Return to Big Muddy

By author of The Duck Blog

A stunning canvasback show welcomes back a hunter absent for three decades

I was early for being late.

Sure, my phone read 3:30 a.m., so I was technically on time for the day’s hunt. Yet somehow, I felt tardy for a return engagement to a locale that had forged something special within me decades earlier.

The scene looked familiar, even in the dark; Ferryville, Wisconsin, gateway to the famed Pool 9 of the Mississippi River. It’s a well-known destination for duck hunters, especially those seeking canvasbacks, as the pool attracts tens of thousands of the big birds every autumn. But more important personally, Pool 9 had been the scene of my first waterfowl hunt as an awkward 12-year-old boy almost 38 years ago. And the lone hen mallard I ground-swatted there one day was my first duck.

I’d hunted Pool 9 a few more times as a youth but hadn’t returned since a quick Saturday morning foray when I was in college, 29 years earlier. During my absence, the water’s reputation and popularity had increased, yet I stayed away, content to chase waterfowl at other spots.

That changed in 2015, when friend Jeremy Dersham, owner of Ridge and River Running Outfitters, asked if I wanted to tag along on a November hunt at Pool 9. I accepted quickly.

A tap on the window snapped me out of my daydream. Troy Maaser, another guest of Dersham’s and a former Wisconsin duck calling champion, greeted me and said we were ready to go. I joined him at the dock, along with Dersham and Maaser’s father, Terry. Soon, we piled into Dersham’s boat, and he piloted us across choppy waters toward a submerged mid-pool sandbar, as rain slashed across our faces along the way.

As we helped ready long lines and Texas rigs by headlamp light, Dersham gave us a preview of the day.

“It’s been so warm,” he said. “The river is holding lots of cans, but they’ve been staying on the refuge and then rafting up in open water during the day. Still, with this wind, we’ll get some action.”

Dersham’s prediction proved true at first light, as a pair of gadwalls floated in against the breeze. Guns boomed, and Maaser’s young dog hit the water for two retrieves.

Ducks zipped here and there the first hour, and we picked up a few more birds. Still, everyone seemed to be waiting for the main event — the canvasback show.

“Watch,” Dersham said. “Pretty soon, you’ll see flocks start to come in to feed, and then it will be nonstop. And after a while, they’ll start rafting up in the open water out here.”

Sure enough, as visibility improved, we glimpsed clouds of ducks sailing toward the river’s rich wild celery beds. Binoculars revealed what we’d hoped for: cans. And as the morning wore on, the action only increased, as wave after wave of the majestic birds soared back and forth across the river. Soon, the hunt seemed to focus more on the canvasback spectacle than shooting ducks.

But Dersham brought us back to reality.

“Right,” he said. “Get ready.”

A group of buffleheads swept across the decoys, and we rose to meet them. Three birds splashed down and bobbed in the waves. Soon after, a flock of goldeneyes roared over the blocks, and we plucked two from the group. Later, a pair of mallards offered a high shot, and we took a stunning drake.

But amazingly, after seeing thousands of cans, we didn’t have one in the boat. The flocks landed short or skirted past the decoys, never offering a shot. Finally, though, a lone bull zipped downwind of our setup and banked on the breeze.

“He’s coming from behind,” Maaser said. “We’ll only have one chance.”

With that, he rose and folded the drake with a nifty going-away shot. The can’s stark-white breast and iridescent red head added a nice bit of color to our straps.

Finally, at about 2 p.m., we agreed to call the day good and headed for shore. We’d taken a respectable bag of ducks and had witnessed one of the finest wildlife shows in North America. Moreover, I’d finally reconnected with a body of water that had shaped my life in so many ways years earlier.

“Careful driving home,” Dersham said when we reached the dock. “It’s easy to nod off after a short night and a cold day on the river.”

No worries there. I’d replay the hunt in my mind again and again, reliving every shot and each cloud of canvasbacks, eagerly anticipating another return jaunt to Big Muddy.

Editor’s note: You can contact Jeremy Dersham at Ridge and River Running Outfitters at (608) 617-4069.