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."
Indeed. Even though hunters have access to these blinds for the entire season, decoys must be picked up daily. Siltation has made a handful of blinds all but inaccessible without the aid of mud motors. And, because the blinds are relatively close to each other, it is not unusual to have a circling flock flare when hunters in the next blind shoot.
An erstwhile scoreboard at the check station reveals that 234 ducks were taken last weekend on opening day. The tally slipped to 62 ducks yesterday. Mallards, wood ducks, and teal dominate the kill sheet.
"Everybody is looking for new birds," says William "Tonto" Hartman, who rounds out our quartet. "The weather has been pretty mild, and they just haven't shown up yet."
The temperature has bottomed out at 27 degrees, and we see patchy fog moving downriver as the morning progresses. Someone apparently forgot to provide the ducks a wakeup call. The majority of birds in the air are flying along the tree line behind us—until 8 o'clock, when four divers take a wide berth around our spread of 80 decoys. And then six more swing by. Shots are sparse. A half-hour later, two mallards briefly hover over the decoys before being downed on consecutive shots.
"Don't know where they came from," Nagel says. "But we'll take 'em."
Nagel has been hunting Illinois public waters for 50 years, including 30 spent at the nearby Sparland Unit, a component of the Marshall State Fish and Wildlife Area. Woodford and Marshall are but two of 10 public hunting areas where blinds are allocated for one year by virtue of lotteries held in the summer. Others include the Anderson Lake Conservation Area south of Havana; Clear Lake at Sand Ridge State Forest near Forest City; Lake DePue in Bureau County; Meredosia Bay, just north of Meredosia; Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area south of Banner; Spring Lake and Pekin Lake, north of Manito; and Starved Rock State Park, near Utica.
Fuchs, who grew up nearby and is now a member of a private duck club, is hardly a stranger to river hunting. He regularly accompanied his father to hunt public areas in his youth.
"It's been a while since I've been out here," Fuchs says, "but one thing that has always stuck with me is that boat ride early in the morning. That's something special. I miss that."
River hunters everywhere know the feeling.
More Great Rivers for Ducks and Geese
There are 3.5 million miles of rivers in the United States, some of which have historically provided waterfowlers with the finest duck shooting in the world. Manipulation by man has changed the natural course of rivers, north to south and east to west. But ducks and geese still follow river systems during migration. And many waterways and their backwaters allow for myriad gunning opportunities. Only a handful of these big-time gunning rivers are mentioned here because the overall list is lengthy. Others to be considered would have to include the Platte, Snake, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Red, St. John's, White, and the Cache, to name but a few. Chances are you will find a Ducks Unlimited waterfowl habitat conservation project nearby. Remember that hunting rivers can be treacherous and requires dependable gear and a high degree of good judgment and caution. If you decide to go, be careful out there. For detailed information regarding public hunting, contact the state wildlife agency in the area you plan to visit.
If there is a more scenic waterway to hunt waterfowl than the Columbia River, I have not yet been there. The setting is breathtaking—big water, marsh, mountains. And, rain, just about every day. This is a slice of heaven for the diver hunter, particularly those who favor scaup and canvasbacks. But those with an interest in puddle ducks will not be disappointed. Wigeon, pintails, and mallards are regular visitors. On the historical side, Lewis and Clark camped along the Columbia. And the region is known for its house boats, or floating duck shacks, which can be traced back more than a hundred years. These unique structures—many of which have been refurbished—remain in use. The Columbia is more than 1,200 miles long and features 11 dams on its main stem. There are several public hunting areas, including the 5,000-acre Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge located near Vancouver, Washington, and the sprawling 50,000-acre Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge situated on the Lower Columbia near Brownsmead, Oregon.
The Missouri River served as a way west for pioneers, with virtually all the major trails beginning somewhere along its path. Originating in southwestern Montana, the Missouri meanders more than 2,300 miles before flowing into the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis. The river's waterfowling roots can be traced to Native Americans, whose camps were identified by early explorers Joliet and Marquette, and, later on, Lewis and Clark more than 200 years ago. Public hunting is available at a number of sites in the states through which the river runs, or borders. Mallards are the primary targets in many areas, but along the length of the river, you may run across any number of waterfowl species. Canada geese are prevalent in the northern reaches. Two public hunting areas to keep in mind include Grand Pass Conservation Area near Marshall, Missouri, and the Lower Oahe Waterfowl Hunting Access Area near Pierre, South Dakota.
Beginning as a relative trickle in northern Minnesota and snaking its way south approximately 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River features extremely diverse waterfowl habitat. The northern reaches include lakes laden with wild rice, vast open water pools along the Iowa/Wisconsin border, fertile backwaters in the Mid-South, and the sweeping marshes of southern Louisiana. And that's to say nothing of the many islands and sandbars. Depending on the timing of the fall migration, waterfowl hunters may find large canvasback concentrations at Pools 9-11, set their sights on mallards and wood ducks farther downriver, and then wind up chasing pintails, green-winged teal, and gadwalls at the far tip. Many other species can be found along the way. Private land dominates the landscape for the most part, but there are many sites with public hunting access. The Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, for example, stretches for 261 miles and is composed of 240,000 acres in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana is open to the public and covers 128,000 acres. Check with state wildlife agencies regarding regulations and access points.
If embracing American waterfowling history is your deal, look no farther than the Susquehanna River, whose "mile wide, and a foot deep" description has been part of the Atlantic Flyway's legend and lore for generations. The area where the river empties into the northern end of Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace is called the Susquehanna Flats, which once hosted more wintering canvasbacks than any other locale. Much of the river's natural vegetation has been lost to habitat degradation and compromised water quality, but the cans still visit, albeit in leaner numbers. So do Canada geese, black ducks, and scaup. This region is the cradle of American decoy carving, boasting a who's who of carvers perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the nation. Stop by the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum to check out an amazing collection of decoys and other artifacts. The waterfowling tradition runs deep here, even if the river does not. Public gunning is allowed at Two Sands Island in the Susquehanna Flats State Park, but a permit is required. Call ahead for details.
The St. Lawrence
The St. Lawrence River is bold and brawny—and little wonder. The river's drainage includes the Great Lakes, and it empties into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the world's largest estuary. Some of the best Canada goose hunting you've never heard of occurs throughout this region. The St. Lawrence, with its mix of backwaters, islands (as in the Thousand Islands), and open water can offer outstanding early-season gunning for dabbling ducks, with mallards, black ducks, pintails, and green-winged teal the primary species. But once the weather turns nasty in November and December, the game changes and provides extraordinary goldeneye and bufflehead action. Waterfowlers seeking to hunt weekends on public grounds may want to check out the 3,434-acre Wilson Hill Wildlife Management Area located near Massena, in St. Lawrence County, New York.
Approximately 70 percent of the nation's riparian habitat has been lost or altered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.