Waterfowl Hunting at Emiquon and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuges

girl hunting

A quick introduction to waterfowl hunting on the refuge. Photo by Chuck Traxler/USFWS.


 Fall hunting season is upon us! Though the world feels a lot different now after a difficult year, the ducks have yet to miss a migration south, and their brief stopover at Chautauqua and Emiquon should be as promising as any in recent memory. A dry summer throughout Central Illinois as lead to a sea of lush vegetation in the floodplain. The river bottom is full of mature millet, sedges, and grasses; a buffet to our feathery friends. I don't hunt as much as I used to, but this season may be too good to pass up. If you, too, are looking to bring home some fresh wild game, or perhaps just to enjoy some quality time with nature, I have a few tips to help you get started at Emiquon and Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuges. 


Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge

First, some regulations. Hunting waterfowl is allowed in accordance with Illinois state and refuge hunting regulations in the Liverpool Lake Public Hunting Area of the Refuge. The hunting area is shaded on the Chautauqua Regulations and Map.  This hunting area is only accessible by boat; the two closest public boat ramps are located at Liverpool and Havana. You may only enter the hunting area one hour before sunrise, and you must exit the area one-half hour after sunset. Keep an eye out for signs that say "No Hunting Zone" or "Wildlife Sanctuary." These signs mark where you cannot enter, even to chase a downed bird. 

Portable blinds are allowed, but all evidence of your hunt must be removed at the end of the day, including decoys and spent shells. Please do not cut willows in the hunting area or elsewhere on the refuge to use for a temporary blind. Approved non-toxic shot must be used. 

When you boat into the hunting area, you'll notice a large levee that surrounds both the North and South Pool of Chautauqua. On the outside of the levee is a deep ditch referred to as Liverpool Ditch. We allow hunters to use this ditch to boat into their desired hunting spot, but keep in mind that you must travel at no-wake speed. The hunting area is to the west of the ditch. I recommend scouting the area in the daylight before your hunt. There are a few spots where the trees open up a bit, leaving perfect little pockets for hunting. The water depth is highly variable depending on the river, however, so make sure your decoys strings are the right length. 

Waterfowl hunting at Chautauqua can be a little challenging. If there are a lot of ducks on the South Pool, you'll be competing with live birds for the flocks coming down river. From my experience, a stand-out duck caller can still pull a few groups away. I've also noticed, and from talking to local hunters, that less can be more when it comes to decoys.  The ducks tend to shy away from the big decoy spreads when the real thing is just on the other side of the levee. I'm still a fan of robo ducks, however, especially if you can rig them to a switch and turn them off when the ducks are making their last pass. Every day and every hunt is different! Try out a few techniques to see what works well.

Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge

The regulations at Emiquon are a little different. First off, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge is a separate entity from The Nature Conservancy's Emiquon Preserve. The Emiquon Preserve is the large lake (Thompson Lake) on the east side of highway 97/78. The Nature Conservancy usually offers public waterfowl hunting through a draw, but they will not be this year. You can contact them at 309-547-2730.

At Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, there are three tracts of land open to hunting in accordance with refuge and Illinois state regulations: Wilder, Oxbow, and Forgotten Road. These hunting areas are shaded on the Emiquon Regulations and Map. Access for hunting is allowed from one hour before legal shooting time to one hour after sunset. Note that these times are different than at Chautauqua. All hunting aids, such as blinds and decoys, must be removed at the end of each day's hunt. Non-toxic shot must be used while hunting waterfowl. 

Because of some difficulties last year, staging in parking lots will not be allowed at any Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge unit. By this, we mean that you will not be allowed to arrive at the parking lots or entrance roads prior to the opening of the refuge. Hunters can only arrive at and enter the refuge one hour before legal shooting time. We encourage you to coordinate with your fellow hunters prior to walking into the refuge so everyone can have a safe, quality hunt. Be respectful and honest, and try to keep at least 200 yards between you and other hunting parties. 

The Wilder Tract and the Oxbow Area are seasonally flooded during periods of high water on the Illinois River. High water from the Illinois River flows into the Oxbow. As the Oxbow fills, water can enter Wilder through a series of water-control structures and spillways. These tracts are only flooded as the opportunity presents itself, mimicking the historic flood cycle from centuries ago. A map of the water levels in Wilder can be seen on the Wilder Water Level Map. When Wilder is flooded during waterfowl season, the hunting can be fantastic. You'll likely have some company out there, but at 500 acres, there's plenty of area for a good handful of parties. Most of the unit is moist-soil vegetation (duck food), with a scattering of willows, oaks, and buttonbush. When it is not flooded, there can still be standing water in a few spots. Wilder has a system of sloughs and potholes that are at a low enough elevation to hold water after a heavy rain. During a dry fall with low river levels, however, there is almost no water to hunt.

Oxbow has a similar water regime to Wilder. Depending on the river level, there can be plenty of water to hunt, or it can be bone dry. The Oxbow area is exactly what the name suggests: a series of cut-off oxbow lakes of the Spoon River. These small lakes are surrounded by tall maple trees with the occasional oak. It feels a lot like hunting timber when the water is high. Though the Oxbow will have its good days, it is mostly a pass-shooting experience. The best hunting spots are a 200-yards walk from the parking lot. If the water is high enough, access is very easy from the Illinois River if you put your boat in at Havana. Boats are allowed in all three Emiquon hunting units, but there are no boat ramps, and you must travel at no-wake speed. You can use a levee or a dike to put a boat in the water as long as you don't cause any damage, but I don't recommend it. A flat-bottom boat that you can carry to the water works the best. Again, always scout beforehand, so you are not fumbling around in the dark of the morning. 

Last is Forgotten Road. Fittingly, most people forget about this place for waterfowl hunting, usually because it is high and dry. Every few seasons, however, the Spoon River will flood and inundate the Forgotten Road Tract. This is the best hunting Emiquon has to offer. We've had hunters, including our staff, tell tales of mighty groups of mallards decoying into the tiny pockets among the cottonwood trees. Though I have yet to see it for myself, there are too many stories to ignore. If you get the chance, take a bumpy ride down forgotten road when the Spoon is over its banks, and you might just have the hunt of your life. 

Be a Conservationist

It is because of the combined conservation efforts of waterfowl hunters and wildlife enthusiasts that these hunting opportunities exist. Among the thousands of bird species that have been in steady decline for decades, waterfowl are not one; proof that focused efforts of conservation do work. We must continue this struggle to save our wild outdoors, and extend our focus to all fish and wildlife. With your help, we can secure a future for all wild things and reconnect with nature as conservationists.