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Heartland Outdoors cover November 2017

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Through the Lens

Sheds are Starting to Drop

Wed, January 17, 2018

Sheds are starting to drop in southern Illinois, and I am still amazed by the number of times I see references made on social media and in the various forums about shed hunting in State Parks. This seems to be a terribly confusing thing for folks hunting sheds in Illinois so I reached out to IDNR and asked that they provide a little guidance and explanation about just how and where you can and can’t hunt sheds in IL.

The response was pretty cut and dried and in truth - exactly as I remembered it to be.

“Based upon past DNR legal opinions and state law (20 ILCS 835/6), shed deer antlers are an “inanimate natural object” and may not be collected from any State Park. Similarly, the Natural Areas Preservation Act (525 ILCS 30/23) prohibits the removal of any object (including shed antlers) from any Dedicated Nature Preserve or buffer areas. The public may however collect shed antlers from all other lands managed by the IDNR, including Fish & Wildlife Areas, Conservation Areas, Recreation Areas, and Boat Access Areas, provided the area is otherwise open to the public.”

In a nutshell, nope you can’t shed hunt or remove sheds from State Parks, Dedicated Nature Preserves, or buffer areas in Illinois. Additionally, if you are going to shed hunt on private land, insure that you have permission to shed hunt on that property or you may find yourself facing a trespassing ticket.

Moving on - let’s talk for a minute about finding deadheads, or skulls with antlers - not only do the shed hunting rules apply, but there’s the added part of having to call in to get a salvage tag for that skull. Technically the head should be left in place until you have permission from a CPO to remove it and have been issued a salvage tag.

This all may seem a little over the top, after all they are just shed antlers but as shed hunting continues to grow in popularity so does the number of people heading to the forests and fields in search of them. There are areas where it gets nearly as contentious as mushroom hunting in the spring. Out of towners and non residents show up to run entire groups through areas on the hunt for “Big Illinois Antlers”.  Would it be likely that shed hunting here would become as regulated as it is in some Western states - I seriously doubt it, but as always it behooves all of us to follow the rules that we have, so that we don’t find ourselves facing any that could be more strict or cumbersome - or worse - an unwanted wildlife violation. 

Just like any other hunt of a natural resource on public land, mind you manners, mind the regs, and play nice. Good luck this shed season !

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Winter Wonders at Riverlands

Mon, January 15, 2018

While many of us think only of a warm fire and hot toddy during the dark cold months of winter – I think of big white birds.  Trumpeter and tundra swans, pelicans and of course snow geese. Big white birds, and lots of them!



Perhaps one of my most favorite places in winter is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, MO. Riverlands is just a quick trip across the Lewis and Clark bridge from historic Alton, Illinois.

Given its handiness to historic Aton, Elsah, Grafton and Pere Marquette State Park, I usually encourage folks to make a winter getaway out of visiting Riverlands. There’s so much in the area that you will want to explore, that a single day trip is often not enough!

The jewel in the crown of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is the Audubon Center.

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, The Audubon Center at Riverlands is truly a destination in and of itself.  It’s a destination visited by not just birders, waterfowl lovers, students and families from the Midwest, but also draws visitors from across the nation and the world thanks to Riverlands’ designation as a recognized Global Important Bird Area.

The center is cooperative project between the National Audubon Society and Audubon Missouri, the Center offers world class birding, educational programs, and multiple outdoor opportunities along one of the most major and significant migratory flyways in the world – the Mississippi River.

The Center also has a unique partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rivers Project Office within its Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is comprised of 3700 acres of prairie marsh and forest. The Audubon Center is housed in the Corps’ visitor orientation facility at Riverlands.

Built in 2011, the Audubon Center building tells an important story of renewable building practices, water resource management, and river habitat preservation. Connected to the Corps’ River Project Office the Audubon Center features 45’ diameter gathering space that looks out over Ellis Bay; an indoor classroom; an outdoor classroom; and a large deck area.  This outstanding viewing area allows winter visitors to come inside and warm up, while continuing to watch the waterfowl, eagles, and wildlife along Ellis Bay. It’s furnished with spotting scopes, reference books and guides, and plenty of comfortable seating for just gathering to visit about the day’s adventure and warm up frozen toes and noses.

The two story circular bay windows constructed in an open timber frame was designed to resemble the complexity of a bird’s nest and provide a 140° grand view of the water and the many species of birds and wildlife that live in the surrounding wetlands, forests, and prairie.

What draws me, along with hundreds of other visitors to Riverlands each winter are the ever-growing numbers of trumpeter swans that over winter there. The swans usually begin arriving in late November and peak in late December and early January. Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary along the Mississippi River in St. Charles County, is the single most important wintering site of the southern states with counts of hovering around 1000 as recently as last year. During a recent mid-December visit I made, the numbers were already over 400.

Once hunted to near extinction in the late 1800’s trumpeter swans are making a comeback thanks to multiple restoration efforts in several Midwest states.  From the initial restoration efforts in the mid 90’s when only a very few trumpeters we originally noted and sighted in and around Riverlands and southern Illinois, the numbers continue to grow each year.

While visitors often will first encounter swans when entering the Riverlands Sanctuary at Ellis Bay, Teal Pond, and throughout the Riverlands Way road, the best place to see Trumpeter Swans in the sanctuary is at Heron Pond. Perhaps the most unique feature at Riverlands is The Heron Pond Avian Observatory. The observatory provides outstanding viewing opportunities for swans, all type of waterfowl, as well as many other bird and wildlife species that inhabit the wetland. The unique design of the observatory allows visitors to get a very close look at the birds and wildlife and makes a spectacular blind for photography.  There is nothing quite so soothing as sitting in the observatory listening to the constant conversation and chatter among the swans, ducks, and geese. It’s truly a wonderful place to learn the different sounds of the waterfowl and what the different calls and cries mean.

Adding to the cache of the observatory is its unique design.  Per the Riverlands Audubon Center web site, “The one-of-a-kind observatory was designed and constructed by students of the Washington University School of Architecture for a class that their professor, Andrew Colopy, titled “Studio Confluence.” The purpose of the class was to design, fabricate and build an avian observatory at Riverlands in collaboration with the Audubon Center at Riverlands and the Rivers Project Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Studio Confluence was awarded a grant from the Gephardt Institute at Washington University to engage in a positive process of community-based teaching and learning.  Students’ design research focused on camouflage for enhanced bird viewing as well as innovative, earth-friendly building concepts. “

The best times for viewing the swans are like those of all wildlife – early morning and late afternoon. Trumpeter swans head to farm fields during the day to forage. The best time to see the swans on Heron Pond is in the morning before they go to the farm fields. As the days grow colder and more and more areas of once open water freeze over the swans will tend to congregate in any area of open water and can often be viewed easily from inside the Center while they inhabit Ellis Bay.

When planning your visit, be sure to dress warmly, take along binoculars, a spotting scope if you are so inclined, a good bird field guide, and of course your camera.  Several areas of Riverlands Way road have very wide shoulders that easily accommodate a vehicle so that you may pull over to view and photograph the swans and other waterfowl. There are also multiple parking areas and pull offs for those who wish to park for a longer period. Plant to extend your visit by driving all the way down to the Lock and Dam area where Eagles feeding on fish are common sight, as well as making a quick roughly 4-mile trip to the Edward and Pat Jones Confluence Park, where you can take a short bird and wildlife filled hike out to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

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Plan Now for Sturgeon Spearing Season!

Wed, October 18, 2017

It’s no secret that I have an odd affection – if not outright love for the prehistoric and dinosaur fish. While I can get my ancient fish fix easily enough in warm weather with gar and bowfin – nothing can compare to the lake sturgeon that inhabit Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac, WI.

Sturgeon spearing – especially opening weekend in Fond du Lac is an experience that I wish everyone could experience just once.

It’s all about the sturgeon in Fond du Lac – even if you don’t go out on the ice to try your hand at spearing one of the lake monsters, the entire city is filled to the gills with activities and events that celebrate the great lake sturgeon.

Once upon a time these magnificent fish were in danger of extinction. In the early 1900s, they had all but disappeared from the Great Lakes.  But thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, like Sturgeon for Tomorrow, many volunteers and population management by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), these giant, dinosaur fish currently thrive in Lake Winnebago.

It is thought that the current Lake Winnebago population of the giants includes more than 15,000 adult females and 30,000 adult males. This qualifies Lake Winnebago as the largest, self-sustaining lake sturgeon population in the world. It is also one of only two places in the country where sturgeon can be legally speared. Here, sturgeon-spearing season lasts 16 days on Lake Winnebago, or until the pre-set cap is met, whichever comes first.

Even though sturgeon season doesn’t open until the second weekend in February, it’s imperative that if you want to try your hand at sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago that you obtain your sturgeon tag NOW, make your reservations and seek out a guide NOW.  Sturgeon tags (1 per angler) must be purchased before the deadline of October 31. Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).

What can you expect from your sturgeon trip?
Each year, during the second weekend in February, the sturgeon spearing season brings masses of people to Lake Winnebago. Literally, thousands of ice spearing shanties, campers, trucks and cars cover the frozen expanse of the lake, essentially creating a small city, a “shanty town” if you will as the dark houses are often referred to as “sturgeon shanties”.

The trip out across the ice just before sunrise offers a beautiful and surreal look at this true winter wonderland. Once safely in your shanty the wait for a monster fish to swim by is whiled away listening to local radio shows, enjoying food and drink, and even sometimes grilling out on the ice after spearing hours close.

Although there are similarities, sturgeon spearing is quite different than ice fishing and the equipment is different as well.  A spearing shanty, or dark-house as they are also called, is a little more specialized than an ice fishing shanty. It’s designed for spearing fish rather than using a tip up, line, rod and net. The spearing shanty is designed to be as dark as possible inside and is placed over a large hole cut in the ice.  Since the water on Winnebago is relatively shallow this allows the light to come up through the hole in the ice. Most of the equipment is also handmade with hand-carved wooden decoys that are used to attract sturgeon, handmade spears and a gaff. The exteriors of the shanties are often painted to reflect the spearers personalities and can be quite artistic.

If a spearer is lucky enough to spear a fish, things can get crazy. Once the spear is in the fish, the wooden handle of the spear is detached. Typically, the next thing thrown after the spear, is the chair out the door of the shanty.  Successful spearers need all the room possible inside the shanty to get the sturgeon up and out of the hole. The lucky spearer utilizes a rope that is connected to the spearhead to insure they don’t lose the giant fish.  Once speared, the sturgeon will disappear under the water until it gets tired, and the fisherman is able to drag the fish to the hole. Working as a team, the designated assistant stands by with a gaff hook, which is used to take the fish out of the water. Getting the sturgeon out of the hole, away from the water’s edge and completely out of the shanty as fast as possible s most important. The sturgeon, which can weigh up to 200 pounds, are exceptional fighters. If given the opportunity, sturgeon will violently flap back and forth, until they are back in the water and gone forever.

The sturgeon must be checked in as soon as possible after being speared at the closet check station. Most of the check stations are located at local bars and restraunts and the atmosphere is celebratory when the giant fish begin to roll in. It could be said that sturgeon check in is a bit of spectator sport.  The crowds that gather each day at check stations cheer each incoming fish. Successful spearers stop and visit with total strangers to show off their fish, pose for photos, answer questions. The staff from Wisconsin DNR that man the check stations are generous with their time and knowledge as they sample record and check in the sturgeon each day.

The success rate on Lake Winnebago is about 13 percent, so it is not uncommon for people to go home empty-handed. However, it’s not just about the fish. It’s the experience…. following traditions, creating new rituals and enjoying the camaraderie among family, friends and fellow fishermen.

Even if you don’t elect to go out onto the frozen lake to spear –  a visit to Fond du Lac for opening weekend of sturgeon season is well worth the trip. The city of Fond du Lac goes all out during opening weekend, with multiple events such as the “Sturgeon Spectacular”, bonfires on the ice the night before opening morning, ice kiting and sailing, art shows, music and in general quite the sturgeon related festival!  Not only is the city of Fond du Lac chock full of activities opening weekend, the proximity of Fond du Lac to the amazing Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge makes a visit there a must do for winter bird and wildlife watching. The natural wonders and history of the area are showcased at the Friends of Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center. Be sure to add a visit to the marsh to your travel itinerary.

This is a fascinating winter weekend in Fond du Lac, and unique to the Lake Winnebago Area.  If you are a lover of extreme fishing, traditions, heritage, and lots of dinosaur fish fun – you should start today planning for your trip to Fond du Lac in February. 

The lovely folks at Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitors Bureau will be most helpful in helping you to plan your winter wonder visit to one of the only two places in the world where you can experience the magnificent tradition of spearing sturgeon.

A limited number of shanty rentals are available. Fond du lac area local contacts do offer rentals which typically include scouting the location, ice cut in, ice shanty, spear, gaff hook, decoy & heater plus some sturgeon 101 guidelines for first time spearers.  The Fond Du Lace Area CVB can provide you with an up to date list of locals who offer shanty rental and guide services.

Spearing Rules:
Spearing Dates: The lake sturgeon spearing season begins the second Saturday in February annually and runs for 16 days or until pre-set harvest caps for Lake Winnebago are reached, whichever comes first.
License requirements: Spearers must purchase their license by October 31 to participate in the ensuing spearing season on Lake Winnebago at any WI DNR licensed sales location, through the WI DNR’s website at dnr.wi.gov by clicking on the online license center or by calling toll-free 1-877-WI LICENSE (1-877-945-4236).
Spearing Hours: 7:00am to 1:00pm
Size Limit: Sturgeon must measure 36” or longer
Bag Limit: One lake sturgeon per license
Ice Holes: May not exceed 48 square feet (8’x6’) or (12’x4’); cut ins are allowed 48 hours prior to opening morning of spearing.

Hope to see you in Fond du Lac for sturgeon spearing this year! It’s an experience you will cherish for a lifetime! Winter beauty, fun activities, great food and drink, history, heritage, and more await you in Fond du Lac!

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