Illinois hunting and fishing

The south pool of Lake Chautauqua was drained for the first time since 2005. Photos by Chris Young.

Wetland conditions almost “too good to be true”

September 16, 2012 at 01:00 AM

With record numbers of ducks forecasted and a bonanza of natural food growing in the Illinois River Valley, this should be a waterfowl season to remember.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” said Doug Jallas with a laugh.

Jallas is the site superintendent of the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chandlerville.

He also oversees Anderson Lake and Rice Lake along the Illinois River.

Chain Lake (part of the Sanganois) is just loaded with feed, which is something we have never seen before,” he said. “There are literally hundreds of acres (of wetland vegetation favored by ducks).

Illinois hunting and fishing
Smartweed, sedges and other wetland vegetation cover the bottom of Chain Lake.

“When October rolls around, and if we get a six to eight-inch raise in the river, we’re going to be loaded down with ducks and probably hunters too.”

Heath Hagy, director of the Forbes Biological Station north of Havana, can see first hand from his office located next door to the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge where the south pool is lush and green.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Walter’s millet covers the bottom of the south pool of Lake Chautauqua.

“Boy, I have not seen anything like that in the lower Mississippi Valley or any other place I’ve been,” Hagy said. “There is just a sea of Walter’s millet, nodding smartweed, teal grass, red-root flat sedge, and mixed areas with chufa sedge as well.
“There are layers and layers of different foods that a variety of ducks and other birds will absolutely devour in a couple of months.”

But not all birds benefit to the same extent.

Hagy said any bare ground has been covered with vegetation leaving less habitat for shorebirds that probe the mud with their long bills.

“(The Forbes staff) kind of fanned out (in the Illinois River Valley recently) looking for shorebirds, and we had a problem locating shorebirds because there is so much emergent vegetation on the mudflats,” he said.

When the wetland plants go to seed and are flooded by site managers, ducks will be able to swim right in and feast.

“The habitat has been reduced for shorebirds, but it will be phenomenal duck habitat,” Hagy said. “Water already is starting to return, and with just a couple of inches of rain.”

Some backwater lakes already are holding some water.

“There are a lot of birds already trickling into the area.”

Jallas said Anderson Lake and Rice Lake also are in “phenomenal” condition as the opening of the regular duck season approaches.

Teal season already is open, with some hunters having success, Jallas said.

Duck season in the central zone opens Oct. 27.

“Anderson Lake is just phenomenal, with160 acres of corn,” Jallas said. “(Hunters) should do really well there.

“Rice Lake has a lot of corn, soybeans, millet and a lot of natural food of course,” he said. “It seems like it is getting a little bit wetter now and we’re getting a little more rain and I think it is going to make a difference.”

But managers of waterfowl areas know it just takes a little bad luck to upset the whole system.

Jallas said he was concerned the remnants of Hurricane Isaac would cause a rise in the Illinois River that could swamp wetland vegetation too soon.

But that didn’t happen.

“Ideally, I would like to wait as long as I possibly could until mid-October (to re-flood waterfowl areas),” Jallas said. “But that’s not realistic.

“We’ve got so many acres and it’s so dry and realistically we’re going to have start pumping the last week of September or the first of October.”

Illinois hunting and fishing
Arrowhead produces tubers, and has earned the nickname “Duck Potato.”

But in the meantime, most hunters have taken advantage of dry conditions to drive out to their blinds.

“Everyone this year can drive to their blind, with the exception of about six blinds. We’re going to start putting water to them first,” Jallas said.

On Wednesday, site personnel were going to start the process of servicing pumps, replacing filters and conducting other maintenance.

The season is approaching fast.

“It seems like not long ago we were thinking about putting everything away,” Jallas said.

Even with everything seemingly in place for a successful season, Jallas said there are no guarantees.

“It is going to be a season to remember,” he said with a laugh. “I just don’t know what side it is going to be remembered on, good or bad.

“But it is without a doubt going to be memorable,” he said. “Everyone’s looking forward to it.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.