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John Myers column: Halloween blizzard duck hunt was one for the ages

As the 1991 megastorm approached, ducks raced to beat the snow.

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While most people will remember the 1991 Halloween Blizzard for its car-burying snowfall totals, the author will always remember it for how the ducks flew just as the three-day snowstorm was setting in. Bob King / 1991 file / Duluth News Tribune

The weather forecast called for a big change, from warm and pleasant to wet and nasty, the kind of change that duck hunters dream about in October, a cold front that pushes ducks out of Canada and North Dakota and down across Minnesota.

I had four days off. My plan was to drive from Duluth to Hopkins, Minnesota, to visit my parents, spend the night at their house and then head to central Minnesota’s farm country, to a duck slough I had grown up hunting. I knew there would be northern mallards there and maybe some diving ducks, too.

And as long as I was at my folks’ house, I might as well pick up Charlie, the springer spaniel that thought he was a Chesapeake Bay retriever. Charlie came to our family when I was in college and too busy to train him. He never got a formal education on how to hunt, but he had it in him. He would retrieve anything I shot, flush pheasants well and he behaved, for the most part, in a duck boat.

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So on Halloween morning 1991, a Thursday, I pointed my Isuzu Trooper west with Charlie in the back and a 14-foot duck boat in tow. We arrived at the slough when it was still pitch-dark. Light rain was already falling. So was the barometer.
There were no other trucks at the landing — always a good sign. A quick check on the radio and the weatherman promised we would see wind and snow that day. Perfect duck hunting weather.

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As I push-poled the boat down the shallow lake, ducks were moving before first light. I set out decoys on both sides of a small point and rammed the boat into the cattails with the wind at our backs. Then we watched as ducks twisted and turned, shadows racing to join our fake flock.

They came like there was no place else for them to be, like maybe they had flown all night and this was it, as far south as they could go. This is where they would wait out the storm. It had been cold and clear to the north, and the storm was coming from the south, so I imagined these birds had flown nonstop from Lake of the Woods, or maybe even The Pas or the Delta Marsh on Lake Manitoba, just to land in my decoys.

The first duck to fall was a greenhead mallard, so close the dog barely had to get wet to make the retrieve. The second was a greenwing teal, a much later migrator than most people realize. The third was a lacey-backed bluebill, or scaup as they’re called in bird books.

And that was it. Back in the lean years of a three-duck daily limit, our hunt was over in 10 minutes.

But while I cased my gun, our adventure continued. Charlie and I watched as ducks poured into the lake, mallards mostly, but also divers and some species moving too fast to tell in the snow that had started falling. A flock of swans appeared out of the clouds and landed 100 yards out. Then ducks started to land with the swans.

I’ve seen bigger flocks of ducks, huge tornadoes of mallards spinning into cornfields out west, and thousands of bluebills in rafts on the big water up north where I hunt now. But I have never seen ducks so anxious, so frenzied, as on that Halloween. The ducks knew what was coming before I did.

By 9 a.m., the snow was heavier and visibility was dropping. It was time to head back to the truck, stow the camouflage and put on an orange vest. It was time to hunt pheasants. Back in the Trooper, I munched on a Braunschweiger sandwich and listened to the radio. Now the weatherman was heralding a full-fledged snowstorm. A foot or more snow could fall, he said, and travel could become very difficult.

I laughed. Who ever heard of a foot of snow in October? We drove a few miles to a traditionally decent pheasant haunt and started walking. Going with the wind wasn’t so bad, but turning into the big, wet snowflakes was miserable. I don’t think Charlie minded.

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By the time we got back to the vehicle, with a single rooster in the back of my coat, the snow was falling so hard that it was accumulating on the dog’s back. It was early afternoon, and I could take another pheasant, but it was snowing too hard to hunt now. My plan was to get a motel room in a small town nearby and call it a day.

Then I turned on the radio.

The forecaster now seemed in a panic. The snowstorm was getting stronger very fast, he said, and now they were calling for 18 inches, maybe even 2 feet in places. Travel would be dangerous if not impossible.

A fine mess, I thought. Not a good time to be stuck in a tiny town motel room. A foot of snow would make the country roads impassable for days. Discretion, it seemed, was the better part of valor.

So I aimed the four-wheel-drive east, back to my parents’ house. There was already several inches of snow on the ground and it was falling hard and fast. The usual one-hour drive from the duck slough to their house took three hours. It was dark when I backed the duck boat trailer into their front yard where it would stay, stuck in the snow, until spring.

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Thirty years ago this weekend the Halloween blizzard of 1991 dumped 6-36 inches of new snow across Minnesota, essentially shutting down much of the state for days. But just before the storm's fury hit hardest, the author witnessed a waterfowl-watching wonder as ducks scurried to find shelter. Contributed / National Centers for Environmental Information

By now most everyone in Minnesota knows the rest of the story. It kept snowing all night Thursday and then all day Friday and then Saturday, too. It even snowed a little on Sunday up in Duluth, where a record 36.9 inches of snow fell. The Twin Cities “only” got 28.4 inches. Some 22 people died across the region.

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I finally managed to leave the Twin Cities on Sunday afternoon, driving to Duluth on Interstate 35 that was so snow-covered and rutted I never saw the pavement. The tops of cars pockmarked the ditches all the way north. The 170-mile trip took five hours.

My four-day duck vacation turned out to be just one morning of hunting. But, for an hour or two, as the great Halloween blizzard of 1991 set in on our duck slough, Charlie and I were witness to an unforgettable display of waterfowl wonder. Thirty years later, the memory of ducks scrambling to beat the storm remains crystal clear.

I’ve read stories about the Armistice Day blizzard of Nov. 11, 1940, about how so many duck hunters were trapped in ice and snow on a fall day that started warm and ended in disaster. They, too, were lured by the forecast of a big change in the weather. Unfortunately, many of them stayed too long, and several perished. They didn’t have the luxury of modern weather forecasting like I had to warn me of what was coming.

But the survivors all had the same story to tell: Wow, they said, did the ducks ever fly that day.

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John Myers

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

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