Turning legend into reality.
I didn't have to think twice to accept an invitation from veteran game call maker Dave Jackson to join him and Dr. Randy Rusky on a two-day waterfowl hunt at Jimmie Ridge Hunting Club located in the storied Crane Lake area of the Illinois River Valley. "Bring along our buddy, Don Jones; we'll catch up on ol' times, hunt some waterfowl, and talk duck and goose calls. We'll have a good time," was D. J.'s offer. Don approved without hesitation.
My association with Dave dated back to the early 1980s when he managed the "Olt shop" in Pekin, Illinois, home of P.S. Olt Game Calls where they were hand-tuned, assembled and shipped to market. The D-2 duck and A-50 goose set the standard in the game call industry for two years shy of a century.
D. J. and I had waterfowl hunted together on many occasions, in many places throughout our years of friendship but, strangely, I had never hunted the historic Central Illinois River Valley where Mid-America market hunting and private waterfowl clubs were born soon after the Civil War. Duck hunting of that era became so successful and popular that hunters traveled by steamboat and railroad to be further transported by horse-drawn wagons, finally arriving in the 'fowling Mecca of the Illinois River Valley.
Market hunters slaughtered the birds for profit, guides made good wages as pushers and retrievers and private clubs entertained the rich and famous Americans. Presidents, Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, would later come to hunt, relax and dine. Into the 1940s, St. Louis Cardinals baseball stars, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and other athletes of fame would be frequent guests at teammate Marty Marion's duck club.
Waterfowling seemed for sportsmen the popular thing to do and the economy of the area revolved around hunting and fishing. Don and I arrived late afternoon at the Pekin headquarters of the Illinois River Valley Calls Company. After a warm welcome from Dave and his wife, Debbie, we were given a tour of the call manufacturing operation and shown the impressive guest quarters. Call making has certainly come a long way since 1904 when Philip Olt began his endeavor.
Computer programmed lathes and laser engravers are now common in game call manufacturing. The modern process allows D. J. and others to turn and design virtually any call imaginable for hunter consumption. He specializes in beautifully engraved wooden duck and goose calls that imitate the sound of the real thing.
Marty Marion and friends.
Dave's personal Olt collection of game calls and other ancient Olt products is unrivaled and his knowledge is often sought by collectors and outdoor scribes. Many of the significant calls found in the Reid collection can be attributed to his effort.
Dr. Rusky met us for an early breakfast the following morning and the four of us headed for Jimmie Ridge Hunting Club where I would add a new chapter to my waterfowl travel log. During our trip, Dave explained that when the Olt family closed their business in April of 2002, he and Doc decided to form a partnership to continue a life driven by waterfowling and game calls.
The rich tradition of the Illinois Valley in hunting, call making and decoy carving fueled their fire. From their Pekin location, Illinois River Valley Calls are manufactured, tuned and sold to hunters and collectors throughout America and Canada as well as to a world market that includes the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
As we neared our destination, our hosts gave Don and me a brief description of the thirteen-member hunting club that they call "Jimmie Ridge," so named to honor a dedicated caretaker of years ago. All private hunting clubs are unique and theirs is no exception. The 550-acre farm is located in Mason County, lying between the Illinois River towns of Bath and Chandlerville.
Two giant Canadas, complete with even bigger smiles.
Jimmie Ridge borders the massive Crane Lake Game Refuge and is actually surrounded on three sides by the waters of Crane Lake, an 800-acre backwater body formed by the Illinois River. Owner and manager, Jim Roskelley, oversees the entire operation and guides club members daily during the season. Roskelley's hands-on approach results in hunter enjoyment, opportunity and a high degree of success.
The club's bottomland waterfowl hunting area is a patchwork of flooded timber and levied cornfields with numerous willow-covered blinds, some of which can accommodate as many as eight hunters. For communication, blinds are equipped with two-way radios and each is heated with propane for comfort. Don and I were excited to be a part of the Jimmie Ridge adventure.
A cold, overcast day and north winds greeted us as we dressed for the hunt, exchanged introductions, and received blind assignments.
Soon a parade of ATVs transported the hunting parties through the dark morning to a forest of hardwoods bordered by tall pines overlooking the water-covered bottomland. We were skillfully delivered through the knee-deep water of a partially harvested cornfield to a large U-shaped blind built around a large willow tree.
Ready for the next flock.
D. J. was given the honor of headmaster of our willow-covered hide. That meant he would designate first shots on single birds and make the calls on pairs and bunches.
Decoys were arranged, calls tuned, guns loaded and concealment adjusted; now it was up to the birds.
During the early morning we were entertained by large flocks of mallards and Canada geese returning to the safety of Crane Lake Refuge. Unfortunately, those birds paid no attention to our decoy set or beckoning calls. However, several "lost" single mallards and two pairs fell victim to our come-join-us routine and young Dr. Rusky displayed his shooting skill on a mallard drake t
hat drew a "no way" acclaim from his hunting pals. He accepted the accolades by merely commenting, "Luck shot."
Our big thrill of the morning occurred around ten o'clock when a bunch of high flying mallards responded to a come-back call, set-up, and made several passes before Dave's command of "take 'em" resulted in six of the ten being added to our kill.
As noon approached, it was evident that the birds were on break so the decision for the hunters to head for lunch was met with full approval. The tiny river town of Bath would be our destination. Steeped in waterfowl history due to its geographic relationship to Grand Island (the largest island on the Illinois River), Bath has another claim to fame. A young surveyor by the name of Abe Lincoln helped lay out the town long before his days as a lawyer and eventual U. S. President.
White faces popping, posing for a picture.
Our history lesson continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening as we talked of long ago decoy carvers and call makers native to the Illinois River Valley. Lifelike wooden decoys, hand carved and meticulously painted by masters, made their appearance soon after the Civil War. They sold anywhere from less than $1 to $3 each and were used for gunning until waterlogged or broken and then unwisely discarded.
Robert Ellison, Charles Walker, Bert Graves and Charles Perdew became the most prolific Illinois decoy carvers. Their work as craftsmen and artists became legendary and to this day are highly prized, as evidenced by the thousands of dollars paid by collectors and antique dealers for a single decoy created by their hands.
Likewise, the list of Illinois call makers is significant. Fred Allen, in the 1860s, is credited with being the first commercial duck call maker, selling his calls for $1 each. Illinois hunters, Grubbs, Glodo, Ditto and Olt also became call makers of importance prior to 1900.
Others would follow in the early twentieth century including Charles Perdew whose game calls command huge amounts of money in today's collectable market. Of course, when Philip S. Olt began mass-producing his calls in the early 1900s, the company soon dominated the waterfowl call industry, selling thousands and reaching an unbelievable record sale of 50,000 in one year. Perhaps every serious waterfowler on the continent has put and Olt call to his lips.
The Crew after a good day afield.
Clear skies, no wind and an inch of ice was the picture painted by Mother Nature for our second day at Jimmie Ridge. During the night, the temperature had dropped into the teens. Jim Roskelley's decision to hunt a different blind, break up the ice and hunt over only goose decoys would turn out to be a wise choice.
Declaring a No-Fly Day, the ducks, fighting to keep the water open, rafted together in great numbers on the nearby refuge. The only exception was a lone black mallard that became our first and only duck kill of the morning. As the sun climbed, small groups of Canada geese began traveling from the refuge to dry grain fields and Jim suggested our opportunity to be successful would be when the big birds headed back to the sanctuary of Crane Lake. Again, his observation would be "right on," as in the next hour we would get our chance to score.
A group of five noisy honkers responded to our pleas and headed, wings set, toward the icy decoy spread. The two closest Canadas fell stone dead and we stared in amazement as the other three frantically headed skyward. Either we had all taken aim on the same birds or we simply missed.
No sooner had the two geese been retrieved, another larger group headed in our direction. However, these birds were more leery, making several passes before Roskelley whispered. "Guys, you better try 'em."
The team managed to knock down three honkers out of the sky, actually the only three within 12-gauge range. "Better shoot that cripple," someone cried, "or you'll need a pair of ice skates for the fetch." The job was immediately accomplished. To be honest, harvesting five geese and a black duck far exceeded my expectations, considering the frozen water situation and overall weather conditions.
As quickly as our action began, it came to a screeching halt. The sky was clear blue and void of any waterfowl. At that point our group began the usual exchange of hunting stories to fill the void and entertain. Each hunter spun his best yarn, hoping to outdo his buddies. When it came to Jim Roskelley's turn it was "game over." "Ol' timers swear it's true," began Jim, "and they have passed it along to each generation and anyone else who would listen." His tale went something as follows:
During the prohibition era when mobster Al Capone was "King of Chicago," he and his henchmen would travel to the Illinois valley for a combination of business, pleasure and duck shooting. An historic home still standing in Bath was said to be headquarters for the gangster and his guests when they were in the Grand Island, Crane Lake area.
After a day's hunt, ol' Scar Face would assemble his pals atop Jimmie Ridge for a photo shoot. They would be pictured holding their guns and daily kill along with Al's bodyguards standing amongst the group cradling Thompson sub-machine guns. Legend further declares that two federal game wardens sent one day to investigate the Capone party were never seen or heard from again.
Jim concluded his story by stating that an exhaustive search for a photo of a Capone hunt has thus far been unsuccessful. Either they were destroyed or like so many historical evidences have been lost to time. However, the search will continue. His tale of Al Capone left the party spellbound until the silence was finally broken when Jim suggested, "You boys ready to head in and have some food?" All hands were raised in total agreement and hunters with gear and game were packed on the ATVs for the ride to headquarters. We would relive the morning before departing, the memory lingering in our minds.
After lunch, Don and I thanked Dave, Randy and Jim for the hunt and the hospitality and the group awarded Jim "Best Story of the Season." As we loaded the truck for our trip home, I asked Jim if he thought the legend of Jimmie Ridge was fact or fiction. With a broad smile, he replied," I really don't know for sure, but I always seem to win the tall tale contest. Thanks for coming, guys.