Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Be careful what you wish for — you might get it.

Duck hunters in southernmost Illinois may be thinking exactly that after the last two seasons.

For years, hunters in the lower tier of counties battled their northern neighbors for a later start to the duck season. Although compromises were made over the years, the starting date for duck season never really made everyone happy. That is the nature of compromise.

The rub between hunters, particularly when the state was divided into three zones, was the arrival date of ducks.

Near Vandalia, which was the northern tip of the South Zone in the three-zone alignment, ducks begin arriving in mid-October. Naturally, waterfowlers in that part of the zone wanted an early starting date in order to maximize their hunting.

In the meantime, hunters in the lower tier of counties were adamantly opposed to the early opening. Ducks frequently don’t appear in Alexander County until about mid-November. It’s a simple matter of math and geography — Alexander County is about 150 miles south of Vandalia.

Waterfowlers in the deep South wanted opening day closer to Thanksgiving. That thought made hunters in the northern zone apoplectic. They claimed, with some degree of accuracy, that they frequently iced-out by mid-December.

A Thanksgiving opening meant hunters in the northernmost portion of the zone would only be able to hunt about half of the 60-day season.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources held open meetings prior to waterfowl season to gauge public opinion regarding season dates. The meetings frequently became heated, and as alluded to earlier, no one went home happy.

At the same time, the IDNR was petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a fourth hunting zone in Illinois. Since the South Zone at that time spanned more than 150 miles, adding a fourth zone made, and still makes, sense.

Finally, a fourth zone was approved in time for the 2011-12 hunting season.

That made everyone happy — at least as happy as waterfowlers ever get. The South Central Zone, which covers the area from Interstate 70 to Route 13, set opening day for early November. Hunters in the deep South got the Thanksgiving day opening they’d been yearning for.

The last two years, that hasn’t worked out too well.

While our winters have remained generally moderate, we’ve had enough intense cold spells to create ice-out conditions.

Even in the southernmost part of the state, hunters have been iced out for up to two weeks this season. That may not seem like much to non-hunters, but taking 14 days from a 60-day season is substantial. With the warm-up late this week, hunters may have squeezed a couple more days out of the season, which ended Saturday.

Don’t look for any movement to change the season. Dates are already set for the next several years. Weather is the major variable in waterfowl season, also the least predictable. And, certainly, hunters have no control over the weather, no matter how many zones there are.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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