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Barring significant rainfall in the next two weeks, the absurdity of nature will go on full display at Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area in Alexander County.

Horseshoe Lake, located just east of the Mississippi River, was underwater from mid-February through June this year. Joey Thurston, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ site superintendent, is still dealing with flood cleanup.

The flood waters pouring through the Len Small Levee breach carried away hunting blinds. The flood left several feet of mud on park roads and deposited sand in fields normally planted in row crops to attract ducks and geese.

For a significant part of the year the water was so high at the park that Thurston and his staff had to take boats into the park to perform routine maintenance chores.

Then, the rain stopped. The flood waters subsided and it remained dry. Really dry.

Now, barring a change in the long-range forecast, Thurston and his crew will be firing up pumps to flood the park’s hunting areas. There are no words to describe the absurdity of the situation.

The latest craziness is just another chapter in the ongoing saga of waterfowl hunting in deep Southern Illinois.

There was a time when the Canada goose was golden in Williamson, Alexander, Union and Jackson counties. Horseshoe Lake billed itself as “The Goose Hunting Capital of the World.” In fact, there may still be a few dilapidated, fading signs still standing in Alexander County.

And, prior to the turn of the century, that claim, although not quantifiable, was defensible. Hundreds of thousands of geese would descend on Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and the Horseshoe Lake area each year.

Hunting clubs surrounded Horseshoe Lake and Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters paid by the day for the opportunity to harvest their limit of Canada geese. Restaurants and motels were filled by hunters during waterfowl season.

Then, it just stopped.

No, it wasn’t like turning off a spigot. Over the course of about a decade, the geese just quit coming to Southern Illinois.

A number of things happened.

Farming practices changed. No-till farming left remnants of corn and soybean crops in the field throughout the state. Geese didn’t have to fly south to find fields planted specifically to entice them to winter in Southern Illinois.

Power plant lakes, which created open water, appeared throughout the state, short-stopping geese on their southward flight.

But, weather is a primary factor. Snow has become a rarity, even in northern and central areas of the state. Without serious snow cover, birds aren’t forced to fly south in search of food. Second, milder weather has made more open water available throughout the state, again negating the need for birds to migrate.

Hunters adapted, flooding fields to create duck habitat. Goose hunting in Southern Illinois is something duck hunters reminisce about.

Yet, ducks haven’t replaced the golden goose. There are a few duck clubs around, but it is nothing compared to the heyday of the goose. Duck hunting has proven to be as unpredictable as the weather.

That’s quite a statement when you realize we’ll soon be pumping water into areas that have barely dried out from record floods.

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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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