Duck hunters from across North America are drawn to the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to hunt prized canvasbacks each fall. No wonder, considering that at the peak of the migration, 300,000 or more cans raft on Pool 9 alone.
But while these trophy-minded duck hunters ply the river to decoy and shoot a mount-worthy canvasback, many of them discover that the Mighty Miss is a super highway for another popular species: mallards.
The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 261-mile stretch of just over 240,000 acres that begins at the confluence of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin and ends near Rock Island, Illinois. The refuge also encompasses parts of Iowa and Minnesota. Established in 1924, it is one of the largest blocks of floodplain in the United States. As importantly, it serves as a major fall migration corridor for ducks and geese, beginning in late August when the blue-winged teal flit south, and continuing deep into duck season, usually right until freeze-up.
And while hunters on the Upper Mississippi River certainly find mallards using the backwaters at any point in the duck season, later is usually better. Migrating mallards are notoriously the last species to leave the prairie breeding grounds, so much so that when winter grips the prairie — usually in late November — the push of greenheads can be spectacular.
Even without a major weather event, plenty of mallards venture south before the final freeze, offering bountiful hunting for freelance waterfowlers willing to scout the river’s expansive backwaters.
A word of caution: Weather and currents on the big river can be unforgiving, so make sure your boat and safety equipment are up to the task. It’s always best to make a dry run in the light of day, or find another hunter who knows the river for your maiden trip.
Hunting with a guide is an excellent option. A couple of top outfitters operate on Pool 9 near Ferryville, Wisconsin, and other guide services cater to duck hunters up and down the refuge.
So while the Upper Mississippi Refuge is widely known as a canvasback hotspot, don’t overlook its prowess as a mallard mecca.