Goose Hunting In 'The Zone'

Although the old Quota Zone is a thing of the past, a well-planned southern Illinois goose hunt is still a memorable experience. (Dec 2006)

Once upon a time in a land where gentle Southern drawls blended hesitantly with harsh Midwestern accents, the Canada goose came to spend the winter. Not just one goose or even a few hundred came, but flock after flock of flapping, squabbling, honking visitors descended upon the three major waterfowl refuges within this magical place. In those days of magnificent abundance, this land was called "The Quota Zone."

Around mid-September the advance guard of the migrating geese floated quietly into the three-county area that comprised The Quota Zone. After the flight from southern Wisconsin -- a journey of nearly 600 miles usually made in just a few days -- the honkers found security, as well as food and water aplenty in each of the sprawling refuges. Year after year, individual flocks and sub-flocks returned to the Crab Orchard, Union County or Horseshoe Lake refuges, dropping to earth in the same corner of the same field every time.

By the end of October, the refuges teemed with migrants, with more due on a regular basis right up to Christmas. When their entire clan had assembled, there would be upward of 600,000 white-cheeked geese in the land of The Quota Zone. In morning and evening, the skies would be lined with rising waves of geese, pouring out of their refuges to scour the surrounding countryside for corn, beans and wheat. Thousands of hungry honkers would pour into a stubble field and clean it out in a few days. Winter wheat stood little chance as soon as the first green shoots emerged from the rich soil of the bottomlands. Those plants not gobbled up were soon destroyed by a million webbed feet packing the earth hard on top of them.

As the geese came each fall, so, too, did hunters who willingly traveled from all parts of the country, and even the world, to play a part in nature's game of survival. The thrill of seeing a handful of huge geese lock wings and work into a decoy spread became a life-long passion for generations of sportsmen. These men, and some women, planned their entire fall schedule around trips to The Quota Zone to hunt and to marvel at the spectacle of Canada geese.

The Quota Zone was so named because each year, a Scientific Wizard in the Kingdom of Department of Natural Resources decreed the maximum number of Canada geese that were to be shot during any season. When the quota set by the Wizard was reached, he forbid the hunt to go further. The hunters did not know why this was so, but the Wizard knew, and he was the one who set the quotas.

To the residents of The Quota Zone, the geese represented both a hypnotic natural resource and a wonderful economic opportunity. These folks hunted the geese, developing skills with regionally crafted goose calls that were unmatched, and established an industry centered on hundreds of commercial daily-fee goose hunting clubs. The clubs that provided outstanding hunting opportunities for visiting sportsmen at the same time were a major source of employment in The Quota Zone.

While some area residents owned the clubs, many others worked at them as drivers, guides, managers and bird cleaners. The "pickin' shacks" were famous goose-cleaning enterprises where hunters' geese were scalded, plucked, gutted, wrapped and frozen, often right in the shack owner's kitchen or front room. A good pickin' shack routinely handled over 100 geese per day at the going rate of about $3.50 per bird.

In the tiny town of Olive Branch near Horseshoe Lake Refuge in Alexander County stood the legendary Goose Pit restaurant. Early each morning, long tables filled with hunters eager for breakfast -- or needing food to absorb some leftover beverages from the night before. As each hunter entered, he handed his thermos jug over to a young lady who would have it filled with steaming hot coffee and ready to go when he left. There was no breakfast menu at the Goose Pit. Platters of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes and toast came to each table in an unending stream. Eat your fill, pick up your thermos, pay the tab and hit the road. It was as simple as that. Then one day, the Goose Pit burned to the ground and it was never rebuilt.

When the goose hunters arrived at the club of their choice, they found conversation at a minimum as sleepy men struggled into hip boots and awaited their pit assignments for the day's hunt. This last item came from a God-like figure -- the club owner. Most owners allocated the best spots to those who hired one of the club's guides, while next was long-time customers, and finally to the rest who were still working their way up the pecking order. The great hope of those in back-row pits was that maybe they would be moved forward to better pits when others had limited out. Maybe.

Hunters were then packed into old vans with doors that seldom stayed shut, and then driven over muddy pothole-infested farm lanes to a point several hundred yards from their designated hiding spots. The driver would yell out the pit number, see the hunters out of the van, point generally in the direction of the "hole" and leave two men standing in the mud contemplating a journey of as much as a quarter of a mile through ankle-deep "gumbo-like" mud. Armed with guns, bags full of gear and further weighed down by rubber boots that became heavier with each step in the clinging muck, they began their day's adventure.

Although the prospects of a good day may sound dim, the hunters' spirits were buoyed considerably by a rising crescendo of goose calls coming from the nearby refuge. Soon the first flights would appear over the distant trees and time was of the essence if they were to be settled underground before the birds arrived. Accordingly, the boys scuttled and "slud" across the treacherous field to their pit.

All the clubs in The Quota Zone carefully placed the decoy spreads the day before the season began, and then retrieved them on the day after the season ended. The fakes were always in the field, never picked up for the night, and rarely was their positioning changed -- unless by a hunter who believed that feeding birds always face into the wind. Frost and snow often accumulated on the decoys' backs, but since the guides did not carry snowbrushes, this accumulation stayed put until the sun melted it away, and not always on the same day it fell.

But when those "good 'ol boy" guides went to work with their cut-down Olt A-50 calls, the geese came anyway. More often than not, hunters left with coolers full of freshly killed geese -- after making reservations for their next hunt, of course. Life in The Quota Zone was indeed good.

But no party goes on forever, and today, The Quota Zone is no more. It has been taken apart piecemeal. Much like a stolen car in a very efficient chop shop, all the important parts have been removed until nothing remains but the framework.

The first and most important aspect of The Quota Zone to change was the geese themselves. Slowly, over time, the migrating flocks began spending more of their winters up north with newly arrived relatives known as the "Clan of the Giant Canada Goose." Once a very small clan, "giant Canadas" were relocated from a small town in Minnesota to the spreading suburbs of major cities, including Chicago. Once established in their new digs, the giant Canadas became fruitful and multiplied profusely.

Each fall, more and more of the migrating geese took advantage of the giant Canadas' hospitality. Today, nearly the entire flock spends its winter enjoying the abundance in the goosedom of northern Illinois. The goose flock of The Quota Zone is now a mere shadow of its former self.

This year, the Scientific Wizard of the DNR -- recently discovered to be Ray Marshalla posing as a mild-mannered waterfowl chief biologist -- has stripped The Quota Zone of its quota, leaving it to be known, for lack of a better term, as "The Zone." Then adding insult to injury, Scientific Wizard Ray expanded the boundaries of The Zone to include many more than the original three counties, and renamed this area "The South Zone." What is this world coming to?

As we find things today, goose hunting in the newly remodeled South Zone obviously will not be what it was in the days of yore. The season that once began in early November and ran for 90 days -- or until the Scientific Wizard shut it down -- now opens Nov. 23, closes on Nov. 26, then reopens Dec. 10 and continues until Jan. 31, for a total of just 56 days. But without a quota, there is no threat of an early closure.

While the three major refuges remain in place, the number of geese using them has fallen dramatically. Also, the majority of the birds that still make the long flight south have not been showing up until mid-November, at best, and often a month later. It would appear the best prospects for a successful South Zone goose hunt would be in January, and especially right after a major snowstorm has hit the upper two-thirds of Illinois. Such a weather event will drive substantial numbers of geese south, where they remain until temperatures moderate in the north.

Now included in the South Zone is Carlyle Lake, a large impoundment in Clinton County just south of Interstate 70. While this lake is one of the most productive of public waterfowl hunting areas for ducks, it does not enjoy a good reputation for goose hunting.

Rend Lake in Franklin County holds a fair amount of migrating birds, and is in an area where geese from nearby Crab Orchard Refuge fly to feed. This area can have some pretty good goose shooting late in the season, but usually not before Christmas. Migrating snow and blue geese also use this lake. You will find the Rend Lake Resort very accommodating to hunters and their dogs. It has a very good restaurant, and a nice lounge to unwind in after the day's adventure. For more info on the resort, call 1-800-633-3341 or go to www.rendlakeresort.com. For up-to-the-minute hunting reports or to hook up with a good area guide, call Todd Gessner at Southern Outdoor Resources Service at (618) 629-6085, or e-mail him at sors@midwest.net.

In 2005 -- the last year records of the actual goose kill were compiled for the dearly departed Quota Zone -- only 4,031 birds were accounted for. While that surely isn't a very impressive record when spread over a 56-day season, it must be pointed out that most of these geese were shot during a relatively short period of time in early January. This was caused by extremely cold weather in the northern part of Illinois, coupled with long-lasting snow cover, a combination that drove large numbers of geese winging south in search of food and open water.

To hunt for geese in the South Zone now is to travel back in time. Many of the old clubs are still there, waiting for the skies to open and Canada geese to pour down as they once did. But with warmer winters, no-till farming and non-migrating giant Canadas that lure the migrants to remain in the North Zone, that just isn't in the cards. Ducks are the name of the game in the former Quota Zone now, and there are plenty of them.

To successfully hunt geese there, you must wait until bad winter weather chases honkers out of the North Zone and Central Zone. That's when you had better get down south quick, because the birds will only fly out to feed recklessly for a few days before they wise up to the way the game is being played. Then you need to find a club that still attracts decent numbers of the geese that are around. Once you get that right, you still need to hunt properly, because the birds will be generally hard-pressed and shy of everything.

Here are the numbers that will help you choose the right place to try your luck in the South Zone. Clubs around the Crab Orchard Refuge exceeded all others by a large margin, reporting 2,919 birds killed during the 2005 season. The hunter success rate was .24 geese per hunter day, but that doesn't mean too much since there were good and bad days all lumped together. Union County clubs brought down 729 geese, while Horseshoe Lake hunters accounted for 503.

Among clubs at Crab Orchard, the Crab Orchard Hunting Club scored highest with 466 geese shot by 830 hunters for a daily average of .58. Next best was Country Kitchen and D&M Club, each with 178 geese; Burns Club, 163; Bleyer Farm, 127; L&D, 126; and the Crab Orchard Public grounds with 120 honkers.

Just a little bit to the south at the Union County Refuge, Colin Cain's Grassy Lake Club killed 437 geese over his famous "Black Hole." The success rate there for geese was only .20, but many of the clients were primarily shooting mallards. The Union County public hunting area was second best with 81 geese.

The Horseshoe Lake goose hunt continues its slide into history, with a total of only 503 geese reported. It wasn't too long ago when many clubs there regularly brought down well over 1,000 honkers each year. The runaway leader at Horseshoe Lake was the Carter Club with 148 dead birds, and a success ratio of .20. Miller Brothers Club was next with 80, followed by Renaud with 66. Again, judge all these results knowing that many of the former goose clubs now specialize in duck hunts.

Late-season goose hunting means you are going up against geese that have seen it all. Your best chance is to bump into a small flock that is new to the area, and susceptible to making a big mistake. As a result, you must do everything to reassure the birds they have nothing to fear. Keep it very simple.

Do not use a big decoy spread, and do not use junk decoys. Early in the season, old decoys -- or even car tires cut in half -- will make your spread look bigger, and they will work. No more. You are better off with a half-dozen quality decoys than you are scaring the geese off with dozens of beat-up old dekes.

Do not place the decoys too close to your blind or pit. Instead, set them upwind of your hide and hope the geese fly right over your head on their way in. Hopefully, you can get a shot at them before they detect the birds before them are fakes.

Call only when the geese are a good distance out, and don't overdo it. If the honkers wor

k in, shut up and let them do the talking. Remember, they have heard it all many times before, so no matter how good you may be, calling now will not help things.

If you are hunting a club and the decoys have been out overnight, clean them off with a rag or brush. Face them into the wind, and even reposition the spread to give it a different look than it has had for the last two months.

My final piece of advice is if you hunt a club, request a guide. Even if you don't need him, his presence will assure you of being assigned to one of the better pits, which will increase your chance for success. Besides, the guides are nice guys, and their stories will liven up the day. It will be money well spent.

Although the old Quota Zone is a thing of the past, a well-planned southern Illinois goose hunt is still a memorable experience. Be sure to get out there and enjoy it this season.

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