Southern Illinois Waterfowling Rebounds!

Southern Illinois Waterfowling Rebounds!

With memories that drum up flashbacks to days of skies filled with geese, the story today in southern Illinois waterfowl hunting is ducks! Lots and lots of ducks! (December 2007)

The use of Canada, snow/blue and white-fronted goose decoys in the farm fields of the Southern Illinois Quality Zone is a flash from the past, but the birds that fall into these spreads most often these days are ducks. In fact, many of the clubs in the SIQZ are set up this season to attract both ducks and geese.
Photo by Jerry Pabst.

When hunters talk about Southern Illinois waterfowling memories, clouds of raucous Canada geese rush to mind. Then, and just as quickly, shadows of sadness cross their faces as they remember a gumbooter's wonderland that is no more. The famous Southern Illinois Quota Zone (SIQZ) goose hunt was great while it lasted. Now, that party is over.

Life does not consist of only one party, however. When one ends, we usually can look forward to the next.

In the case of SIQZ, nearly all the hunters who enjoyed those many seasons of fine goose hunting looked for their new parties elsewhere.

I believe I was one of the last to reluctantly admit what even the SIQZ hunting club owners knew: Geese no longer returned to those southern Illinois hunting grounds. Like many other hunters, I finally shifted my waterfowling priorities northward and shot plenty of geese. But flashbacks of days now gone tugged at me, delivering images of modified Olt A-50 goose calls, septic-tank pits, lunches in the field and after-hunt "debriefings" in ancient, mildewed country taverns.

I missed the people, too -- men whose lives revolved around the fall goose flight. Everything took second place in their lives when the honkers arrived, and they would wear out a pair of waders in a few weeks. The "callers" played their pure notes on their favorite goose calls, even when no geese were around. And quiet women worked long hours in the stifling "pickin' sheds" to be sure visiting hunters' birds were cleaned and wrapped for the trip home. What had become of them all?

Over the years, as the geese were completing their full-scale desertion of the SIQZ, my editors still requested articles on southern Illinois goose hunting. Goose hunts in the south were not clinically dead down there, but the shoots were on life support, presenting me the challenge to compose goose-hunting stories without resorting to overly optimistic projections.

Information on SIQZ hunting in recent years has been harvested from the daily reports -- the kill sheets -- the hunting clubs are required to provide to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Since my assignment was always "geese only," I concentrated my reports on the clubs that were still producing mentionable harvest numbers of Canada geese, but I couldn't help notice the next column over in the clubs' hunting data that detailed how many other types of geese were being taken, as well as a steadily mounting tally of ducks. What's up with that?

Last January, I returned to the SIQZ, consisting of Jackson, Union, and Alexander counties. I also spent a day at Rend Lake in southern Illinois' Franklin County. I went to see why hunters' harvest reports posted increasing numbers of ducks, as well as white-fronted and snow geese. Speeding south on Interstate 57, then west on Highway 146, I noted but little change in the landscape since my last visit more than 10 years ago.

Then I came upon the hunting clubs situated along the northern boundary of Union County State Fish & Wildlife Area. I hardly recognized the place. To paraphrase "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner": "There was water, water everywhere." It looked more like the rice fields of Arkansas than Illinois bottomland.

My agenda had me duck and goose hunting the following morning at Colin Cain's Grassy Lake Hunting Club. Commonly called "The Grassy Club," Cain many years ago developed the "black hole" style of decoy spreads for goose hunting. Because his club was located on the northern edge of Union County FWA, Cain reasoned it would be the first thing incoming migrant geese would see. If he could somehow fool the weary winged travelers into thinking they had reached the refuge, they might just drop in for a rest. How was he to do that?

To duplicate refuge conditions on his club, Cain invested in thousands of high-quality full-bodied goose decoys. Soon, 3,000 to 5,000 fake geese stood right in the center of the club's land. This became known as the famous Black Hole.

Cain established a pit in the center of the Black Hole, then added satellite pits and blinds around the edges. His theory worked perfectly. For years, Grassy Club was the top-killing goose-hunting operation in the SIQZ.

To take full advantage of the drawing power of the Black Hole, Cain maintained radio contact with all the pits and blinds from his vantage point in the clubhouse overlooking the field. He called the shot only when a large flock of birds was fully committed to the center of the decoy spread. At his command, the center pit opened beneath the incoming geese, and the hunters in all the shooting stations fired away as the fleeing birds passed over them. From a distance, the gun volley sounded like a popcorn machine gone berserk!

However, in the early 1990s, the popcorn machine went silent. The goose population of the SIQZ declined from hundreds of thousands to just a few thousand birds. Union County FWA, Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and Rend Lake attracted few -- if any -- Canada geese, a situation that persists to this day. Hunters and wildlife biologists alike threw up their hands in despair and proclaimed the SIQZ waterfowl hunting to be a treasured, but lost, resource. Little more than cherished memories survived. It was time to move on.

But no one seems to have told Colin Cain about that. At Crab Orchard Hunting Club (800/93-GEESE), located in Evansville near Crab Orchard NWR, club owner Tom Burns never thought of quitting his goose-hunting operations, either. Todd Gessner, owner of Southern Outdoor Resources Service (618/325-1554) in the Rend Lake area, said he saw the deepening drought of geese, but rather than abandon the hunt, Gessner simply tried to fill the void by guiding hunters for ducks on Rend Lake and snow geese in the nearby fields. While some of the old-time clubs simply closed their doors, others adapted similarly to the changing conditions.

Tom Burns at Burns Goose Club (618/964-1806; Web site near Carbondale bulldozed up levees to form ponds and marshes, flooded corn plots and began killing mallards.

While it can be said that Mother Nature dealt the

SIQZ a bad hand when warming winter temperatures lured the Canada geese away, the same old gal lent a helping hand by encouraging burgeoning flocks of snow and white-fronted geese to move into the nearly empty waterfowl refuges of the SIQZ. This presents a new and challenging type of hunting for visiting sportsmen -- one that can be thrilling because of its diversity.

White-Fronted Geese

A subspecies of the Canada goose, the smaller white-fronted, or specklebelly, goose is considered by many sportsmen to be superior table fare compared with its larger relative.

Specklebellies can be hunted successfully using standard Canada goose tactics, but they also will decoy readily to snow goose spreads because the two species often travel together on the migration routes. Specklebellies have an annoying habit, however, of flying around in fairly large groups, which makes them harder to fool. Nonetheless, singles, pairs and small family groups are not too hard to work for, and taking home some bonus geese -- snows and blues -- is well within the realm of possibility. Snow and blue geese move in and out of the SIQZ throughout the season. Their populations rise and fall unpredictably, but there are always some around.

Canada Geese

Yes, there are still a few Canada geese to be found in the SIQZ. The best bets lie at the clubs around Crab Orchard NWR. The area's hilly land tends to lead snow geese to other pastures, and Canadas and snow geese rarely share the same habitat. Thus, the abundance of snows at Union County FWA and Horseshoe Lake CA probably encourages the area's Canadas to congregate around Crab Orchard NWR.

This separation of habitat is obvious when comparing the Grassy Lake Club with Burns Goose Club. Grassy Lake occupies a broad expanse of Mississippi River bottomland and devotes several areas to large snow-goose decoy spreads that deliver good results for shooters. On the other hand, the land occupied by Burns Goose Club is deeply chiseled by ravines, creating many steep hillsides no right-thinking snow goose would land on. However, the terrain poses no problems for Canada geese. Burns' setups offer large decoy spreads of dark geese on both land and water.

The Real Story about Southern Illinois Waterfowl Hunting

Try as they might, none of the clubs can restore southern Illinois goose hunting to what it once was, but they do their best to offer hunters the chance to take home a few of the big birds. Who knows? Given the right weather events, a few weeks of shooting geese each season here can be reminiscent of "the old days."

The real story today in southern Illinois waterfowl hunting is ducks! Lots and lots of ducks!

Faced with the decision to change their game plans or go out of business, many hunting clubs in southern Illinois revved up the bulldozers and pushed up low levees in the center of their corn and wheat fields. When the crops ripened, water was pumped in to flood the corn to a height just below the cobs. Guess what? Here came the ducks! The clubs dug new shooting pits into the levees, and duck decoys replaced the former goose floaters. However, the fact that thousands of geese still moved through the area made it worthwhile to maintain a number of fields and ponds replete with Canada, snow/blue and white-fronted goose decoys. Most of the clubs I visited were set up to attract both ducks and geese.

When choosing to hunt club lands, hunters should determine ahead of time whether the operations specialize in ducks, geese or both. Actually, the lay of the land at each of the three major refuges pretty much dictates what waterfowl species dominate the local skies.

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge

At the north end of the SIQZ, waterfowl hunting centers on Crab Orchard NWR, which features sprawling Crab Orchard Lake within the refuge's 44,000 acres. The lake annually holds large concentrations of mallards and various other species of ducks, and 5,000 to 10,000 Canada geese still overwinter. In fact, the clubs near Crab Orchard NWR annually bag the most Canada geese in the SIQZ.

But the land around Crab Orchard is hilly, and the fields are small, surrounded by patches and parcels of heavy woodlands. Snow and blue geese, which travel in flocks of thousands, do not like this type of terrain. As a rule, hunting around Crab Orchard refuge produces good duck shooting, along with the possibility for taking some bonus Canada geese.

Call the Crab Orchard NWR manager at (618) 997-3344 to request hunting information.

Union County State Fish & Wildlife Area

Twenty miles south of Crab Orchard refuge, Union County FWA, operated by the IDNR, covers three miles of Mississippi River bottoms. Its fields are large, flat and open. Snow geese love this type of habitat, and there are usually 15,000 to 50,000 of these noisy critters in the refuge. Because Canada geese don't get along with the snows, hunters find only a few small flocks of Canadas at Union County FWA. On the other hand, specklebellies don't seem to mind hanging out with the light geese, and there are plenty of them to hold your interest.

Little Grassy Lake, in the Union County refuge, holds perfect duck habitat. The absence of Canada geese has opened up space for an impressive array of ducks. At times, more than 100,000 mallards, gadwalls, wood ducks, teal and other quackers are on hand. Hunting for all of them seems to improve each season.

An example of what exasperated hunters walked away from when the Canada geese changed their migratory patterns, Grassy Lake Hunting Club in 2006-07 reported taking more than 4,000 ducks and only 500 geese. That impressive total was rung up during a 60-day duck season and a 56-day goose season.

Advance permits are required at Union County FWA (online at, but standby hunters are allowed to draw for unclaimed blinds each morning.

Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area

Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area is operated by the IDNR. Once the premier goose- and duck-hunting hotspot in the entire Mississippi Valley Flyway, the wheels started falling off Horseshoe Lake when woody growth overtook many of the fields on the refuge and "tree huggers" prevented refuge mangers from removing invasive trees. As a result, the geese abandoned the lake and the fields. Goose hunting became very spotty. When the birds' migration patterns shifted north, goose hunting ended at Horseshoe Lake.

As with the other SIQZ refuges today, however, ducks began to fill the void left by the honkers at Horseshoe Lake. Today, some of the clubs bordering the Horseshoe Lake refuge boast impressive success rates for mallards and other duck species. Some snow geese and whitefronts also fly in that area.

Rend Lake

Rend Lake is perfect for do-it-yourself hunters. At 19,000 acres big, shallow and full of flooded timber, secluded bays and coves, this Corps of Engineers impoundment is open to the public for waterfowl hunting all season long.

Boat-launching ramps are located near all the desired hunting areas. Walk-in hunting areas also

are suitable for field goose hunts or duck hunting from the shore. The IDNR regional office in Benton -- phone (618) 435-8130 -- has all the information about Rend Lake waterfowl hunting.

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Despite the decline in Canada goose numbers in the SIQZ, the waterfowl that winter in the zone still do so in remarkable numbers. On Dec. 13, 2006, the IDNR waterfowl survey found (bear in mind this survey only represents birds visible from the air):

'¢ Crab Orchard -- 8,200 ducks and 2,900 Canada geese.

'¢ Union County -- 20,900 ducks, 2,590 Canada geese, 8,200 white-fronted geese and 3,200 snow geese.

'¢ Horseshoe Lake -- 45,800 ducks, 6,250 Canada geese, 6,000 snow geese and 11,000 white-fronted geese.

'¢ Rend Lake -- 3,800 ducks, 700 Canada geese, 6,000 snow geese and 450 white-fronted geese.

In the entire SIQZ survey area, the biologists counted 125,000 ducks, 19,395 Canada geese, 32,550 snow and blue geese and 28,875 white-fronted geese. While the survey numbers vary week to week, it is obvious plenty of waterfowl winter in the SIQZ.

Check out this Web site at www. for a listing of hunting clubs near Union County FWA. Lodging is plentiful just across the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Call 1-800-GEESE99 for the Williamson County Waterfowl Hunting Guide, which will list clubs and accommodations available in Marion, not far from Crab Orchard NWR.

Rend Lake Resort -- phone (800) 633-3341 -- caters to this area's waterfowlers. John Reilly's luxurious operation provides comfortable lodging, fine dining, beverages of your choice and boat-launching facilities. Dogs are welcome. The lodge's off-season rates are very attractive, and the resort also heads up the guided hunting services for Southern Outdoor Resources Service.

Have you never hunted waterfowl in the storied region of the SIQZ? Believe me, you'll be well pleased with what you find here.

Have you given up hunting in the SIQZ? Believe me, you'll be well pleased you came back.

As Colin Cain put it, "Jerry, we are going to make this area into the new Arkansas." Believe me, his chances of doing just that are great!

Find more about Illinois fishing and hunting at:

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