By quick count, there are 44 of us packed into the check station at the Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area. Camouflage apparel is definitely not optional attire. The room is filled with an array of patterns—some old and faded, some right-out-of-the-box.
Outside, trailered duck boats stand ready for the predawn run up the Illinois River, one of America's most historic waterfowling venues. My watch reads 5:50 a.m., so those who were lucky enough back in July to draw one of the 20 available duck blinds to use during the season have 10 minutes to speak up, or they lose their spot for the day. An ensuing lottery will determine who gets to fill the empty blinds' bench seats this morning.
Fourteen blind holders appear to be on hand, so six blinds are open for the drawing, held each day at this site, connected by channel to Upper Peoria Lake. Fortunately, one of my hosts, Dale Nagel, has rights to Blind 15, second in a string of seven hides located at the northern end of this popular public hunting area. We will not have to sweat out the luck of the draw.
"There are disappointments here about every day," Nagel says, "because if you don't draw a blind, you turn around and go home."
Demand for public duck hunting opportunities far exceeds the supply along the tradition-rich Illinois River. Those sites available—from Starved Rock upriver all the way down the channel—are extremely important to gunners without access to private clubs.
"Woodford is usually among the best public areas in the state when it comes to hunter success," says past Illinois Ducks Unlimited state chairman Terry Fuchs, now a national board member. "But this can be tough hunting. Guys who hunt here regularly work hard for their birds."