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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Duck Diners

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Throughout America’s duck country, local diners are part of the social fabric of waterfowling

By Gary Koehler

Duck hunters like to eat. Many also have an affinity for diners that open early in the morning. Like fiveish. If we miss breakfast, lunch is often sought. Maybe dinner. And that’s the case nationwide, as this featured selection of hunter-friendly restaurants confirms.

My personal list of predawn haunts is lengthy, dating to the 1970s when friends and I made a regular habit of eggs over easy, hash browns, and toast before stalking Illinois River Valley ducks and geese. Three bucks usually covered individual tabs.

Times have changed. The old Ranch House, Art’s Cafe, and Cindy’s Country Corner over the years became victims of a variety of circumstances that shut their respective doors. A small portion of duck hunting’s social side was lost along with them.

But while their numbers may have dwindled, many such down-home restaurants continue to thrive. They can often be found in small towns—out in the boonies, if you will, just down the road from public hunting areas. There is a place in the world for fast-food chains, just not here.

This is by no means an in-depth report on duck diners near and far. But, rather, a brief look at a relative handful of random eateries that still host waterfowlers and are happy to post a “Welcome Hunters” sign in the window. Make sure to bring your appetite.

Sportsman Restaurant and Catering
Eagle Lake, Texas

Having as many as 185 hunters show up for breakfast on a Saturday morning would appear to ensure all the ingredients for a madhouse. But Doug Schwemm has figured out a way to steer visiting waterfowlers to their appropriate guides and outfitters. He places silhouette decoys adorned with messages, such as “Brown, Party of 8,” on the tables to eliminate confusion. If you’re really hungry, try the 10-Gauge Magnum breakfast, which may include chicken-fried steak, a rib-eye steak, hamburger steak, or similar delicacies, along with pancakes, hash browns, and more. On the lighter side, sample Janie’s or Doug’s special tacos, which include scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, and cheese. Doug’s version is built spicy. Sportsman has been a staple in the Goose Capital of the World for 60 years, with the Schwemms running the show for the past 26.

Jerry’s Main
Burlington, Iowa

The host may have changed, but he still makes sure the lights flicker on at 5 a.m. during duck season at Jerry’s Main. That’s the way it’s been for more than 60 years. This is a true old-time diner—complete with permanent stools and an L-shaped counter. That’s it. No frills, and even less elbowroom. The Main looks much the same as when the late Jerry Garnjobst opened the place. His son, Tom, manages the eatery now. Those in the know arrive early in order to secure a place to sit. A few hard-core customers are here every day of the duck season. Bacon, eggs, pancakes, and coffee to go, if needed. The Main has it all, including a couple of past world champion duck callers—Mel DeLang and Barnie Calef—seated at the counter. The five-digit number on the weathered sign out front? That’s all one needed to make a phone call back in the day.

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