The Illinois Daily Usage Stamps

Public Duck Hunting Areas


Ducks using the Mississippi Flyway breed and nest primarily in the prairie province of Manitoba, but also to some extent in the Dakotas and Minnesota. In the fall, Mississippi Flyway ducks migrate southeast on the way to their principal wintering grounds in eastern Arkansas and northeastern Louisiana (Wesley and Leitch, 1987).

The main migration corridor for Mississippi Flyway mallards centers over the Illinois River Valley in west-central Illinois (see Figure 7). Consequently, the area has become nationally known for its mallard hunting. Significant numbers of other species of ducks also occupy the valley during peak migration times. These include bluewing teal, lesser scaup, and ruddy. The valley owes its rich history of waterfowl use and activity to the quality of water and aquatic vegetation found there (Ball, 1993).



Figure 7. The Illinois River Valley is the heart of the Mississippi Flyway.



For over a hundred years most of the desirable shooting areas in the valley have been controlled by private duck clubs. Before WWII, sportsmen who could not afford to belong to the private clubs were having trouble finding good places to hunt. Most of the valley’s wetlands which were not owned or leased by the clubs were located along the Illinois River. At one time the mallards had concentrated along the river and it provided excellent hunting. However, changes in feeding habits caused the ducks to scatter all over the valley.

Corn is the principal crop in Illinois and corn fields comprise approximately 28 percent of the land (A Comparative Study, 1963). The widespread use of mechanical corn pickers in the late 1930s and early 1940s resulted in a large amount of com being left in the fields. Much of this remaining corn would have been harvested by the old hand-picking method.

The cornfields of Illinois soon acted like a magnet for ducks, much like the rice fields of California (Osborne, 1945). This situation did not prove to be of great concern to Illinois farmers, as the ducks descended on their fields after the harvest. In order to be closer to this new found food source, the mallards abandoned the Illinois river in favor of local lakes and streams.

In an effort to provide quality duck hunting opportunities for all sportsmen, the IDOC opened a public shooting area in the Illinois River Valley. A 2,217 acre tract of land in Fulton County, approximately 30 miles southwest of Peoria, was purchased in 1943 from the estate of U. G. Orendorff for $83,137. The area was named Rice Lake, as wild rice had been plentiful there at one time.

Mr. Orendorff had founded the plow works in nearby Canton which evolved into International Harvester (see Figure 8). For many years Rice Lake had served as his private duck club (Ball, 1993). The IDOC intended to operate the area as a combination refuge and public hunting area. Like the Honey Lake Waterfowl Management Area in California, Rice Lake was purchased and developed under the Pittman-Robertson Program (Rice Lake Refuge, 1944).



Figure 8. Rice Lake was originally a private duck club belonging to U. G. Orendorff, the founder of International Harvester.



The northern half of the area comprised the public shooting grounds. Rice Lake adjoined the large Duck Island Gun Club and drew birds from their lake as well as from its own refuge (Woods, 1960). As opposed to Honey Lake, where natural vegetation provided adequate cover, hunting at Rice Lake was done exclusively from permanent blinds (until recent years). The blinds were constructed by the IDOC and could accommodate a total of 40 hunters per day.

During the 1940s hunters needed to obtain a permit but no fee was charged. Prospective hunters wrote to the IDOC, requesting to shoot at Rice Lake on a desired date. Hunters could also request that one or two partners shoot from their blind. Permits were issued on a first-come, first-served basis. After the hunters received a permit in the mail, they were assured of a place to hunt on the specified date (New Migratory Waterfowl, 1944). Early in the morning of each hunt day, the blinds were assigned by lottery. Numbers were drawn and each corresponded to a particular blind. This method was adopted to allow everyone an equal chance at the blinds in better locations (Thatcher, 1945).

From its inception, the public shooting area at Rice Lake was very popular. According to IDOC Director Livingston E. Osborne: “More than 1,500 applications have been received by the Department from Illinois duck hunters for permits to hunt on the state’s new public shooting grounds at Rice Lake…. Applications have come in so rapidly that all of October from the start of the duck season on the 14th is filled completely as well as every day in November. The youngest applicant to date is a 12 year old boy from central Illinois. Many ladies have applied for hunting privileges. On the opening day a father, son and grandson will hunt. The grandfather is 77 years old” (New Migratory Waterfowl, 1944). Hunters were allowed to shoot at Rice Lake once every ten days in order to prevent locals from monopolizing the area (Thatcher, 1945).

To meet the growing demand for public shooting grounds, the IDOC opened two new waterfowl management areas in 1945. They were known as the Sparland and Woodford County Public Shooting Areas (see Figure 9). Including Rice Lake, a total of 5,400 acres were available for public hunting at this time (Thatcher, 1945).



Figure 9. The Woodford County Public Shooting Area.



In 1945 the IDOC also created a new Division of Game Management. The Division was in charge of the planning and administration of a waterfowl and upland game refuges, the planning and administration of public hunting grounds and the administration of the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid Program (1950 Annual report; 1953 Annual Report).

As it did in California, hunting boomed in Illinois following the end of WWII. The State’s existing public shooting areas could not come close to accommodating all of the sportsmen wishing to hunt waterfowl (Woods, 1960). In the late 1940s the IDOC purchased and developed three additional waterfowl management areas—Anderson Lake, Batchtown and Sanganois. Like Rice Lake, the new areas were funded by the Pittman-Robertson Program. Rice Lake continued to be the most popular with hunters, as it consistently provided them the most success (Rice Lake Again Produces, 1951).

For a map showing the location of each waterfowl area to offer public hunting in 1950, see Figure 10. Locations of pheasant areas are also shown. These will not be individually discussed in this article. The map identifies public hunting areas at the Horseshoe Lake and Union County Goose Refuges. Although some hunting was allowed on the refuges at this time, it was not a controlled situation with check-stations, numbered pits, etc. (Thornburg, 1994). The IDOC did not operate regular public hunting grounds at the Horseshoe Lake and Union County Goose Refuges until 1953 and 1954, respectively.



Figure 10. This map shows the location of waterfowl public hunting grounds in 1950.



According to an excerpt from A Brief summary of Illinois Department of Conservation Activities for 1953: “During the past hunting season this Division [Game Management] operated two new hunting grounds for the public. One of these, the Horseshoe Lake Public Hunting Ground, was operated as the first goose hunting ground open to the public… Hunting was limited to thirty pits, with a maximum capacity of sixty hunters per day. Each hunter was limited to the taking of one Canada goose, and the hunting hours were from one-half hour before sunrise until twelve o’clock noon. One thousand two hundred and four (1,204) geese were harvested by two thousand sixty-six (2,066) hunters.” A separate section of the same report stated: “For the coming year…there is a possibility of having another goose hunting ground. If the fall migrations of the Canada goose warrant continued harvesting of this bird, a portion of the Union County Refuge probably will be opened as a public hunting ground.”

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