Cairo Days Of My Youth
by: Tom Armbrust
In 1966, my freshman year of high school, we had a very good library holding a multitude of books and magazines dealing with outdoor sports like hunting and fishing. A good friend of mine, Arnie Schmidt, and I spent much of our free time reading all we could get our hands on regarding goose and duck hunting tales. Then in Outdoor Life there was a great "how to" goose hunting article dealing with the southern Illinois Canada goose "Quota Zone". I really got wound up after reading that article, as I had yet to harvest a goose. This was an early time in my hunting career. Yet, I was a confirmed duck and China bird hunter spending many wonderful hours with my father in the marsh or in the field.
Now my thoughts turned to making a trip to southern Illinois the following fall, having my drivers' license by the next July. But I needed to find a job to start saving money for a car. Believe it or not my younger brother, Mike, got me a job with him on Hogan's farm, milking cows, baling hay and various other farm chores.
That summer I started growing up buying my first car from the money I earned on the farm. I got my drivers license in July 1967. It was a 1956 Chevy Bel Air four door with a two-tone paint job, a white roof and light green body. The old girl had a bad transmission and the 283 V8 used some oil. A good high school buddy, Chuck Romano that had just moved out from Chicago to our neck of the woods, helped me work on my car with an old hired man on the farm, Paul Zink. We hung a chain hoist on a huge oak tree limb on the farm, then unbolting the transmission from the bell housing, lifting it out. Next the engine had the piston rings and valves replaced. This automotive work was a great learning experience, a real "hands on" endeavor. Our power mechanics teacher, Mr. Roseo, was proud of our work on this car project. Now that old jalopy was running well.
I started thinking about my road trip to southern Illinois again. But somehow a young woman caught my eye later that summer and all of a sudden my road trip was put on hold till the following year right after Christmas. Much to my surprise that Christmas my father got me a brand new 12 GA Remington 870 Magnum 30 inch full choke smoke pole. This was a big step in the right direction from my 16 GA H & R Toper single shot towards the ultimate goose gun. Yet, I had already harvested dozens of mallards, China birds and rabbits with the 16 GA single, but as yet no honkers.
Another fall had rolled around and now our plans started into full swing planning our trek, 413 miles south to Cairo, Illinois. Our date was set for the day after Christmas 1968. As the days got closer, the excitement was really starting to rise in us. Winters back then could come as early as Thanksgiving, bringing plenty of snow, and ice covered marshes and lakes. With their food covered up by snow and roosting water areas covered over by ice, thousands of Canada geese and mallards started their annual migration from Horicon Marsh in south central Wisconsin to southern Illinois. This area in Illinois was known as the "Quota Zone" including Williamson, Union, Alexander and Jackson counties. Many goose hunting clubs resided in this area plus state and federal waterfowl refuges. The state refuges were Horseshoe Lake, 13 miles north of Cairo, Illinois; and Union County was about 21 miles north near Reynoldsville. The federal refuge Crab Orchard Lake lies right in between Marion and Carbondale about 50 miles north of Cairo. Horseshoe Lake, the state run area comprised of 10,300 acres, was where we were going to hunt for geese.
With our departure around the corner, our final preparations to the car such as an oil change and tune up were taken care of. Then the four of us got our hunting gear ready for inventory and packing. We had four shotguns plus enough ammo to hold off an army for some time, each person a pair of hip boots and leather hiking boots, heavy hunting jackets and pants, rain ponchos, sweaters, long Johns and extra blue jeans. If this load was not enough, we also had three dozen Johnson folding goose decoys and a dozen duck decoys. My father commented "We had more gear than his squad had on the D-Day landing." For the life of me I still do not know how we loaded all that hunting gear into the trunk of the 56 Chevy. My buddy, Chuck, suggested load levelers for the rear shocks to even out the oversize load.
My mother was worried about my younger brother, Mike's, first trip far away from home, as he was just 13. But my father eased her worries by telling her it will be a great adventure for the boys and Tom would keep a good eye on his younger brother.
Next morning, well before sunup, we were on the road. Interstate 57 south of Chicago was in various stages of construction. Therefore, most of our trip south was on state Route 51. After what seemed like many miles on the road we finally stopped for a late lunch and to fill up with gas in Pana. We had seen our first small oil well pumps. I think called "Grasshoppers" north of there in Macon. So far the trip had been endless miles of cornfields and a number of small farming communities along the way. The passing country was for the most part flat with stands of oak woods here and there. We found a nice little "mom and pop diner" and had a great meal, really putting down plenty of food. The waitress asked us where we were from, as she realized we were not from the area by our lack of southern accents. We joked about these people talking funny with a southern drawl. Much to our dismay, when we came out of the café, I noticed the car had a flat tire on the rear end. First we had to unload most of our gear to get to the jack and spare tire under our huge pile of gear. Arnie was strong as an ox so he volunteered to jack up the car. Then the tire was taken to a local gas station so the tube could be patched and the nail removed from the tire. The fellow working on the tire seemed to be as slow as molasses. I guess this was because we were so anxious to get on the road again towards our destination. That mishap set us back at least a couple of hours! Further south, near the small town of Patoka we spotted many mallards and geese both in the air and feeding in the harvested cornfields. Little did we know that we were just east of huge Lake Carlyle, attracting many migrating waterfowl into this area. I guess we did not realize at that time the large numbers of birds on their migration flight through southern Illinois. After watching this great spectacle of birds for a good hour or more we were again on our way, as it started a light snow. Rend Lake, just east of Du Quoin, also attracted big numbers of Canada geese. Just south of Carbondale, the big college town, we entered the northern edge of the Shawnee National Forest. This was very beautiful country with high forested hills and deep valleys with many streams. We had no idea southern Illinois had that vast great outdoor area for the sportsman to enjoy, a total of 261,357 acres. We saw our first flock of wild turkeys near the little community of Ullin. This was the first time I had ever seen turkeys in my home state before.
Not too long before dusk we filled up with gas in Mounds. We were hoping to find a place to stay overnight in this area, being just eight miles east of the Horseshoe Lake State Hunting Grounds, but no such luck. Yet we did get to view the Mounds City National Cemetery. Many both northern and southern Civil War soldiers are buried here, as there was a field hospital set up near Cairo during the Civil War. My imagination ran wild viewing all those stone white crosses in perfect rows, thinking those brave men had heard the rumble of cannons, the clash of sabers and the agonizing screams of fallen friends in this bygone war between our country! Somehow in my history book in school depicting the Civil War it never seemed so real as right then in my mind!
From Anna south towards Cairo I became aware of all the tiny little communities along the way having problems with some forms of poverty. Some of the houses looked in need of repairs such as broken windows, in need of paint, etc. Also some children did not look properly dressed for the cold. Well after dark we motored into Cairo where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers come together. After dinner at a local greasy spoon we checked into the Morse Motel in downtown Cairo. We told the "heavy set colored woman" at the desk to give us a wake up call at 3:30 a.m. She kindly told us, "If you boys want to be up at that ungodly hour you all better set an alarm, as I don't roll out till seven." If my memory serves me right our rooms were 15 bucks a night for two double beds in a room and none too plush accommodations, let me tell you. My younger brother, Mike, was a little uneasy about his first night this far away from home, so I told him we would bunk together. When we both hopped into bed, our fannies about touched the floor. The bed springs must have been shot. Arnie could not help poking fun at my brother, saying, "Beef" your fat butt almost broke the bed." I replied, "What do you want for a room for fifteen bucks." Sleep was kind of restless that night, as my mind kept thinking about our big goose hunt the next morning. We didn't want to oversleep so the double banger alarm clock was set for 3:30 a.m. It seemed like my head hardly hit the pillow when the alarm broke my deep sleep. Was very surprised we got dressed so fast, but I think we all had the same thing on our minds, GEESE. We gulped down a cup of coffee and a stale donut, and we were off.
Firing up the Chevy I asked everyone if their guns and essentials were in the car. Heading north on state Route 3 I told Arnie to keep his eyes peeled for our left turn into the Horseshoe Lake state hunting grounds. This area was totally unfamiliar and it was still black as night. We had not seen another soul on the road since we left the outskirts of Cairo. Much to our relief Arnie caught a glimpse of the sign in the headlights pointing towards Horseshoe Lake. Check in time was 5 a.m. so we had plenty of time, it was about 4:30. After checking in my brother had to use the out house, and Arnie locked the door from the outside so he could not get out. Within a few minutes Mike started pounding on the door from the inside, yelling "let me out". Boys will be boys. A few of the other hunters had headed back to their cars and trucks to get a little more shut eye before they went to their blinds. Arnie started blowing on his goose call, much to the dismay of two other hunters resting in a nearby truck. They hollered at us, "Pipe down you kids!"
At 5:00 a.m. sharp all the hunters assembled into the headquarter's area building to draw for a blind. Horseshoe Lake had fifty blinds and pits holding up to 100 hunters which was full capacity. Each pair of hunters picked a number out of a big bowl. This number was your blind or pit number for that mornings hunt. This seemed like a very fair system, giving all hunters the same luck of the draw. After your blind number was picked, a yellow light bulb up on the wall was switched on, showing where your blind number was located on the hunting club grounds map.
A few simple rules and regulations were given a once over by the Horseshoe Lake staff. One old boy short and heavy set, Gene Ferris, in bibbed overalls with a mouthful of chew, kind of a character with that Southern drawl, would start in with the rules. All pumps and semi autos must be plugged to three shots. No more than ten shells per hunter and no buckshot. This will cut down "Sky Bustin" cause if you boys belt feed at those sky scraping geese, you will soon be out of ammo. No liquor taken out to the blinds. If you have any, leave it with me. I'll take good care of it and let you know if it's any good." We all had a good laugh at that one.
Arnie and I kind of played a dirty trick on my brother. He was paired off with a complete stranger, an older gentleman with a wooden leg. Little did we know that my brother had drawn the governor's pit, closest to the lake and roosting geese. The best blind in the whole place. No wonder that stranger was so darn eager to buddy up with little brother. More on that later. Arnie and I drew a box blind that was darn near state Highway 3, a mile west of the refuge.
Next we were loaded onto hay wagons pulled by John Deer tractors out to the various blinds about a half hour before sunrise. We were one of the last pair of goose hunters to be dropped off. The fellow on the tractor pointed towards our blind which was at least three hundred yards west of the muddy road. Each one of us was carrying a dozen silhouette decoys, plus our guns, shells, and grub. Part of the harvested corn field was flooded and the long walk through the gumbo mud was a struggle to say the least. After we arrived at the blind, we grabbed some nearby grass and more corn stalks to better cover our blind which was in pretty sorry shape. Then we rearranged the dozen full bodied decoys and added our profiles hoping to add some life to the spread. Policing the area I picked up some empty shells and a couple of pop cans. The honking of the thousands of geese seemed to grow in intensity till it was almost unbelievable. I said to Arnie, "Can you believe all this goose racket?" We still had maybe ten more minutes till shooting time, yet I was so excited I loaded my Remington 870 Magnum with Winchester "Super-X" 3 inch 1-5/8 oz Size 2 lead shot. Arnie was shooting a 12 GA Magnum Spanish side by side with 30 inch full choke barrels, loaded with Alcan "Magnamax" 2-3/4 mags, 1-1/2 oz Lead 2 shot. My heart was pounding so fast with excitement I thought it would fly out of my chest. The old John Deere tractor, after dropping off the last two hunters, was heading back past our area just as a large flock of honkers lifted off the refuge lake. They climbed higher and higher due to the barrage of shots coming from the blinds ahead of our position. A glance at my watch said two minutes to go, and yet a number of geese had already been knocked down. Nine birds broke away from a very large flock and came over our blind, yet they seemed a long way up. Arnie jumped into action firing a double discharge. Not to be outgunned I went into action giving the lead bird plenty of follow through, and much to my amazement the third bird in the flock fell stone dead. Arnie and I were on the dead run to claim our prizes; two beautiful Canada's our first geese! After I calmed down I told Arnie I had just shot once when I saw the bird fold up. Why the heck did I not shoot my other two rounds! We both went and sat in the blind, looking at these massive birds. This was really a surprise after shooting ducks. They simply dwarfed mallards. Now the action had slowed down and just a few geese were on the move with a few scattered shots from other blinds. After a long wait Arnie was getting hungry so he opened a package of Christmas cookies his mother had baked. We both polished off a half dozen cookies each in short order and did they hit the spot. Our blind was about 150 yards from a tall timbered wood lot. Two doe deer and a yearling came out of the woods and started feeding in the cornfield not 100 yards from us. Arnie started calling on his OLT A-50 goose call and all of a sudden three geese answered in the distance above the timber. Then I started in with goose clamor also. One of the birds pulled away from the other two heading our way, passing wide of another pit after a couple of shots rang out. On the bird came honking his fool head off passing over Arnie's side of the blind, low but at least 50 yards out. I told Arnie to take em as he might not make a second pass. Hit hard by the second shot the goose glided at least 200 yards away from us not far from another blind. Having to slosh through knee deep water and mud for most of the way was no fun. Finally when I had closed the distance to within 50 yards, the bird ducked into some brush near the road ditch filled with water. Kneeling down on my knees to put the grab on my quarry I slipped into the ditch getting water in one hip boot. Yet with the help of another hunter's lab we had our third goose. By now the overcast skies and snow flurries had cleared away and the sun was coming out. Time started to drag along and Arnie was getting itchy to go back for lunch. The state grounds closed goose hunting at noon, so I talked Arnie into one more hour till then. The tractor with the wagon had made a third pass picking up hunters who wanted to go in. Within a few minutes of the tractor passing, a nice flock of ten geese were coming from the east. If the pay club on the west side of the road did not shoot, I may get my chance. Arnie and I started on our honker calls with the birds approaching closer, then three geese came towards the decoys. Raising my 870 and shooting twice, my second honker folded up dead on the outer edge of the decoys. Somehow it did not seem real, on our first goose hunt away from home we had both limited out. We both felt like a million bucks, as we took our birds out towards the road waiting to be picked up. In a short time the tractor hauled us back to the headquarters.
When we checked back in, the heavy set gent in the bibbed overalls who was sort of running the show said, "You boys were shooting at those geese way too tall but seeing is believing as you killed your two birds, but I'd let em come in." That morning thirty six geese had been harvested on Horseshoe Lake so we did all right. My younger brother, Mike, for his efforts had harvested one greenhead and his partner, the older man with the wooden leg, bagged two geese. Mike told us that there were so many geese and ducks around their pit it was unreal. The older gent wanted the birds right down into the decoys or they would not shoot. My brother was frustrated with his lack of experience, shooting his ten shells in his 20 GA single in short order. The game warden checked on them as my brother sailed a goose into the timber. I guess later the warden got a lab and found the crippled bird. Boy was my brother excited when the warden found and brought back his goose. He even gave him five more 20 GA shells that he had taken from other hunters with too many shells over their ten shell limit. My brother told me at first he thought he was in trouble for crippling the goose when the warden brought it back to their pit. Yet the warden was very much surprised at him being just 13 years old with his little 20 GA goose gun, telling him, "good job son". Little brother was beaming from ear to ear.
It was now well after lunch and we could have eaten a horse. Just down the road was the famous "Goose Pit" eatery. The menu had strange southern dishes on it that we were not familiar with. Such as grits, hush puppies, collard greens, black eyed peas, all types of gumbo, hog jowls, fat back, etc. With a cute smile the waitress talked us into the home made barbecue and a bowl of duck gumbo. A couple of helpings came easy as we very much enjoyed this delicious southern cooking.
After lunch we took a ride around Horseshoe Lake to get a better idea how the state grounds and goose refuge were laid out. Geese seemed to be everywhere on and around the lake drive. I think the goose count that week was sixty six thousand birds on the refuge. Many different species of ducks were also viewed on the lake, in fact more than a few that we had never seen before. A rare treat was to also notice some snow and blue geese mixed in with the Canada's. Well it was now past three o'clock so goose hunting was shut down for the day.
Back to Cairo to the motel to change into some dry clothes and take a nap. The long trip and all the outdoor activity even had us young bucks kind of tuckered out. After a good snooze we went to dinner where we overheard a very interesting conversation. A state trooper sat right next to us. He and another officer were talking about the earlier problems in Cairo after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Apparently the Klu Klux Klan sent up some people to add fuel to the fire, as some rioting and looting went on in Cairo. The National Guard was sent in to keep peace and an after dark curfew was put in place as a number of people were shot at. This must have been a terrifying experience to the local people in town, as a few made it awful for the rest. I can not imagine living in fear like that afraid to leave your home after dark! The assassination of President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King was a very sad time in our nation that affected millions of people from all walks of life! Those police officers warned us not to be out after dark. Even though I did not admit this to my brother or Arnie, that talk kind of scared me. The next afternoon we checked out the front of the Alexander County Court House and noticed the pock marks from bullet strikes in the front concrete wall of the building!
That night I think I slept with one eye open after hearing about all those earlier problems in town. Next morning we did not have to get up so early. No check in time was required at our pass shooting area. We were shooting the "Firing Line" on the west side of Highway 3. This gave us time for breakfast at the "Goose Pit" well before sunrise. Again we ate our fill of bacon and eggs, pancakes, hash browns, ham and gravy with Johnny cake and biscuits. It was a feast fit for a king.
Since this was our first trip and we did not know this hunting area, we chose the "Firing Line" as many geese passed over that spot the morning before. Plus the fact that this was a free shooting spot provided by the state, and the neighboring hunting clubs had a fee of at least twenty-five bucks per man. That was big money for kids in high school with limited funds. I believe at that time Horseshoe Lake's fee was ten dollars per blind. It was just getting light when we parked the car and started walking down the old abandoned railroad grade. Timber here in the river bottom was tall, some trees reaching up sixty feet. There was a sign in box at the start of the trail requiring the species and number of geese harvested if your hunt had been successful. In this way the state could keep close tabs on the total number of geese harvested in the "Quota Zone". That morning was real slow, the weather was too nice. My father would have called it a "Bluebird day", no wind and bright sun. Very few geese were on the move with only a handful of shots in the area. But being kids we figured our luck would change. Patience finally paid off with a second passing flight of geese. Before the birds crossed from the east side of the road, a neighboring hunt club sounded like a anti aircraft barrage as the flight climbed for altitude. When they reached us at what seemed like an impossible height, the three of us cut loose almost in unison. Low and behold one honker fell dead like a stone and another sailed into the tall timber, a good distance. Now I was very much wishing we would have brought our lab "Blackie". I told my brother I had a mark on the goose near a cypress tree towards the refuge boundary. Once in the timber it all pretty much looked the same, yet I kept up the search. Thinking the bird had sailed maybe 150 yards further. Something made me push on even though I had to cross a creek that was over my hip boots, and I got soaked. At least a half hour had passed as I now skirted the refuge boundary but still no luck. Then I heard a muffled shot south of me. Disappointed, I started walking that way so I did not have to wade through the creek twice. Having not gone fifty yards, there was the goose. Walking back towards the road I met a young boy hunting with his grandfather. This lad was about ten years old with a bolt action .410 shotgun. They were rabbit hunting along the railroad grade when a pair of honkers came over them. The boy shot, also sailing a goose into the timber. Telling the kid I saw him shoot that goose and I went after it. I handed over the bird. That goose darn near looked as big as the young lad! When I got back I told my brother and Arnie I never found that goose.
Not too many years later my good friend "Reb", from McCrory, Arkansas who showed me a number of great duck hunts in both rice fields and flooded timber in his home state, shot geese with me on this same "Firing Line". Was a foggy morning but we harvested our birds rather quickly. He pulled off a shot that really sticks in my mind. Dropping a honker that fell into the top of a tall tree branch which acted like a spear through the breast, holding his bird forty feet above the ground. Finally, after blasting a half dozen or more goose loads into that branch, the bird shot finally sawed the limb off and Reb's prize fell to the ground. Strange but true!
Heading back to the car we flushed a covey of Bob white quail. My goose loads were all around the birds never drawing a feather. After a drive around Horseshoe Lake we dropped off the goose at the picking shed. This was an interesting place. An old building with many burlap bags of goose down feathers on the front porch. A man with a strong southern accent had you fill out a ticket, your name, address, hunting license number and species and number of birds. Then your goose was held against a revolving drum with hard rubber knobs about an inch tall pulling off the majority of the feathers and down. Then on over to a wooden chopping block where the wings, feet, and head were loped off with a hatchet. Next the body was picked clean of pin feathers, gutted and rinsed clean in hot water. Fine down feathers were floating all over the inside of the old building. Price was $1.25 per bird.
Then back to Cairo for some lunch and to check out town. It is still amazing to me how well I can remember Metheney's Market on Commercial Street right near the Ohio River levee. It has been 41 years since I first walked through that mercantile's door. It was a typical old three story building with a tall flat front. When you entered it was like being transported back in time at least 75 years. The first floor was long and somewhat narrow with rows of shelves on every wall, holding canned goods of food, hardware items such as screws, nuts and bolts, and some hunting clothes on hangers. When you entered on the right side of the room was a refrigerated meat case with a glass front section, with shelves holding various meats and cheeses. If you wanted a cold meat sandwich, Ray or his wife would slice off the meat, weigh it and make you a bite to eat. What really caught my eye was a number of young children and older people who would come in and purchase some food and a few other items. They then would write something in a little book that Mr. Metheney would sign. I found out later that some of these people were poor and the store items were put on a tab or credit for future payment.
Much to my delight in the back of the store was a rack of dozens of guns some dating back many years, plus plenty of shotgun shells and reloading components. The store carried a complete line of Alcan components, such as Alcan powder Al-120, Al-5, Al-7 and Al-8, card and fiber wads, shot and empty paper, plastic, solid brass, shells and primers. This was goose hunting country so Ray had a large assortment of 10 Gauge and 12 GA Magnum goose and duck loads on the shelf. My father had bought a Richland 711 double 10 GA Magnum the year before, so I got him 100 Alcan empty hulls for reloading, plus a couple boxes of 3-1/2 inch Magnum goose loads, Western "Super-X".
At that time I did not know anything yet about collectables or expensive guns, but Ray had a pair of old Parker "T Latch" 10 bores. These were high grade hammer guns with fine wood and elaborate engraving. This pair of Parkers had their old wooden case with at least 25 all brass shells head stamped Parker, plus various loading tools. I think Ray was asking 1000 bucks for those guns. Gosh I wanted them so badly but that kind of money was way out of reach for a kid in high school.
If you wanted some item off a top shelf out of reach, Ray had an old steel ladder that ran on a track flat against the ceiling around the room. Mr. Metheney must have been well into his seventies back then. Yet he would climb that ladder and with a long stick push the merchandise off the shelf as you waited to make a catch below. Seeing Ray struggle up that ladder took ten years off my life! There was also a freight elevator that came up and down from the second floor which was Ray and his wife's living quarters. It was pulled by a rope and pulley system to come down to the first floor.
Ray helped us boys out a few years later when Illinois came out with the first state waterfowl stamp. My buddy, Kenney, and I were hunting on the state grounds and we had just reached our limit of two geese each. Heading back to the refuge we got checked by a state game warden. Kenney did not realize he needed the state waterfowl stamp as prior to this you only needed a federal migratory stamp. I believe his fine was 75 dollars! Well, between us we did not have that much money to pay the fine and the court day was the following Monday, four days away. I had to be home for work by then. We went back and told our tale of woe to Ray while sitting around the furnace for some time to warm up from a very cold hunting day. How I remember those large ceiling fans slowly turning, pushing down warm air that felt so good to us.
After some thinking I asked Mr. Metheney if he would take my Remington 12 GA 870 Magnum in trade, so we could pay off the fine. Ray offered the sum of 135 dollars for my gun. It was a very fair offer back then. This decision was very hard for me, being my first new gun. It had been a Christmas present from my father. Begging Ray not to sell my gun, I told him I would send along the money as soon as I arrived home. When we got home, much to my surprise my cherished 870 had beaten us back with a little note from Ray. "I figured you needed your shotgun more for hunting than I did selling it". His act of kindness touched me very much.
We did get taken as being kids not from this area at one of the goose hunting clubs near Horseshoe Lake. I do not remember if it was Miller and Grace or M.B. Patton's club. My brother and I paid 35 dollars each for a pit which really tapped into our resources. Our guides name was Luther. Geese were flying good that morning, so he told us to let em decoy in. Within minutes a flock of birds came towards us, but very high so Luther starts on his OLT A-50 call honking away. When the birds came over tall, he yelled "Take em". Emptying his "Hump back" Browning Auto 5 12 GA Magnum dumping two birds. My brother and I were so surprised at the guide's tactics shooting our birds that I did not utter a word. I think my brother and I did harvest one more bird. Then he told us we had limited out, yet he had shot two of our geese. Then I realized the sooner he got us out of the pit, the sooner two more hunter paying clients came in. Telling the club owner that the guide had shot two of the geese he offered us a free hunt. Getting up my courage I asked for our 35 dollars back, reluctantly the money was returned. Living and learning. Luther the guide told me something very interesting that I have never forgotten. When he shot at very high geese, he got out in front of them at least a length of a pickup truck!
Our time was now running out. We had watched a good number of mallards heading out from Horseshoe Lake heading southwest towards Willard across the Mississippi River into Missouri. Later that afternoon we went on a duck finding mission. Leaving south out of Miller City below Willard, we came across much by accident a bad stretch of road paralleling Old Man River. Let's call this nasty little road with two wheel ruts through mud and sand. My old Chevy got a workout, not to mention the terrible bumps acting like a washboard on that two mile stretch. This area along the Mississippi River was called Bumgard Island with a big stand of tall river bottom timber. Hundreds of mallards were circling a spot in the timber, then spiraling down out of sight. It was getting towards dark and too late for a long walk in this unfamiliar area to find out what was so interesting to those quackers. Yet in my mind it had to be feed and a resting place where the birds were unmolested.
We high balled back to Mr. Metheney's for a pow wow about this duck hot spot. Knowing something of the area, that evening Ray made a couple of phone calls. In turn we talked to the man that leased or owned this land. Saturday was off limits due to other hunters coming in, but we could shoot that spot for a 50 dollar charge the next morning. The only stipulation was to stop shooting by noon to rest the birds. What good luck to land a spot like this that had not been shot to hell. It was cheaper than the local clubs by the day.
An hour before light the next morning we bumped down the two rut road to the dead end. Then we hiked through the black darkness with a sack each of duck decoys on our backs. Little brother carried a dozen goose silhouettes. Thank the Lord we had a flashlight, as we walked almost in river bottom timber almost all the way. I would guess it was six hundred yards to a finger of water running parallel to the Mississippi within half a mile. My hopes finally started to pick up after our long walk hearing duck chatter ahead. Nearing the water chute our presence scared many ducks roosting on the long narrow strip of water into the air. Dawn was just starting when decoys were set in place on the sand bar and in the water. After some hard searching we finally found one of the three pits next to the water. Settling in we noticed the wind was increasing, moving the tall trees back and forth, with scud clouds moving in with a light rain snow mix. My brother, Mike, was the only one who could do the feed call well on his "Mallardtone" duck call. I labored at the high ball, so we tried our hand at some duck talk together. Maybe a dozen mallards and widgeon turned in to the wind, feet down hovering over the blocks. What a good start with four birds down, as Mike had collected a beautiful drake widgeon, his first, plus two drakes and a hen mallard. Boy did I get razed about shooting the "Suzie". Many ducks were moving up and down the river yet very few gave us a second look. We found out later many ducks and geese were just north of us up river at Burnham Island and Goose Island conservation area. Strong wind gusts now made shooting really difficult, these greenheads were carrying the mail. I muffed a good shot at some pintails with a couple of long sprigs, darn! If my memory is correct, Mike and Arnie also harvested a couple of wood ducks. We hoped for a chance at geese, yet all the flocks passed well north and west of us. We might have picked up another duck or two, I do not remember. I can still see in my mind the mighty Mississippi's current rolling on over a half mile wide at this point with the sand bar, and Bumgard Island right in front of us. These were memories of a lifetime.
Getting back to town we had to get our birds cleaned at the "Picking house" and get packed for our trip home. While Mike and Arnie got our things together back at the motel I paid a visit to the Cairo public library. When I walked in, the librarian asked me if I needed help finding a book. I told her I was interested in old hunting books. She told me I might be interested in a book about a local Cairo man that hunted and fished this area before the turn of the last century. The title of the book or the man's name I can not recall, but the small sized book was under 100 pages and very interesting. The author talked of hunting ducks at Horseshoe Bend way before it was a refuge for geese. He shot ducks for the market using an 8 GA Parker hammer double with incredible bags by nowadays standards. Using six drams of black powder and 2-1/4 ounces of shot the big Parker was liable to thin a passing flock of ducks out near 90 yards. This big 8 bore must have had plenty of choke. Since I did not live in the area I could not check the book out of the library, wanting to read the book from cover to cover. It also talked of excellent fishing in the area.
The lady at the library told me to stop and see the Magnolia Mansion, being the most beautiful home in Cairo. She told me Cairo was a very prosperous river town before and during the Civil War, the Queen of the South. It was kind of the hub of riverboat trade due to the convergence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Yet just over 100 years later the old river town was slipping away with time into decay and poverty.
We hunted geese in the Cairo area for eleven more years. Then very mild winters started becoming the norm. With the lack of cold weather to freeze lakes up north and very little snow cover, geese started stopping further north in Illinois as they did not need to migrate that far south. We then started hunting around Horicon Marsh in south central Wisconsin. My old hunting buddy, Jim Heggeness, and I did not get back to the Cairo area hunting for many years. Then in 1991 good luck steered us into the B & B Gun Shop owned by Bob Barnes in Olmsted, northwest of Cairo along the Ohio River. Bob had a nice selection of guns, a very low numbered three digit Winchester M-42 410 bore shotgun that really caught my eye.
Then we really got a rare treat when Clint, Bob's six year old grandson, for all the world sounding just like a Canada goose came walking through the yard calling geese with his mouth, simply an amazing demonstration. Clint in now seventeen and he and his younger sister, Lacey, very much enjoy hunting ducks, geese, turkey and deer. Bob told me Clint is also very good at calling turkeys with his mouth. Just maybe I can talk the boy into calling in a Tom for me down south.
All those years ago this was our first hunting adventure off the reservation. Yet those grand memories will last a lifetime! We got to experience Southern hospitality and delicious Southern cooking. We met some wonderful characters from the past that time has almost forgotten. I can truly say we had wonderful times many years ago down near old Cairo, Illinois.