Open Water Rule Clarified for Wisconsin’s Mississippi Duck Hunt

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Open Water Rule Clarified for Wisconsin's Mississippi Duck HuntLA CROSSE, Wis. – Faced in recent years with an increasing number of complaints about open water duck hunting on the Mississippi River, state and federal wildlife officials are issuing a pre-season rule clarification – and a fair warning.

“Duck hunting on the Mississippi River is becoming more popular, attracting hunters from throughout Wisconsin,” said Steve Dewald, conservation warden supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources at La Crosse. “As a result, competition for hunting spots is increasing. Unfortunately, last fall we got a lot of complaints that some hunters were not following the rules regarding open water hunting.”

Under Wisconsin law, open water hunting is prohibited with the exception of specified water bodies such as Lake Winnebago in northeast Wisconsin and Lake Pepin on the Mississippi.

The purpose of the rule is to direct hunters to the edges of water bodies and allow large numbers of ducks to rest and feed in open water during their fall migration, said Kent Van Horn, DNR migratory game bird ecologist.

“This provides benefits to the ducks in conserving energy resources and benefits the waterfowl hunter by keeping the ducks nearby on the water body,” Van Horn said. “This rule was developed to apply statewide across our many lakes in addition to the open areas of our rivers. I ask hunters to hunt in ways that support the intent of this rule rather than seek ways around the rule. In the end both ducks and duck hunters will benefit.”

It is also an issue of fair play.

“We want hunters to enjoy the river,” Dewald said. “However, to be fair, we can’t allow a small number of hunters to interfere with legal hunters by setting up in open water to cut off ducks before they can reach the legally placed decoys and blinds.”

On the Mississippi, blinds are allowed within 100 feet of the shoreline. These blinds must be securely anchored.

Otherwise, “open water” is defined by statute as “any water beyond a natural growth of vegetation rooted to the bottom and extending above the water surface of such height as to offer whole or partial concealment to the hunter.”

This means duck hunters on the Mississippi must set up their blinds within 100 feet of shore or within concealing rushes or other emergent aquatic vegetation.

In an attempt to secure an unfair advantage, officials said, some hunters have set up beyond the 100 foot limit claiming that any visible vegetation meets the letter of the law.

Because Wisconsin territorial waters lie within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, both the Wisconsin DNR and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have jurisdiction over hunting practices.

Don Hultman of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, manager of the federal refuge, said federal rules governing hunting in the refuge are designed to mirror state regulations. That means any state violation is also a violation of federal law.

“Last year we saw several cases where hunters were setting-up in or near sparse, dead or flattened emergent vegetation and sticking willows or other material in the bottom for concealment,” Hultman said. “We consider such actions a violation of the open-water rules.”

Guides who engage in this practice risk losing their federal permit to operate commercially within the refuge, federal officials said.

“Where people got into trouble last year was in misinterpreting the open water definition,” Dewald said. “If a duck is flying over the river toward you, and there is no vegetation rising to a height to conceal you from that duck, then you are in violation of the open water rule. I explain to people that if they are in vegetation that doesn’t rise above the gunwales of the boat, then the vegetation isn’t concealing the hunter at all. We are asking people to be reasonable about this.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Steve Dewald, 608-785-9970