by Bret Amundson
I grew up waterfowl hunting in northwest Wisconsin and each year I would read about the “Horicon Zone” in the regulations and wonder what was so special about this area about an hour northwest of Milwaukee. This fall, I found out.
This 33,000 acre “Wetland of International Importance,” turns out, is a great place for wildlife. If you like to hunt, there is a large area available for public hunting. If you like to take pictures, there are a number of places you can access to get close to waterfowl, birds and other critters. If you just want to get outside, whether alone or with the kids, there are winding trails and interactive displays to get fresh air, learn about the region’s ecology and even catch a glimpse at wildlife.
While I was looking forward to hunting the marsh, the biggest highlight for me was a pair of whooping cranes feeding with sandhills in a nearby cornfield.
Pat Kalmerton and I had just arrived at the floating boardwalk on the National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 49, when his father, Roy, messaged us about the two rare cranes just about a mile away. We quickly packed up our cameras and went searching.
It didn’t take long to see the tall, white birds among the yellow corn stubble. They were surrounded by the grayish sandhill cranes, dancing and sparring, while calling loudly. The pterodactyl-like noises echoed across the field (at least it seems like a noise a pterodactyl would make). Sandhill cranes have always held my interest, but the “whoopers” are on another level. When there’s only 800 or so in the world, seeing one can be a challenge and when you do, you feel like you’re witnessing something special. Using what knowledge I have of feeding waterfowl, I stopped by this field 3 out of 4 days and they were there each time, giving me plenty of opportunity to film and snap some photos of the famous birds, known as #38-17 and #63-15.
Their notoriety comes from their rarity and perseverance, but they reached legendary status in 2018 when they became the first pair to hatch and fledge a chick, W13-20, at Horicon.
“One of the few places that you’re able to see a whooping crane on a regular basis in the country is here along the federal refuge,” said Mark Kakatsch, the migratory chair for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
“We have a very sustainable sandhill population,” Kakatash added. Counts were near the 10,000 mark and everywhere you looked, you saw sandhill cranes.
While the cranes were a focal point of this trip to Horicon, I was there to hunt this legendary marsh. Pat and I were fortunate to hook up with Mark and his wife, Jennifer, who took us out for an afternoon duck hunt on the marsh.
“It’s one of the easier places to hunt,” Mark said. “There’s multiple boat landings for you to use that have fairly easy access.”
While waterfowl hunting has historically been the main activity at the marsh, Horicon is still a state designated fur farm, so trapping is popular. Archery deer hunting, turkey hunting and other small game opportunities exist as well as a chance to walk for a tasty rooster.
“Our natural population of pheasants out here is very small,” said Eric Kilburg, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We release pheasants during the season once or twice a week.” Pheasant hunting hours go from sunrise until noon from opening day through November 3rd and then extends to normal shooting hours the rest of the season. The limit is one on opening weekend and then goes to two after that.
While hunting pen-raised birds didn’t interest me much at first, once I learned more about the program, I didn’t hesitate to strap on some orange and get my dogs some exercise. In addition to your small game license, you need to purchase a $10 pheasant stamp. That stamp, like much of outdoor-related funding, is based on a “user-fee” model. If you want to hunt pheasants, you help fund the program. 70% of stamp proceeds go to creating grassland habitat meant to boost the wild pheasant population – which also benefits deer, ducks, pollinators and other wildlife. It also benefits soil health and water quality. Hard to argue with that effort.
The other 30% fully funds the release program and in 2023, the DNR planned to release 75,000 pheasants on 80 properties, including Horicon Marsh.
There was an abundance of waterfowl in the area, including mallards, gadwall, shovelers, bluebills and more. Just before we arrived, the National Wildlife Refuge had a count of 150,000 mallards! The habitat on the federal side is well-maintained for ducks and geese and you could see birds trading back and forth between the pools all day. In the mornings and evenings the cranes would leave in search of food, with a few flocks of canada geese with them.
If you’re an avid waterfowl hunter, you owe it to yourself to make a trip to this legendary marsh. Whether or not you have success pulling the trigger won’t matter if you’re there at the right time. When the migration is on, you’ll have no shortage of sights and sounds. Bring your boat, a camera and a love of the ducks and geese and you’ll be right at home at Horicon.
To help you plan a trip, here are suggested activities:
Where: Horicon Marsh. 1 Hour from Milwaukee. 4.5 Hours from Minneapolis. 2.5 Hours from Chicago. 5.5 Hours from Des Moines
What to do: Hunt, fish, photograph, hike, and view. If you plan on hunting, you will need a small game license, the state and federal duck stamp, HIP certification and a pheasant stamp if you plan on pheasant hunting. It’s recommended to stop into the WI DNR Visitor center for any questions about where to go and what you need. There are four boat accesses on the marsh. The water can be shallow in many places, so mud motors are recommended but not necessary. There are lots of photography opportunities during the fall as well, with photo blinds, spotting scopes and close encounters with waterfowl such as Canada geese, sandhill cranes and whooping cranes. We recommend the auto tour and the Egret Trail floating boardwalk to start. Rockvale and the Bud Cook trail offer scenic overlooks of the marsh.
Best Time To Visit Horicon Marsh: There are activities year round, but the spring and fall migrations can be impressive. The fall starts when the days start to get shorter and the weather up north gets cold. Best time to travel is mid-October through mid-November. Weather can dictate how many birds are on the marsh. You’ll need to consider road conditions and dressing for colder weather.
Recommended Hotel in Waupun: AmericInn – $109 (indoor pool, bar, continental breakfast, pet friendly.
Place to Bring the Kids: Guth’s Candy. 928 E Main St, Waupun.
More questions regarding visiting the region? Contact the Destination Lake Winnebago Region office.