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History repeating

PRINCETON, Ill. — The clubhouse of the Princeton Game and Fish Club rises on stilts from the fertile bottomlands between the Illinois River and Bureau Creek. It's a well-appointed but unpretentious structure, standing guard over a row of more than three dozen neatly-spaced johnboats lining a small canal.

Inside, there are signs of life at 5 a.m. A woman strides briskly toward the kitchen while two men in camouflage shirts paw at plates of fried eggs and pancakes on a long table. The inimitable aroma of bacon drifts through the door as it opens to a member and two guests.

Over the next half-hour, a steady procession of duck hunters passes through the door carrying coats and waders that are deposited in corners and against walls. Upon entry, each member of the Princeton Club dutifully signs his name in the club's register.

The joint is hopping by 5:45 a.m. The early arrivals take their empty plates to the kitchen and move from the table to the chairs and sofas that line the walls, making room for the influx of their waterfowling brethren. Several members sit on a stone hearth with their backs to the fireplace. Others mingle in small groups, sipping coffee and talking about ducks.

No fewer than 31 members, many with guests, have filled the clubhouse by 6 a.m. — and it's still 30 minutes until the draw for duck blinds. The temperature in the room has risen noticeably in a matter of minutes, ostensibly the result of so many bodies packed under a single roof. There's palpable electricity in the room as the minute hand on the club's personalized clock slowly ticks toward the bottom of the hour.

The ensemble pulls on boots and hunting coats as the magic time approaches, the impatience building by the second.

At the Princeton Game and Fish Club, it's a scene that has unfolded every duck season for 124 years.

Rules and regulations

The language of duck hunting is full of clichés, chief among them being the recurring assertion that duck hunting is about a lot more than shooting ducks.

Maybe it's trite. But it's a point that's hard to refute, and it's the essence of one of the Mississippi Flyway's oldest duck clubs.

According to the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, the Princeton Game and Fish Club was established in 1884 "to encourage and promote the sports of hunting and fishing and to aid in the enforcement of Illinois' game laws."

Today, the club is an uncommon remnant of waterfowling's past, a living throwback that radiates respect for the sport's time-honored traditions.

The club officially incorporated in 1892, setting strict rules to which current club members loyally adhere today. There's no hunting on Sundays, members may hunt only three of the six open days per week, and members may play host to no more than four guests per duck season.

(Exceptions to the guest rule include no restrictions on female guests and unlimited guest privileges for members' sons and grandsons until they reach 21 years old. The club also has special exemptions for "club guests," such as the ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek crew, who were considered guests of the entire club, rather than a single member.)

"We've got a lot of pride in it," said Princeton Club Vice President Frank Cattani of Ladd, Ill., a 10-year member who played host to the Duck Trek this week. "There's a lot of history we're trying to honor."

There are stringent restrictions on membership, too. The club is limited to 50 members, and eligibility is restricted to residents of Bureau County, Ill. The latter rule, according to several Princeton members, prevents "big money from Chicago from buying up shares and running out the locals who've always hunted here."

"Back during the Depression, someone from the Wrigley family — that's Wrigley as in the chewing gum and the baseball field — came down and offered $1 million to buy the club," said Dave Castner of Princeton, Ill., a past club president and 24-year member. "They were trying to capitalize on the hard times everybody was going through. But the members wouldn't sell."

It's still no small task to ink your name on the roster of this venerable institution.

"The last few years, you've pretty much had to wait on somebody to pass away," Castner said.

Some members have gone as far as bequeathing a membership to a child or grandchild. But there are still no guarantees, according to 31-year member Gary Rieker, 65, of Princeton, Ill.

"You still have to be voted on by the membership," Rieker said. "It's not a slam dunk by any means."

Membership, as the credit card commercial used to say, has its privileges. There's the obvious benefit of having a good place to hunt, as the result of well-managed waterfowl habitat and the additional advantage of restricted access to keep away competition.

And though it's mind-boggling to consider the countless ducks that have fallen to Princeton members' gun over the last 124 years, perhaps the greatest value is the friendships and common bonds with other members.

"We've seen some great times," Rieker said. "Seeing all the members come in here for breakfast like this, talking about duck hunting — you can't beat it. It's the camaraderie. That's the whole thing." [NEXT PAGE]

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