Southern Zone Waterfowl Hotspots

Southern Zone Waterfowl Hotspots

Looking for a place reasonably close where you can find outstanding duck and goose hunting? You can find all that and more in southern Illinois. (December 2008)

Way back in the mid-1800s, Horace Greeley, a noted New York newspaper publisher, offered this wisdom to a young man anxious to seek his fortune: "Go west, young man, go west."

Southern Zone hunters are reaping limits of ducks from pits once used exclusively for goose hunts.
Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Greeley realized the lad's chances for success were far greater on the rapidly developing frontier than they were on the heavily industrialized east coast. He was right. Today, if asked my advice on where to find the best late-season waterfowl action, I would paraphrase Greeley and say, "Go south, my friend, go south.

And, like good old Horace, I, too, would be right.

As winter sets in and dark days grow short, the ponds, lakes and even the rivers in northern and central Illinois freeze up, and the hunting seasons wind down. Most ducks have vanished from the scene, and while geese remain, they are easily persuaded to fly south when the first snows bury their feeding fields.

How far south need a determined hunter travel to stay with the migrations? Well, there will be plenty of mallards in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. There will be all sorts of ducks along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Snow and blue geese will be wintering all the way to northern Mexico, and you will find lesser Canada and white-fronted geese in the rice fields of Texas.

However, before you start Googling hunting outfitters in the Deep South, think about the price of gas, and how much of it you will burn traveling across the country. With the cost of airline tickets having doubled, and probably tripled, that mode of transport is not much of a bargain either. So, let's consider another option.

What you are looking for is a place reasonably near home where you can find outstanding duck and goose hunting. You need to be sure of a place to hunt, along with comfortable and convenient lodging options and all the necessary amenities that will make your trip an enjoyable one.

You can find all that and more within a half-day's drive from your home in southern Illinois, and make the round trip on a couple of tanks of gas. Better yet, you will find reasonably priced meals and motel accommodations, well-established, traditional waterfowl hunting clubs, public hunting areas and expert guides who will greatly enhance your chances for a successful hunt.

For most of the 20th century, southern Illinois was justifiably famous for Canada goose hunting. The big birds came by the hundreds of thousands to winter in three large waterfowl refuges -- Crab Orchard, Union County and Horseshoe Lake. Goose hunting was a driving economic force in the three-county quota zone and hunters poured into the area from all over the country and beyond.

By 1985, however, the migratory patterns of Canada geese changed abruptly with the simultaneous onset of global climate change, no-till farm practices and the introduction of giant strain Canada geese in the northern part of the state. The combination of warmer winters, plenty of food in the fields and the allure of large flocks of resident geese effectively short-stopped migrating geese and held them in the northern counties of Illinois.

For a time, waterfowl hunting in the Southern Zone sputtered to a near halt. With the refuges nearly devoid of geese, hunters soon turned their attention elsewhere. Some of the goose hunting clubs simply dried up and went out of business. Area tourism bureaus began touting other attractions, such as wineries, local festivals, fishing and golf. It certainly appeared that the southern Illinois waterfowl hunting tradition had disappeared from the radar screen.

This group of Prairie State hunters from Aurora had no complaints at all about the results of their goose hunt. Photo by Jerry Pabst.

But some of the veteran hunting club owners had other ideas. Since they had the land, the expertise and the equipment to manage their land any way they wanted, all they needed was a supply of waterfowl to replace the recently departed Canada geese. But where would such a resource be found, and what type of waterfowl could they pull in?

It just so happens that most of southern Illinois' best waterfowl hunting areas are in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River. Geographically, those bottoms lie just across the river from southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, two of North America's more famous duck-hunting destinations.

The challenge facing southern Illinois waterfowl hunters was how to get a plentiful supply of ducks and geese over the Mississippi River and into the big refuges and lakes, there-by re-establishing a waterfowl resource.

Wintering ducks and geese need plenty of food and abundant roosting areas. If you provide that, they will come.

The existing refuges offered a perfect sanctuary for the birds, and on-site agricultural planting provided some of the needed food. The geese already using the refuges were well provided for, and if harsh winter weather forced a sizeable migration from the north, there was ample room for those geese, too.

The problem was attracting plenty of ducks and for that more water was needed. With this in mind, forward-looking club owners began revamping their land. They pushed up levees around corn fields and pumped them full of water. The flooded standing corn drew in ducks by the thousands, and more came every year. By now, waterfowlers in Arkansas must be getting nervous about the tremendous amount of ducks and geese that have been lured into Illinois.

There are four major waterfowl hunting venues in southern Illinois. Straddling I-57, the major traffic artery in the southern zone, is 19,000-acre Rend Lake, a huge impoundment between Mt. Vernon and Marion. Long famous for outstanding crappie and catfish angling, Rend Lake is very hunter friendly. The lake is jointly managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to planted walk-in fields for goose hunters, the lake boasts several launch ramps, allowing waterfowl hunters access to the lake a short distance from where they plan to set up. Some areas of Rend Lake are open to hunters on a first-come

basis, while in other sections the number of hunters is limited and requires a sign-in procedure. A refuge area is also in place where all hunting is prohibited.

For full details on the various hunting options at Rend Lake, call the IDNR Benton office at (618) 435-8138, or visit the IDNR Web site, www.dnr.state.il.us.

Rend Lake goose hunting is unpredictable, since the majority of the birds spend their time in the big refuges a few miles south. The lake does hold a good supply of ducks, mainly mallards. There are no guide services on Rend Lake, so this is a perfect place for the do-it-yourself hunter who can provide all his own gear.

Accommodations at Rend Lake consist of small motels in nearby towns, such as Benton or Whittington, but your best bet is the Rend Lake Resort located right on the lake shore. Rend Lake Resort has its own marina, restaurant, lounge and a variety of rooms, cabins and boatels. The resort's winter rates make these choices very affordable. For details call (800) 633-3341, or visit www.rendlakeresort.com.

Just outside Marion is the Federal Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, 44,000 acres of forests, agricultural fields, ponds and Crab Orchard Lake. At one time, more than 200,000 Canada geese wintered here each season, but last year's high count reached only 36,000. In the 2007 season, hunters bagged 2,960 Canada geese during the 56-day season, which typically begins in early December.

Because of the small fields and hilly land in and around the refuge, few snow geese use this area. Some of the clubs have recorded impressive duck kills annually, along with decent goose hunting. Steve Hahn's Crab Orchard club still concentrates on geese, and last year, his clients brought down 615 big birds, for an average of nearly one goose per hunter.

Other clubs have diversified, tailoring their fields for both ducks and geese. Two of the best are Burns Goose Club (800/554-3356) and Pike's Hunting Club (618/997-1124). The D&M club specializes in Canada geese and provides a beautiful setting, with spacious pits and a luxurious clubhouse (618/993-8914).

Accommodations in Marion are plentiful and first rate. Request the annual hunting guide from the Williamson County Tourism Bureau at (800) GEESE-99 for a listing of many Crab Orchard hunting clubs, as well as information about lodging, restaurants, shopping and more.

There is plentiful public hunting available on the refuge itself, both for ducks and for geese. The last records compiled show 457 hunters taking 131 geese and 299 ducks from refuge land. Hunting is permitted on most of Crab Orchard Lake, but each party must provide its own boat, decoys and temporary blind. Each morning there is a drawing for field blinds. Contact the refuge office at (618) 997-3344 for a booklet of current regulations.

Twenty miles south in Ware lies the sprawling Union County Refuge. Three miles long and a mile wide, the refuge contains several small lakes, as well as numerous agricultural fields. At one time, the refuge regularly hosted 150,000 to 175,000 Canada geese every winter. Today, 20,000 geese would be considered a bonanza, but 10,000 is a more realistic figure.

The outlook brightens considerably when one considers the 25,000 snow and blue geese, and 8,500 white-fronted geese that share the area with their white-cheeked cousins. Add to the goose count 15,000 to 30,000 ducks of all varieties and you have a very respectable waterfowl population. Most of the clubs remaining on the borders of the refuge manage their land for both geese and ducks, and they do quite a nice job.

Most clubs at Union County Refuge concentrate on ducks, but Grassy Lake Club, owned and operated by Colin Cain, manages to do well on both species. Cain's hunters annually kill around 175 to 200 geese and an eye-popping 5,000 ducks. For more information, contact the club at (618) 833-7890. Other clubs meriting consideration are Arrowhead, 2,027 ducks and Treece Acres, 1,318 ducks.

The Union County Conservation Public Hunting Area recorded 122 geese and 637 ducks during the 2006-07 season. Hunting on this refuge is regulated by a daily permit system, but each morning a drawing is held for unclaimed blinds. While it is too late to apply for a permit this year, you can still get in on the daily drawings. Call the refuge office for more information at (618) 833-5175.

The oldest and still most famous of the big three refuges is Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area in Alexander County. Located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, this manmade lake has been luring goose hunters since its creation more than 80 years ago. Until recently, Canada goose hunting was the foremost activity in the Horseshoe Lake area, but today ducks reign supreme.

The annual figures show only 463 Canada geese were taken by hunters during the 2006-07 season, as opposed to 556 ducks. The Miller Brothers club stood out as the top goose club with 150 honkers and an additional 379 ducks. Carter Club placed second for geese, tallying 117.

However, it is the duck harvest that amazes us, considering that for most of its existence, shooting at a duck at a Horseshoe Lake club could have gotten you thrown off the grounds. A glance at the 2006-07 records reveals how much things have changed: Big Cypress Club, 969 ducks; Horseshoe Lake Public Hunting area, 675; Oakwood, 454; Renaud, 480; and Timber Mallards, 1,356.

Additionally, Horseshoe Lake often holds upwards of 20,000 snow and blue geese. Other clubs posting respectable duck kills were Billings, Dangerous Duck Club, River Delta, Willis and Worthington.

For more information on public hunting at Horseshoe Lake, call (618) 776-5689.

It is important to remember when comparing the number of ducks and geese reported from various clubs to factor in the size of each to get a clear picture of hunting productivity. For example, your chance of success is better on a club with just four pits/blinds that records 100 geese, than it is on a club with 15 pits/blinds that harvests 150 birds.

Visiting hunters at Horseshoe Lake usually stay at Cape Girardeau, which is about the same driving time as those hunting at the Union County Refuge. There are no notable lodging options near either of those hunting areas.

There are plenty of other public waterfowl hunting areas in the southern waterfowl zone and they all can be found in the IDNR publication, Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations. Pick up a free copy at any IDNR office or wherever hunting licenses are sold retail. The information is also available at the IDNR Web site.

In Illinois, all hunters, regardless of age, must possess a valid Illinois hunting license, a state waterfowl stamp and be HIP certified, all available online. Hunters born after Jan. 1, 1980, must have proof of successful completion of the DNR Hunter Education Course. All resident hunters over the age of 21 must have in possession a valid Illinois Firearms Owners ID card. (Those under the age of 21 must hunt under the control of a responsible ad

ult who is in possession of a valid FOID card.) Hunters over 16 years old must possess a current federal waterfowl stamp, available at most U.S. post offices.

All waterfowl hunters must use non-toxic shot pellets -- steel or amalgams that have been certified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Waterfowl hunters in Illinois may not use steel shot larger than T size. The size permitted for non-toxic amalgam shot varies depending on the product. Check the DNR hunting digest for pellet size restrictions on the brand you plan to use.

Duck hunting in the southern zone usually begins in mid-November and ends in mid-January. While as always, hunting success is weather and moon phase dependent, there will be plenty of birds in the refuges throughout the entire season.

Goose hunters must time their hunts to coincide with heavy winter storms in the northern half of the state that push significant numbers of honkers south. It is vital to get to the hunting area as soon as possible after the snow drives the geese south, when the birds will be hungry and much easier to decoy.

Still one of waterfowling's best-kept secrets, the astonishing resurgence of duck and goose hunting in southern Illinois deserves your attention as you plan your late-season hunts. I hope I'll see you down there.

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