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Windham: Can waterfowling be a deadly sport?

Windham: Can waterfowling be a deadly sport?

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Windham: Can waterfowling be a deadly sport?

Duck hunting is a serious pastime in the region and many waterfowlers spend lots of hours out in less than favorable weather. We are lucky to have the weather forecasting capabilities we have today. Eighty years ago we were not so lucky and over 200 waterfowlers died when an unexpected winter storm blew in. Be careful out there.

The calendar and cooler weather has waterfowlers anxious to get their season started. The date says its time, but as happens often, Mother Nature has the last say. A few ducks and geese are trickling into the region, but we have too mild of weather for November in Nebraska. Most people would say that weather like this is simply good luck and just enjoy it. However, if you study the waterfowl reports, the majority of the ducks and geese that would be coming through our part of the country are in the Dakotas and Manitoba. We need more and longer stretches of cold weather to get them to move south.

You don’t often think of duck hunting as a dangerous sport, but it can be. Any activity that combines firearms, boats, open water and freezing temperatures has a potential to be dangerous. How many stories have you heard about hunters capsizing and getting soaked in freezing water? We had a close call at Sutherland Reservoir a few years ago with this very scenario. However, the events of Nov. 11, 1940, demonstrated just how deadly waterfowling can be.

It was 80 years ago that events conspired to create what is now known as one of the darkest days in hunting for the modern era. It was 1940, World War II was underway in Europe and the U.S. was under increasing pressure to intervene, Veteran’s Day (called Armistice Day back then) provided many Americans with a day to forget about geopolitical tensions overseas and enjoy some time away from daily routines.

Thousands of hunters were planning on spending the day hunting ducks along the upper Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. An unusually warm October made a chill in the air inviting to waterfowlers. The outside air temperature was still warm enough for shirts and light jackets, so many hunters left their heavier gear at home and set off unprepared for the winter storm that was headed their way.

Keep in mind that weather forecasting was not what it is today. Remember, this was before the first satellite was ever put in orbit and long before weather satellites watched over us and meteorologists could see weather patterns and storms develop. There was little warning from weather services, and in popular hunting grounds like the upper Mississippi River, ducks swarmed in by the hundreds of thousands. It was unusual duck behavior, but hunters just accepted it as good fortune.

No one knew that the ducks were streaming in to get away from a storm that would later cut a 1,000-mile-wide swath across the country from Kansas to Michigan, dumping snow and sleet along the way. Snowfalls of up to 27 inches stranded hunters where they sat in their blinds or boats. Twenty foot high snow drifts obscured visibility and made travel almost impossible. The waterfowl knew what was coming and they were trying to outrun it.

The massive blizzard all but shut down emergency services of the day. Even today, this kind of storm would be extremely tough for emergency workers to deal with. Those caught in the storm had to survive by their own ingenuity. Temperatures plummeted to 55 degrees below zero overnight. Word began coming in the next day, more than 150 people were dead within the path of this storm. Many of the fatalities were the duck hunters who had gone out on or along the river.

“Thousands of people were stranded where they didn’t want to be, at work or at school or in trains or in bus terminals — it was just total chaos,” said Owatonna, Minnesota, climatologist Mark Seeley.

Another account I found was from Jim Bice, who was 92 at the time of the interview. He lived in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and he remembered the day well. He and his father went into the storm to save his brother Dick and a friend, La Vern Reiber, who had become trapped on an island in the Mississippi River while hunting ducks. Mr. Bice was 17 at the time.

“My dad and I, and La Vern’s dad, drove to the landing where Dick and La Vern launched their boat. We found their car. But there was no sign of them,” Bice said while recounting the story. “All night we stayed right there, in our cars, running the engines to keep the heaters on.”

Bice said they waited until the ice on the river got thick enough to support them and then walked upriver until they found the two men. They were cold and shivering under their overturned boat with their dogs but they were alive. They were some of the fortunate ones.

About 20 hunters that they knew died along the Mississippi River that day. Most were trapped on the scattered islands in the region and were later found, frozen to death and covered almost entirely in snow. Many others tried to row back across the river, but were swamped by 50 mph winds and waves and fell into the river, where they drowned.

In spite of such overpowering odds, there were still acts of heroism that prevented many more lives from being lost. Many hunters were guided home by friends and family, some sought shelter with strangers, while others banded together to brave the blizzard.

One of the most notable acts of heroism during the storm was when John Bean and Max Conrad, two local aviators, flew up and down the Mississippi River as soon as the blizzard subsided enough for them to see and dropped supplies to stranded hunters they found. Conrad would later earn fame as a record-setting aviator and has a Minnesota airport named in his honor.

Nebraska has its own version of this kind of storm. It is known as the blizzard of 1948. I have interviewed a few people who lived through that event. I hope to be able to relay some of their stories in a future article.

A word to the wise — when you go out hunting, even in “nice November weather,” be prepared for a change. Pack extra gear and always have a way to start a fire. You never know, be careful out there.


Henry Repeating Arms announced recently that it is voluntarily recalling all H015-series Single Shot Rifles and Single Shot Shotguns manufactured prior to July 1. I know we have a few of these rifles in the area because I have seen them auctioned off at several conservation organization banquets in the last year.

To prevent the possibility of death or serious personal injury, Henry recommends that you stop using any H015-series Single Shot Rifles and/or Single Shot Shotguns and not load or fire them until they have been upgraded. The safety issue leading to this voluntary recall was discovered internally while testing the existing fire control system for a trigger pull upgrade. This is the first product safety recall in the company’s nearly 25-year history.

Henry Repeating Arms is requesting that all Single Shot Rifles and Single Shot Shotguns be returned to be upgraded free of charge pursuant to this recall to prevent the possibility of the firearm discharging without the trigger being pulled. All H015 owners should visit the Henry H015 Recall website at, email, or call 1-866-200-2354.

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