Illinois' Late-Season Waterfowl

Illinois' Late-Season Waterfowl

Successful late-season hunting in Illinois comes down to knowing where the birds will be -- and when.

As winter settles in over Illinois, waterfowl hunters' options expand statewide. With ducks and geese fair game in all three Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) designated waterfowl hunting zones it can be a real challenge to decide where to get your boots muddy. Being able to prudently predict their locations or to respond quickly to sightings will maximize your chances of bagging a limit this year.

Since weather determines just about everything when it comes to waterfowl, and since even the T.V. weatherman can't predict tomorrow's conditions with great certainty, we will have to base our overview on normal conditions prevailing. Bear in mind that abnormal weather events usually disrupt normal waterfowl movements.

Other than the fact that both species can swim, ducks and geese are totally different critters. They eat different food, they have unrelated migratory patterns, they nest in separated habitat, and they don't even like to hang out together.

DUCKS

As December begins, duck hunting in Illinois' northern zone is in its waning days. Assuming a 60-day duck season, hunting will end within the first ten days of the month. Shallow ponds, sloughs and backwaters will have frozen over, and many of the ducks will have moved south.

However, all is not lost for hunters who take the time to do a little scouting to locate the open water that will attract those hardy mallards that just can't tear themselves away from grain-laden corn stubble fields. As a rule, these big ducks will be found in small creeks and ditches where running water prevents a total freeze-up. Simply walk quietly along the bank, and be ready for some heart-stopping jump shooting.

If you own a suitable boat and decoy spread, check out the public areas at Braidwood Lake (815-237-0063), and the Mazonia Fish & Wildlife Area, (815-237-0063), both of which will have open water

Duck hunting in the Central Zone will go on until around Christmas, with the northern areas being more susceptible to freeze-up. If there is open water, good numbers of ducks should remain in the abundant habitat along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. The remainder of the Central Zone offers little or no duck hunting.

The IDNR maintains an impressive list of public waterfowl hunting areas in prime duck habitat. A listing of public DNR sites in Illinois is available on line at www.dnr.il.state.us, or in pamphlet form; the Ill. Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations is available at all DNR offices or at retail license vendors.

Here are some of the Central Zone public areas that produced well in 2009, with phone numbers.

1. Marshall Fish & Wildlife Area: 309-246-8351

2. Banner Marsh: 309-647-9184

3. Anderson Lake: 309-759-4484

4. Lake DePue: 815-447-2353

5. Powerton Lake: 309-968-7135

6. Rice Lake: 309-647-9184

7. Spring Lake: 309-968-7135

8. Woodford: 309-246-8351

9. Shelbyville Lake: 217-665-3112

10. Batchtown: 618-376-3303

11. Calhoun Point: 618-376-3303

12. Glades 12 Mile Island: 618-376-3303

13. Godar Diamond -- Hurricane Island: 618-376-3303

14. Horseshoe Lake -- Madison: 618-931-0270

15. Sanganois: 309-546-2628

16. Sanganois Lake: 217-498-9208

17. Stump Lake: 618-376-3304

In the Southern Waterfowl Zone, where duck hunting will continue until mid-January, you should investigate:

1. Carlyle Lake: 618-425-3533

2. Horseshoe Lake (Alexander County.): 618-776-5689

3. Mermet Lake: 618-524-5577

4. Pyramid Rec. Area: 618-357-2574

5. Rend Lake: 618-279-3110

6. Union County Waterfowl Area: 618-833-5175

7. Crab Orchard National Refuge: 618-997-8339

8. Horseshoe Lake Refuge: 618-766-5689

Above are just a few of the productive public waterfowl hunting areas from which you may choose. It is advisable to call any area you plan to hunt prior to the season to learn of any site-specific rules that may apply. Be sure to inquire about boat rental, decoy rental, time of registration/drawing, and specific directions to the headquarters building.

Late-season hunters at Rend Lake were rewarded with this mixed bag of Canada, snow and blue geese. Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Another option for Southern Zone duck hunting is the daily fee duck and goose hunting clubs that are to be found in close proximity to the big waterfowl refuges of Crab Orchard, Union County, and Horseshoe Lake.

Once commonly known as the "Quota Zone," this area was world famous for its fabulous Canada goose hunting. But, the extreme southern tip of the state fell off waterfowlers' maps when warming winters and no-till farming resulted in the geese moving their wintering grounds to the northern third of Illinois.

Some of the famous hunting clubs simply plowed their fields and planted corn and wheat, giving up hunting for agriculture. But, a hardcore group of dedicated waterfowl addicts vowed to hold onto their heritage. They figured that if the geese wouldn't come down anymore, they would simply lure some ducks over the Mississippi River from Missouri and Arkansas.

It was a big gamble, but they took it. With plenty of farm equipment available, the club owners pushed dikes and levees up around their former goose fields, and installed pumps to flood sections of standing corn. Pits were moved, field blinds erected, and thousands of duck decoys were bought. Duck calls hung around necks that formerly had worn only goose flutes. Then, they settled back to await the results of their labors.

It took several seasons for the ducks to find the bonanza that awaited them in the former goose capital, but each season more and more quackers took advantage of the spacious refuges and bountiful feeding areas. In just a few years a handful of stubborn outdoorsmen had transformed a goose wasteland into a notable duck hunting destination.

Duck hunting in the Southern Zone runs through all of December, and well into January. After the seasons in the rest of Illinois have run their course, the Southern Zone is just heating up.

Here is how to find the duck clubs in the new quota zone. Contact Williamson County Tourism Bureau, 1-800-GEESE 99, for hunting information on the area around Crab Orchard Refuge. Then, call Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau, 1-618-833-9928, and request infor

mation on waterfowl hunting opportunities near the Horseshoe Lake and Union County areas.

Some of the clubs I have hunted, and can recommend, are:

Collin Cain's Grassy Lake Club: 618-833-7890

Tom Burns Club: 800-554-3356

Terry Pike's Club: 618-997-1124

GEESE

400 miles north, the formidable Canada goose has established its own pattern that hunters would be wise to recognize.

As mentioned earlier, the combination of mild winters and abundant waste grain scattered in the fields has induced the migratory flocks of geese to join their big city brethren, the giant Canada goose, in its ideal urban habitat. These huge geese take full advantage of parks, corporate lawns, cemeteries, golf courses, soccer fields, and just about any other grassy space to feed, lounge, nest, and swim in the well manicured ponds. What's not to like about any of that?

As the weather cools down, the geese develop an appetite for the high carbohydrates found in corn and, luckily, this change of diet occurs just about the time goose hunting begins in mid-October. The initial weeks of the season are highlighted by easy hunting for gullible, semi-tame local birds. But, by early November the geese have wised up to our tricks and the birds have learned to fly high and wide when they encounter flags and decoys. Even the best callers won't enjoy much success in luring the suddenly wary geese.

But, by December help is on the way in the form of the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) of migratory geese. The MVP had stopped for a while in central Wisconsin at the Horicon Marsh refuge, but now ice and snow are inducing them to move south seeking more clement conditions.

As a rule, the MVP geese don't come down in one big push, but rather filter in small flocks when the north wind blows. These "new birds" can turn hunting from very tough to very good almost overnight. Not only are the new birds unaware of the danger zones in their new digs, they often lead resident geese into harms' way with them.

The goose hunting will remain hot, hot, hot, in the northeastern counties of Lake, McHenry, DeKalb, Will, Kane, Du Page, and even some parts of Cook. Sadly, there are virtually no public hunting grounds in this productive area, so unless you have access to a good piece of farm ground, one of the few daily fee goose hunting clubs is your only remaining choice.

But, that is not as bad as it sounds, since good goose hunting land has become expensive to lease, providing you can even find any available. Figure between $2500 and $5000 per season. You are going to need at least fifty good quality full body decoys, which sell for around $100 per four, plus a vehicle or trailer to haul them in. If you dig a pit in the field, add another $1000, more or less. And, since not every field is one the geese want to be in, you face the possibility of having spent $4000 or $5000 just to watch the guys a quarter of a mile away enjoy great shooting.

Now, take the total money it would cost to set up your own field, and divide that by the number of times you realistically would use it to determine your cost per hunt. Compare that with the $150 per day it costs to hunt a nearby club that provides everything, guide included, that I just detailed above. Get my point?

Here are few good clubs you can consider. Check them out to find the one that suits your needs.

Fox Valley Guide Service: Kane County) comekillgeese@comcast.net ; 630-264-1802

Porter's Goose Hunting Club: (Lake & McHenry Counties) matt@potersoutdoors.com ; 800-345-0259

Bob Rossa's Hunt Club: (McHenry County) www.alakemichigancharter.com ; 815-338-8093

As long as the fields in the Northern Zone remain free of deep snow, geese will happily spend the entire season right there. Unlike ducks, these big birds are in no hurry to fly any farther south than necessary, and they will congregate by the thousands, spending their nights safely in suburban settings and flying out to feed in nearby farm fields.

Even when heavy storms pile up snow five or more inches deep, and temperatures sink well below zero, the geese will hunker down and await a thaw, relying on stored fat to survive the cold spell. But, after about five days of these stressful conditions, even the stay-at-home giant Canadas will take wing and head south.

If you happen to be in the field when this migratory push takes place you will never forget it. From dawn to dusk geese by the thousands fill the sky. Awesome.

This mass movement will take the flocks as far as they have to go to find bare ground and food. This may be as close as the big nuclear cooling lakes rimming the northern edge of the Central Zone, or, in the case of a truly major blizzard, all the way to the refuges of the Southern Zone.

Now is when you want to have your contacts throughout the state lined up and ready to give you reports on conditions in their particular area. Once you determine where the geese went, you must get there ASAP because the shooting is going to be fantastic for the first few days after their arrival.

Here are a few places you can rely on to give you an accurate picture of prospects in the Central Zone.

Torino Hunt Club: www.torinohuntclub.com; 815-482-4921

Mazonia Hunt Club: www.mazoniahuntclub.com; 815-237-2336

If it appears the storm reached well down state, check with the clubs in the old Quota Zone. They may be targeting ducks these days, but be assured they haven't lost their touch with the big geese.

It is vital that you strike while the iron is hot when chasing the goose flocks. While they will eagerly pile up whereever they find available food after being forced to move by deep snow, they will just as readily return to their Northern Zone haunts immediately upon moderation of the weather. And the reverse migration will be just as dramatic as it was when they left.

As you can see, the majority of quality goose hunting takes place in the northern third of Illinois, encompassing the entire Northern Zone and a thin strip across the northern tier of the Central Zone. Unless extremely rough winter storms push well down state, goose hunting beyond those areas will be restricted to local birds, and that means tough sledding.

When discussing Illinois goose hunting it would be wrong to overlook a recent development that has seen white front geese and snow/blue geese pass through the southern third of the state in ever increasing numbers. Let's take as look at what that means to waterfowl hunters.

White fronts, or speckle bellies, are a subspecies of the Canada goose. They are considered by some to be the best eating of all the geese. The "spec" is

somewhat smaller than a Canada goose, and a lighter shade of gray. They have a pink beak, and dark bars mottle their dusty white breast. Specs have a distinctive cackling call, and fly in V-formation, much as Canada geese do.

While white fronts are considered easy to kill, I have found them easy to attract, but hard to draw into gun range. Too many times I have watched a flock of specs come to the call, circle the pit repeatedly, then break off and continue on their way without ever having committed to the decoys. Oh, well, maybe it was something I said.

I have shot many snow geese in the days before everyone hunted them. Now that they have become superabundant and are hunted from Hudson Bay in September until their return in late March, they have become almost impossible for the average hunter to kill. Even with a thousand decoys deployed below them they fly high and wild -- and out of range. Now and then snow geese do something stupid and the shooting is frantic, but I have to wonder if the rewards are worth the efforts.

From forth to south, there will be good waterfowl hunting going on in Illinois until the end of January, and beyond. So don't put that shotgun down just because of a little snow.

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