Water … check.

Crops … check.

Ducks … TBD

For the first time in recent memory, the stars seemed to be aligned at Illinois Department of Natural Resources duck hunting sites in the South Zone. Mermet Lake, Horsehoe Lake and the Union County Refuge have plenty of crops and water.

Now, it’s up to the weather. The South Zone season begins Thursday.

Horseshoe Lake’s duck seasons have been plagued by flooding in the past few years. This time around, some early November flooding proved beneficial. Slight flooding in the last two weeks poured into the lake’s hunting areas.

“We did not have to pump any,” said site superintendent Joey Thurston. “The river got in enough. We opened up the boards, and at Union County we had plenty of rain. I will say this is the first time I can remember it was a benefit to us. I think we had the pump on for 3-4 hours and we opened up the structures and let the water backfill. We filled everything up and closed them down.

“So, maybe after ruining us for so many years, it paid us back. There’s no telling what it is going to do next. I figure even the river knows what bad shape the state is in and gave us some free water.”

The flooding was not only timely, but well measured.

“We got lucky,” Thurston said. “Another foot, we would have been in trouble. We have a lot of food, and a lot of water at both sites.”

The river also cooperated this spring and summer, staying in its banks and not wiping out crops planted to attract ducks.

“We probably have the best crops here than we have had in 15 years,” Thurston said.

He said the outlook is equally good at Union County Refuge. Now, it’s a matter of waiting for the ducks.

“We had quite a few ducks here not long ago,” Thurston said. “We haven’t seen near the ducks. Who knows where they are? It’s going to be what’s going to be. There is so much water here now, there are probably more birds here than we think. They’re all spread out.”

In addition, three stakes have been added to the firing line this year, meaning an additional 12 hunters a day can participate.

The food situation is slightly different at Mermet.

“We had some success with crops this year,” said site superintendent Chris McGinness. “We got over 12 inches of rain in June. Anything we had there was completely flooded out, but we did get some moist soil plants in there, buckwheat, millet and milo. Some of that was successful, some of it wasn’t.

“There has been a change in the management practices; we are trying to leave some ground idle to let some of the natural vegetation come in that the wildlife division is wanting to try. We’re going to see how that works.”

Recent history suggests it will work fine.

Flooding wiped out most of the crops at Mermet last year, but hunters were having an excellent season before an early freeze-out.

“All it is an enhancement anyway,” McGinness said. “We don’t have that much ground. The whole area we are impounding is about 1,000 acres, somewhere in that neighborhood. So, crop-wise, we’re looking at 150-200 acres. So, we’re not holding the mass numbers in there just because of our crops. That’s just to entice them. It’s more of an historical type thing. They’ve always stopped there and they continue to do so.

“Where our food source really comes from, most people don’t realize it, is moist soils are No. 1 and then also the trees that are in there. We have pin oak and swamp white oak in there. That provides as much food as we could plant.”

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On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​


Sports editor

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

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