (just upriver from where I hunted) south to Clinton, Iowa, is part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge -- arguably, your government at work at its best. Some 261 miles long, covering 12 pools and 240,000 acres, the refuge at times in fall is home to half of the continent's canvasbacks and 20 percent of its tundra swans; 300 species of birds can be found on the refuge, and, in summer, 5,000 heron nests.
I threw out my decoys while ringnecks by the hundreds -- thousands -- were airborne nearly continuously. But these birds overflew the middle portion of the river, unreachable. Also canvasbacks were in the air aplenty. But these ducks, too, generally winged north and south over the middle of the river.
Ben and I hunkered down nonetheless, alert. As we did, I recalled a memorial at the boat landing that said, "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot." Which pretty much explains my contentedness just then in an old boat with an old dog and with so many ducks in sight, but also out of reach.
Three times in the next few hours tight knots of canvasbacks banked toward our decoys. Each time I could have shot, but didn't. My concern wasn't that I would miss, but that I might by accident hit two, putting me afoul of the limit.
Hours passed. I never pulled the trigger. But the day was good enough, and in time I loaded the boat and drove upriver to Wabasha, to Slippery Bach's old place, and ordered a Slippery Burger.
Ben was in the front seat by then, snoozing. Soon dark, I drove home, tapping one foot to songs about momma, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk.