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Illinois hunting and fishing

Randy Hawkins, site superintendent of the Sangchris Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, eases a floating pump into gear so water can start flowing to a public waterfowl hunting area. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Duck season prospects looking up

October 25, 2012 at 08:08 PM

The State Journal-Register

After a few tries, the pump motor roared to life, and water began gushing Wednesday into a duck-hunting area at Sangchris Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area near Rochester.

At public hunting areas in central Illinois, and especially along the Illinois River, preparations are under way for the opening of duck season early Saturday.

Duck season opens in the state’s central zone 30 minutes before sunrise Saturday.

Before firing up the pumps, Randy Hawkins, the new site superintendent at Sangchris Lake, toured the lake with Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Mike Chandler to see all the locations where hunting is allowed.

At Sangchris Lake, hunters will gather before dawn to draw lots to see who gets to hunt where.

Chandler pointed out how hunting spots are marked with two stakes to give waterfowl hunters a fairly large area to work, sometimes including a cove or inlet off the main body of the lake.

“Law enforcement has these stakes marked with GPS, so if someone gets hurt or lost in the fog, they can go right to them,” Chandler said.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Water begins to fill an impoundment at the Sangchris State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Season looks promising

The potential for a memorable waterfowl season is high.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted a record 48 million breeding ducks in the Prairie Pothole Region of the north-central United States and Canada last May.

Couple that with good growing conditions for natural food sources in wetlands along the Illinois River this summer, and all the ingredients for a successful season are in place.

Aaron Yetter, waterfowl scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey based near Havana, normally conducts weekly aerial surveys along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to track the progress of migration.

Recently, wind and rain have kept him grounded, so the most recent survey is dated Oct. 15.

But even a week and a half ago, there were almost 118,000 ducks counted at 23 locations on the Illinois River, including more than 60,000 at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve.

Hungry ducks taking a break from their cross-country flight will find plenty to eat when they arrive.

“There is food everywhere,” Yetter said.

Drought good for ducks

The summer’s severe drought conditions actually were good for the wetland plants ducks seek out — dried-out wetlands allowed those plants, such as arrowhead, smartweed and Walter’s millet, to sprout and grow.

Now, hunting sites are pumping water back into the wetlands so ducks can have easy access to all that food.

“The river is still low, barely above the low-flow level in the summer,” Yetter said. “The rains are helping, but everybody’s pumping.”

The Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, just across Quiver Creek from Yetter’s office, is refilling the south pool, which was drained earlier this summer to provide a foothold for wetland plants.

“Chautauqua is ready,” Yetter said. “They are still adding water, but with a spotting scope I can see pintails.

“And there are a lot of ducks on Emiquon,” he said. “Everybody has food, so it’s looking like it is going to be a good opener, but you never know.”

Tharran Hobson, who guides restoration efforts at Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms for The Nature Conservancy, said hunting will be offered until noon Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Emiquon. But no hunting will be allowed this fall at Spunky Bottoms.

Emiquon prepared

Hunters can go to the Conservancy’s website (http://www.nature.org/Illinois) and then click on a bar that has a picture of a mallard and says “fall hunting” for information on hunting programs around the state.

The Emiquon tab will bring up an interactive map with pictures of hunting stakes to help hunters judge the vegetation available and help them decide whether they should conceal themselves in a blind or other temporary netting.

“We’re all set up and ready to go,” Hobson said. “We just had our last meeting on the hunting program.”

Hunters will draw for Emiquon’s 13 hunting stakes at Dickson Mounds Museum’s Eveland Village.

Hobson said a lot of early migrating ducks, including blue-wing and green-wing teal, pintails, shovelers and gadwall, are still around.

“There are a few ruddy ducks, too, and of course, mallards,” he said.

The abundance of food probably will spread ducks throughout the Illinois River Valley.

“Even the lakes that are, during a normal year, windswept mud bodies have food,” he said. “The birds won’t have to go anywhere. Hopefully their stopover will be longer.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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