BRICE PRAIRIE, Wis. (MCT) — The Mississippi River wears broad, high shoulders around Brice Prairie.
Only when you come to the edge of the bluffs do you get a sense for what lies in between.
“Enough to fill a lifetime,” said Marc Schultz, looking out at the wide maze of water and vegetation from his home in Brice Prairie.
Graced with an early autumn afternoon, we intended to hunt and fish and gather in the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
The 2012 duck hunting season was in its third day in the Mississippi Zone. A pothole in a wild-rice bed beckoned.
But before that, we planned to see if the yellow perch were biting. And along the way, we might even pick some berries.
Late September is nothing if not harvest time.
Schultz has lived and worked along the river since 1981, most of the time spent as a Wisconsin Extension agent.
Few people know the river in La Crosse County as well as Schultz.
Our first stop was a back channel of the river, shielded from the brisk west wind and punctuated with downed trees.
We used simple spinning tackle to toss bobbers and minnows or soft plastic baits close to the woody structure.
The yellow perch were home. We caught fish on nearly every cast, keeping a dozen or so from 9 inches and up.
The action slowed about 3 p.m.
“I think the perch are telling us to go duck hunting,” Schultz said. We picked up and began the transition, but not before visiting a raspberry patch and collecting some of the last berries of the year.
Minutes later Schultz steered his jonboat toward the main river channel.
We passed several islands with burgeoning stands of oak trees, planted as a project of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association, a local conservation club.
We also passed a survival hut installed by the club. The structure is designed to help boaters, anglers, hunters or others who are stranded on the river.
Memories of the Armistice Day Storm in 1940 still run strong along the Mississippi River. The storm claimed 154 lives, including many duck hunters in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As we weaved through channels and around islands, perhaps most noticeable of all were acre upon acre of wild rice beds.
The plants grew 4 to 6 feet above the water; many still had seeds on the stalks.
After a run on the main river Schultz turned down a curving side channel and beached the boat on an island.
Acorns littered the shore and shallows. Moments after we arrived a water snake crawled out of the river and onto a nearby log.
Overnight temperatures near freezing had dropped the water temperature into the 50s. The sunny, 60-something degree afternoon was just what the snake’s metabolism craved.
In a few minutes, John Wetzel of Holmen arrived, his boat carrying our canine corps for the day.
It would be a three-dog hunt: Gaia and Berlitz, black Labrador retrievers, and Allie, a German wire-haired pointer.
The dogs bounded out and explored the island. We hiked through the mixed river-bottom forest to the south.
After a quarter-mile, the trees ended and the wild rice began. An oval of open water, about the size of a basketball court, sat 30 yards to the south of the woods.
Wood ducks and teal had been using the opening for an overnight roost site.
We used no decoys.
“It’s patience and scouting,” Wetzel said. “And enjoying the day.”
We rested in the shade of silver maples, tossed sticks for the dogs and looked over the extensive wild rice beds.
“We’ve got rice on the river like we’ve never had it before,” said Wetzel, who has lived and worked along the river for over 30 years.
He retired in 2001 from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, where he worked as the state waterfowl biologist and later as the Mississippi River wildlife biologist.
The rice is a boon to waterfowl and other wildlife, both for cover and food.
The afternoon breeze was punctuated by the calls of sora rails and Wilson’s snipe. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds swirled through the marsh.
And as the afternoon wore on, ducks began to take to the air.
A half dozen blue-winged teal screamed overhead, followed by a pair of wood ducks.
At 5 p.m., we decided it might be a good idea to take up positions closer to the pothole.
The high, thick wild rice and other vegetation provided a natural blind. We spread out over about a 40-yard stretch on the north edge of the opening, hunkered down and kept the dogs at our heels.
For the next hour, ducks passed overhead and down a channel to our east but wouldn’t drop in to our spot.
Then a lone drake wood duck sets its wings and Wetzel made a good shot. Gaia brought the bird to hand.
Minutes later, another drake woodie filtered down and presented a shot for me. Berlitz made the retrieve.
A single blue-winged teal circled close and was added to the bag.
The last hour passed with two more shooting opportunities for our group but no additional ducks.
The show, however, was impressive.
Over 100 wood ducks and teal and perhaps a dozen mallards and ringbills worked the sky over the rice.
Schultz believed the windy, warm afternoon caused the birds to change their routine and kept most of them away from our pothole.
We saw many woodies set down along a channel about 400 yards away.
“I get a bigger thrill watching a lot of ducks than shooting them,” Schultz said, giving voice to a unanimous sentiment of the group.
At 6:45, the half moon had brightened to the south and the air cooled. With the sun dropping below the Minnesota bluffs, we unloaded our guns and walked back to the boats.
The chatter of rails and whistles of wood ducks echoed through the marsh.
Under moonlight, we motored back to the Wisconsin shore, carrying the rich bounty of a day on the river.