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Illinois hunting and fishing

Lee Albright, manager of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges near Havana, kneels in nutsedge and teal lovegrass that stretches over 700 acres of the former lake bottom. Photo by Chris Young.

Lake Chautauqua preparing banquet for migrating ducks

October 28, 2011 at 11:30 PM

The State Journal-Register

HAVANA—Listening to Lee Albright, one might mistake him for a farmer worried about his crops.

But instead of growing corn and beans, Albright, manager of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges near Havana, is nurturing sedges, teal lovegrass, barnyard grass, wild millet and smartweed – about 700 acres.

Together, these plants will provide a banquet for migrating waterfowl starting in just a few days, when the north pool of Lake Chautauqua is again filled with water.

The water’s return will be the last step in a process that began last summer with the draining of the lake.

It’s not unusual for managers of waterfowl areas to drain wetlands during the summer to facilitate the growth of vegetation.

To provide wildlife habitat, managers like Albright try to mimic natural wet and dry cycles of the river’s backwater lakes, a process that has been thrown off by locks and dams on the river. Water levels today are kept up to five feet higher than historic norms to facilitate navigation.

Levees, pumps and other structures often are used to drain wetlands in the summer and refill them in the fall.

But the north pool of Lake Chautauqua, located north of Havana and across the Illinois River from The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve, hadn’t been drained in over a decade. As a result, residents of nearby communities had come to view it as a fishing lake.

The drawdown became controversial when fish – including many Asian carp - became trapped in shallow water.

The smell of dying fish in August was strong, and some residents of the neighboring community of Goofy Ridge were not happy.

“They had some valid complaints,” Albright said. “It was pretty bad for about four weeks.”

Ethel Egan, owner of Grizzly’s Mallard Club in Goofy Ridge, said she still doesn’t understand why the lake had to be drained.

“It’s a great fishing lake,” Egan said. “I think it’s a shame.”

Egan and her husband caught white bass, crappie, catfish, a few saugers and other species at their home near the lake.

“That’s why we bought down here,” she said.

However, Albright said floods on the Illinois River the past few years have overtopped the modest levees protecting the refuges, making it impossible for mangers to control water levels.

The result has been that there has been little food for ducks and other waterfowl when fall migration arrives.

To increase the available habitat, refuge plans call for management of both the north and south pools of Lake Chautauqua for migrating birds.

It almost didn’t happen this year, because the Illinois River stayed high again until mid-summer.

When the gates were opened and water finally started to recede, shorebirds arrived by the thousands to probe the exposed mudflats for food.

Plants started to spring up, but it was late in the growing season, and they were in a race against the calendar to mature and set seed before frost.

“We have been really lucky that there has been no killing frost this late into October,” Albright said Thursday afternoon. “It has kept the plants growing and putting on more mature seed.”

In a few days, Albright and his staff will start letting water slowly fill up the lake, providing ducks access to a smorgasbord during the month of November.

With ducks already arriving in the Illinois River Valley – Emiquon is holding thousands of ducks already – Albright knows he can’t wait much longer.

“I’m trying to wait as long as possible to give those younger plants a chance.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

Illinois Natural History Survey’s aerial inventory

Once a week during migration, the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Aaron Yetter flies over the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to count waterfowl at select locations.

The most recent survey, concluded Oct. 24, shows the Emiquon and Spoon River Bottoms area to be holding two-thirds of the ducks counted at 16 locations in the Lower Illinois River Valley.

Emiquon had 96,675 ducks. Yetter counted about a tenth as many at Lake Chautauqua – 8,765.

Lee Albright, manager of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges, expects that number to rise significantly when the north pool of Lake Chautauqua is re-flooded so ducks can reach plants and seeds that have been growing on the lake bed this summer.

The total number of ducks counted at 23 sites along the Upper and Lower Illinois River Valley was 231,095.

Emiquon Preserve Visitor Use Area

Some the thousands of ducks at the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge near Havana can be viewed from the new Visitor Use Area off Illinois 78/97.

The Nature Conservancy opened the area earlier this summer. It includes boardwalks out into Thompson Lake, walking paths and an observation tower and spotting scope.

On Thursday, northern pintails were seen feeding near the shore.

Emiquon also is hosting more than 135,000 American coots, black birds with white bills. Pintails, green wing teal, mallards, northern shovelers and other ducks also can be seen feeding.

—Chris Young

The refuges

Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge encompasses the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge and the Cameron-Billsbach Unit. The refuge office is based at Lake Chautauqua north of Havana.

Acreage:

*Chautauqua NWR: 4,488 acres

*Emiquon NWR: 1,305 acres

*Meredosia NWR: 3,852

*Cameron-Billsbach Unit: 1,709

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