Southern Comfort Ducks & Geese In Our State

From Crab Orchard to Horseshoe Lake, plus many others, there's still good hunting to be enjoyed in our state's slightly warmer southern reaches. Here's where to go right now! (December 2009)

Photo By Tom Migdalski

Mark Twain, upon hearing the rumor of his demise, remarked: "Reports of my death are premature." Much the same can be said of reports that waterfowl hunting in southern Illinois ended when Canada geese decided to spend their winters in the northern part of the state. When the migrating flocks forsook the big southern refuges that had for so long provided for them, everyone wrote off what had become an annual waterfowl hunting tradition.

Well, everyone except those southern Illinois goose hunters whose biological clock sends them into blinds and pits each fall regardless of the challenges presented by a greatly reduced influx of Canada geese. Not only did they continue to hunt, but also they quickly took steps to revive their moribund sport. Indeed, reports of the death of southern Illinois waterfowling were premature.

Realizing that their now deserted hunting area at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers lay directly in the path of migrating ducks, these hunters began to implement measures that would lure the southbound ducks to the now vacant refuges in the former three county quota zone.

Each of the refuges, at Crab Orchard, (Marion County), Union County Refuge and Horseshoe Lake, (Alexander County), offer plenty of open water for loafing and roosting, and many acres of managed agricultural land provided ample foraging space.

While some of the private hunting clubs and public daily fee hunting operations have simply folded their tents and disappeared, a goodly number of them began a transition that would return their area to prominence as prime waterfowling destinations. Using heavy earth-moving equipment, small levees were pushed up around corn fields, allowing them to be flooded with 1 or 2 feet of water in early fall, creating an irresistible lure for any ducks that had begun using the refuges abandoned by geese.

With the levees in place, the club operators installed strategically located pits and blinds that would position hunters around the flooded corn to take advantage of varying wind patterns. This did not, however, indicate that the goose pits in other fields were abandoned.

While the huge flocks of Canada geese had become a distant memory, inclement weather up north still pushed varying numbers of the big birds into their former haunts. Day to day, goose hunting around the big three refuges can be an iffy proposition, but when hungry honkers abandon the snow-covered fields in the northern counties, they can provide some hot and heavy hunting in the Southern Zone.

In spite of heavy hunting pressure, and expanded seasons, the snow goose population continues to grow. As it does, the birds have expanded their traditional range, spilling over into southern Illinois. At times both the Union County and Horseshoe Lake refuges will hold as many as 30,000 snow and blue geese. Because the hilly nature of the land bordering the Crab Orchard Refuge offers only small agricultural fields, snow geese generally bypass the area. It should be noted that Crab Orchard always attracts the largest concentration of Canada geese.

In addition to the already large and growing population of wintering ducks and snow geese, another newcomer has arrived on the Southern Zone scene. White-fronted, or speckle-bellied geese are showing up regularly, and in good numbers. Considered the best eating goose of them all, "specs" can be readily decoyed, especially when they are newly arrived.

Those hunters who are considering a waterfowl-hunting excursion to the revitalized Southern Zone should ask three important questions: when, where and how. I began goose hunting in the Southern Zone in 1968, and missed but one season between then and 1996, when it became apparent the party was over. But since the emphasis has switched over to duck hunting, I have returned to my former hangouts the last four years running.

In addition to hunting, I also took time to tour each of the refuges and the surrounding areas, and with this information, I will share my impressions with you. Please bear in mind that, as in all waterfowl hunting, weather is often the determining factor in your success or lack of it.

When you plan a trip, or better yet, trips, to Illinois' Southern Waterfowl Zone depends on which species you intend to concentrate. Do you want ducks or geese, and if geese, which of the three species of that bird? Maybe you want to try for all of the above, or perhaps you will be content to simply take your chances and hunt for whatever is flying. (You can be sure something will be active at any point in the season.)

Duck hunters will find a good supply of birds on hand when the season opens in mid-November. It looks as if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl managers will declare another liberal 60-day season, with daily bag limits the same as last year.

Southern Zone duck hunting has been closing around the 12th of January, but you will want to check the official regulations for the new season before making any plans. Migrating ducks won't stay in one place all season long, so the populations found in the various refuges will fluctuate as flights arrive and depart. At no time, barring some sort of horrendous weather event, will all of the ducks leave the area. The ideal situation is to be in a blind as soon as possible after a new batch of quackers moves in.

These ducks will be hungry, tired and easy to fool. Limit kills will be very common, sometimes coming a little too fast. On the other hand, a refuge can hold many thousands of ducks, but if these birds have been living there too long, they become accustomed to hunters' tricks, and so success rates diminish rapidly. The tantalizing aspect is you never can tell when the north wind will push a fresh set of targets into the refuges. This is the reason they call it hunting, not shooting.

While mallards are the primary species of duck found in southern Illinois, teal, wood duck, widgeons, pintails, ring-necks and gadwalls are not uncommon. Along with these most common ducks, you never know when any of the other species may buzz in to your decoy spread. This is a great place to get that duck you need to fill an empty space on your wall.

Snow geese are in the area when they are in the area. How's that for covering my tracks? Since these birds don't seem to spend the entire winter in southern Illinois, as the Canada geese once did, you have to time your hunt when they unpredictably show up. Your best bet is to ask the club operator of your choice to alert you when the birds come in, and then get on the

road as soon as possible.

If you are interested in a late-season hunt for snow geese, the recently created "conservation season" begins immediately after the regular season closes, and runs well into March. This special hunt sets no bag limit, does not require guns to be plugged, and allows electronic calling, which has proved to be very effective.

Snow geese returning north in late winter are much more predictable than they are in fall, and usually new birds are arriving on a daily basis, which results in good hunting opportunities.

The white-fronted geese are on hand for most of the regular goose season, although their population may rise and fall as they trade places with their buddies over the Mississippi River in Arkansas. There aren't enough of this species in southern Illinois to devote a special trip to, but they do make nice bonus birds when they decide to join your decoy spread.

There are always some Canada geese in the major refuges, but often they are local birds that are nearly impossible to fool. However, if you watch the weather in the upper part of the state, you can determine if a surge of migrants has moved south. It takes more than a little snow or cold weather to move the geese, but a major storm and continued cold weather will usually do the trick. It will take at least five inches of snow covering on the agricultural fields the geese feed in, and the same amount of below freezing temperatures to keep it there.

Most of the Canada geese in northern Illinois will endure that situation for less than a week, and then they zoom south in search of more hospitable climes. But the geese only will fly as far as they need to find bare ground and some open water; so don't jump into your car until you see snow as far south as Mount Vernon or below. Once again, having a club operator alert you to the Canada's arrival is the ideal situation.

Once the Canada geese begin to pour in to the southern refuges, and they won't come as they once did, remember the birds will only remain there until the weather breaks back up north. When warmer temperatures melt the snow covering, the flocks will immediately reverse their courses and go back home. My point being, don't hesitate or the opportunity may be lost. Shoot the birds when they are flying.

For what it is worth, here is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources goose report for the 2008-09 seasons. Canada goose migration to southern Illinois and western Kentucky remained well below historical levels. Aerial survey results indicated that populations remained below the most recent five-year average, October through December. On December 2, 2008, only 2,950 Canada geese were estimated on the surveyed area. Small numbers of Canada geese arrived throughout December, and 35,500 were estimated on December 30, 2008. Their numbers continued to increase through January and peaked at 59,800 on

By Jan. 26, 2009, approximately 15,000 geese above the most recent five-year average were estimated for late January (44,810). Geese continued to move into the survey area in early February; 70,350 Canada geese were observed on Feb. 4, 2009. The 2008-09 survey recorded the sixth lowest peak count since surveys began in 1956-57. The three lowest peak counts (55,025, 36,350 and 46,625) occurred in 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08, respectively. The most recent five-year average (2003-2007) peak count was 68,308 (range 36,350-140,370). The five-year average peak count for 1995-99 was 334,190 and the five-year average peak count for 1988-92 was 712,630. The peak white-fronted goose count in southern Illinois was 21,775, which occurred Dec. 22.

Aerial surveys indicated that small numbers of snow geese began arriving in southern Illinois during early November. Snow goose counts increased to 74,500 in late December and ranged between 32,200 and 90,475 during January. This year's peak count of 206,785 was achieved in early February.

There are two main hunting options open to hunters in the Southern Zone: public hunting areas and daily fee hunting clubs. Either choice is a good one, depending on weather conditions, your skill level and luck.

The public areas are numerous (34) in the Southern Zone, and in addition to the public hunting available on the major refuges, there are plenty of smaller areas scattered throughout the area. In every case, phone the area of your choice beforehand to learn the regulations, which change for each site.

The Union County Refuge Public Hunting Area, (618-833-5175) maintains 35 blinds, but requires a permit obtained by drawing well before the season. But not all the permit holders ever show up, so each morning there is a drawing for unused permits.

Crab Orchard, a federal refuge, (618-977-3344), has drawings each morning for pits and blinds, and in addition has walk-in areas where hunters can set up their own portable blinds. The Horseshoe Lake Refuge (618-766-5689) has 23 public blinds available by a daily drawing.

Interested hunters should obtain a copy of the Illinois digest of hunting and trapping, in which all the public areas are listed, along with their phone numbers, and maps pinpointing their locations. This publication is free from any DNR office, or retail licenser vendor.

Here is a thumbnail recap of the best hunting prospects at each of the big refuges. Crab Orchard offers good Canada goose hunting, some specs, very few snow/blue geese, and decent duck hunting. In Union County, you'll likely encounter very good duck hunting, good snow/blue goose hunting when they are present, varied for Canada goose, and steady for specs. Horseshoe Lake provides good duck hunting, some Canada geese, along with fair numbers of snows and blue geese.

These tourism bureaus will gladly give you a list of daily fee clubs in the Southern Zone: Crab Orchard, the Williamson County Tourism Bureau at 1-800-GEESE-99; Union County or Horseshoe Lake, the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau at (618) 833-9928.

The final piece of the puzzle for southern Illinois hunting is whether you can do this the easy way, or make it hard on yourselves. I propose to reveal the easy way, and you can go from there, or make it as hard as you wish. First, decide where you want to hunt, and then either contact the club owner or the public area of your choice. A third option is to visit both on the same trip, thereby reducing your expense.

Club hunting is going to cost you about $125 per day, plus a tip for the guide. For this you will have the use of a warm clubhouse, coffee, transportation to and from the field, a well-built pit or blind strategically located, and a competent guide or "caller." When speaking with the club operator, you may either choose a date, or ask him if he will alert you when birds are plentiful and hunting is especially good.

This, of course, depends on your ability to drop everything and go hunting. If using a public-hunting area, call ahead, find out what the particular program entails, and then be sure to arrive on time. Many hunters have lost their place in a blind because of tardy arrival.

Your next

step is reserve lodging for the nights you'll be there. Do not depend on finding a nice place to stay after you arrive. You might get lucky, but you may end up doing it the hard way.

At Rend Lake, the Rend Lake Resort is perfect; call 1-800-633-3341 (dogs are welcome). At Marion, contact the Williamson County Tourism Bureau at 1-800-GEESE-99. At Union County or Horseshoe Lake there are numerous motels in nearby Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Find the details and make reservations on the Internet.

The very best of this season's waterfowl hunting is underway in Illinois' Southern Waterfowl Zone right now. It won't last long, so make your plans now. You'll be glad you did.

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