"They made some boats that you could row in pretty tough weather," Barendse says. "Later on, what they would do is tow the duck boat to where you were going to hunt with the gill net boat (24-28 feet long), anchor the gill net boat, jump in the duck boat, and row up the slough. You really didn't have to go through rough weather in the little boats, but over the years duck hunters have drowned."
In the old days, the islands were a mix of publicly and privately owned sites. Most are now part of the Lewis & Clark National Wildlife Refuge. The island names are legendary: Russian, Marsh, Miller, Snag, Woody, Karlson, Welch, Tenasillahe, and more. Upriver from Astoria are the towns of Fern Hill, Svensen, Knappa, Brownsmead, Clifton, and Braidwood.
Svensen is perhaps the best known among the smaller outposts, if only because of its colorful past. "For years they used to hold a big dance every fall," Barendse says. "They came from all over the county, some from across the river, and some from upriver, to hoot and holler. They called it the Duck Hunter's Ball. But it usually turned into a Duck Hunter's Brawl."
For more than 35 years John Affolter has prowled this tidal marsh from end to end-all 50,000 acres of it. Affolter, too, collects decoys and vintage duck boats, specializing in Astoria-area carvers and builders. "They were, in my opinion, the best decoy carvers in the entire Pacific Flyway," Affolter says.
His may be a regional bias, which is not uncommon among collectors, but Affolter knows his stuff. The carving icon is Charles Bergman, a boat builder by trade, who began crafting decoys full-time around 1929. Other Astoria carvers of note (no less than 16 have been documented) included Jim Titus, Oscar Hendrickson, Frank Bay, and Charles Pice, who sometimes was known to use his own style to repaint Bergman decoys.
"A lot of those decoys were made out there in those duck shacks," Affolter said. "I wish I could have been there to see that."
Vic Sulmonetti has been serving juicy cheeseburgers and various cold beverages to duck hunters for 46 years. His restaurant/bar sits on a bluff just up the street from the Illinois River. The homespun décor includes a small flock of waterfowl mounts preparing to fly off their perches from amid the clutter of fading photos and wildlife art. Tall tales are generously fertilized here.
Hennepin reposes just below what is called the Great Bend, where the Illinois River takes a sharp left turn and scrambles south to continue a 273-mile journey to Grafton and its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi. Researchers have determined that this is the apex for three major waterfowl flyways. In a single day in 1943, renowned biologist Frank Bellrose counted 1.2 million mallards and black ducks on nearby Goose Pond while conducting a waterfowl migration survey.
Sport hunters began visiting the region shortly after the Civil War. Trains and horse-drawn wagons were the primary modes of transportation. Situated approximately 125 miles from Chicago, the Hennepin area has received its share of Windy City gunners. Among them was old Scarface himself-mob boss Al Capone. "I've seen a lot of them come and go," says Sulmonetti, who has also listed duck club manager and guide on his résumé. "And I'll tell you what, one of the nicest gentlemen I've ever had in here was Mr. Donnelley. He'd bring his hunters in for lunch all the time."
That would be the late Gaylord Donnelley, a giant in the printing industry who served two terms (1975-76) as Ducks Unlimited President. Donnelley for years maintained the Windblown Bottoms Duck Club two miles north of Hennepin. The club property subsequently was donated, and the Donnelley/DePue Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is now open to public hunting.
"The Donnelley club, I think, was about 240 acres," says Mike Resetich, Illinois Department of Natural Resources WMA site manager. "It has since been combined with DePue, and over the years we've added a number of properties, and now altogether have more than 3,000 acres available for waterfowl."
Special youth hunts are held at least twice each season. Donnelley stipulated before he donated the property that the area be available to youngsters. As a result, this site, nearly 20 years ago, hosted one of the nation's first youth waterfowl hunts. That story, like many others, is still evolving.