Exclusive Duck Hunting in the Wetlands
By Brian E. Clark
At first blush, marsh skis look like something the legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan might have worn on outings over the snow with Babe, his big blue ox.
But these giant skis, which are more than 10-feet tall and six-inches-wide with tips curving up nearly 18 inches, aren’t made for sliding over the snow. Nope, these unusual “tools” are used by rugged hunters to shuffle through Wisconsin wetlands—over bogs, cattails and various kinds of grasses—to get to duck-filled “honey holes” that they couldn’t otherwise reach.
"It’s a lot of work to use them, but they get you places hunters in boats will never find," said Don Jago, an amiable, retiree who's been using marsh skis for more than half a century to pursue ducks in the Horicon Marsh and surrounding DNR wetlands.
"Other wetlands where hunters use these unusual skis include the French Creek Wildlife Area near Portage, the upper pools of the Fox and Wolf Rivers outside of Lake Winnebago and the marshes associated with Poygan, Butte des Morts and Lake Winneconne lakes," said Don Christian, a retired DNR warden who has hunted extensively on marsh skis. He now works part-time as a wildlife technician at Horicon.
Jago said he knew he wanted to hunt waterfowl when he was 16. "My uncle took me duck hunting on Lake Nemahbin about 40 miles west of Milwaukee," said Jago, who always hunts with dogs and uses a Benelli, 12-gague shotgun. His favorite hound is a Chesapeake Bay retriever.
"Later, I was really hooked when I saw a big flock of birds lift off from the federal lands in the Horicon Marsh and fly over me and land in the high grass behind me," added Jago, who lives outside Beaver Dam. He joined Ducks Unlimited after that experience and bought his first pair of marsh skis so he could ski out to where the birds were. The secret to marsh skis is that they spread the weight of a hunter out over the length of the boards, he said.
"For a long time, I thought it (Horicon Marsh) belonged to me because it was almost literally in my backyard," said Jago, who has hunted there almost exclusively and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore waterfowl habitat in the surrounding marshes.
Jago said he would sometimes fly over the marsh in a friend’s plane to find the "pot holes" he wanted to reach on his skis. After that, he’d go by boat and get as close as he could. Then came the really hard work: putting in a trail to reach the short grass areas that were often loaded with birds.
"The marsh never stays the same," he said. "It shifts and changes. So I would look for the areas of short grasses where the mallards were, often by muskrat colonies. There are 10,000 acres to hunt, which means different areas every day. All the marsh ski guys I know have their own areas and we respect them."
Jago said he always wears waders, in case he falls down in the muck. His skis are made of relatively white ash and must bend easily. The tips curve up in an almost elfish manner to push through the sedges and reeds. Each ski is braced with a wire from the tip to near the fire-hose binding into which he slides his feet.
While marsh skis can be used in water a foot or two deep and over grasses and cattails, Jago said they can’t traverse deep, open water.
"You learn by experience where you can go and you figure out how to do it by falling down, getting back up and slogging on, and by getting stuck," he said. "You also learn what places to avoid, where the mud can be like quicksand."
"But it is a wonderful way to hunt," he said. "There could be 50 boats at a landing and you’ll be the only guy with skis heading out to the pot holes where the ducks are, but the other guys can’t go."
For more information on waterfowl hunting in Horicon Marsh, visit the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center. Another excellent resource is Ducks Unlimited.