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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: Waterfowl season has begun in Southern Illinois

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Waterfowl season is open throughout Southern Illinois. 

The season is regulated by five-year plans, proposed by the State of Illinois and implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is an orderly, scientifically sound way to administer hunting seasons.  

That wasn’t always the case. 

As recently as two decades ago, season dates and bag limits were set by hunters annually. Technically, proposed seasons and guidelines were set, but if the suggestions fell within legal guidelines, approval was basically a rubber stamp process. 

The guidelines were set in meetings hosted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. To say the meetings were contentious is understatement on a colossal scale. 

Things were much different in those days. The Canada goose was king. Duck hunting was an afterthought. Complicating matters, Illinois was divided into just three waterfowl hunting zones. The South Zone extended from roughly Vandalia to Cairo, a distance of about 150 miles. 

There was an ongoing less-than-civil war, pitting hunters and club owners on the north end against hunters and club owners in the south. Hunters on the north end of the zone claimed, sometimes correctly, they needed an early starting date to avoid ice out days. Waterfowl hunting requires open water. 

The southern contingent argued, sometimes correctly, that if the season began too early, ducks and geese would not have made their way to the southern end of the state. Their hunters would spend the first two weeks of the season staring at empty skies. 

The arguments over starting dates were loud, long and sometimes carried threats of physical intimidation. The meetings could best be compared to the old westerns where ranchers and farmers would meet at a local saloon to “discuss” open range. 

There was a meeting in Mount Vernon shortly before the current system was adopted when some folks returned to their vehicles to find their tires slashed. 

But, there was also a sub-plot. 

Bear in mind that goose hunting was an important industry in the Deep South. There were dozens of goose clubs ringing Crab Orchard Lake. The situation was much the same around Alexander County’s Horseshoe Lake. 

The Crab Orchard contingent wanted a later opening date than the northern hunters, but they wanted an earlier date than Alexander County group. There was a four-county quota zone, Williamson, Jackson, Union and Alexander counties, in existence at the time. 

Hunters in those counties would be allowed to harvest x-amount of geese each year, and there was plenty of in-fighting within the Quota Zone contingent over season dates and bag limits. The owners of the smaller clubs would align themselves with the larger club owners to maximize political clout. 

The IDNR’s thankless role in this mess was to maintain peace and try to forge a consensus among hunters from the north and south. 

It’s safe to say, at least in my memory, that no one ever got exactly what they wanted from these meetings. Compromises were forged that left few people happy. 

However, some good did eventually come from these annual angry uprisings. 

First, the IDNR exerted extended pressure on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that resulted in a fourth waterfowl season for Illinois. Essentially, the fourth zone, known as the South Central Zone, was created by slicing off the northern half of the old South Zone. 

There are still some disagreements as to where the boundaries should be, but they are mild compared to “the good old days.” 

Finally, seasons are set in five-year blocs, based on harvest data and migration patterns. It’s a much more orderly, not to mention quiet, process.

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

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