Harvesting the River
October 2011 OutdoorIllinois / 9
The Illinois River stretches
nearly 272.4 miles, from its
origin in northeast Illinois
where the Kankakee and Des
Plaines rivers join, to Alton in
southwest Illinois, where the Illinois
empties into the Mississippi River.
Pamphlets advertising Illinois’ rich,
tillable land attracted New Englanders
in the 1830s. In 1835, $5 million of
land was sold in Illinois and 500 new
towns were created within a 3-year
period. By 1850, there were at least
18 people per square mile in the Illi-nois
During the 19th and early 20th cen-turies,
residents of Illinois river towns
were deeply involved in harvesting the
river’s fish, waterfowl, mussels and ice.
They were economically and culturally
dependent on the river, building up
industries such as tourism related to
duck hunting and sport fishing, com-mercial
fishing, musseling for button
factories and cutting the ice used in
early attempts at refrigeration.
People who earned their living from
the Illinois River and its resources har-vested
four main products from the
river: waterfowl, fish, freshwater mus-sels
and natural ice. Usually a family
had to participate in several or all of
these enterprises to earn enough to
live. These harvests grew to become
viable, small, commercial enterprises
between the 1880s and the 1930s;
some even produced hundreds of thou-sands
of dollars annually.
Duck hunting has been important
in the central Illinois River valley since
thousands of years ago when the early
Native American occupants harvested
waterfowl. Commercial and sport
duck hunting have flourished since
the late 1800s.
Market hunters were local resi-dents
who lived off the water, and
whose livelihood included the harvest-ing
of ducks and geese for commercial
markets. Before bag limits were estab-lished,
market hunters could make a
good living (sometimes $1.25 per mal-lard
pair and 15-50 cents for smaller
ducks, more if they were plucked) by
shipping the birds by rail to distant
urban restaurants where they were
prized fare. Stories abound of huge
takes of ducks by market hunters
Lacon to Money, Mississippi. Amazing-ly,
one lucky youngster shot a radioed
mallard near Meredosia during the 2010
Illinois Youth Duck Hunt. It was the
first duck he had ever harvested.
Observations from this study indi-cate
mallards spent considerable time
in central Illinois before continuing
southward. Refuges, both public and
private, were a source for central
Illinois duck hunters as birds captured
near Havana soon dispersed throughout
a 43-mile stretch of the Illinois River.
Waterfowl and wetland managers need
to ensure adequate stopover habitats
exist to provide food and refuge for
extended periods when migrating
ducks inhabit central Illinois.
While we may never return to the
days of old when mallards “blacken the
sky,” we must ensure for tomorrow’s
youth that the Illinois River valley
continues to provide critical stopover
habitat for migratory waterfowl.
Aaron Yetter, Michelle Horath, Randy
Smith, Chris Hine and Joshua Stafford are
with the Illinois Natural History Survey,
Frank C. Bellrose Waterfowl Research
Center, Prairie Research Institute and
University of Illinois. The authors can be
reached at (309) 543-3950.
Rice Lake, Spring Lake, Anderson Lake
and Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife
areas. However, the birds spent the
majority (74-80 percent) of their time
on private wetlands, including The
Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Pre-serve.
This finding demonstrates the
importance of private wetlands, espe-cially
duck clubs, in the river valley.
Mallards occupied a variety of habi-tats
while frequenting LaGrange Pool.
Open water wetlands that comprised
the various lakes in the Illinois valley
were used approximately half of the
time. Other important habitats included
herbaceous and woody wetlands along
the Illinois and Sangamon rivers. Forag-ing
flights to surrounding agricultural
fields were common.
Many monitored birds were harvest-ed
by waterfowl hunters. Harvest
locations were mostly within LaGrange
Pool and nearby agricultural fields.
However, birds were harvested from
included portions of Peoria, Tazewell,
Fulton, Mason, Schuyler and Cass coun-ties.
Mallards were captured using
swim-in traps, rocket nets and by night-lighting
from an airboat near Havana, at
the Emiquon Preserve, Emiquon
National Wildlife Refuge and Sand
Lake. Radio-marked ducks were
tracked daily with truck-mounted
antennas until they departed central
Illinois or were harvested.
Radio-equipped mallards (71 each in
2009 and 2010) were monitored from
October to January. We recorded 3,350
daily locations of radio-marked mallards
as they dispersed throughout the study
area. A preliminary estimate of stopover
duration in central Illinois was 29 days
in 2009 and considerably longer in
2010 (46 days). While radioed individu-als
quickly found refuge when faced
with hunting pressure, individual birds
still moved about frequently through-out
the Illinois River valley. Average
distance between daily locations was
approximately 2.75 miles but move-ments
of 22 miles in a single day were
common. Monitoring showed that
mallards banded near Havana dispersed
widely from Cuba to Manito to Mason
City to Chandlerville to Beardstown.
Mallards frequented many public
waterfowl areas along LaGrange Pool
including: Double T, Banner Marsh,
8 / OutdoorIllinois October 2011
Captured mallards were measured,
equipped with a backpack radio
transmitter and released.
(Photo courtesy Illinois Natural History Survey.)
(Photo courtesy John and (Photo courtesy the Skinner House.) Nancy Glick, Havana.)
(Photo courtesy Doug Carr, Illinois State Museum.)
The Illinois River valley has a long
and storied past, linking Illinoisans
to the land and connecting Illinois’
resources to the nation.
Mallards are the most frequently
harvested duck in Illinois,
the Mississippi Flyway and the
Throughout history, the Illinois River has been an important
food source and transportation avenue.
Material Presented by Illinois State Museum
(Photo courtesy Illinois State Museum.)
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