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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Enduring Mermet Lake withdrawal

Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Enduring Mermet Lake withdrawal

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One of the many reasons to dislike winter is that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources shuts down Mermet Lake from the beginning of November to Feb. 1.

It’s not an arbitrary closing. Mermet Lake is one of the state-run waterfowl hunting areas. The lake is closed for 30 days prior to the season in order to create a refuge-like environment for the ducks and geese that will be wintering there.

And, it just makes good sense not to mix hunters, hikers and photographers during the 60-day hunting season. Bottom line? I’ll be enduring Mermet withdrawal for the next 85 days.

If I stay healthy and the weather cooperates, I plan to be one of the first people cruising around the lake Feb. 1, 2021.

To prepare for the deprivation of the long, cold winter, I set the alarm for about 5 a.m. Friday. That got me to the lake well before sunrise. I parked my car on the north end of the lake, looking to the southeast, waiting for the sun to pop above the horizon and silhouette the barren cypress trees in the middle of the lake.

I’m prejudiced, but there are few better places in Southern Illinois to view the sunrise.

After snapping a few sunrise shots, the day was actually too clear – sunrise is more spectacular when there are clouds to reflect the sunlight – I drove to the pond on the northeast corner of the lake. The remnant brown cypress needles reflected perfectly in the mirror-like water.

But, my attention was diverted by splashing to the opposite side of the pond. It was still relatively dark, but I made out the shadowy figure of an otter enjoying a fresh catch on the base of a cypress tree. It was still too dark for photos, but that picture is forever etched in my mind.

Sometime during the first lap around the lake I realized a perfect storm had occurred. The state floods the wooded areas around the lake to create additional duck habitat, and recent rains had put water at higher than normal levels for late October.

In addition, cold and snow in Minnesota, Michigan and other parts of the upper Midwest had already driven flights of ducks to Southern Illinois. And, the weekend weather, particularly Saturday, promised to be warm and sunny – perfect conditions for kayaking through the blind areas.

After ascertaining there were no regulations against it, I planned to return the following day.

It was a perfect way to end Mermet 2020.

My wife and I entered one of the blind areas and were immediately greeted by flocks of red-winged blackbirds, Carolina wrens and a number of chickadees that seemed none to fond to see us. But, the most striking thing was the prevalence of spider webs. It looked as if suburban homeowners had descended on the area and spread fake spider webs everywhere.

After just a couple hundred feet both our kayaks were trailing lengthy streamers of silk.

While we didn’t see a lot of ducks early in the trip, their presence was palpable. We heard wood ducks screeching, mallard drakes complaining and the sound of wings flapping against the water.

The real payoff occurred when we entered a second pool. About 100 feet from the opening we heard several mallards squawking. At that point we quit paddling and just floated into the open areas. Our presence caused a couple drakes to spring and the mallard alarm system went into action.

It was natural surround sound. And, the panoramic view now available to us showed hundreds of birds feeding in surrounding pools.

Seeing and hearing the ducks was enough to get the adrenaline surging. Seeing those birds, hearing their calls reminded me why so many people get up so early and brave the cold for duck hunting.

It also reminded me how much I’ll miss Mermet for the next 85 days.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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