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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
History repeating

By Trey Reid
Special to

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Blind ambition

Princeton hunts start at the clubhouse breakfast table, where "Mother" Betsy Morgan and her adult daughters, Vicki Chamness and Tammy Schlosser, serve up cooked-to-order eggs, bacon, pancakes and whole-wheat toast. Morgan has been a fixture at the club for 73 years. Her father Harvey Lester was the club's caretaker for decades, bringing his young daughter to the club for the first time when she was 9 months old.

The clubhouse itself is a new addition. The club built it two years ago, after selling its old clubhouse, which sat on property with an expired lease. Despite the apparent contradiction of a new clubhouse for such an old duck club, mementos of the past are everywhere, lending a traditional quality to the otherwise new digs.

Photo gallery
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Pictures from the 1930s hang on a back wall alongside a discolored State of Illinois Hunting Club License dated Sept. 9, 1925. A clock the size of a pizza pan reads "PGFC — 1884" and hangs above a chalkboard with painted numbers where the daily 6:30 a.m. draw for blinds is recorded.

But the linchpin of the new clubhouse is the worn wooden box on a tilted axis from which daily duck blind assignments are drawn. The handmade box — complete with a set of numbered wooden pills — dates to the club's earliest days.

For well over a century, club members have drawn blind assignments the same way: One by one, approaching the box, dropping in the wooden pills, turning the box over and over, and pulling out the grape-sized numbers, lottery-style, to determine the position for each day's blind selection.

Duck Trek photographer James Overstreet did the honors for the Duck Trek crew's hunt with Frank Cattani and Dave Castner on Monday.

"We always draw last or pretty damn close to it," Cattani said. "Maybe this will change our luck."

"Mother" Betsy Morgan pulled pill No. 25 on the third draw. After a brief consultation, Cattani and Castner selected blind No. 17, and Overstreet was promptly invited back for a hunt next season.

Hallowed hunting grounds

The Princeton Game and Fish Club shooting grounds are situated in rural Bureau County, Ill., not far from where the Illinois River makes a hard left turn on its path toward the Mighty Mississippi. The club is about a two-hour drive west of Chicago, but it's light years from the Windy City in terms of natural beauty. It served as a respite and source of inspiration for wildlife artist William Schmedtgen, a respected Chicago newspaper illustrator in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who escaped the stresses of city life and the newspaper business by retreating to the Princeton Club and painting the area's abundant waterfowl.

The club owns roughly 2,000 acres of woods, fields and natural wetlands in the bottoms between the Illinois River to the east and Bureau Creek to the west, much of which the club floods for duck season. A system of canals and ditches links hunting areas and provides access from the clubhouse.

"We hunt maybe 30 percent of it," Castner said. "A lot of it is rest area for the birds."

Castner slid his boat down the canal bank in front of the clubhouse, fired up the motor, and headed south into the heart of the shooting grounds as Cattani followed in his boat.

Soon, the boats approached a bottleneck in the canal where several boats waited in line.

"We have to go through a pull-over," Castner said. "It's not too bad, though."

The "pull-over" was a chute linking one pool of flooded habitat to another pool with a water level about 3 feet lower than the upper pool. A platform on one side of the chute allowed hunters to step out of the boat and pull the boat through the chute, while a metal frame served as a guide for boats, as well as the source of a pulley system used to lift boats to the upper pool on the return trip. It's a novel contraption, and one that has been in use at the Princeton Club for decades. It looked a lot like a small-scale version of an amusement park log-flume ride.

While Castner disembarked to pass through the pull-over, Cattani forged ahead with a burst of speed, sliding down the metal chute and splashing down in the lower pool.

"This is what we call an Illinois boat ride," Cattani said.

Safely on the other side, the boats twisted through a series of canals linking open-water hunting holes to timber holes. They throttled back and stopped the boats in a hole roughly 60 yards in diameter with standing timber all around it.

Castner deployed a mixed bag of about two dozen decoys — mallards, teal and pintails — in knee-deep water on one side of the blind, and Cattani placed a spread of mallard blocks on the opposite side. They climbed into a wooden blind concealed with natural vegetation, such as tree limbs and brush and waited. It was well past 7 a.m.

There are strict time constraints for the club's hunts. Though times change throughout the season based on daylight hours, hunting typically begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at either 1:30 p.m. or 3 p.m.

"It was 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 100-plus years," Castner said. "Now it's 6:30 a.m. with a staggered quitting time. We don't hunt the first hour of the day or the last hour of the day, and we don't hunt on Sundays. Quite a few of our neighbors don't subscribe to that theory, so that shows you that it's a testament to the fact that it's not just about killing ducks for us."

Several factors have been working against the Princeton Club this season. Corn and milo crops the club planted were washed away by record flooding in the area earlier this fall. Bureau Creek blew out one of the club's levees, and the Illinois River's surge didn't help matters. Blinds were knocked off their moorings and had to be re-brushed prior to the season. Boat lanes and canals filled with debris washed downstream by raging waters.

"Three weeks before the season opened, water was over the top of this blind," Castner said. "It's been a scramble just to get everything ready."

The weather was working against the hunters on Monday morning. A forecast for 25-30 mph winds and sunshine didn't materialize. Cloudy skies reined for the first three hours of hunting, with heavy snow flurries blowing in on a mild northwest wind. Few ducks appeared overhead, and those that did seemed disinclined to pay the hole a visit.

"We really could use some sun," Cattani said.

Shortly before 10 a.m., the wind stiffened slightly, and the clouds blew off to the southeast, giving way to a bluebird sky. Almost on cue, three northern shovelers slipped through trees on the right end of the blind and sailed into the hole, two of them falling to the guns.

It was the last action for two hours. Several small groups of ducks showed signs of working into the hole, but each time, they flared off of distant shots or high-tailed it for parts unknown. A few larger groups landed several hundred yards behind the blind, where rafts of real ducks seemed to be pulling birds away from the phony set in front of the blind.

Stories of past trips and brief histories of the Princeton Club melted away the time. Cattani and Castner also killed time and planned strategy with frequent cell phone calls to members in other blinds. Castner was in the middle of one such call when a pair of green-winged teal set their wings from 200 hundred yards in front of the blind and zipped into the hole like tiny fighter jets in the blink of an eye. Both fell to single shots.

"Good shootin'," Cattani said.

Good thing, too. Opportunities were few and far between.

An hour later — just as Cattani and Castner were unloading guns and calling it a day — a drake wood duck buzzed the hole as Cattani was ejecting the shells from his shotgun. Fortunately for the hunting party, Cattani still had a shell in the gun as the flamboyantly dressed woody crossed above the blind. Cattani's well-placed shot ended the day on a high note.

"That's not a bad way to end it," Castner said. "Too bad I didn't have any shells left in my gun, though."

The hunters picked up their decoys, loaded into the boats, and zipped through the flooded shooting grounds back toward the clubhouse. Reaching the pull-over, Castner stepped out of the boat and showed how the device got its name. He unwound a rope from a skinny drum and attached a hooked end to his boat's bow. Walking over to a hand crank, he spun the drum until the boat ascended the sloped chute into the higher pool.

"Now you know why we call it a pull-over," Castner said.

Back at the boat landing in front of the clubhouse, Cattani and Castner replayed the day's hunt, second-guessing their choice of blinds and wondering what they could've done differently. Similar conversations take place among duck hunters everywhere, and no doubt these two hunters have had them before and they'll have them again.

It's part of the tradition of waterfowl hunting, and at the Princeton Game and Fish Club, traditions live long and die hard.

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