Illinois Waterfowl Preview

Without doubt the 2011 Illinois waterfowl season will go into the books as one of the most interesting ever recorded. Every aspect of the current duck and goose hunt holds the promise of a banner year for Prairie State hunters.

Probably the biggest point of interest has been the creation of a fourth waterfowl zone, to be known as the South/Central Zone. Also approved by the USFWS for the 2011-12 waterfowl season is a 60-day duck season in each of the state's newly-drawn four waterfowl hunting zones, along with Canada goose hunting seasons of 85 days in the North and Central zones and 66 days in the South Central and South zones.

HUNTER INPUT

In June, the Illinois DNR waterfowl biologists travelled the state, hosting a series of four public meetings designed to gather input from hunters on plans to draw the boundaries for the new zone. According to Chief Waterfowl Biologist Ray Marshalla, the meetings were very well attended, with more than 100 interested parties showing up at each event. Some came out of curiosity, others with specific proposals and requests, and one guy was promoting his own boundary map, drawn with a notch cut into it to keep his private hunting ground from being included in the Northern Zone. It takes all kinds, I guess.

As you may expect when dealing with more than one duck hunter, few were in agreement on anything that affected their own blind site. In fact, Marshalla showed me a chart tracking hunters' opinions on opening day for the Central Zone's 60 day hunt. Only 23 percent agreed with last season's opening date, and the other 77 percent preferred dates spread over nearly the entire season. Marshalla's options in this situation are clear: draw the new boundaries, pick opening dates, and then duck!

GEESE

One change will make the dividing line between the North and Central Zones I-80 for goose hunting, all the way across the state, while the duck hunting line will remain the zig-zag boundary it has been. Be sure to check current regulations to be sure in which of the four zones you are hunting.

Canada goose hunters have a lot to look forward to. A goodly amount of breeding pairs returned to the nesting grounds this spring where they reportedly found optimal habitat for their reproductive mission. During the critical period of May, when the goslings are most vulnerable, no exceptional weather events occurred, so a strong fall flight of migrating birds may reasonably be expected.

Since the majority of Canada geese shot in Illinois each fall are of the resident giant Canada variety, an accurate appraisal of their population is difficult to ascertain. These geese spend their lives, and nest, within residential neighborhoods, grazing on lawns in golf courses, parks, cemeteries, and corporate campuses, and roost each night in secure retention ponds amid housing developments. Since low-level airplane flights are prohibited in most of these areas, accurate population assessments are not possible.

Again, Ray Marshalla, who grew up in Chicago's northern suburbs, comes to our rescue. He reports that on a late-spring visit to his home turf he observed large families of resident geese in every possible nesting site. While not entirely a scientific method of waterfowl assessment, his expert opinion is encouraging.

We can assume the normal goose hunting pattern will hold for this years season, which will likely run from 85 to 90 days, beginning October 15. Over the years we have come to expect very good hunting for local geese during the fittest two weeks of the season. Most of these birds will be shot over harvested wheat- and beanfields.

As the farmers begin bringing in their corn crops, two things happen, and neither is good for hunting. First, the local birds wise up and become blind/decoy/call shy. Start flapping a flag at them and they react as if you were shooting off fireworks.

If that alone weren't bad enough, day-by-day newly harvested cornfields become available to the forging flocks, and the geese become hard to target as they move from field to field. Hunting during this period requires small decoy spreads, little if any calling, only long distance flagging, and patience. Your best luck may come between 9-10 a.m. as geese that have fed return looking for a place to spend the day. If you are on water, your chances are much improved.

As days grow short, and nights grow colder, the local geese lose some of their fear due to an increased energy demand, and feeding areas being cleaned out. Additionally, on an almost daily basis, birds from the migratory flock are arriving to spend the winter with their big city cousins. These newcomers, being unfamiliar with their surroundings, are apt to fly where the locals dread to go, but oddly, the resident geese willingly follow them right into hunters' decoy spreads.

As winter sets in, and food becomes scarce, all the geese throw caution to the wind and hunting just gets better each week. Usually, just about the time the Northern Zone closes, the northern tier of the Central Zone heats up.

The determining factor in goose movement is long-lasting snow. Any snow deeper than 5 inches, and remaining on the fields more than 5 days, will force a major goose movement south. The birds will leave northern counties and fly south until they find open ground and water. Depending on the scope of the storms, this could push them into the big cooling lakes along I-80, or all the way to the large southern Illinois refuges. Watch the weather and plan your hunts accordingly.

There are not a lot of public goose hunting areas in northern Illinois, but that is where the majority of Illinois' geese now reside. Here are some daily fee clubs that will serve you well:

'¢'‚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.

'¢'‚There are several quality goose clubs operating in the Central Zone, and they can be found at www.torinohuntclub.com, www.mazoniahuntclub.com and www.glennshunts.com.

Southern Zone goose hunting is generally a hit-or-miss proposition and totally weather-dependant. If major snows fall throughout most of the state, goose hunting can be fantastic. If mild weather rules, forget about it. Be aware this advisory pertains only to Canada goose hunting, since the southern zone boasts quality, and predictable snow and white front goose hunting, as well as top-notch duck opportunities.

DUCKS

Now, let's talk about ducks.

In addition to the new waterfowl zone being put into place, Ducks Unlimited announced a new Illinois wetland project funded by the Grand Victorian Foundation, Clean Energy Community Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

This effort focuses on Upper Peoria Lake along the Illinois River, in central Illinois. D/U will restore this 237-acre wetland, which ultimately will be managed as part of the Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Waterfowl managers nationwide agree they have never seen nesting habitat conditions so perfectly aligned as they were this spring. Throughout the prime duck production areas of southern Canada and the Dakotas — the Prairie Pothole Region — every place that could offer haven to a nesting "Susie" was filled to the brim with water, the result of snow melt from an unusually deep winter accumulation.

Later reports told us that an unprecedented number of ducks of all species were indeed taking advantage of the amazing nesting conditions, and only late-spring snow or ice storms could spoil what appeared to be a season of record waterfowl production.

The storms never materialized, and in their place came rain, maintaining the water levels across the entire region. Now, consider that this region includes Alaska, the entire southern coast to coast tier of Canadian provinces, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and northern Iowa. Also benefiting from the rains were important breeding areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.

In short, the ducks benefited from the Mother of all Nesting Conditions. Without doubt, a massive flight of ducks is projected for the fall.

That is the good news. Now, the only thing we need to worry about is where are all these hungry migrants going to show up as they make their way down the flyway?

The birds that concern Illinois hunters start their journey in Saskatchewan and the Dakotas. When frozen out of those areas, normally in mid- to late November, the migration route takes the ducks through Minnesota and Iowa, and then into Illinois, along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. But, just as weather plays a determining role in duck production pushing them along their migration routes, so does it dictate where the southbound birds will appear.

Not very many seasons ago a strong fall flight was predicted, but strong, persistent northeast headwinds kept most of the ducks west of the Mississippi River. Hunters in Iowa and Missouri had a great time, while those in Illinois fell on hard times. On other occasions, powerful winter cold fronts rushed the bird's right through the state, providing only a few days of quality shooting. As they say, "It is always something."

This year the threat to Illinois hunter success will be available food for the migrating ducks. Already stressed by their long flights, ducks need to replace an enormous amount of energy on a daily basis. If they land in areas that are short on food, they will quickly move along.

The controlling factor in the growth of the moist soil plants the ducks relish is water levels through the summer months. Briefly, the backwater sloughs must dry out by early summer to allow suitable vegetation to sprout, grow to maturity and produce the seeds that nourish the ducks. If spring flooding doesn't recede soon enough, the plants don't grow, and the ducks don't hang around.

Last spring we saw massive flooding in most Midwest rivers that not only inundated the backwaters, but broke through levees, flooding huge tracts of agricultural bottomland. The implications of these floods were dire for prospects of waterfowl hunting success.

WHERE TO HUNT

Illinois is blessed with numerous public hunting areas. Each has its own system for waterfowl hunting, so be sure to contact the area of your choice to be sure you know the ground rules before starting out. A full list of these properties may be found in the DNR Digest of Trapping and Hunting Regulations, available free at all DNR offices and retail license vendors. Below are some that have produced well over the years.

In the northern waterfowl zone the Mazonia-Braidwood complex, near Braceville, operates on a daily draw basis, and hunters must provide a sturdy boat/blind and their own decoys. This is popular area, and can draw quite a crowd, especially on weekends, but when the birds are there, hunting can be very good. (815-237-0063.)

In central Illinois, Rice Lake is one of the leading duck producers in the state, averaging between 3,500 and 4,000 birds annually. This area is located near Canton. (309-647-9184.)

Southern Zone hunters should consider Federal Crab Orchard Refuge at Marion (618-997-3344); Carlyle Lake, near Vandalia, (618-425-3533); Rend Lake (618-279-3110 & 618-724-2439); and Mermet Lake FWA located near Belknap (618-524-5577). Also, the big goose refuges at Union County (618-833-5175), and Horseshoe Lake, Alexander County (618-776-5689), have been converted primarily into duck hunting areas.

Daily fee goose/duck clubs in the southern zone include Union County's Collin Cain's Grassy Lake Club (618-833-7890); Crab Orchard's Tom Burns Club (800-554-3356); and Terry Pike's Club (618-997-1124). The waterfowl season is here. There are plenty of ducks out there, so be sure to get your share.

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