Forest and Stream, History in the Outdoors

Podcast Host - Bryan Muche

Bryan's earliest memories of adventure in legend and local lore he heard at the feet of the old duck hunters as they retold lively accounts of hunting the great Horicon Marsh.  Influenced by those early mentors, he embraced their belief that “the means is greater than the end” in outdoor sport. 

While enjoying many outdoor pursuits, Bryan most appreciates the journey along which the quest for waterfowl takes him. Preferring vintage gear and watercraft more than a half century old he believes “taking up the ways of the old duck hunters” enhances the experience and brings a closer personal connection to the outdoors.  A simpler style of hunting that celebrates our waterfowling heritage and the waterfowler’s readiness towards challenging whatever tomorrow’s wind may bring.

While time has changed the clothing and watercraft taken by hunters into the chase of fall migration, the heart & soul of the duck hunter from the late 1800’s through the 1960’s and even to today is very much the same.  Sharing the traditions, history and the joys of an outdoor lifestyle with those new to these experiences brings Bryan greatest satisfaction.


Video Content:


A partial collection of Sunday newspaper articles (with podcast host) in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Armistice Hunt Honors Others

Dan Small, Keith Crowley, Bryan Muche (left to right) and his dog Dutch pose for a photo while hunting on Armistice Day at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Photo by Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 28, 2021

HORICON - At dawn the mercury read 51 degrees and the wind was 15 mph out of the southeast. It wasn't particularly ducky at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area.

But since it was Nov. 11, Bryan Muche of Barrington Hills, Illinois, his dog Dutch and I were waterfowl hunting. In a tradition that spans 10 years, the three of us have set out to hunt on Armistice Day regardless of the weather and migration status. It's our nod to waterfowling history and the great, deadly storm that visited the Midwest on Nov. 11, 1940. That day, too, started unseasonably warm before a low pressure system of epic proportions brought ducks and wind and cold and snow to the region. Would the 2021 edition also bring a change in the weather and a grand passage of ducks? This much we knew: the Armistice Day outings are guaranteed to have only the date and history in common. Each successive chapter is unique. Muche already added a couple of surprises for this year's gathering.

Seated to our right on a cattail point at Horicon were Keith Crowley of Gordon and Dan Small of Westby. Crowley is a writer and photographer and author of "Gordon MacQuarrie: The Story Of An Old Duck Hunter," published in 2003 by Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Small is a writer and has his own radio show but is best known as the host for 37 years of "Outdoor Wisconsin" on the state's public television network. The four of us had met many times but this was the first we hunted together as a group.

Bryan Muche arranges decoys and ducks in his square-stern canoe while his dog Dutch looks on during an Armistice Day hunt at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area in Horicon. Photo by Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Muche decided since we all shared a reverence for waterfowling and MacQuarrie, Armistice Day 2021 should be it. The gathering kicked off with another surprise, a Nov. 10 evening of food, drink and stories hosted by Fred Schwertfeger of Elm Grove at his family's ancestral turn-of-the-century home in Horicon.  The group featured characters from some of our Armistice Day hunts past, including Michael and Monica Brummond, owners of Goose Haven Gun Club in Mayville, brothers Eric Villwock of Oakfield and Ross Villwock of Mayville and Muche's partner, Katie.  It was like homecoming and Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve wrapped in one.  Moreover, it was a red-letter date in MacQuarrie history.

MacQuarrie was born in Superior and earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin before starting a newspaper career in the state. The Milwaukee Journal hired him in 1936 to serve as the paper's first outdoors editor, a position he held for 20 years. His colorful accounts of hunting and fishing in the paper and magazines, especially his fictional "Old Duck Hunters Association, Inc.," earned him a national following. "If I must choose among the sports that draw me into the open, it will be duck hunting," MacQuarrie wrote in 1937. "No other sport of rod and gun holds such mystery and drama.” "Stories of the Old Duck Hunters and Other Drivel," the first of a trilogy of his work, was published in 1967 by Stackpole Books. But MacQuarrie didn't live to see it. He died of a heart attack Nov. 10, 1956; he was 56 years old.

So our 2021 November gathering started out with a toast to MacQuarrie on the 65th anniversary of his death. Crowley brought a bottle of Scotch, MacQuarrie's favorite libation, for the occasion.

A toast to Gordon MacQuarrie and a remembrance to Armistice Day, (right to left) Bryan Muche, Paul Smith, Dan Small, Keith Crowley. Credit Katie Rose

The MacQuarrie link to our tradition didn't end there. He also penned an acclaimed story of the 1940 Armistice Day storm in the Milwaukee Journal. MacQuarrie wasn't hunting that day, but as news of the storm's toll filtered across the wires he traveled to the Mississippi River to cover the event. His trip included interviews with survivors in their hospital beds and Max Conrad, the pilot who flew a Piper Cub up and down the river, dropping food and supplies to marooned hunters and marking their locations for rescue boats. "The winds of Hell were loose on the Mississippi Armistice Day and night," MacQuarrie wrote. "They charged down from the river bluffs to the placid stream below and reached with deathly fingers for the life that beat beneath the canvas jackets of thousands of duck hunters." The weather system first brought great flocks of migrating birds and "circus shooting" for hunters and then turned deadly as the wind howled, precipitation fell and temperatures plummeted. One-hundred-fifty-four lives were lost in the storm, including 13 in Wisconsin, according to a Milwaukee Journal report. Waterfowl hunters, including two on Big Muskego Lake in Waukesha County and many on the Mississippi River, were among the dead. The death toll also included sailors and passengers on several ships sunk on Lake Michigan. 

Hunters in 2021 have such superior gear and technology – especially cell phones and advance notice of severe weather – that a repeat at the same scale is extremely unlikely. In fact, on our Armistice Day hunts we typically root for a cold front to usher in a wave of new birds.

Dan Small photographs a vintage Herter's canvasback decoy and several ducks taken on a Armistice Day hunt at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Photo by Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

That was the case a couple weeks ago at Horicon. "What are the chances it's going to turn around from the north?" Muche asked as we hunkered among the cattails at 6:30 a.m. It was more a wish than a question. We all knew the odds were slim. But come what might, we had decoys in the water and would make the most of it. Muche and I were set up about 5 yards southeast of Crowley and Small, who used a 1944 Thompson duck boat for a platform. We were close enough to talk and call out birds and other sights to each other.

Crowley said he was working in a sporting goods store in the late 1970s and someone handed him the original MacQuarrie book and said "I think you'll like this." Of course he did and is now a leading authority on MacQuarrie. Crowley is also a devotee of heritage gear: old decoys, boats and guns. This day he carried a Parker GH Grade side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun made in 1900. And he brought a bag of 1940s-era Herter's decoys that could have been used by MacQuarrie. 

A Parker shotgun made in 1900 and owned by Keith Crowley rests on the hull of Bryan Muche's 1944 Thompson duck boat. Photo by Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The handsome blocks added character to the spread. Several of them also tipped over at frequent intervals. "Those might be better for display than hunting," Muche said as he waded out to right a pair at 7:15. But sure enough, as soon as he waded a few yards into the water a pair of mallards dropped in from the east to have a look. The birds flared before entering shooting range.

But at 7:30 a single hen mallard came closer; it fell to simultaneous shots by Muche and Crowley. Then while Dutch swam out to retrieve the mallard a trio of wigeon decoyed beautifully from the north. All four of us shot and Dutch had three more birds to pick up. Ducks made relatively scant appearances, but it seemed each time an effort was made to fix one of the old decoys a bird or two showed up. "That's MacQuarrie working his magic," Small said.

At 8 a beaver swam into the spread. Crowley feigned concern the rodent might chew on the wooden decoys. More likely the haphazard sloshing of the overturned blocks scared the beaver away. 

Paul Smith, Bryan Muche, Keith Crowley and Dan Small (left to right) pose for a group photo after an Armistice Day duck hunt at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area in Horicon. Smith and Muche have a decade-long tradition of hunting on Armistice Day, the anniversary of a 1940 storm that claimed 154 lives in the Midwest, including waterfowl hunters. Photo by Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

There wasn't much duck action but the morning passed quickly with lively conversation. We lifted our hoods to fend off periods of heavy rain; the temperature, though, stayed very mild. Muche added a gadwall and a drake mallard to his bag, but the rest of us didn't fire another shot. About noon we called it a day and headed to the landing. The bag was not heavy, but the ducks will provide several excellent meals. And more importantly, we'd once again done our best to honor waterfowling history and added another chapter to our tradition. And one of these years, we just know a north wind will bring a grand passage on Armistice Day. As MacQuarrie wrote: "(The) Old Duck Hunters are extremely partial to the bitter last days, those stormy days when the wild, free things of duck hunting are abroad in the very wind with the storm."


Horicon proves its timeless value to hunters and ducks

Bryan Muche receives a hen mallard retrieved by Dutch, his Chesapeake Bay retriever while hunting at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area on opening day of the 2020 Wisconsin south zone waterfowl hunting season. Paul A. Smith

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 10, 2020

HORICON - About 6 a.m. last Saturday the preparations were complete. The blinds had been made, the decoys had been set and the lights had been turned off. We retired to our newly-decorated, temporary quarters in Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area and watched the black of pre-dawn dissolve into a charcoal gray.

The mercury read 42 degrees, the wind was a mere 4 miles per hour puff out of the south. And with thick clouds above and surrounded by thousands of acres of cattails, the loudest sound we heard was crickets. It could have tempted us – Bryan Muche, Jim Henning and me – to think we were the only ones in the marsh this morning. But we knew better.

It was opening morning of the 2020 Wisconsin south zone duck hunting season on one of the state's most popular public hunting grounds. There were likely several hundred other hunters spread around the 11,000-acre property. Like us, they had come for the ducks, despite the crowds. The gathering of lots of hunters and lots of ducks wasn't a new phenomenon at Horicon. In fact, the 2020 season is just the latest chapter in a waterfowl hunting tradition, and conservation success story, dating back more than 180 years at the rich wetland. Over the decades more than a few hunters have slept in the marsh, either by choice or necessity, including members of the Diana Shooting Club and Horicon Shooting Club, both dating to the 1880s. 

Muche opted to do it on the night preceding the 2020 opener. He motored into the marsh and rolled out a sleeping bag on his duck skiff with Dutch, his Chesapeake Bay retriever, at his side. "I can't think of a better campground," said Muche, a Wisconsin native who now resides in Barrington Hills, Illinois, but grew up hunting the marsh with his grandfather and father who lived in Mayville.

The wetland overnighter was more than a bivouac – it secured our hunting spot for the opener.  Yes, the marsh is big, but there's a ton of competition for hunting spots, too. I was reminded of that fact when I arrived at Burnett Ditch boat landing at 5 a.m. Saturday. The parking lot was full and trucks and trailers lined the road about one-half mile west. When people say we've got enough public land and argue against reauthorizing the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, I like to say " then you've never hunted at a public marsh on opening day." My walk to the landing, shotgun in a case and a couple of gear bags over my shoulders, was comparatively easy. 

In the 1890s, the members of Diana Shooting Club would take a train from Milwaukee, disembark in Burnett and hike 2 miles to reach the marsh, according to "Managing the Marsh: A History of two Horicon Marsh Shooting Clubs," by Robert Personius.  After 1894, a telephone was available to summon transportation from the Diana clubhouse to the train depot. The spot Muche, Henning and I were set up could well have been in the 14,000 acres the Diana or Horicon clubs leased in the marsh beginning in 1883. In an era of no hunting regulations, the clubs began leasing the areas to provide some protection for ducks and better shooting for its members. Of course, it also limited competition from other hunters.

Waterfowl hunting at the time could be dangerous, according to an 1892 article by Emerson Hough in Forest & Stream magazine. "The whole cover about Fox Lake (in northern Illinois) was so full of guns that it was actually unsafe," Hough wrote. "There were dozens, almost hundreds of shooters, and no one got any ducks."

The club's leases at Horicon formed the kernel of a preserve system, as well as conservation-minded management. Horicon Shooting Club established an 80-acre area in its lease called Weber's Pond at which no hunting was allowed at any time, according to Aldo Leopold's book "Game Management." And although commercial hunting was still en vogue, members of both clubs began to voluntarily limit their take of ducks. The club's leases ended in 1920. We can thank the forward-thinking club members for getting the ball rolling. State and federal agencies began establishing duck seasons and bag limits, and in 1934 the U.S. government enacted the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp to purchase pubic lands for waterfowl and hunters. In fact, the 22,000-acre Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, just north of the state property, was established in 1944 with duck stamp monies and serves as a year-round preserve for waterfowl.

So as we hunkered in our blinds last Saturday, we floated on the marsh but also the shoulders of generations of hunters and conservationists who had protected wildlife and made this public opportunity possible. At 6:26 a.m., the official opening of the season, it became clear we were also in the company of a legion of contemporary hunters. The whirring of wings over the marsh was followed by a barrage of shotgun blasts. The closest hunting party was set up about 300 yards to our east, another was 500 yards to the south. Still, we had enough space amongst the tight channels in the cattails. And as if on cue, the ducks flew. Several groups of blue-winged teal streaked past between 6:30 and 6:45 without drawing a shot from us. In the dim light, the low flyers were on us and gone before we could identify them.

At 6:45 a single green-winged teal came in to our decoy spread over the water, and Muche made good on the first shot of the season. Dutch splashed out and made the retrieve. Twenty minutes later a hen mallard also decoyed nicely and my gun sounded. Dutch again went out and returned with the feathered gift. Action dwindled over the next few hours, but Henning shot a drake mallard, which his dog Tess retrieved. And Muche later also shot a drake wigeon, another drake greenwing and a drake mallard. The last drake mallard was a juvenile bird banded at Sheboygan Marsh State Wildlife Area in August.

Banding is a pillar of modern bird conservation, and helps scientists learn where birds migrate and what habitats are critical to preserving the populations. Our group had a fine, safe morning on the marsh, and left with a couple meals worth of wild, delicious protein. At noon the parking lot at Burnett Ditch was still full, and a long line of trucks and trailers was still parked along the road leading out. And as it has for more than 180 years, Horicon Marsh had once again proved its high value to ducks and hunters.


Delta Marsh highlights waterfowling history, value of wetland

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 25, 2019

TIN TOWN, Manitoba – We hunkered at the edge of a cattail island and tried to keep pace with the dawn symphony on Delta Marsh. To the west, at least 1,000 snow geese lifted off of Simpson Bay, their high-pitched shrieks dominating the chorus. Moments later more than 100 mallards jumped up from a soggy field to the south and circled in loose groups high overhead, their feeding chuckles raining down through low, wooly clouds. And from the north, a dozen common goldeneyes strafed our island, wings rustling the air just above our hats. Jim Henning, Bryan Muche and I looked at each other through a veil of cattails and wondered what would be next.

During the peak of fall migration on the world-famous marsh, the answer could be any of dozens of species of birds, including the group that summoned us across the international border: waterfowl. Our answer soon arrived on whistling wings from the northwest. "Bluebills, low and coming straight in," Muche said. A flock of eight lesser scaup flew across several hundred yards of open water and directly into our decoy spread. As several put down their landing gear, the rest flared and turned south. 

Our shotguns sounded and Dutch, Muche's Chesapeake Bay retriever and Tess, Henning's Labrador retriever, splashed out to make the first three retrieves of the day.

We hunted Delta from Oct. 14 to 18. The 850-mile trip from Milwaukee to Tin Town, a tiny hunting community on the south side of the marsh, was less a drive than a pilgrimage. For more than a century, Delta has been a mecca for waterfowl hunters. Muche, who lives in Barrington Hills, Illinois, has been coming annually since he first experienced Delta in 2014. Henning, of Grafton, has joined Muche (his cousin) for the last three years. It was my first trip to the revered wetland. "I hesitate to tell people what it's like, because most of them don't believe me," said Muche, 49. "It's something that has to be experienced." Spanning about 43,000 acres, Delta Marsh is one of the largest wetlands in North America. It sits on the southern shore of Lake Manitoba, about 60 miles west of Winnipeg.

The marsh is separated from the main lake by a wooded barrier dune. The expansive wetland, with cattails and bulrushes and wild rice, serves not only as a breeding ground for dozens of bird species but also as a staging and resting site for waterbirds during spring and fall migrations. Delta is listed as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.The marsh's connection to waterfowl is arguably what has made it most famous. King George V hunted here, as did Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway and Ted Williams. In the 1930s James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills and avid hunter, purchased 5,000 acres of the Delta Marsh.

For several years Bell hunted waterfowl on the marsh in the fall and raised and released waterfowl in the spring and summer from a privately-owned hatchery.Bell was concerned about duck populations, particularly canvasbacks. He was inspired to put two ducks back for each one shot by hunters at his club on the marsh, according to historians. He also advocated for science to guide decisions on the marsh and brought Aldo Leopold, UW-Madison professor and acknowledged father of modern game management, to Delta. The men helped launch a waterfowl research facility on the marsh.

To lead the work they enlisted Hans Albert Hochbaum, who studied under Leopold in Madison. In 1938 Hochbaum became the first scientific director of Delta Waterfowl Foundation, the international conservation organization. Hochbaum met a local girl, Joan Ward, and the two were married in 1939, cementing his ties to the marsh where he would spend the rest of his life. Hochbaum and his early Delta colleagues pioneered the study of breeding duck ecology and made key discoveries on habitat use and behavior. Hochbaum completed his graduate work at the Delta Marsh on canvasback ducks and continued on to become the scientific director of the Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Station. The canvasback was adopted as the symbol for the marsh and the conservation organization that bears the same name. Delta Waterfowl Foundation's headquarters is now in Bismarck, North Dakota.

In his book "A Sand County Almanac" Leopold includes an essay titled "Clandeboye," named for a section of Delta Marsh. Leopold writes: "One thing most of us have gone blind to is the quality of marshes." Leopold said he was reminded of this when, after hosting a guest at the marsh, the visitor found it "merely lonelier to look upon, and stickier to navigate, than other boggy places."

In his wisdom, Leopold observed that "any pelican, duckhawk, godwit or western grebe is aware that Clandeboye is a marsh apart." Henning, Muche and I couldn't agree more with Leopold and the birds. One thing that makes Delta different for hunters is its "no motor" rule. All water travel on the marsh must be by human power.

We paddled a 22-foot canoe made in 1978 by Chestnut Canoe Company in New Brunswick. It was graciously loaned to us for the trip by Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison. The big, stable boat was just the ticket for three men, two dogs and several bags of decoys. Another thing that makes Delta unique is Tin Town, the assemblage of tin-sided hunters shacks on the southern shore of the marsh. Tin Town has no electricity and its buildings must be built on stilts.  What it has in spades is character.

Frank MacFarlane, 75, of Winnipeg has owned a cabin here since 1968. He calls it "Chaddy Shack," named for Sid Chadwick, a work associate who first brought him to the marsh for hunting.

He was joined last week by his friend of 50 years and fellow native of Scotland, Alex Lauchlan of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. The two gather for about three weeks in Tin Town each fall. This year an early October blizzard knocked down miles of power lines in southern Manitoba. But Lauchlan was warm and cozy in Tin Town, where everyone relies on gas or wood for heat and light. "The only emergency after four days was that I was running dangerously low on Scotch," said Lauchlan, 75. MacFarlane and Lauchlan continue to hunt daily, either on the marsh or in nearby fields. "Some might think a couple of 75-year-olds must be nuts to go out in this," MacFarlane said. "But I love the marsh." With no electricity, Henning, Muche and I spent five days in Tin Town without television or other distractions.

We ate meals of fresh duck and felt invigorated by hours of daily paddling and fresh air. After dark, we'd gather with other hunters in Tin Town to share stories and libations. "It's a throw-back in time," Henning said. "I can't get enough of it." We hunted a different location in Delta each day; winds ranged from calm to a blustery 30 mph. Here on the prairies, there isn't much to stop the wind when it blows. The marsh is not without its challenges. Common carp and invasive hybrid cattails are threatening the native ecology of the area. According to some, Delta now produces less food for waterfowl and other wildlife than it did a decade ago. Recent dry weather has also reduced local production of ducks. But all things are relative. For this Wisconsinite, the flights of ducks were exceptional. Our bag included canvasbacks, bluebills, redheads, mallards, gadwalls, widgeon, shovelers, buffleheads and snow geese.

More importantly, the trip to Delta allowed us to immerse ourselves, if only for a few days, in a unique duck hunting community and to dip a paddle in the same waters once traveled by Hochbaum and Leopold.Muche was right. I wouldn't have believed him. The legacy of conservation is even stronger than the wind at Delta Marsh.


Thirsty the Duck is back on the job to help wetlands, waterfowl and wildlife

Thirsty the Duck poses with (left to right) Nathan, Anna, Matthew Prager of Waukesha at Bryan Muche's Old Duck Hunters Exhibit at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show. Bryan Muche has resurrected Thirsty from a 1960's Wisconsin based campaign to raise funds and purchase wetlands to benefit waterfowl and other wildlife. Paul A. Smith

Paul A. Smith - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published Sunday, March 9, 2019. 

In Wisconsin, we love our ducks. Attendees at the 2019 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show have a unique chance to meet a dabbler created decades ago in the Badger State that has been resurrected to fly again. And just as in the 1960s, this dashing fellow is on a mission to benefit wetlands, waterfowl and other wildlife. Nothing would make him happier than if you pledged to "give the ducks a raise."

Meet Thirsty the Duck a male mallard designed in 1960 as a spokes-animal for a fledgling non-profit conservation organization.  The group – Wetlands for Wildlife – dissolved after six years and its existence was relegated to archives kept by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Wisconsin State Historical Society. But leave it to Bryan Muche, the most avid waterfowl hunter and historian I know, to bring Thirsty back into the light.

Bryan Muche, a native of Elkhorn who know lives in Barrington Hills, IL, developed a love of waterfowling history while hunting on the Horicon Marsh with his grandfather and father. Paul A. Smith

Nothing related to Wisconsin's rich tradition in waterfowling and conservation seems to escape the sharp eyes and keen curiosity of Muche, a native of Elkhorn, who now lives in Barrington Hills, Illinois. He scours yard sales and internet documents with equal vigor to come up with such gems as vintage wooden skiffs, hunting clothing and firearms as well as stories of by-gone days of waterfowling and conservation. His grandfather, Walter Muche Sr., lived and worked in Mayville on the eastern edge of Horicon Marsh. Bryan Muche would make frequent trips with his father from Elkhorn 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. It was last year on one of his frequent forays for waterfowling treasure that Muche came across Thirsty. 

The eye-catching duck had been designed as the icon for Wetlands for Wildlife, a Milwaukee-based group that intended to raise funds to purchase wetlands. Thirsty was originally drawn by Jim Bell of Horicon, an employee of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission (forerunner to the Department of Natural Resources). He had a canteen strapped around his neck and he stood on a base of dried, cracked mud. He wore a hat to shield himself from the sun. Though Thirsty was a bit cartoonish, he carried a serious message: ducks need habitat.

Mel Ellis, former Milwaukee Journal outdoors writer, published stories in the newspaper as well as Field and Stream magazine about the organization. A 1962 Field and Stream article by Ellis featuring Wetlands for Wildlife was titled "Dust or Ducks?" The group was founded October 12, 1960. By 1962 it claimed 1,250 members in 118 cities and 17 states, according to documents filed at UWM. It raised enough money to purchase and donate two parcels of land, one at Vernon Marsh in Waukesha County and another in Minnesota. But the group lost its steam; in 1966 it folded. Thanks to Muche, however, its story is being told again. And Thirsty has been brought back to life. Truth be told, he's larger than life, as in 6 feet tall.

Thirsty the Duck is part of a campaign to "Give our Ducks a Raise" by Bryan Muche. Muche has created a petition intended to spur Wisconsin officials to increase the price of the Wisconsin waterfowl hunting stamp, which hasn't been changed sing 1997. Paul A. Smith 

Muche put together a modern-day walking, flapping and quacking version of Thirsty for the Sports Show. You can meet the big drake at Booth 1836. Thirsty also has a Facebook page and a website. Two things haven't changed over the decades, Thirsty's message and the need to protect wetlands.

The 2019 version of Thirsty is making a strong case to increase the price of the Wisconsin waterfowl hunting stamp. The stamp, required of Wisconsin waterfowl hunters, costs $7. It has not been raised since 1997. All funds raised though sales of the stamp are used for management and improvement of wetland habitat. Two-thirds of the money is used in Wisconsin and one-third in Canada.

Thirsty isn't flying solo in this push. For the last three years, conservation groups, including the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Conservation Congress and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, have lobbied for an increase in several Wisconsin hunting and fishing license fees, including the waterfowl hunting stamp. Thirsty has a petition he'd like you to sign to encourage Wisconsin elected officials and DNR employees to work toward a waterfowl stamp increase. The petition can be signed at the Sports Show or online at Thirsty isn't asking for financial contributions, only support by signing the petition. He's hopeful a strong showing will help Legislators include a waterfowl stamp increase in the state budget.

I know you love ducks. And wetlands are vital to our existence. Don't miss the one-of-a-kind opportunity to meet Thirsty at the show and connect our conservation history with our future.


Gordon MacQuarrie's literature will come to life at Journal Sentinel Sports Show

Gordon MacQuarrie worked as outdoors editor of the Milwaukee Journal from 1936-1956. Milwaukee Journal

Paul A. Smith - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published Sunday, March 7, 2018.

The literature of Gordon MacQuarrie will come to life on Friday in an original performance at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show. Actors will read the text and perform the roles of "Ducks? You Bat You!," a story of MacQuarrie's first duck hunt with the fictional Old Duck Hunters' Association, Inc.  MacQuarrie worked as outdoors editor for The Milwaukee Journal from 1936-'56. In addition to his work for the paper, he was widely-acclaimed for his freelance stories published in national magazines such as Field & Stream and Sports Afield. His work in two areas — waterfowl hunting and trout fishing — is arguably best-known. “I never wrote a poem in my life," MacQuarrie wrote in his story, "The Bluebills Died at Dawn." "But if I ever do, it will be about ducks.” MacQuarrie, who would have attended the Sports Show many times from its creation in 1940 through 1956, never had occasion to see his writing performed there.

"MacQuarrie's stories helped light a fire in me for waterfowl hunting," Muche said. "He’s got these colorful characters and he paints the landscape with his words. I think a performance of one of his stories at the Sports Show is a natural." In "Ducks? You Bat You!" MacQuarrie is summoned to go hunting by his father-in-law, the President of the Old Duck Hunters' Association, Inc. Although MacQuarrie, a native of Superior, had hunted and fished, his character in the story considered ducks as "something that flew over a lake where I was fishing late in the year."The first duck hunting experience hooked MacQuarrie and began his decades-long devotion to the sport.

The stage performance will include Steve Koehler as Gordon MacQuarrie, author and narrator; Alan Atwood as Mr. President; John Pfannerstill as Fred; Tiersa Ferraro as Mr. President's daughter; Dan Small as Norm; Mike Landers as Gus; and Muche as the younger MacQuarrie. Koehler is familiar to Wisconsin theater audiences from his lead role in “Guys on Ice.” The props include a 1927 Underwood typewriter, a pipe, duck decoys and a car that transforms into a bed and a duck blind. "The key is the script and the narration," Muche said. "We'll add some human element, but MacQuarrie's words are what makes it all fly." The performance will take about 30 minutes, Muche said.

MacQuarrie is a native of Superior who earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin. He worked for the Superior Telegram newspaper before being recruited by The Milwaukee Journal to become its first outdoors editor. He worked at the Journal from 1936 until his death in 1956. MacQuarrie is enshrined in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

Muche said although fewer people hunt today as a percentage of the population, MacQuarrie's romanticized, often humorous tales appeal to everybody. "He was able to articulate how rich and complex the hunting experience is," Muche said. "I think that’s a huge legacy he left behind." The theatrical rendition of "Ducks? You Bat You!" will be performed at 5:30 p.m. Friday. In addition, Koehler will give a reading of the story at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Both performances will take place on the seminar stage. Show goers can also view historical duck hunting information, including biographical details on MacQuarrie and a mockup of his office, at the Old Duck Hunters exhibit in booth 1730.


A field duck hunt produces after Horicon Marsh turns hard

Bryan Muche, right, accepts a duck retrieved by his dog Dutch while hunting with Ross Villwock in a cut cornfield near Mayville. Credit: Paul A. Smith.

Paul A. Smith - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published Sunday, December 2nd , 2017

MAYVILLE - Marshes are defined as tracts of wetlands, typically with shallow water and growths of grasses or cattails. Here in the north, they also are among the first waters to freeze when the temperature drops. It can happen astonishingly fast. Even overnight. Even on the world's largest cattail marsh. "She's locked up pretty tight," said Bryan Muche, 47, my waterfowl hunting partner on the eve of our annual Nov. 11 outing on Horicon Marsh. "Did you bring creepers and an ice axe?" Laughter was the best medicine to treat the shock of seeing 33,000 acres of freshly frozen wetland. Just 24 hours earlier, on the front end of a cold front, hunters had reported great flights of ducks. The temperature continued to drop, however, and by the next morning the marsh was encased in 1 to 3 inches of crystal.

When Muche and I showed up, one of our favorite access points — Burnett Ditch — might as well have been filled with gravel. Our camouflaged skiff and small outboard would never make it as an icebreaker. Besides, the ducks had moved to nearby open waters, including deeper, bigger lakes and flowing rivers. "Looks like we'll need a Plan B," Muche said. For the last six years, Muche and I have shared an annual tradition of hunting Horicon Marsh on Armistice Day. Nov. 11 is a red-letter day in waterfowling history, the date of a massive 1940 storm that killed dozens of hunters and others in the Midwest. The day started mild and brought a "grand passage" of ducks on a cold front. In just a few hours, the temperature fell from 50 to below freezing. Hunters described "circus shooting" before the conditions turned deadly. The storm was so strong it sunk commercial ships on Lake Michigan. Modern weather forecasting and communication technology assured us there would be no such change in the temperature or winds this year. But with the marsh locked up, we would have to change our tactics.

Ducks descend over a spread of decoys in a cut cornfield near Mayville. Credit: Paul A. Smith

Fortunately, we didn't have to look far. And better yet, the solution paid homage to Muche's roots and Horicon's rich waterfowling history. Muche, who was raised in southern Wisconsin and now lives in Barrington Hills, Ill., learned to love Horicon Marsh by joining his family on hunting outings in the area. His grandfather, Walter Muche Sr., lived and worked in Mayville and started the family tradition of hunting on the famous wetland. At one point, Walter Muche Sr. worked as a hunting guide and manager at Goose Haven Gun Club in Mayville.  The club was a hot spot during the marsh's goose hunting hay-days in the 1950s and 60s. It continues to operate under the ownership of Mike and Monica Brummond. The club maintains about three dozen blinds, available for public rental, on fields on the east side of the marsh. Bryan Muche called Mike Brummond to see if any blinds were available. Brummond told us to show up at 5 a.m. Saturday and he'd see what he could do.

The wood stove was stoked inside Goose Haven when we met the Brummonds early the next day. Outside, it was overcast and 27 degrees; a 10 to 15 mph breeze added a bite to the air. In the dark of pre-dawn, Brummond directed us to a cut corn field a few miles east of Mayville. There we met Ross Villwock of Mayville, Brummond's nephew, who was going to hunt with us for the morning. "It was harvested about a week ago," said Villwock, 19. "Ducks and geese have been feeding here pretty hard the last couple days."

Muche, Villwock and I got busy putting out several dozen decoys and brushing in three layout blinds. Dutch, Muche's Chesapeake Bay retriever, ran excitedly through the stubble as pink began to peak across the eastern horizon.The wind was out of the south, mostly, so we faced the blinds to the north. By legal hunting time, we were on our backs looking up into a woolen, gray sky. "There's some," Villwock said as a trio of ducks strafed our spread. The light was so dim, and the ducks moved so fast, that we didn't take a shot. Ten minutes later, a single duck crossed into the spread from the northeast. It was large, brown and dark-breasted, an American black duck.

A drake black duck taken on a hunt near Mayville. Credit: Paul A. Smith

Muche and I shot simultaneously, and Dutch made the first retrieve of the day. The drake black duck was plump and in terrific condition; I was already imagining it served, roasted, on a platter. The next half hour brought four more flocks that decoyed in textbook fashion. "Would you look at that?" Muche said as 20 mallards set wings and drifted down over our blinds. For a waterfowl hunter, few sights are as rewarding as wild ducks maple-leafing into a spread. Dutch scampered out and brought in several mallards as well as another black duck. 

Dutch, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever owned by Bryan Muche retrieves a drake mallard. Credit: Paul A. Smith

About a dozen flocks of sandhill cranes also passed overhead. "The cranes usually fly before the geese," Villwock said. He was right. Twenty minutes later, flocks of Canada geese began tracing the sky. At 9 a.m. a pair of geese came directly to our spread from the east. Muche, holder of Horicon Zone goose tags, showed his shooting skill and Dutch was soon at work bringing two giant birds to hand. The honkers were the first Muche had shot at Horicon since he was 14 while hunting with his grandfather, Walter Muche Sr. The duck flights diminished in mid-morning and we packed up at 10 a.m.

Dutch, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever owned by Bryan Muche inspects two drake mallards and a drake black duck on a hunt near Mayville, WI. Credit: Paul A. Smith

Muche, Villwock and I each had three ducks (seven mallards and two black ducks). And Muche had the two geese. The number of birds in the bag never is the full measure of a hunt, however. "Must have been something about the company, the calling and the connection to Goose Haven and memories of my grandfather," Muche said. "The waterfowl hunting karma was with us today."


A fowl pathway to hunting, dinner

Bryan Muche (left) of Barrington Hills, IL uses a duck call while hunting at Horicon Marsh with Jessica Schultz of Baraboo. Credit: Paul A. Smith

Paul A. Smith - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Published Sunday, December 3rd , 2016

Horicon — At dawn, the water of Horicon Marsh was like glass, reflecting a corrugated pink sky. Flocks of feathered streaks periodically broke the stillness. But they were blackbirds, not our preferred type of avian life this morning. "Where are the ducks?" said Bryan Muche, 46, of Barrington Hills, Ill., one of my hunting partners for the day. "And where is the wind?"

The outdoor life presents at least as many questions as answers. That's why it's good to have certainty in a few things. For Muche and me, the Nov. 11 outing was part of the "cast in stone" aspect of life. We have an annual tradition of waterfowl hunting on that fateful day in November, anniversary of the Armistice Day Storm. The 1940 weather system first brought great flocks of migrating birds and "circus shooting" for hunters, then turned deadly as the wind howled, precipitation fell and temperatures plummeted. One-hundred-fifty-four lives were lost in the storm, including 13 in Wisconsin, according to a Milwaukee Journal report.  Waterfowl hunters, including two on Big Muskego Lake in Waukesha County and many on the Mississippi River, were among the dead.

Deep down, I think my friend has a wish for a severe arctic blast on one of our Nov.11 outings, partly as a test of hardiness, partly out of nostalgia. Over the last decade, we've had some great hunting but never experienced anything
remotely as challenging from Mother Nature as what she delivered in 1940.

Bryan Muche of Barrington Hills, IL positions his boat while duck hunting Nov. 11 at Horicon Marsh with Jessica Shultz of Baraboo. Credit: Paul A. Smith.

No matter the weather forecast, however, we know what we'll be doing come Armistice Day. One of the other commitments Muche and I make is to, as often as possible, mentor others in various aspects of the outdoors.  So this year we added a dimension to our Nov. 11 tradition and invited Jessica Schultz, a novice hunter from Baraboo.  Schultz, 31, was a student in a Learn To Hunt for Food class held earlier this year in
Madison. The course was part of an excellent menu of Learn To Hunt options offered by Keith Warnke and the hunting recruitment and retention folks at the Wisconsin Department of Resources.

Bryan Muche (left) of Barrington Hills and Jessica Schultz of Baraboo look for ducks while Dutch, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever owned by Muche, waits for the next opportunity to make a retrieve during a duck hunt on the Horicon Marsh in November. Credit: Paul A. Smith.

The Learn To Hunt for Food classes typically meet multiple times and include instruction in ecology, firearm safety, hunting techniques, hunting regulations and wild game cooking.  Muche and I have served as mentors in the program several times over the years. This year, Muche met Schultz in August at the waterfowl-specific class and asked if she would like to join us. Though she hunted once during the class, our Horicon outing could help reinforce some points or expose her to new experiences. As fate would have it, Nov. 11 is Schultz's birthday. "I'm still trying to learn as much as possible," said Schultz. "I didn't hesitate when I got the opportunity to go out again this fall." Although hunting has declined in popularity in America in recent decades, the activity has recently gained traction in some sectors as a means of procuring local, natural foods.  That at least partly describes Schultz, who keeps chickens for meat and eggs and strives to be as self-sufficient as possible. "I feel like hunting is an authentic part of being human," Schultz said. But hunting isn't as simple as say, foraging for mushrooms. Especially if waterfowl is on the menu. "Lots of gear here that I don't own," Schultz said as she surveyed a couple dozen decoys and a pair of boats. The Learn To Hunt for Food class offers a foundation. And since a hunter or angler isn't typically made in a single course, it's important to offer students repeated exposure to the outdoors. 

After we set decoys in a cattail-lined bay of Horicon, however, Muche and I wondered how much Schultz would benefit from the outing. We pleaded for a little wind. And wouldn't you know it, the marsh gods delivered. At 6:30 a.m., a northwest breeze built and bigger birds began to fly. The first shot of the day belonged to Schultz, and she made good on it. A hen mallard fell to the water and Dutch, Muche's Chesapeake Bay retriever, brought the robust bird to Schultz's hand. Over the next 90 minutes, several flocks and pairs of ducks worked our decoys in textbook fashion. Our bag began to build and included a drake green-winged teal, a drake gadwall, a hen pintail and a drake mallard. At one point, a pair of mallards winged in from the south. Muche pointed out the drake, and Schultz's aim was true. "Would you look at that?" Muche said as 20 mallards set wings and drifted down over our blinds. For a waterfowl hunter, few sights are as rewarding as wild ducks maple-leafing into a spread.

Bryan Muche of Barrington Hills, IL offers duck poppers to Jessica Schultz of Baraboo after a waterfowl hunt on Horicon Marsh. Credit: Paul A. Smith.

Dutch scampered out and brought in several mallards as well as another black duck. We ended up with six ducks for the morning. All were well-fatted and will make excellent table-fare. Schultz was excited to take the birds home and try some recipes. Back at the landing, Muche fired up a propane grill and heated duck poppers (duck, peppers, cheese and bacon) made from birds taken on a previous hunt. As a November sun shone on the marsh, we relished the taste of a wild harvest and the chance to pass along the hunting tradition. "Pretty much best birthday ever," Schultz said. Spoken like a true hunter.


An old motor, an old boat, and a waterfowl hunting tradition preserved

Bryan Muche communicates with Dutchess, his Chesapeake Bay retriever, after the dog made a retrieve of a gadwall during a hunt on Horicon Marsh last month. Credit: Paul A. Smith

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 5, 2015

Horicon— The black of predawn does a pretty good job of keeping secrets. For all the world knew, a pair of duck hunters was preparing to launch a modern waterfowling rig along the western shore of Horicon Marsh. Thousands of such outings take place annually on the sprawling wetland, many with aluminum boats and long-shafted mud-motors. But this excursion was different. If not for the late-model vehicles in the parking lot and the red-blinking wind turbines on the horizon, the scene could have been from the 1950s.

Bryan Muche and I added the last bags of decoys to the boat and climbed into a snug, wooden craft.  Dutchess, Muche's Chesapeake Bay retriever, jumped aboard and settled in. Muche yanked twice on a starter cord and we were off. "Hold on to your hat," Muche said. Laughter echoed through the cattails. We were in no danger of violating the no-wake restriction. We were, however, making headway while honoring a previous era of outdoors tradition. Our chariot was a 1944 Thompson duck boat. Our power plant was a 1952 Johnson outboard. The decoys at our feet were mostly Herter's cork blocks made in the 1950s. The day was Nov. 11, the weather was mild, with calm winds. "Just right for old canvas coats and uninsulated, rubber waders," Muche said as we motored east into the marsh. The dark couldn't conceal his delight.

Muche, 45, is a friend and avid hunter who has a special passion for waterfowling history. He was raised in southern Wisconsin and learned to love Horicon Marsh by joining his family on hunting outings in the area. His grandfather, Walter Muche Sr., lived and worked in Mayville and started the family tradition of hunting on the famous wetland. Bryan Muche is one of the rare people who combine their avocation and vocation — he works as development director for the conservation organization Delta Waterfowl. He now lives in Barrington Hills, Ill., but frequently returns to Horicon and Mayville. For the last four years, Muche and I have shared an annual tradition of hunting Horicon Marsh on Armistice Day. Nov. 11 is a red-letter day in waterfowling history, the date of a massive 1940 storm that killed dozens of hunters and others in the Midwest. The day started mild, like this one, and brought a "grand passage" of ducks on a cold front. Hunters described "circus shooting" before the conditions turned deadly. Modern weather forecasting and communication technology assured us no such change in the temperature or winds this day. We hoped, however, to see ducks. We knew we would pay homage to waterfowling's past. The mid-20th century equipment has been painstakingly restored and maintained to showcase its design and function. At 5:30 a.m. we reached a small bay in the sea of cattails known as Horicon.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 to provide a sanctuary for migratory birds and waterfowl including the redhead duck as well as to provide opportunities for people to connect with nature through activities such as wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, fishing and hunting. Federal duck stamp money helped purchase a portion of the property. At more than 33,000 acres, Horicon is one of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States and provides a critical rest stop for thousands of migrating ducks and Canada geese. It is recognized as a Wetland of International Importance, as both Globally and State Important Bird Areas, and is also a unit of the Ice Age Scientific Reserve. The northern two-thirds of Horicon is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the 22,000-acre Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The southern third of the marsh, 11,000 acres, is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Hunting is prohibited in the federal portion, except for a Learn To Hunt program.

We set up in the state side of the property. As light began to color the eastern horizon, Muche and I waded out and tossed decoys into the still water. At 6, we nudged the Thompson into the cattails and waited for what the morning would bring. A week before our excursion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tallied 170,638 water birds on the marsh, highest of the weekly, seasonal census that began in early September. The early November count included 64,107 mallard, 42,712 Canada geese, 28,706 green-winged teal and 22,831 northern pintail. As a conservationist, it's satisfying to know large numbers of birds are in the neighborhood. As a waterfowler, such knowledge also can be frustrating. At 6:15, a large flock of ducks flew high overhead, well out of range. A half-hour later, 15 gadwalls came into view. The birds made three passes and decoyed beautifully, eventually passing within 25 yards of our blind.  Shots sounded, but not a feather fell. Muche and I apologized profusely to Dutchess, who was twitching for a retrieve. We chalked our misses up to a timeless curse of shot-gunners — shooting at the flock and not picking out individual birds. At least we knew we couldn't blame our firearms. Muche shot a vintage Browning A-5, I used an old Remington 870. Both had proved their soundness at the trap range in recent days. We sat back on the old wooden plank boat and watched for more birds.

Horicon supports the largest nesting population of redhead ducks east of the Mississippi River, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thousands of redheads use the marsh each year. But we didn't see any. A beefy, white-headed bird did make an appearance, however. A mature bald eagle soared near our setup and landed on a muskrat house. The big birds prey and scavenge on waterfowl, fish, muskrats and whatever they can find in the rich marsh. Flocks of Canada geese winged high over the marsh, and a few distant pairs of mallards traded places. The calm conditions and ample food and habitat gave ducks little reason to fly this day, we reasoned. 

So about 10 a.m. we cranked up the old Johnson and motored south to an area with a network of narrow paths in the cattails. Once there, we killed the engine and Muche poled the boat while I sat in the bow, shotgun at the ready. After 15 minutes, a gadwall jumped up and the gun sounded. Dutchess made a world-class retrieve in the cattail mire. The handsome bird was the only one to come to hand for us on the 75th anniversary of the Armistice Day storm. We had no sense of disappointment, however. Muche and I puttered back to the landing about noon, filled with gratitude for the opportunities afforded modern hunters and a reverence for the rich traditions of waterfowling.


First year of trial early teal season proves difficult to navigate

Bryan Muche and his dog Dutch watch for ducks during a waterfowl hunt at Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. The hunt took place on opening day of Wisconsin's early teal hunting season. Credit: Paul A. Smith

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 6, 2014

Horicon — Monday morning in the marsh was flush with change. It was the first day of September, and no matter the mosquitoes, meteorological autumn was at hand. Per American custom, the first Monday of the ninth month also ushered in a federal holiday. Mother Nature contributed a major transformation shortly after sunrise. Low clouds and drizzle were displaced by beams of light and a rainbow. The western edge of Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area was awash in a new day — and more.

The first day of this September marked the start of an experimental hunting season. For the first time in a long and storied waterfowling history, Wisconsin hunters held an early teal season. Regulations for the seven-day season allow hunters to shoot blue-winged or green-winged teal only. The daily bag limit is six teal. Shooting hours on the opener started at 9 a.m. I set out to experience the new opportunity on one of our state's fabled public wildlife areas. My partners were Bryan Muche and his 2-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dutch. "New season, new opportunity," Muche said. "One thing's for sure — sunrise on the marsh never gets old." We launched at 7 a.m. from a public-access point on the west side of the marsh. Four other trucks and trailer rigs were parked in the lot.

Muche, 44, lives in Barrington Hills, Ill., but he is a Wisconsin native and two generations of his family lived on the edges of Horicon Marsh. He first joined hunts on Horicon 35 years ago. I've come to know and respect Muche for his hunting ethic, his appreciation for waterfowling history and his concern for hunting's future. The regulations of the early teal season would put our duck identification and shooting skills to a strict test. No mistakes were acceptable. To shoot a "non-target" duck would be a violation of state game laws and personal ethics. "You call the shots," Muche said. We motored east into the marsh. Double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons and northern rough-winged swallows took to the air. As we pushed up a narrow cut, six blue-winged teal jumped up from an adjacent pothole.

After a 30-minute ride we settled into cattails on the edge of a channel. At 8 a.m. we put out an assortment of duck decoys, returned to our hide and watched the morning develop. The weather was a mixture of sun, clouds and drizzle, with temperatures near 70 and a southwest wind about 15 mph. Several pairs of wood ducks passed over the channel in the next hour. A lone mallard winged by, followed by a single Canada goose. In the distance, a group of redheads flapped past. The duck activity, though, was light for any day on the marsh. With low hunting pressure, the birds likely were settled into feeding and loafing areas with no reason to move.At 9 a.m. Muche and I loaded our shotguns and watched the skies with added anticipation — and not a little anxiety. It's one thing to pass a waterfowl quiz featuring still photos or mounted birds. It's another to quickly and accurately identify ducks on the fly.Shortly after legal shooting time, a lone drake wood duck angled down the channel, looking at our decoys. Its profile, size and wing beats made it relatively easy to identify. "That's a no," I said as it passed within range. Ten minutes later a flock of birds moved in swiftly from the east. They spotted our decoys and angled down the channel. As they turned, the birds clearly showed the blue shoulder patches of blue-winged teal. "Yes," I called out. Two shots rang out, two birds tumbled to the water. Dutch bounded out to make her first retrieve of the year. The next hour brought a few more pairs of wood ducks and two single teal past our blind. We didn't fire a shot.

"Sometimes the ones you want are past before you can shoulder the gun," Muche said with a laugh. "That's teal for you." At 10:10 a single bird flew down the channel from the east, passing just 15 yards from our blind. It was another "yes." Muche raised and fired and Dutch retrieved the third blue-wing of the morning. The next four hours were marked by flights of American white pelicans, wood ducks and great egrets, but no teal sightings. Red-winged blackbirds foraged on the lily pads near our blind. A few leopard frogs also visited. Muche and I marveled at the riches of the world-famous marsh. About 2 p.m. we decided to call it a day and motored back to the landing. We had heard 20 shots from other hunters. Reports from Department of Natural Resources officials indicate relatively light hunting pressure statewide in the first days of the teal season. Chief warden Todd Schaller said some citations were issued, but based on what he's seen the number of violations "wasn't abnormally high." The early teal season is being offered to Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota on a three-year, trail basis. Minnesota opted not to participate. The other states will hold the season at least in 2014 and evaluate the results, including the number of ducks harvested and number of violations. Wardens are working the field in "spy blinds" to observe compliance with regulations. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered an experimental teal season to northern states in the 1960s, Wisconsin did not participate. Minnesota did, however, and it was "messy" according to Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the Minnesota DNR. The early teal season was not offered on a permanent basis to northern states. Coming into the season, a DNR survey of 1,000 Wisconsin waterfowl hunters showed 43% opposed, 41% for and 16% unsure about the prospects of an early teal season. I shared the preseason ambivalence and pledged to try it firsthand.

Muche and I proved we could do it legally and avoid citations. We fired three shots and killed three ducks. Muche and I gave thanks for the feathered gifts; the three blue-wings will make fine eating. The experience included essential, fulfilling aspects of hunting — camaraderie, skill, restraint, wildlife encounters and connections with nature and outdoor traditions. It was a successful hunt in every regard except one — it left me not wanting to participate again. All hunting requires discretion and knowledge to avoid violations. In this respect the early teal season isn't unique. I've hunted ducks in Wisconsin under several forms of regulations, including the points system. I've also hunted divers along the Mississippi River when there was a zero bag limit on canvasbacks. But in no hunting situation have I felt more uneasy about potentially being a violator. With continental duck populations at an all-time high, there was hope among some hunters the early duck hunt would allow harvest of teal and at least one duck of another species. That wasn't in the cards for this year. Until such a regulation is offered, the early teal season carries too much downside. As hunters, we must be stewards of the resource and make sure we are on the right side of ethics and the law. When it comes to the early teal season as presently structured, I'll pass from now on.


A Homage to History on Horicon

Muche stands next to his 1920s era wooden skiff. The skiff, canvas coat and hat are all on display at the Horicon Marsh Visitor Center. Muche donated the items. Credit: Paul A. Smith

By Paul A. Smith , Outdoors Editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 14, 2013

Horicon — 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, of Mayville; Emil Lazich of Mayville; and Don Miescke of Horicon. 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 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 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.

About the Host

Bryan MucheProfile Photo

Bryan Muche

Sportsman / Historian

Hello I am Bryan Muche, an American Sportsman, and perhaps like you, I am someone who is deeply interested our history in the outdoors. In this podcast I’ll be sharing with you the stories, observations and opinions of the day to color a historical perspective drawn from the pages of Forest and Stream (a trusted weekly outdoors journal published from 1873 to 1930).