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M&J Outdoor Communications » Waterfowling the Ole Man: A Day On The Mississippi


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Waterfowling the Ole Man: A Day On The Mississippi

It’s been a tough three years. Or to be more specific, a most difficult and frustrating three duck seasons. You see, my wife and I moved to Iowa in the summer of 1997 from Washington state, a land where waterfowlers enjoy more than 100 days of duck hunting each year. A place where bag limits are liberal and hunting pressure is often non-existent. It’s a place where four - no, maybe five lifetimes wouldn’t provide enough time to hunt over a spread of decoys on even 10 percent of the public wetlands.

But here in Iowa , my decoys and layout boats have since ‘97 simply sat and gathered dust. Three consecutive warm winters had all but eliminated any type of migration. Too, low water levels over much of the state worked to concentrate the hoards of duck hunters and duck hunter wanna-bes on the few remaining wetland areas and, well, my Czechoslovakian background, what little there is of it, doesn’t mesh well with overcrowded marshes. To fill the void, we turned to other things like turkeys, whitetails, and pheasants; however, and while our oldest black lab all but forgot what ducks were, we nonetheless missed waterfowling.

Enter Tony Toye. We first heard tell of Toye while hunting spring snow geese in southwest Iowa during March of 1998. This was the same year - in fact, the same week - that the freak storm blew into the Midwest from the North and Northwest, shutting Interstate 80 throughout much of Nebraska and Iowa, and trapping myself, my wife, a four-year-old black lab, and a five-month old and as yet unhouse-broken lab puppy in a place called The Tall Corn Motel for five full days. Toye, we learned later, was in Iowa from his home in Wisconsin working with members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a project which involved evaluating and possibly legalizing the use of electronic calling devices during the late winter and spring snow goose seasons.

“You should get in touch with Tony,” said Phil Bourjaily, a fellow outdoor writer and temporary inmate at The Tall Corn. “He hunts ducks on the Mississippi , with canvasbacks being his specialty. You should look into it.” At the time, however, all we wanted to look at was our own driveway.

Here we jump ahead some three and one-half years. It’s late October in the New Millenium, and we’re still frustrated with Iowa waterfowling. That, however, was about to change, thanks to Tony Toye and an incredible body of water known as the Mississippi River.

“Tony? M.D. Johnson. Say, my wife and I are working on a waterfowl hunting book, and we need to shoot some photography of folks hunting divers. We understand you’re somewhat of a specialist when it comes to hunting canvasbacks there on the river. Any chance of hooking up with you and spending some time behind some can blocks?” And it was true. We had contracted to write and illustrate our first book, a modern yet traditional waterfowling how-to, and while we had plenty of film depicting dozens upon dozens of hunts featuring any number of different puddle duck species, our stocks were severely limited when it came to anything to do with divers.

“You come up the end of the month,” said Toye, “and we’ll see what we can do.”

Monday, 30 October. Fortunately I’d seen and Julie, my wife, had grown up around Washington ’s awesome Columbia River because for those who haven’t had the privilege of seeing such an expanse, the first look at the Mississippi is truly breath-taking. High, craggy shoreline bluffs edged in yellows, golds, and reds provided an obvious reminder to us both that we certainly weren’t in inland Iowa any longer. Every dozen miles or so, tiny riverfront towns, most only a main street and a set of railroad tracks, sprouted signs the read “Dew Drop Inn,” “Bill’s Tavern,” or “Smoked Carp Sold Here.” Upstream and down, the diesel haze from passing barges pushing cans to destinations only their captains knew brought a smile of Evergreen State nostalgia to our faces. It was, as Julie said quietly, a brief glimpse at home only 100 miles away.

Earlier that morning, the four of us - Julie, myself, Toye, and his three-legged chocolate lab, Deacon - had launched Toye’s sled at a very well-maintained ramp at Ferryville on the Wisconsin side of the river, and had made the brief run out and slightly upstream to an incredibly natural-looking man-made island. After two attempts to conceal the big boat blind proved not only difficult but futile due to the high winds and waves, Toye opted for a quieter location some 200 yards to the west. Quickly, the guide and I maneuvered the boat onto the upstream point of a very small island, and while Julie positioned what Toye called “witch’s brooms” - clumps of foxtail and other native grasses zip-tied around long dry posts - strategically around the boat, Toye and I began to set out the decoys. First, a “blob,” as the guide called it, of smaller canvasback decoys, approximately 50 in all, were arranged running out and upstream from the stern of the boat. This spread was continued with another 30 or so magnum canvasback decoys. A hole was left between the two groups to serve as a landing area. Puddle duck decoys, primarily mallards with a old black duck or two thrown in for what I figured was the sake of tradition, were then set directly off the upstream or starboard side of the blind. Additional puddlers, along with four Canada goose floaters, were then spread randomly off the bow. As a finishing touch, Toye posted two RotoDucks, one at either end of the blind. The rigging was completed by running the motion decoy leads - no six-volt batteries here. These electric ducks are powered by a 12-volt deep-cycle marine battery which does not lack for juice! - into the boat and plugging them into their respective jacks. A couple padded boat seats, a little arranging of gear and calls, and we, as Toye said, were open for business.

Almost immediately, Julie and I knew that this wasn’t going to be our typical Midwestern duck hunt. First, we were seeing ducks. Second, we were seeing lots of ducks. And third, and most surprisingly, we could only see one other boat, and they weren’t within 500 yards of our position. We couldn’t hear them call, and without binoculars, we couldn’t even see them unless they got out of their blind to play in the decoys. After three years of hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing, we could have pulled up then and gone home, and I would have been a very, very happy guy.

But it wasn’t nearly over. The first drake can, one of a two hen-one drake trio, fell to our host’s Benelli within 10 minutes of the opening bell. Two drake mallards and a gadwall later, I had - and made good - my first time in 26 years of waterfowling opportunity to tag a drake canvasback. As the bull splashed down among the decoys, it was high fives, handshakes, and a hearty hug from Julie - which, by the way gentlemen, is an incredible benefit of hunting with your significant other. By noon , we’d seen several thousand ducks, including a beautiful flock of cans that caught us all flat-footed, goldeneyes, buffleheads, and even one small group of sprig, and had managed despite some accuracy trauma to add another pair of drake mallards and a gorgeous grey duck to our bag.

Back at the ramp, once all the film had been shot, we arranged and rearranged and re-rearranged the eight birds, and agreed between ourselves that our faith had indeed been restored in waterfowling the Midwest . Toye, a relatively quiet fellow, every now and then glanced over and smiled a knowing, “told you so” type of smile. He’d seen us before, probably a hundred times over the handful of years he’d guided on the big river. We were the resurrected, the appeased - all thanks to a talented young man, a three-legged dog, and a fascinating experience called the Mississippi River .

Mississippi Divers 101

I was raised by a puddle duck man, a now-retired high school biology teacher who cut his waterfowling eyeteeth on the hoards of mallards, blacks, and wood ducks that both made their home and passed through his tiny corner of northeastern Ohio during the late 70s and early 80s. Times have changed somewhat for my father. Many of the marshes that still remain in the northern part of the Buckeye State, those untouched by tile, brick, and the developer’s hand, have changed ownership to the point where the old farmers, the “Of course you can hunt here again. Now stop asking me, will ya!” kind of folks that were of my father’s time and era, are now only memories and names on stones. Oh, he still finds a mallard or two along the Mahoning River , and there’s more geese, he says, than he can remember; however, I digress.

It’s not that my father, Mick, had anything against divers. Actually, he never gave them much thought. And, being a product of his outdoor instruction, neither did I. Truth was, we saw very few divers in the flooded pin oak swamps and cattails marshes of my native Ohio . Oh, there was the odd bufflehead or two on the Mahoning every winter, tiny little tuxedo-clad teal-sized birds that I recognized from years of reading Ducks at a Distance. And occasionally we’d see, or more precisely hear, a passing flock of goldeneyes as we fished Lake Erie in the early fall for that last-chance big walleye of the year. But to purposely hunt divers? Hell, I didn’t even own a duck call until I was in my mid-20s as, according to my father’s teaching, “they’re either going to be here. Or they’re not.”.

So it was with 26 years of waterfowling experience, and yet probably fewer than 26 minutes of total diver duck hunting time that Julie and I made our first sojourn to the banks of the famed Mississippi River. Fortunately, Toye is accustomed to answering any of the 1,001 questions that come with what can only be described as this incredible and most traditional of waterfowling artforms, one of the most often-asked being the single most important element to diver hunting success on the Mississippi. His answer, even to a puddle duck man such as myself, came as little surprise.

“Location. I mean if you put out a big enough decoy spread, you can pick up a diver or two. But if you’re in the best spot with a huge decoy spread, it can be a case of ‘Don’t touch your gun barrel ’cause it’s too hot.’ It’s just all location,” said Toye.

Location. That sounds elemental enough; however, when one considers Toye’s home pool on the Mississippi, Pool 9, runs more than 25 river miles and contains literally hundreds of thousands of publicly accessible waterfowling opportunities, the word location - translation: where - takes on an altogether different and potentially frustrating meaning. With that said, how then does Toye go about separating the good from the bad?

“The way we scout is by truck. We’ll just drive looking for a good group of cans close enough to shore. There’s probably six or seven good miles along this side (Ferryville, Wisconsin) of the river that you can see well from the road. And the other (Iowa) side is all refuge, so it’s basically all or nothing along this side. The other thing is that you have to be in the exact spot where the birds were when you first saw them. That’s the spot where the birds are going to decoy,” said Toye.

Following the day on the river with Toye, it became all too apparent that while hunting divers, and particularly the famed canvasback, is a most traditional activity, it is also one wrought with misconceptions. Two of the ones that I boarded the boat carrying and which were both quickly dispelled concerned the theories that successful diver hunting is (1) a deep-water undertaking, and (2) best done over open - as in nothing around for miles and miles - water.

As Toye explained, Pool 9 is one of the shallower pools on the Mississippi River, averaging from three to six feet in depth throughout all but the main shipping channel. Years spent in scuba gear, equipment which was a necessary part of his one-time career as a commercial clammer on the river, provide Toye with an incredible amount of invaluable information concerning the Mississippi’s depth and bottom structure, as well as volumes of details dealing with the wide variety of natural plant and animal foods that make up the diet not only of the canvasbacks and other divers that frequent the pool, but the assortment of puddle duck species also found there throughout the year.

“The primary food for the cans here on the pool is wild celery, with fingernail clams and zebra mussels next in line,” said Toye, who explained that it does surprise many of his clients the first time he jumps from the bow of the boat in the middle of such a huge expanse of river, only to have the water often barely be hip-deep.

The second falsehood, that being the open-water theory, is both true and false on the Mississippi. Or at least on the Wisconsin portion of it. It’s true, certainly, that canvasbacks and other divers are indeed fond of the wide-open spaces, and any late October or early November drive along western Wisconsin’s Highway 35.

If you go

Tony Toye is a borderline perfectionist, which, for a Type A, anal retentive person such as myself, is a wonderful bonus. His equipment is top-notch, and his abilities among the finest in the Midwest. While he certainly will let his people assist with the almost infinite number of duties necessary to put on such a hunt, he also knows what needs to be done and how he wants it done.

With Toye, safety is of the utmost concern, and ranks as Priority One, both on the water and off. Prior to the first round being chambered, the guide goes throw his on-board safety requirements, which include fields of fire, gun-handling, dog reminders, and other items. During the hunt, shotgun barrels are safely locked away in no-mar rubber clips - without question an excellent idea; however, the clips do take some getting used to when it comes time to “take ‘em.” Fortunately, Toye went through the process with Julie and me a couple times which, though beneficial, effectively eliminated my pre-fab “I couldn’t get the gun out” excuse.

Hunts are conducted from a roomy, 18-foot I believe, plate boat powered by a smooth-running 90-horsepower Mercury outboard. Toye has done a fantastic job of camouflaging his skiff, and waterfowlers from coast to coast will walk away with literally dozens of gear and gadget ideas, many of which the guide has designed and implemented himself.

Toye begins hunting the Mississippi in mid-October and continues through the close of Wisconsin’s season in early December. Traditionally, the best time for canvasbacks is the last week in October and the first week in November, when more than 250,000 of the majestic birds will raft on this section of the Upper Mississippi River. And while cans provide the major draw for many of Toye’s clients, other ducks including mallards, blacks, widgeon, gadwall, teal, scaup, goldeneyes, redheads, and buffleheads are all on the menu.

For pricing, scheduling, or just enough story-telling to whet any waterfowler’s appetite, hunters can contact Toye by writing Big River Guide Service, 43605 CTH E, Boscobel, WI, 53805, or calling 608-375-7447. He can also be reached electronically at .

Oh, and by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that scrambled eggs and bacon taste better anywhere than they do when eaten on a duck boat in the middle of the Mississippi River. I can vouch for that one personally.