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Embarras River Bottoms: Savoring a ‘hunt unit’ and a different spot in southern Illinois, bonus whoopers

Embarras River Bottoms in southern Illinois offers waterfowlers a chance to hunt a unit rather than from a blind and, in our case, an unexpected chance to see wild whooping cranes.

Steve Palmisano adjusts the decoy spread in a hole in the skim ice at Embarras River Bottoms last week. Credit: Dale Bowman
Steve Palmisano adjusts the decoy spread in a hole in the skim ice at Embarras River Bottoms last week.
Dale Bowman

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ill. — As we pulled a cart overflowing with decoys, camouflaged netting and chairs, a young bowhunter passed us in the dark.

He said there were lots of wood ducks in early October. Now if only for early December at Embarras River Bottoms, for which I had drawn a permit. Why a site four hours south? I enjoy new places and it’s a rare Illinois site with public unit-hunting.

For last 20 years, Steve Palmisano and I have made adventures/excursions. He has the right attitude for exploring. He recruited Dan Rogers, who also had a big vehicle to stuff with gear.

We came a day early to scout. Scouting, we saw no sign of waterfowl.

Biologist Paul Skoglund suggested a spot on both sides of the Embarras. The east has wetlands; the west, small impoundments and an old river channel. This is not for everybody: one was a walk of a mile, the other 3/4 of a mile.

A view of the back of the east side of Embarras River Bottoms last week. Credit: Dale Bowman
A view of the back of the east side of Embarras River Bottoms last week.
Dale Bowman

The Embarras (EM brah) flows 195 miles from near Champaign to the confluence with the Wabash River.

Embarras River Bottoms, acquired in 2011 as part of a settlement with an oil refinery, is close enough to the Wabash that water can back up. That’s why Tony Holtschlag, site superintendent at Red Hills State Park who oversees the site, suggested we watch the weather because flooding can close it.

Key regulations are walk-in only; may hunt until 1 p.m., out by 3; no watercraft or off-road vehicles.

“Hunters may hunt anywhere south of Billett Road” is why I applied for a permit.

Randy Smith, wetland wildlife program manager, called it unit hunting, something he studied with other states, particularly Ballard County in Kentucky.

“The take away has consistently been that hunters are more successful when given the freedom to go hunt,” Smith emailed. “Several managers reported nearly doubling success by simply eliminating a `hunt from a blind’ requirement in favor of `hunt units’ that gave hunters some leeway to move around a given area and get under birds or play the wind, while also spreading hunters out, and giving ducks the ability to get away from hunters and continue using the site.”

In Illinois, he noted, “I’m trying to move some of our hunt programs in this direction where it makes sense, as opposed to locking hunters into a single blind. We tried something similar along these lines at Black Crown Marsh, giving hunters a couple hundred yards of shoreline to choose from, as opposed to a single blind or stake that may not be right for the wind or have enough cover.”

I drew a permit for Black Crown in 2019, its opening season, and had a great hunt. There’s a new program at Big Bend State Fish and Wildlife Area with hunters being able to hunt anywhere within larger units.

“I’m constantly looking to expand our hunting opportunities and this is the style I’d mostly like to pursue, it’s popular with hunters (where it works as planned) and is less staff and time intensive,” Smith emailed.

A motion-wing decoy and other decoys at Embarras River Bottoms last week. Credit: Dale Bowman
A motion-wing decoy and other decoys at Embarras River Bottoms last week.
Dale Bowman

Our day came with light cloud cover. We busted a hole in skim ice for the decoy spread and motion-wing decoy. But no ducks came.

I heard a pileated woodpecker, which Rogers glimpsed. A pair of marsh hawks hunted low over wetlands. About 9 a.m., two whooping cranes flew into the wetlands north of us.

As we discussed the whoopers, Rogers spotted a high-flying flock of 18 ducks headed west, I figured to Carlyle Lake.

Just before lunch, we moved to the west-side spot. I heard, then spotted, two dozen high-flying cacklers. That was it for waterfowl.

It was time.

We hiked five miles on the day, had a lifetime sighting, no shooting and a great time.

The scene of daily work by a beaver at the old river channel at Embarras River Bottoms last week. Credit: Dale Bowman
The scene of daily work by a beaver at the old river channel at Embarras River Bottoms last week.
Dale Bowman