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.
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.
The Blue and White Restaurant
Situated along Route 61 in the northern reaches of the Mississippi Delta, the Blue and White Restaurant has been a Tunica County landmark since 1937—it says so right on the coffee cups, which are blue and white, too. Beaver Dam, one of legendary outdoor writer Nash Buckingham's favorite hunting spots, is located nearby, as are Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla lakes, and Tunica Cutoff—all well-known fisheries. Eat breakfast here and you're good for the day, particularly if you add a couple of the homemade donuts to your order. All food is made from scratch, which is not lost on the dozens of waterfowl hunters whose vehicles jam the parking lot on any given weekend during duck season. Lunch, with an optional buffet, gets equal attention.
Gosh Dam Place
Deer River, Minnesota
If you are in northern Minnesota and get a hankering for a hot bowl of chicken wild rice soup, the Gosh Dam Place can make that happen. This is where area duck hunters meet and eat during the season. Hey, where else is one going to find weathered decoys perched on the rafters? Located on Winnie Dam Road near famous Lake Winnibigoshish, in the heart of the Chippewa National Forest, this homey venue even has a sandwich named after the lake—the Big Winnie Burger. If you are really hungry, tackle the succulent barbecue ribs or specialty prime rib, which are also highly regarded. Mark and Molly Greiner run the 65-year-old establishment these days, and they offer a variety of homemade goodies, including pizza. Overnight accommodations are available on-site for visiting sportsmen. Fishermen and snowmobilers rule the roost when the ducks aren't flying.
The Rice and Duck Capital of the World offers hunters a number of places to dine, and Sportsman's Drive-In, which first opened during the 1940s, ranks among the most popular. A Ducks Unlimited neon light is proudly displayed in the front window, a sure sign that waterfowlers are welcome. Newcomers are forewarned not to let their buddies order for them, unless they are prepared to handle one of the Sportsman's double- or triple-cheeseburgers, which weigh in at 22 and 33 ounces, respectively. For more Southern fare, you may want to check out the shrimp or catfish po' boys. The Wings Over the Prairie Festival brings tens of thousands of visitors to town each fall, and duck season remains this restaurant's busiest two months of the year. The Sportsman's seats 60 for lunch and dinner six days a week.
Wool Growers Restaurant
Los Banos, California
Clark Gable and Bing Crosby—both avid duck hunters—were regular visitors to the San Joaquin Valley. And maybe, just maybe, they availed themselves of the Wool Growers Restaurant's French Basque cooking. That's not a stretch considering that this restaurant has been serving food for more than 50 years. Pickup trucks and camouflage clothing dominate the weekend scene during waterfowl season. Public hunting areas in and around Merced County reportedly accommodate up to 600 gunners. Food here is served family style in plastic bowls. Diners sit on benches and are elbow to elbow. The lamb stew is among the local favorites. Entrees may include prime rib, chicken, lamb chops, pork chops, and more. There's seldom a report of anyone leaving one of the Pacific Flyway's most famous duck-hunting regions hungry.
There was a time when proprietors of the Turkey Roost kept live turkeys in a pen in the front of the building. No more. This place is, however, still painted pink "so you can see it," according to local lore. In celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, Turkey Roost waitresses remain attired in neat white uniforms. The region's duck hunters frequent Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area right up the road. And then they talk turkey. Turkey Roost more than lives up to its name by offering a full turkey dinner every day. If that sounds like too much to handle, you may want to try the half turkey plate, baby turkey plate, special turkey plate, turkey pot pie, hot turkey sandwich, cold turkey sandwich, turkey salad sandwich, club turkey sandwich . . . you get the idea. Don't forget the strawberry shortcake for desert. And if you're looking for a morning meal, order the Prospector's Breakfast—there's no turkey involved, but maybe that's not a bad thing.
Forest City Diner
Forest City, Missouri
This is a throwback to simpler times—the booths, chrome tables, and stools likely having been around long before the words "fast food" became a part of the nation's vocabulary. Folks are up bright and early in tiny Forest City, which shares the neighborhood with the sprawling Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Bob Brown and Nodaway Valley conservation areas. Owner Andrea Sisk starts preparing for the hunter onslaught before 4 a.m. during duck season. Plenty of scattergunners converge on this tradition-rich region every year—both public-ground hunters and those visiting private clubs. This is no place for those looking to tighten up their belt a notch. The diner offers homemade everything, including pan-fried chicken prepared in black iron skillets, French fries, and a variety of sinful pies. Breakfast is served until 10:30 a.m. at this landmark eatery, which has been hosting hunters for more than 50 years.
Midway Duck Inn
Spring Bay, Illinois
The sign outside the front door makes two rules extremely clear: No guns or dogs allowed inside. Why, of course not. The Midway Duck Inn, located at the corner of Route 26 and Brickton Road, is well beyond such shenanigans. Duck hunters are another story, and they show up regularly for lunch and dinner. Steaming bowls of chili and juicy cheeseburgers are among the favored midday selections. Breakfast is not available, but if you arrive around noon on weekends, you're bound to run into plenty of fellow Mossy Oak and Realtree fans. Three public waterfowl hunting areas—Woodford, Marshall, and Sparland—are right up the road, so ducks mean business. While inside, check out the eclectic mix of vintage duck hunting photographs and wildlife art.
Sandy's Goose Shot
They are proud of their goose hunting heritage in Waupun, and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than the massive mural on the front of Sandy's Goose Shot Bar and Grill. Those driving down West Main Street can't miss the hunter-in-the-marsh scene, complete with Canada geese. This is a reflection of nearby Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. More than 400,000 people visit the marsh each year, including hunters who often flock to Sandy's Goose Shot to dine. Breakfast is served Sunday mornings only, and customers have their pick of the Mama Goose Special, Papa Goose Special, or the Farm Goose Special (eggs, plus), and youngsters under 10 can go with the Gosling Special. Depending on the day, you will find a diverse menu ranging from liver and onions or chicken and dumplings to pizza, Mexican fare, or tasty prime rib.
This is an especially intriguing venue because of the locale—overlooking the 28,000-acre Potholes Reservoir, which attracts duck hunters in droves every fall. And don't forget that Grant County goose gunning is among the finest in the state. MarDon's Beach Bar and Grill, which is open seven days a week, is but a single component of a much larger package at this all-in-one business venture. The availability of overnight lodging turns this place into a veritable duck camp during waterfowl season. Included are a motel, cottages, tent camping sites, a recreational vehicle park, marina, tackle and gift store, general store, and guide service. MarDon, a past Ducks Unlimited Silver Teal award winner, is unquestionably the largest operation in this article. The restaurant features daily specials, and the focal point is a fireplace, which adds to the atmosphere after a long day on the water.
Hunt and Harvest Cafe
Hunt and Harvest Cafe's Judy Murray wanted to know where all the duck hunters came from. So she bought a leather-bound journal and placed it near the cash register. No one is forced to sign, but during the past six years, waterfowlers from up to 20 states have done just that, along with international gunners from New Zealand and France. Hunt and Harvest Cafe is located in the state's northeast quadrant near the Dave Donaldson/Black River Wildlife Management Area, which covers approximately 25,000 acres. This cafe opens for breakfast at 6 a.m. The Duck Hunter's Special includes eggs, meat, hash browns, a biscuit and gravy, and toast. If you're really hungry, ask for the Big Breakfast, which features a plate-size pancake. The half-pound burger is the most popular lunch choice, but on Fridays you may want to try the catfish. The two dining rooms seat 68, and during hunting-season weekends, it's not uncommon for both rooms to be full.
Chat and Chew Cafe
Wing, North Dakota
Perched on Main Street in downtown Wing (population 119), the Chat and Chew Cafe opens at 6 a.m. for duck and goose hunters visiting the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region. Waterfowl season, in fact, might be the busiest time of year for owner Shirley Nagel, who took over a landmark eatery and renamed it 15 years ago. This cafe seats 40, but an overflow can be accommodated by simply opening the door to the adjoining Wing Hotel. Lunch specials vary daily, but may include a roast beef plate, macaroni and super salad, pork roast, pork chops, or whatever else strikes Shirley's fancy. Dinner is also available. Wing will celebrate its centennial in 2010, and in case you're wondering, no, the town's name did not originate from waterfowl, but rather a pioneer settler, Charles Wing.
Sportsman's Inn and General Store
The lure of hunting Canada geese on the Eastern Shore has long been a part of the fabric of North American waterfowling. This region is one of the true classics. So it's no coincidence the folks at the Sportsman's Inn open their doors for breakfast at 4 a.m. during hunting season, often hosting 70 gunners a day, and more on weekends. Lunch may be just as popular, with hot turkey, roast beef, meat loaf, and other blue-plate specials on the menu. You don't have to look far for wildlife art, which adorns the walls. This place was known as Vonnie's for more than 30 years until ownership changed hands in 2004. While the old attached sporting goods store is now closed, there is a general store offering standard convenience products, highlighted by a selection of homemade pies.
The Cattails Bar and Grill
Under new ownership the past two years, Cattails has evolved into a duck hunter's dream lunch and dinner stop. And why not? The theme is north woodsy, which perfectly fits the Midwest sportsman's lifestyle. Wildlife art is everywhere, including an extensive display of Ducks Unlimited prints. A special meeting room upstairs—appropriately named The Blind—can be reserved for private functions. Hunters are bound to like the camouflage chair covers in The Blind. Faux ducks fly from the ceiling here, and the entryway's wooden railing is emblazoned with the DU logo. Lunch? There is a variety of soup and sandwich choices, or you may want to order the fried walleye, a local favorite. Cattails offers seating for 80, and the tables have cloth covers, so be sure to leave your muddy boots outside.