Midstate Waterfowl Hunting In Illinois

Ducks and geese are on the menu in the central region of the Prairie State. Here's where you'll likely find great wingshooting right now. (November 2009)

The Central Waterfowl Zone in Illinois basically consists of the middle half of the state. The boundaries of this large area were changed before the 2007 season, and still remain a source of confusion to some hunters. A complete description of this zone's current borders as defined in the 2008/09 Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations pamphlet.

Since the season opening and closing dates for duck and goose hunting varies among all three of the Illinois waterfowl zones, it is very important for hunters to be aware of these sometimes confusing boundary lines.

The main waterfowl migration flyways in Illinois pass through the Central Zone, making it a hotbed for duck and goose hunting. Ducks traveling south from Canadian and North Dakota prairies will angle across Minnesota, Iowa and northern Missouri before entering Illinois and funneling down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. As always, weather and habitat conditions will determine the quality and extent of each season's hunt.

In order for the ducks to remain in large numbers along the two major rivers, they must be able to find sufficient food and secure resting areas. Water levels throughout the spring, summer and early fall will determine both of these basic requirements. A dry spring and summer allows wildlife beneficial moist soil plants to grow in backwater areas, and moderate rain in early fall floods this food supply, making it accessible to waterfowl. In 2008, spring and early fall flooding was so severe very little duck food was available when the seasonal migration took place.

A report from Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) waterfowl manager Ray Marshalla notes: "At some public waterfowl hunting areas some hunters were concerned about a lack of crops planted for ducks and duck hunting. As the state agency responsible for managing wildlife in Illinois, the DNR uses best management practices that benefit waterfowl and other wildlife."

Current research in waterfowl management emphasizes the value of moist-soil management for ducks and other wildlife. There appears to be an abundance of waste grains available to migrating waterfowl in Illinois, especially mallards and Canada geese, because of the advent of modern farming practices, such as no-till and reduced tillage farming.

However, many waterfowl won't eat corn, and wetland habitats along with moist-soil forage have been drastically reduced in Illinois when compared with historical times due to wetland drainage, siltation, dams and other human alterations to the landscape. A combination of cereal grains and moist-soil plants at public hunting areas and refuges will provide quality duck-hunting opportunity as could be expected with all cereal grains, while also providing waterfowl and other wildlife with ideal habitat and forage.

The advantages of moist-soil management are many. There's a lower cost per unit than row crop management. Moist-soil management is productive in a variety of moisture and weather conditions, especially when domestic grains fail. Moist-soil plants and seeds contain many essential nutrients that are lacking in domestic grains. Used in conjunction with nearby grain production on other sections, the best of both is provided to waterfowl and other wildlife.

While DNR waterfowl managers are well aware of the value of planting public hunting areas with the moist-soil plants detailed above, full implementation of their plans was hindered by serious budgetary cutbacks caused by the faltering economy. It seems strange to drag Economy 101 class lessons into a duck-hunting article, but the fact remains that the tractor that pulls the seed planter must have fuel to run on, and a DNR employee to drive it. In 2008, both necessities were in short supply. Indications are things will improve as we go forward.

Weather during the migration period is an equally important factor in determining the quality of duck hunting each year. Ideally, snow and cold on the Canadian and Dakota prairies will push millions of birds across the Great Plains and into Illinois. But we don't want those storms to smash across the Mississippi River and keep the migrating ducks on the move, right out of our state, creating what has been referred to as a fly over.

When heavy floods in September of 2008 washed out most of the duck food in the upper Illinois and Mississippi river valleys, things began to look grim. Indeed, this situation caused many flocks of ducks to keep right on going south in search of suitable habitat. River levels did not drop below flood stage until mid-October; therefore, waterfowl foraging habitat was poor in the Illinois River valley during fall, and only locations at the highest elevations or protected by substantial levees retained any forage. These sites included Hennepin-Hopper lakes, Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area, Emiquon Preserve and Spunky Bottoms.

Then just to make sure Louisiana and Mississippi would have banner hunting seasons, Mother Nature dealt Illinois a cold spell that drove November and December temperatures down 4.5 degrees below normal. The resulting early freeze-up of shallow- water lakes and ponds was all it took to virtually empty the Central Zone of ducks.

Total duck abundance peaked on Nov. 10, 2008. Cold weather ensued in late November and many wetlands remained frozen through the first week of January 2009. Just like in the Illinois River valley region, waterfowl habitat at most census locations in the central Mississippi River valley was considered below average last fall as well.

Extensive flooding along most of the upper Mississippi River during spring and summer curtailed moist-soil management at many census locations. These high river levels may have hindered growth of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in Pool 19 of the Mississippi River. Aerial observations of these aquatic beds indicated that abundance of SAV was well below average during fall at Pool 19.

So, by measuring today's habitat and weather conditions against those of last season, you can draw some conclusion as to what to expect when you crawl into your blind on opening day. The only unknown at this point is when cold weather and storms will freeze us out, and drive the ducks south.

Interestingly, what is a disaster for the duck hunter is usually a blessing for the goose hunter. The cold weather and deep snow that flush ducks away are just what it takes to push the Canada geese out of their comfortable winter quarters in the Northern Zone and send them into the Central Zone in search of open water and bare fields.

This major movement usually doesn't occur until late December, but for the past two seasons, the Northern Zone

has been buried in snow during the first week of December. In both instances a major migration resulted, and goose hunting in the Central Zone took off big time.

The nice thing about these mid-season mini-migrations is that they provide ample warning to hunters that the geese will be coming. You don't have to drop everything when a heavy snowfall hits the Chicago area. All you need do is check the long-range weather forecast to determine how long the white stuff will remain on the fields. If a warming trend is predicted, nothing is going to happen. But if continued cold temperatures will hold sway for the next week, start loading your decoys into the truck.

Geese are tough old birds, and in their own way, stubborn. Being amply protected from the cold by several inches of warm, downy feathers, they will refuse to leave their winter quarters until they can no longer find anything to eat. Even then, hunger will drive them south in search of open fields, but it may take five to seven days for them to decide to leave. In the worst of winters I have seen small flocks of geese huddled against the south side of brick buildings, where the sun heats the walls and melts a narrow strip of snow, exposing the dried grass. How those big birds survive on that meager fare I will never know, but somehow they manage to get through the toughest of times.

Although Central Zone goose hunters will be alerted in advance of an impending migration, they should move fast once the geese begin pouring into their area. Unlike migrations of years ago, when all the birds wintered in the big refuges of southern Illinois, the goose flocks today will only stick around until the weather moderates, and then they will return en masse to their Northern Zone haunts. Another storm may chase the geese into the Central Zone again, but their stay will last only until the weather breaks up north.

Hunting access for waterfowlers in the Central Zone can be classified into two categories: private and public lands. Private lands need little explanation; you either own or lease the land, or have permission to be hunting on it. Many private duck clubs call the Illinois and Mississippi rivers home.

These clubs manage their own land, often raising dykes, planting crops and pumping in water to flood them in the fall. Some of the clubs kill a lot of birds, others not so much, but memberships in all are at a premium, and the dues can be very high. If you are considering joining one of these clubs, be sure to check out their rules and regulations carefully to be sure they suit your needs.

I would divide public hunting lands into two classifications: state properties, and commercial daily fee clubs. The state hunting sites are available at little if any cost, while the commercial clubs charge when you use them, but are much less expensive than membership in a private club.

If you are unfamiliar with any public land site you may wish to hunt, please be sure to phone their office well ahead of your trip to learn all the details of their hunting program. Each area has developed its own program to accommodate the varying conditions to be found there. While you are on the phone, ask for specific directions to the area, which can be difficult to find in early morning's darkness.

In the northern tier of the Central Waterfowl Zone, there are a number of daily fee commercial clubs that cater to both duck and goose hunters. These clubs provide everything a hunter will need, sometimes even with trained retrieving dogs. Comfortable, heated pits and blinds are the rule, and all decoys are furnished. The clubs operate on their own and leased land, and are usually located in fields and wetlands heavily used by the birds.

An average cost for a day of waterfowl hunting at a club is around $125, but add to that a guide fee of about $25 to $35. For the average hunter, who may only hunt three or four times per season, these clubs are a great value, in that there is no expensive equipment or decoys to buy, and no land to lease. You can hunt as often or as little as your schedule or your budget permits.

Here are some of the clubs you may consider: The Mazonia Hunt Club is located near Braceville, near the big cooling lakes of several nuclear electric generating plants. In addition to a large resident flock of giant Canada geese, this area is one of first stops for birds driven out of the Northern Zone by heavy snowstorms. The big lakes also attract large numbers of mallards and other ducks. Check them out at mazoniahuntclub.com.

Located near Nebo, near the Mississippi River, Heartland Lodge offers first-class accommodations, dining and waterfowl hunting for both ducks and geese. Their packages are tailored to several days hunting and lodging, and would be great for entertaining business associates or meetings. Details can be found at www.heartlandlodge.com.

The Torino Hunt Club is headquartered in Gardner, and is named after a town that now lies beneath the waters of Braidwood Lake, which was flooded to provide water to cool a nearby power plant. This club has blinds and pits scattered over a six-mile area, which allows them to put their hunters where the geese are. In addition, the club employs layout blinds to put hunters into the fields the birds are using. Catch their video and get full details at www.torinohuntclub.com.

The Illinois Central Waterfowl Zone offers a great variety of waterfowl hunting thrills. Now is the time to get in on the action before they're here today and gone tomorrow. You just really can't be certain with ducks and geese and Mother Nature.

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