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What can happen when the weather turns deadly

What can happen when the weather turns deadly What can happen when the weather turns deadly

As the excitement of the fall rut descended upon the state, the bowhunters took to the woods in force. I used to see this with the start of archery season, but now the hunting doesn’t pick up until the rut. A friend’s son, daughter, and himself all bagged nice bucks in a four day period; two of those bucks were quite respectable. His oldest is 12 this year.

Every woodlot has a truck parked by it during the rut, and just about every parking spot has a bowhunter’s truck parked by it in the public forest. The fever is frantic, but the beginning part of it was met with cold and wind. This last week we had some of the most beautiful weather I’ve ever seen in November. Seventies for highs in November for a week straight, are you kidding me? But we all just lived it and enjoyed it.

Eighty years ago today, Armistice Day of 1940, a streak of weather like we just experienced came to an end. Folks were enjoying the holiday, kids even got off of school for the big holiday back then. The bombing of Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened yet, and folks were busy climbing a nation out of a decade-long depression.

The day shot up to the high-60’s with light winds from the south. It was a blue bird day with little flying at first, but as the morning wore on, the ducks started to show up first in pairs, then small flocks. They were dressed for weather in the 60’s, kind of like the young guys I saw hunting ducks this past Sunday around noon. A couple of them were even shirtless for the walk out.

By 3 p.m. the ducks flew into the decoy spreads by the hundreds. Some lifelong duck hunters said they never saw ducks in the numbers they saw that day. It was the best gunning most hunters ever had. But the wind had switched and sometime around noon and blew from the north. By 3 p.m., the winds were gusting to 60 mph and the temperature had dropped drastically.

Hunting coats were made of cotton back then and didn’t stop the wind. And that’s only if the hunters even wore a heavy coat out in the mild weather. There were neoprene waders; most wore hips boots that didn’t leak too bad and weren’t insulated. There were no 16-foot Queen Lori’s with 50-horsepower outboards or bigger. They used skiffs; 12 foot wooden johns with threehorsepower motors or oars. There were no bilge pumps to evacuate water that came over the side; hopefully there was a coffee can because the boat leaked in the first place. The rain came first, then the freezing rain, then the snow blowing sideways. They didn’t have the luxury of propane heaters because they needed the space in the boat for decoys and hunters. Long before dark they knew this wasn’t good and most knew they couldn’t make it to the landing or even a shoreline from the islands they hunted from. Wardens, sheriff deputies and fishermen with big boats tried to do what they could to render aid, but 60 mph winds produced life-threatening waves, even for today’s rigs on the Mighty Miss.

From Trempealeau County north to Pepin County, 20 ducks hunters would die on the Mississippi that day and night; 70 more on the Great Lakes.

By morning a pilot out of Winona, Minn., had joined the search effort along the river, looking for survivors. He’d drop supplies like matches, food, and whiskey to them and guide the rescue boats to them. He found them in pairs, by themselves, and one large group. Some watched their parents and siblings die that night.

Some survived because it wasn’t their time and because of a pilot named Max Conrad from Winona, Minn. Most didn’t have much time left when he guided the rescue boats to them.

They jogged in circles, sparred all night (those that could), burned decoys, or anything else they could think of to stay warm. Those who didn’t stay warm in the blinding storm didn’t make it. Some who survived never hunted ducks again. And, within 18 months, many had enlisted to fight in the Second World War.

Eighty years ago the weather was different and it will always be known as “The Day the Duck Hunters Died.”

Today is Veterans Day, so I thank all of you who have served and made so many sacrifices.