Michael Furtman


While many Illinois waterfowl hunters have grown frustrated with long stretches of unusual warmth and an overall lack of any kind of weather that could be construed as ideal for shooting ducks, those willing to put in the time have had good luck with a diverse cast of species. That said, the typical star of the show, the mallard, has only been playing a cameo role on most hunts, and some days pulled a no-show. This is not just an Illinois problem, as many hunters around the Great Lakes are reporting the same thing.

This week’s cold front served up ideal winds, snow, and ice – a classic migration scenario. But, as of Tuesday, the big push hadn’t materialized for the most part, and in fact, an overall loss of ducks occurred in many areas. 

“It’s no surprise, but we lost a ton of birds in the Illinois River Valley (IRV) with this weather,” says Wetland Bird Ecologist Josh Osborn at Forbes Biological Research Station in Havana. “We're still 25 percent above the long-term average (LTA) for total ducks, largely thanks to Chautauqua, Grand Island, and Dixon Refuges, where I estimated 290,000 birds this week.”

“We had 12 of our green-winged teal with transmitters check-in with us earlier this week, and all 12 of them had migrated to more southern latitudes. Ducks were holding up in open holes where they could, and hopefully made it through the last two nights. We're warming up over the next few days, and we did pick up some mallards,” Osborn explains.

Osborn also reports dabbler numbers have likely peaked along the nearby Mississippi River, and though mallard numbers remain below normal, he is hopeful more are on the way.

“Canvasbacks look close to peak on Pool 19, and there are still tons of bluebills there too. In fact, I counted close to 75,000 divers between Nauvoo and Ft. Madison this week,” he adds.

“We’ve had roughly 450,000 ducks in the IRV pretty much since the beginning of season, but lower mallard and teal harvest compared to normal,” says Austin Matheny, who hunts almost daily in the heart of the IRV. “On the other hand, diver harvest has been abnormally high. In fact, if you removed divers from the equation, many days would have been a bust. There was a lot of hope with this major cold front and clear skies with northwest winds, then snow. It appears that we lost a significant number of ducks and did not pick up many new birds. We’ll be battling ice for a few days and hopefully have some opportunities for some mallards and late divers such as buffleheads and goldeneyes,” he adds.

As of Thursday morning, Matheny and crew were struggling to break thick ice as many holes had frozen over the past couple nights.

In northeast Illinois, Matt Porter of Porter’s Hunt Club in McHenry, reports much better hunting in the outskirts of Chicago, albeit for Canada geese.

“The goose hunting has been good right from the start, and we didn't experience the normal November lull, which usually happens when temps are warm and the local birds have been hunted for a few weeks,” Porter explains. “The duck hunting has been the slowest since I first started Porters Hunt Club in 1993. Our ponds are seeing far fewer ducks than normal. On days with clouds, wind, and weather, we are killing some ducks in the fields along with our geese.”

Porter adds that the big cold front with snow did push some new geese and ducks into the area, and hunting has been fantastic this week. “Late season always brings some of the best hunting of the season and the greatest chance to shoot a mixed bag of geese and ducks.”

Further south in the state, the story is similar.

“We had our first hard ice Tuesday,” says Sean Herrick, who manages a private preserve in the heart of Illinois’ big rivers waterfowl migration corridor.

Herrick also noted a lack of mallards in his area. “We’re at an odd point in the migration where a lot of our green-winged teal, pintails, and wood ducks have left, and the mallards that are left have been here a while. There just aren’t any new ducks here.”

Illinois is stacked with numerous waterfowl strongholds, including large reservoirs scattered around the southern half of the state. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ weekly aerial survey of these properties indicates duck numbers are slightly below the LTA, with 85,567 ducks observed, with mallards averaging about half of this total for all properties combined.

While southern Illinois was once considered a world class destination for Canada goose hunting, honker numbers are low in this area. Snow geese are also far below average, while white-fronted geese are slightly above average, with just over 16,000 birds surveyed. It should be noted that hordes of snows and whitefronts typically invade southern Illinois in force during late December and January.

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