HORICON, Wis. -- Dawn greeted us with temperatures in the 30s and overcast skies.
By 7 a.m. the clouds appeared to touch the water; Horicon Marsh was peppered by sleet. An hour later, a northwest wind accelerated to 25 mph and a cold front pushed through. The bottom dropped out of the mercury, the precipitation turned to snow.
The conditions were enough to test the gear and resolve of any waterfowler.
Bryan Muche smiled with delight.
"I was hoping for a grand passage," said Muche, of Barrington Hills, Ill. "It feels right."
Muche and I ventured into the marsh for an end-of-duck-season outing. It was part hunt, part homage to waterfowl hunting traditions.
Muche, 43, holds in high regard the history of waterfowl hunting the Horicon area.
His grandfather, Walter Muche Sr., lived and worked in Mayville on the eastern edge of the famous wetland.
Muche was raised in Elkhorn and would make frequent trips with his father to hunt with his grandfather at Horicon. He vividly recalls getting in a gunny sack and lying on the ground during a goose hunt as well as motoring down the marsh's main ditch. It was years before he could even carry a firearm. But such moments can fuel a lifetime passion for the outdoors.
In Muche's case, it also kindled a deep appreciation for the history of waterfowling, especially at Horicon Marsh. For Muche, conservation includes a devotion to wildlife, hunting and history.
In recent years he has purchased and put items on display at the Horicon Marsh International Education Center. The gear includes a 1920s wooden skiff and paddles and 1950s-era hunting clothing.
"If you don't work to preserve these things, they'll be gone forever," Muche said.
Muche and I met on a previous hunt at Horicon and he hatched an idea: How about one final hunt with the vintage equipment?
We started the project with a Sunday night dinner hosted by Muche and Jane Murray at River Bend Inn in Mayville, a bed and breakfast owned and run by Murray.
Muche invited several veteran duck hunters and historians from the area, including Earl Polzen and his wife, Joanne; Emil Lazich and Don Miescke. All have lived adjacent to the marsh for at least seven decades.
We dined on grilled duck breasts and goose sausage, sat around the fireplace and recounted the history of the marsh.
Waterfowl hunting was a primary activity in the Horicon area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Much of it was market hunting to supply major cities with meat.
Miescke said his uncle Don Miescke was a market hunter who once used a punt gun (an oversized shotgun that was later outlawed) to kill 98 ducks with one shot.
Hunting evolved, however, to more sporting means. And with the 1934 introduction of the Federal Duck Stamp, hunters annually contribute millions of dollars for the purchase of wildlife habitat, including the 22,000-acre Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.
On a recent Monday morning, Muche and I made an o-dark-thirty trip to the western edge of Horicon and launched at Burnett Ditch. For safety, we made one major accommodation -- since the skiff was not watertight, we used a powerboat to tow it into the marsh, then hunted out of the old wooden boat.
The skiff features pointed ends, allowing it to easily push into cattails for concealment. It was seaworthy enough to put out decoys. The oar locks groaned as the boat pushed through the dark water.
Muche wore a 1950s-era canvas coat and hat and shouldered a Browning A-5 shotgun of similar vintage. Most of our decoys were old Herter's blocks.
We nudged the skiff into the vegetation, sat on burlap-covered buckets and waited to see what the day would bring.
Except for our neoprene waders and the powerboat sitting nearby, the scene could have been from decades ago. It's possible, however, the old skiff had never held hunters with a greater reverence for waterfowling tradition.
The experience highlighted an obvious fact -- modern gear makes it far easier than ever to enjoy the outdoors. It also illustrated the improvement in clothing over the years. As the temperature fell, precipitation froze on Muche's coat. "I'm feeling a little like the Tin Man," said Muche.
The cold front brought lots of weather but relatively few ducks.
Twice I unloaded and cased my gun to take photographs. Each time a duck decoyed into our spread. Muche fired the old shotgun and his dog Dutch made quick retrieves on a drake northern shoveler and drake mallard. Game often presents itself when a hunter isn't ready to shoot.
We wondered if old-time hunters had the same experience. Muche said some things are timeless. And he added: "I hope that with some care, this gear will be around for a long, long time, too, as a reminder of our past and the importance of hunters to the marsh."
By noon we pulled the skiff out of the marsh, its wooden planks kissed one last time by Horicon water.
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