Originally founded in 1883 as the Hennepin Duck Club, Willow Creek has a long-standing and storied history in the fabled Illinois River bottom. So does the camphouse. Preston Wagner, Pete Mangold and Adrian Erickson each describe their personal connections to this Illinois River duck hunting club. From habitat management to new and lifetime memories, their unique perspectives characterize a real sense of place.

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A Heritage of Hunting

I’m in an Illinois Duck Club, a historical Illinois Duck Club now called Willow Creek, founded in 1883 was the original charter on the original club name, Hennepin Gun Club


Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, first episode recorded in the duck blind, not just any duck blind, I’m in an Illinois Duck Club, a historical Illinois Duck Club now called Willow Creek, founded in 1883 was the original charter on the original club name, Hennepin Gun Club. Joining me today in the duck blind is one of the owners, Mr. Preston Wagner. Preston, how are you? I’ve had a great couple of days here. Thank you for introducing me to this amazing heritage.

Preston Wagner: Well, Ramsay, we’re really glad you’re here, we’ve had a lot of fun the last couple days, I’ve had a little excitement with rolling a 4 wheeler down in a ditch and it’s all part of chasing these ducks. But it’s been plenty of birds around and we’ve hung plenty on the strap and shared plenty of stories. So it’s been a really good time, I’ve enjoyed it.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about, why this region and we’ll get into it. Like a lot of different questions about your club, this property, this valley. What is the history of the Illinois River? Why the Illinois River Valley? What is it about this location?

Preston Wagner: My understanding here and I’m by no means a historian or an expert, but basically just a general overview of the history that I’ve been told and that I’ve learned since we acquired this piece of property as we sit right here, just south of the great bend of the Illinois River. So the Illinois River comes out of Chicago, out of the Great Lakes and near the town of Spring Valley, Illinois, it does a great bend Southwest and heads down towards St. Louis. Well, where our club sits is right at the northern part of that stretch that goes from the bend down to St. Louis and really from Spring Valley to Peoria is nothing but duck clubs. And in our specific region, there’s a lot of historic duck clubs, we’ve got our club here, which started off as the Hennepin Duck Club in 1883, oldest Duck club in Illinois would be Swan Lake Duck Club, which was originated in the same year. Our immediate neighbors to the east would be the Princeton Game and Fish Club, 1884 for them and our immediate neighbors to the south would be the Senachwine Club, which I believe was also in that same year, but don’t quote me on it.

Ramsey Russell: So, you all the second oldest club in Illinois.

Preston Wagner: Yeah, this is the second oldest club in the state of Illinois, originally opened under the name of the Hennepin Duck Club. And over the years, it’s changed hands a few times and it was the Mallard Club for a while, for about 20 years. And most recently, it’s been given the name Willow Creek and when we acquired the property, we held on to that name. But my understanding is the reason that all these duck clubs spurred up in this area was back in the 1800s all travel for the most part was by rail. And businessmen and duck hunters and outdoor enthusiasts that lived in Chicago, they would get on the train in Chicago and they would take the train to the end of the line, which was in Henry, Illinois, which is about 5 miles south of our club. And then from Henry, Illinois, they’d get on horse drawn wagon and they’d go out into the marshes and go out into the duck clubs and these gentlemen only, men only duck clubs started to spur up and that was kind of the origination here of the Hennepin Gun Club, which is our place in Princeton and Senachwine and then all the other duck clubs in the area that originated in that era and then the years to come. So lots and lots of duck hunting history here and this flyway is unique in the sense that we just sit here on the edges of the Illinois River and the Illinois river valley and directly across the Illinois River from us is the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, which is a DU project that it just offers hundreds and hundreds of acres of sanctuary and food for the birds to utilize during their migration.

Ramsey Russell: Speaking of Ducks Unlimited, you showed me a map yesterday, a depiction that started around here and went all the way south because there in St. Louis, the Illinois River converges with the Mississippi River. So this is ephemeral artery, this is a major flyway, the thing I like about this particular property, this slug of property through here, I’m bounded in one direction by the Illinois River, ephemeral artery, but also I’ve got the guiding line of these very pronounced and high hillside, it’s like a natural funnel for waterfowl right here.

Preston Wagner: And that’s the Illinois River valley and as these birds migrate down through, they follow the bluffs on either side and obviously utilize the bottoms in between those bluffs.

Ramsey Russell: From the hilltop today, looking down early this morning, I was looking at a bunch of elevators that was on the Illinois River and right next to it was, because we’re in corn country now, right next to it was a lot of smoke coming up, you told me something about that enterprise. What is that where that white smoke was coming?

Preston Wagner: So once again, I don’t claim to be an expert on corn ethanol or anything, but I have a high level understanding and we’ve got the Marquise Energy factory there, which is the largest producer of corn ethanol in the world, is my understanding. And so they turn corn into corn ethanol that’s used to fuel, I would imagine, a number of things. But as I imagine, the corn ethanol burning vehicles and so on and so forth and they ship their products all over the world. And it’s a unique location here in Hennepin because they have the Illinois River right there, which is a massive passageway of commerce with the barges. And they also have Interstate 180 right there and access to a massive hydraulic power source. So they can be kind of right here in the heartland, where there’s thousands and hundreds of thousands of acres of corn that they process down into corn ethanol, which is their product and then they can export that product via the Highway 180 and the Illinois River.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Preston Wagner: Which enables them to get their product out to the world.

Ramsey Russell: And how far are we from Chicago proper? It doesn’t look far on a map. We’re not far at all from Chicago an hour?

Preston Wagner: Yeah, the outer suburbs of Chicago, you start to get out there in Juliet Naperville, we’re about an hour from those outer suburbs and right about 2 hours from downtown in the loop, Chicago.

Ramsey Russell: Ask you a little bit about the lodge, it’s a very cozy lodge, I love the feel, just the absolute amber color of the wood when you walk in, it’s just got this vibe to it. And I know it’s had some restorations and know you’ve done a little bit, one of our blind members reaching for a gun, I hear a loud pop, that’s it. And he may just be messing with us, I don’t know. But you all done some updates, but tell me the historical provenance of your lodge and why it’s like it is?

A Shared Hunting Clubhouse

And the simple reason is, back in the 1880s, we didn’t have the access to large earth moving equipment and so on and so forth and that was the closest high spot where they could build a clubhouse. 

Preston Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. So what we have made into our lodge in our living quarters when we’re here on the property was originally built in 1910 as Princeton Game and Fish Club’s clubhouse. And you might ask, why would their clubhouse be on the property of another club? And the simple reason is, back in the 1880s, we didn’t have the access to large earth moving equipment and so on and so forth and that was the closest high spot where they could build a clubhouse. So they cut an agreement with the owners of our club at the time to build their clubhouse there. And every morning, the members of Princeton would do their draw on the clubhouse that sits on our property and then back then, the mode of transportation through the marsh was by canoe with push pole. And still to this day, the guides in this area are referred to as pushers, because back in that era, they would be the ones that would be pushing the canoes through the marsh. And once the members of Princeton would get through our shooting grounds, they would obviously hunt over there and then push pole back to their clubhouse and then through the years, as our club changed hands and had different owners, the last club that was run on these grounds was the Mallard Duck Club and the Mallard Duck Club built a clubhouse of their own about 200 yards to the east of the Princeton Game and Fish Duck Club and for many years, I think, close to 20 years, the Princeton Game and Fish Guys and the Mallard Duck Club guys cohabitated down there with Princeton doing their draw and their breakfast in our modern day lodge and then the Mallard Club guys doing their draw and their breakfast in the modern day, what we refer to as the Boathouse. And we call it the Boathouse, because at that time, the property was accessed by boat. So everyone would take their little John boat with their 25 horse outboard on the back of it and beach it in a little semicircle in front of the boathouse, they’d have breakfast, do their draw, everybody hop in their boat and go out through the grounds. And Princeton, in later years, would have their breakfast and do their draw at our modern day lodge and get in their trucks and drive around the property and get over to their grounds and they would go out and go about their day hunting. Since we’ve acquired the property, the Princeton Game and Fish Club has built their own clubhouse over on their grounds and their previous clubhouse has turned into our lodge. And we’ve taken the boathouse and kind of converted that into a little owner’s retreat, little owner’s cabin, but our modern day lodge, to me, it just feels comforting, it feels homey, it feels warm, when you walk inside and it’s the same original wood floors from 1910 and the original wood siding inside the building. And in the area which has now served as our main level bathroom and dining area, there are still the original wooden boot lockers from the Princeton Game and Fish.

Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty cool, too.

Preston Wagner: So they got the member numbers on the doors and just little lockers, just like anything where we would today keep our waders and shells and maybe an extra pair of gloves and your gun when you’re not.

Ramsey Russell: You say that now, Preston, like we would today, but a lot of the modern duck hunting lockers are at least 2 or 3 times as wide and deep.

Preston Wagner: They’re small.

Ramsey Russell: We duck hunters today and it says a lot about the time, because we duck hunters today have a lot more gear that we need to store that we’re going to wear out to the field.

Preston Wagner: Absolutely. And another kind of caveat to that, too. That’s a rich piece of history within the lodge. If you go on the second level of the lodge, where we have the bedrooms, there is a copper plate on the floor of the second level of the house and what that is from is some old timer way back in the day was down there in the locker room and had an accidental discharge and shot a hole through the floor. And so rather than patching it with a piece of wood, they chose to commemorate that and just nail a piece of copper to the floor there. And so we walk up the stairs and we can look down at the floor and see that copper plate, which now is all weathered and worn and tarnished, but is a good story to tell when you walk up there.

Corn is King

I mean, the colder the weather gets, the more they want to get in that corn and when it starts getting cold and they get in that corn, I mean, they are just absolute pigs. 

Ramsey Russell: I haven’t seen that. I’ve got to see that before I leave, I’ve heard you all talking about that. Talk about the habitat. You all have about 1000 acres right here and a lot of blinds, a lot of pockets, there’s a lot of willows wrapped around everywhere and all the little fields are mostly corn. Your neighbors have corn, their neighbors have corn, one club I talked to said they do a lot of moist soil, but it’s corn. Do you know anything about the history or heritage of when flooded corn became such a big deal? Essentially, from here clear down to St. Louis on this Illinois River bottom. It’s got to be millions of acres of crotch deep to knee deep flooded corn.

Preston Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. And I know Pete’s getting ready to get on here after me and he might have a little more insight as to how far back the corn tradition. We’ve got a saying around here and “That’s Corn is King”, if you don’t have corn, you don’t have the ducks. So we put a lot of energy and focus into getting the corn in every year and it is definitely a fulcrum of our club. Just like anywhere that you go and hunt ducks, the 2 things that you want to have is you want to have security cover and you want to have food if you can. And the unique thing about this property is we’re bottom lands, but we’re high bottom lands. So some of the areas that are closer to the river are very susceptible to flooding. So you get a big rain in the summertime, you’ve put all this time, energy and effort into planting corn, you get a big rain come through and there goes your corn crop. And so what makes this property unique is the fact that we’re in the bottom, so we’re low enough where we do have the ability to flood and retain water on the property, but we’re also high enough where not always, but most years, we can protect the corn crop from flooding and we can get the place dry enough to allow us to get equipment in and get that corn seeded and get that corn fertilized and really get a high producing crop right in the middle of our property and then some people might look at the map and they say, well, why? If corn is so important to you guys and if the ducks like the corn so much, why don’t you just clear all this brush and all these trees out of the center of your property? Because I know here on the podcast, we’re not looking at a map, but when you look at a map of the property, it’s all this patchwork of puzzle pieces of little bits of corn and then timber and some willows and corn and timber and willows and maybe a little natural marshland habitat and so on and so forth and to us, that’s crucial. We strongly feel that if we took all those trees out and we took all that security cover away while the corn does offer some security, those birds, half the time when you come out here and you put them out in the morning, they’re in the timber. They spend plenty of time in the corn, sure, but they like being able to be in that corn with some protection and some security and obviously a very high calorie food source. But they like to get over to that timber and have protection from avian predators and feel safe.

Ramsey Russell: Yesterday hunting another blind, I can’t remember where you went for the moment, it was just me and somebody else and we were shooting, me and Jack and there were several bunches of ducks that fell not into the corn, but into just some flooded willows right there across from us. They just wanted to be up in there and lay up.

Preston Wagner: Oh, yeah. And especially the wood ducks do that to us all the time. They’ll set up and we’ll see them coming down and they think they’re going to work right into the hole and they’ll veer off and they just dive head first right into the timber. And they love it in there. So, yeah, the corn is really the fulcrum of the club and we put a ton of effort and energy into it, but without the timber, it wouldn’t be near the place that it is, you got to have both.

Ramsey Russell: Everybody from here and around the country, everybody in the Mississippi flyway wants to have planted corn, I get it. Except that here you all have weather events where last week it was warm, now it’s cold, it’s fixing to get shown up cold, you all fixing hit some 10° weather, that’s when those ducks are going to hit that high carbohydrate.

Preston Wagner: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Am I right?

Preston Wagner: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Do you see the ducks transitioning? Because you were telling me earlier that you all got some other areas that the ducks will come in here and lay up for cover, but they don’t hit that corn when it’s mild.

Preston Wagner: That’s right. I mean, the colder the weather gets, the more they want to get in that corn and when it starts getting cold and they get in that corn, I mean, they are just absolute pigs. They get in here and gorge themselves on the corn. And you’d be amazed at how quickly you get a couple of hundred, couple of thousand mallards in here and how quickly they’ll go through that corn and clear it out. Not everywhere, but they’ll hop around, they’ll work one hole out pretty good and then they’ll start, the next couple of days you’ll see them working over into another hole and systematically work their way through it. But, yeah, they love it. And in the warm weather, they certainly do seem to prefer the smaller grain food sources, the more natural wetland food sources, the smart weed and so on and so forth, the natural volunteer millet and we do have some of that. There’s also a lot of that over at that Dixon waterfowl refuge, that’s all natural feed over there. But once again, we come back to, if it’s not cold and they’re not eating that super high calorie corn, they’re still coming here because they like that security. We don’t shoot this place every day, we rest it more days than we shoot it.

Ramsey Russell: And you have a sanctuary?

Preston Wagner: We do. The whole northern side of the property is our sanctuary and we never shoot that, we never drive through there, the most that we’ll do is in the evenings, we’ve got a little levee spur that we can walk down and stand there about 50 yards from the levee on the western side of the sanctuary there and we can watch the birds come in the evening and we call that duck show. And so during duck season, that’s about the closest we get to it, is we’ll walk into duck show and watch the birds pour in and listen to them, talk to each other. We always kind of say, if you want to learn how to call to duck show, go up to duck show and just stand there and listen, because they’re in there hailing at each other and chuckling at each other and you hear the wood ducks and you hear the whistles from pintails or wigeon or teal, it’s a special spot to go to in the evenings just to observe ducks doing duck stuff.

Ramsey Russell: We talk about a lot of the historical context, what are some of the stories of people and as you’ve heard, surrounding the aura of historical decoys and collecting?

Preston Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m sure Pete’s going to have some input here, but this area is full of historic, hand carved, hand painted decoy history, as well as call history. And that’s something since we acquired the property that I’m really just starting to take interest in. So previous to us purchasing Willow Creek, I really knew nothing about hand carved decoys or handmade calls from back in the wonder years of duck hunting and had never really looked into it. But being in this area and hearing the stories and seeing how much people are truly passionate about these old decoys and the carvers from back in the day and the modern day carvers that are here, too, I’ve started to take an interest in it. And the town of Henry, we had breakfast there this morning and I said, there’s 3 cool things about the town of Henry for a duck hunter and the most recent one, the first one we talked about was the high school there, their mascot is the mallards and they got a big sign right outside the high school that says “Home of the Mallards” and so that’s cool being a duck hunter. But secondly, that was the hometown and where Henry Purdue, who is a local legend when it comes to hand decoy carving, that’s where he lived and where his shop was. And they’ve turned his home and his decoy carving shop into a little museum. Henry carved decoys and his wife painted them until his wife passed and then he started doing the painting on those decoys, but now in the antique decoy collection world, Henry Perdue’s are highly sought after and bring really high dollar. So as far as the local antique decoy market and local antique history, Henry Perdue to me, is the guy that stands out the most and is the most talked about. But there’s plenty of others over there that someone a little more knowledgeable about the subject could definitely expand upon more. I find that really interesting.

Ramsey Russell: We went to the Riverfront Museum today, how did you feel over in that corner, they had that collection of decoys that were not under glass and they had an old Hennepin Gun Club sign and right next to it, they had the Hennepin Shooting Club charter certificate. How did it feel just physically seeing that?

Preston Wagner: It’s amazing. And that is the first time that I’ve actually seen that certificate. I’ve had a few people, after we purchased the club, sent me a picture of it. But it is the official branded state seal that certifies the Hennepin Gun Club and I believe it was December 20th of 1883 as a chartered gun club in the state of Illinois. And as we had spoke about earlier, the second chartered gun club in history in the state. So that’s something to me, that was a huge draw to the property from the first time that we came here. Sure, it’s great to own a piece of land that holds the number of waterfowl this place does and have a place to share with friends and family and make memories. But to me also, the history of the area and the history of this property is irreplaceable. That’s something that’s really special to me and I feel very blessed and very honored to be the next generation of this piece of property and continue to cherish.

Carrying a Duck Hunting Legacy

But for me, I get every bit as much of enjoyment out of setting the stage, out of improving habitat, out of improving the property in a way where duck more and more ducks utilize it and where we can support those ducks throughout their migration. 

Ramsey Russell: And why is that? And that’s a question I had written down, is why? What does carrying on the legacy of this property, what does it personally mean to you? You got a little girl coming soon, you got your first child, you’re a young man. What does it mean to you? And what does it entail? What obligation might you feel?

Preston Wagner: Yeah, that’s a great point. We chatted a little bit about that last night and for me, sure, I like to come out and I like to hunt ducks and I like to shoot ducks and I enjoy the harvest, no question about it. Being able to come out and harvest some ducks and take them back to the barn and clean them up and maybe even have duck tonight for dinner or prepare them in a different way for guests. Sure, I love that aspect of it. But for me, I get every bit as much of enjoyment out of setting the stage, out of improving habitat, out of improving the property in a way where duck more and more ducks utilize it and where we can support those ducks throughout their migration. And I won’t get too far off here, but another thing that we do too, is of course, we plant all this corn and we pump this water on the property, but we also will leave water on the property far longer than we would need to, far longer than duck season and the main purpose there for us in doing that is having water on the property and still available food on the property for when those birds are working back north in the spring, we want those hens to have a place to stop over, rest up and have high calorie food source. So by the time they get back up to the breeding grounds, they’re in healthier shape, they’re in better shape and therefore, they’ll produce larger clutches of eggs and they’ll have a higher survival rate on their chicks and so that we’re giving back to the ducks that obviously give us so much enjoyment. But as far as me being an owner here, I love the property improvement projects. All summer long, we’re thinking, how can we make the place better? Where can we get water into? Where can we get more food into? How can we improve this levee? How can we improve this water control structure and so on and so forth, to just turn every inch of the property into usable duck habitat, to not only make it incredible hunting and hold a bunch of birds here, but also to give those birds a safe place to come and rest and fuel up on their journey both south and back north. And having the opportunity to be an owner at that place also allows me to do another passion of mine and that is to share duck hunting with people that don’t have access to it.

Ramsey Russell: I was just fixing to ask you about, you were telling me some pretty neat stories, you’ve got some friends and associates back home in Chicago and Indianapolis that don’t have access to duck hunting, that don’t have a background in duck hunting, but you have taken it upon yourself to bring a lot of them here. To the extent you’ve got waders, you’ve got shotguns, you’ve got very comfortable blinds, why is that important to you? What does it mean to you to invite, these aren’t children necessarily, these are a lot of them, men your age, grown men?

A Duck Hunter is Born

My gun’s been leaning in the corner of the blind the whole time, both of those birds are yours and the smile on his face was ear to ear.

Preston Wagner: Yeah. And it’s always been something I’ve really enjoyed doing. And so by no means would I say that I grew up a country boy, I grew up in the suburbs and as well as all my friends. And through Mark, I was introduced to the outdoors at a young age and have been head over heels obsessed with hunting and fishing and doing anything outdoors. But the entire time growing up, none of my friends were ever into that. And sure, I struggled through school sports, I was mostly a bench warmer all through school sports, but all my friends, they were into suburb life things, football, basketball, baseball and I was always into hunting and fishing. And so after I got through high school and got through college, my buddies would always be interested, you’re so head over heels obsessed with this hunting and fishing all the time and everything, what’s it like? Be asking me questions and I started saying, well, just come with me. And so this property has allowed me the opportunity to introduce many of my friends to hunting as a sport, to why we hunt, the real purpose behind hunting. A lot of guys come down and that have never hunted before, have never shot a shotgun before and just view hunting as, oh, you guys just go out and kill stuff. And then we get them here and we show them all of the work that goes into the place, all of the chess match that takes place with figuring the birds out, what are they going to do, where are they going to come from? Working the wind, so on and so forth. And then the best thing and the thing that I get the most joy out of is seeing them harvest their first duck and then we go back to the barn and we clean those ducks and we’ll cook up some duck poppers or an easy appetizing meal. I mean, who doesn’t like duck poppers? It’s cream cheese and bacon in a jalapeno so say, hey, you just went out there and you harvested your own food, you took an animal that was living happily in the wild and now you’re nourishing your body with that same animal. And that’s something that is really special to me. And it’s one of my main passions, is introducing people that have no access and have never done this before. And we’re turning people into duck hunters. This past weekend, we had 11 of my buddies here, and we had 2 different guys shoot their first duck ever and it was an incredible experience.

Ramsey Russell: You were telling me a story about one of them, he said, which one did you shoot?

Preston Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. Two mornings ago, a friend of mine was here hunting and never been duck hunting before, was really interested in the sport, wanted to get into it, wanted to know about it and it was a couple of months ago, we were at a wedding of a mutual friend of ours and he’s asking me all these questions about duck hunting and what it’s like and so on and so forth. I said, man, just come down, come to the farm, we’ll go out, I’ll show you the ropes, we’ll have a good time. And anyway, the other morning started as any morning, we get out to the blind, we get the decoys out, start calling to some birds, having some birds working and I’m pulling up and I’m shooting with them and after we get a couple of birds on the strap, so he’s got a taste of success there. And I wanted to do the duck popper thing, as I just mentioned, so I wanted to make sure we had some fresh duck breasts. I didn’t tell him anything, but I just leaned my gun against the corner of the blind and started calling the ducks and we had a group or two that came in and it was a total whiff and he’s so laser focused on trying to get a duck, he’s got no idea what I’m doing. And so first couple of groups come in, they fly away unharmed and then we had 3 mallards circle up and line up in the chute and just come into the decoys perfect. And they hovered right over the top of the blocks at 10 yards and he pulled up and the first shot was a whiff. Second shot, he drops a mallard, third shot, he drops a mallard and after that second duck dropped, he’s like, woohoo, yelled out in the air and he looked at me and he said, he’s like, which one did you get? And I was like, man, I didn’t even pick my gun up. My gun’s been leaning in the corner of the blind the whole time, both of those birds are yours and the smile on his face was ear to ear.

Ramsey Russell: A duck hunter was born.

Preston Wagner: Yeah, he was absolutely ecstatic. We got back to the barn he said that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I said, it makes me happy to hear.

The Dream Team

Ramsey Russell: I’m fixing to interview Pete Mangold and later I’m going to interview Adrian Erickson. Who is Pete? Well, lead into Pete. Who is this guy?

Preston Wagner: He is the backbone to Willow Creek, this place wouldn’t be what it is without him. So when we acquired the Pete was our right hand man here, he’s our eyes and ears on the ground, he’s our source of knowledge, it was everything to teach us what this place is all about and continuing to keep this place amazing. So Pete wears a lot of different hats around here from BSing with guys in the barn to make them feel comfortable when they get know friends and guests that we’re entertaining, all the way to dropping plates and dropboxes and running a tractor, planting corn seed and anything and everything. But Pete is really the backbone of this place that keeps everything running.

Ramsey Russell: And what about Adrian? She’s your cook?

Preston Wagner: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You told me a story. Told me a little history about her. Tell me a little bit about Adrian.

Preston Wagner: And Adrienne is the one that keeps us all fed.

Ramsey Russell: Boy, does she keep us fed.

Preston Wagner: You’re not going to lose any weight coming here.

Ramsey Russell: Best camp cook I’ve ever encountered.

Preston Wagner: Yeah. She does a special little delicacy that is banana bread French toast for breakfast in the mornings from time to time and that’s as close to heaven in my mouth as I could ever imagine. It’s incredible. But yeah, when we bought the place, it’s a place for us to come and entertain friends and family and definitely a getaway for us. And so I was looking for somebody that could keep the place clean and also do some cooking for us. You come in from a morning of duck hunting and you’re a little chilled and it’s nice to come back to the lodge and there’s bacon on the griddle and hot cup of coffee and kind of just looking for almost like a house mom back at the lodge. And that’s the role that Adrian fills for us. And when I was asking Pete and some of the local people around they had mentioned Adrian. There’s a lady that lives around here, name’s Adrian, she’s great cook, has a catering business, so on and so. And so, one way or another, Adrian and I were introduced to each other and I had her over to the farm for us to meet face to face the first time and she walks in the lodge and she started tearing me. I’m like, what’s wrong? Did I say something or do something? And to her, it was just an overwhelming embrace of emotion, being back in the lodge, because she hadn’t been back in the lodge since she was a teenager. And the reason behind that is she’s lived in the town of Princeton her entire life and her grandfather and great grandfather and all of her uncles and her father growing up, they were all members of Princeton Game and Fish Club, which as we discussed earlier, was the clubhouse for our current day lodge. And so when she was growing up and just a little girl, 5, 10, 12 years old, she would come with her dad to breakfast in the morning and to the draw, and then out to the duck blind. So it had been many years since she’d been back in that building and she stepped foot in it and motion overcame her and she definitely has a passion for the place and a special connection to it, which just makes it even better for us. One of the things I like to do when new people come to the farm is hanging on the wall, which coincidentally enough, came off eBay. There is an original 1953 Princeton Game and Fish Club roster that hangs on the wall. And when Adrian’s at the house and we have new guests come over, I call Adrian over and she can go right down that Princeton game and Fish roster from 1953 and say, hey, that’s my uncle or that’s my grandfather and point out her family members that are on that roster, which is a pretty cool thing.

Ramsey Russell: Preston, thank you. I’ve had a great time and Mark, he said, ramp, you got to start coming back every year, just to make this an annual visit. I said, Mark, it’s kind of like when you feed a stray cat and you say, oh, my Lord, I can’t get rid of him now. I said, don’t let it get that way, because I’m coming back. But thank you, Preston, thank you for your hospitality.

Preston Wagner: Thank you, Ramsey, it’s been a pleasure.

The Best Duck Blind in the World

You forget that there’s highways and roads nearby when you’re in here and it’s also one of those spots that the ducks are just very well protected in here.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve enjoyed it. Mr. Pete Mangold here at Willow Creek in blind 20. You told me on the way out here this is your favorite blind.

Pete Mangold: It is. It’s isolated, it’s hidden away. You forget that there’s highways and roads nearby when you’re in here and it’s also one of those spots that the ducks are just very well protected in here.

Ramsey Russell: I like it. We ain’t seen a lot of duck activity, I think you probably could have called a few in while I was recording previously with Preston and you did not, for some reason I would have. Damn recording, I’m going to call the duck and kill him. I like the way we got the wind at our back, we’re surrounded by willows, we got this open hole, we got some corn and we’re looking about a quarter mile away at the refuge, this has got to be a magical spot.

Pete Mangold: It is. And like I said before we started talking here, it’s one of those spots because it is off the beating path and it is isolated. It’s one of those we don’t realize there’s ducks there sometimes and for whatever reason, checking a dropbox or coming up here or hunting another spot, you start seeing this mosquito like activity over the timber and it’s like somebody probably needs to go up to 20 and see what’s going on and usually when you do, it’s pretty magical. You come around the corner and there’s enough ducks in there, it looks like they take the water with them when they leave.

Ramsey Russell: Were you born and raised around here?

Pete Mangold: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and actually live in a town called Ottawa, Illinois, which would be about 45 minutes east of here and been in Princeton the last 15, 16 years. And when I came over here for work purposes, actually ran insurance.

Ramsey Russell: Insurance.

Pete Mangold: Yeah, that’s what I do as my day job.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. See, when I met you, you were busy getting fuel pumps and getting everything together and I just thought you were, like, the helper. I’m not saying that in a bad way, there’s a skill set in that. So I really kind of thought you were, like, the main most manager out here or something. But you’ve been here a long time, you’ve been on this property hunting a long time.

Pete Mangold: Yes, it’ll be my 16th duck season down here.

Ramsey Russell: On Willow Creek?

Pete Mangold: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: You work for a former owner, what did you do for him?

Pete Mangold: So it started off, I just kind of oversaw – actually, he was a client of mine that I insured and then I kind of oversaw the financial stuff for him and paid the bills and made sure it went and then that evolved into more so after 4 or 5 years of learning the property and the ins and the outs, helping with the corn and helping know projects down here and then as the Wagner family’s taking this over, I’ve gotten even more involved with that stuff and the knowledge of what things we can do, like Preston was talking about, to better improve the property and make it even better for the next hundred years.

Ramsey Russell: Is this the only property? Surely, it’s not the only property you’ve hunted around here, there’s public land, there’s areas that do moist soil further down the floodplain. Have you hunted some other areas, too?

Pete Mangold: Yeah. Actually, when I first got into waterfall hunting, I got in probably 20 years ago, so it was a newer thing. Had a dad from Detroit, so he wasn’t a hunter and started hunting with some friends, we did a lot of field hunting in Illinois, like you guys were talking, there’s a lot of corn. Another thing that’s very big in this area is there’s a lot of sand and quarry business. So a lot of those deep rock quarries stay open year round, so the geese go on those things and there’s miles and miles of corn outside of them to go feed at night. So for your geese and then the ducks, field hunting is a very big thing in this area as well. Also fortunate enough to have members of friends that are members at other clubs, I just hunted the Senachwine Club on Monday, which is a magical place. I mean, I think I’ve probably hunted there 12 times in my lifetime and I don’t know that I’ve ever not come home with a full string of mallards.

When Geography Counts for Waterfowl Hunting

But we need that feed to kind of be a destination point for the ducks, the feed and security to come away from that flyway to do it. 

Ramsey Russell: What’s the difference in here and there?

Pete Mangold: It’s geography. Like Preston was explaining to you, we’re about a mile off the river, which helps us. We’re able to dry out a lot quicker, we’re able to get those crops in a lot quicker. But we need that feed to kind of be a destination point for the ducks, the feed and security to come away from that flyway to do it. The Senachwine Club in particular, it sits right across from the Dixon Waterfowl refuge that he talks about. So they’re great at getting feeding as well, but naturally they just have more of that flyway of ducks constantly going.

Ramsey Russell: Right. They just got a lot more traffic because of that state sanctuary there.

Pete Mangold: Yeah. So we really have to get the birds imprinted and get them here and realize why they’re here. And once they realize the feed we have for them, the security we have for them, they come back, we’re in a real pattern, that’s really weird right now that there’s a bunch of ducks here in the morning, they leave early and they don’t start coming back till 01:00, 02:00 in the afternoon.

Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy. That’s why we’ve been hunting the afternoon, not the mornings. Yesterday afternoon was pretty darn good. You weren’t here, you were in a meeting. Oh, let me tell you, it was pretty darn good.

Pete Mangold: I helped clean ducks afterwards, so. Yeah, you guys had a great afternoon.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, we had a great afternoon. Seemed to be that the mallard duck drives everything here. Are black ducks a big deal here? Do you see many?

The Wood Duck Capital of Illinois

 I mean, there’ll be times that you’ll see 500, 600, 700 wood ducks in one little hole and not another single other species of duck in there.

Pete Mangold: We will see those black ducks, like we’re talking, when it gets a little bit colder out, you kind of start to see those real red legged mallards pushing through late in the season, the black ducks become more prevalent. We definitely start off with teal and wood ducks, pintails early on and as the season evolves, it seems like every year around Halloween, first part of November, we always get a nice push of divers that comes through and that just keeps growing and cycling. And then really that time frame we’re in now is when you really start to see the mallard population push through. Although yesterday you guys did a great number on wood ducks, I mean, there was a lot of wood ducks.

Ramsey Russell: I couldn’t believe how many wood ducks there were, that’s amazing.

Pete Mangold: Yeah. This property because of all the trees, because of where it’s situated at. I was joking with a friend the other day when the wood ducks started showing up, I said, we’re the wood duck capital of Illinois. I mean, there’ll be times that you’ll see 500, 600, 700 wood ducks in one little hole and not another single other species of duck in there.

Ramsey Russell: I told Preston, you ought to do a lot of wood duck nest boxes, even more wood ducks. Why not? It’s easy. It’s an easy form of habitat management, the gift that keeps on giving just to produce more local birds. How would that work?

Pete Mangold: I think it worked good. And I joking said to you, it seems like the wood ducks are kind of the scouts. Every year when we start picking birds up these holes, the rest areas start up, it’s wood duck. And then they start seem to bring, when they leave and come back to the property, then there’s 10 mallards with them, then there’s 20 mallards with them. And next thing you know, you start seeing more greenheads and you’re seeing those wood ducks that have been in there for years and they love the corn. I mean, we’ll get their necks are so full of corn they can barely fly.

Ramsey Russell: We’re fixing to hit a big freeze, it’s going to be 10° here Saturday morning. Sometime around noon tomorrow. It’s supposed to just blow. That’s going to warm up next week. What are your thoughts on what these birds are going to do? Because it’s not going to be the first time in the last 12 years you all have had a freeze out.

Pete Mangold: No. It definitely turns into an even more complicated game than it already is from all the work that starts in the springtime to us sitting in a duck blind here in November. But we’ll put out as many as ice eaters as we can, we’ll also open up some of our drop boxes to keep that water flowing and try to keep it open. One of the best things we can do and manage them though, is not hunt them. If we can get 4000, 5000 ducks in our rest area or other spots like that, they’re going to keep the water open themselves. So we’ll typically for those days that it’s really cold, try to stay off the grounds. If they’re keeping a spot open, we’ll let them keep that spot open. And pray for the best and hopefully that they stick around and keep some water open and don’t forget the place.

Ramsey Russell: I think some will push through, I think some will leave out, but I just got this feeling a lot of them are just going to hunker down and say, it would be warm in a few days. That’s what I think is going to happen.

Pete Mangold: And that’s always the hope. And it does seem like if history repeats itself, a day or two of it, they’ll fight it out and stick around. We start getting into that 4, 5, 6, 7 days of that more and more ice keeps building up, it seems then we start to lose them. But hopefully it’s just this weekend like it’s supposed to be and by Monday we’re supposed to get back in some warmer temperatures and those ducks should still be here.

Ramsey Russell: What do you think about a lot of the decoy carvers and historical decoys and that whole – I mean, this has been a duck hunting Mecca forever. What do you think about all?

Pete Mangold: It’s absolutely amazing to be a part of that heritage. I mean, you guys were talking about Henry Illinois and Charles Perdue, which is just 5 minutes from the farm here. You have Elliston, you have some of the greatest carvers that have ever lived started in this area. The Princeton Game and Fish Club that we’ve talked about a lot over there, those guys had these rigs of walker decoys and things like that that had their – when you bought a guy’s membership, you also got his rig of decoy. So there’s some of the most famous rigs out there that have gone up for auction, came from places like that that were part of somebody’s membership and their heritage in doing that.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a pretty good investment if that rig was worth something, that was a pretty good buy.

Pete Mangold: Unfortunately, during the Depression, a lot of those decoys got burned.

Ramsey Russell: Can you imagine how many millions of dollars of folk art decoys were burned during depression? Or like somebody was here the other day just saying, as the advent of plastic came along, he can remember family members just pitching them old wooden decoys into fire.

Pete Mangold: Or the big one not repainting them so they look better. That Edna Perdue paint was covered up by the locals paint because they started to look ragged and old and whatever else.

Ramsey Russell: Do you see a lot of artifacts as you’re traveling around just day to day living here beyond decoys, boats and calls? I mean, do you see a lot of that stuff still?

Pete Mangold: A lot of that stuff over the years, there’s been enough people that, it’s been a big enough passion for people’s now, a lot of it’s been picked over, but you referenced the boats. I know just about 3 or 4 years ago, we found one of the old skiffs, the one man thing that you lay in and one of the guys that worked here had actually purchased it and it was in a barn somewhere that had been tucked about. So, some of that stuff, I think, is still there, but as decoy collecting and calls and that stuff’s gotten more popular, so is the demand to go find it.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ve had people call me because their uncle or their granddaddy passed and they’ll send me a picture and it’s not that, it might just be like an old herder. But boy, it may be worth a million dollars. Everybody’s kind of attuned to this ain’t just stuff anymore.

Pete Mangold: Oh, yeah. And obviously, waterfowl hunters are some of the biggest decoy collectors out there, but there’s people that make a business and a living out of collecting decoys.

What to Expect from a Typical Illinois Duck Season

Ramsey Russell: Is this a pretty typical duck season you all are going through right now?

Pete Mangold: It’s been a really wild duck season. We were 78° less than a week ago, which obviously slows down the migration and then Mother Nature, when it hits us, we’re going to go from 70° to 10°, 12° at night. One of the things that’s been real unique about this duck season, not only just for this property, but the properties around us, is Mother Nature is very predictive on what we can do. If we have a lot of rain, we’re switching to small grain natural feed, not as much corn. This year as far as the planting season went, even some of the smaller cubs around us that have less acreage, everybody got a great amount of feed in. And I think that’s one of the hard things, when we have this freeze coming, it’s obviously going to affect the hunting in some respects, no matter what. But it’s probably in the 16 years I’ve been around here from here to Peoria, all of the clubs have a lot of feed in and there’s a great amount of feed here for the ducks and it’s part of the aggravations of waterfowl hunting.

Ramsey Russell: I appreciate you letting me hang out with you. I appreciate all the hard work you’ve done. I’ve sure enjoyed hunting up here.

Pete Mangold: It’s been unbelievable. We had a lot of fun and a few mess ups along the way, part of duck hunting right?

Ramsey Russell: That’s part of duck hunting. I mean, I’ve never gone duck hunting, I’ve never made a season without breaking something or doing something, I mean, it’s just part of it. That stuff happens during duck season.

Pete Mangold: You and I definitely missed a good opportunity on 2 big greenheads yesterday.

Ramsey Russell: Yes, we did. Thank you very much, it’s good to meet with you, Pete.

Pete Mangold: Thank you, Ramsey.

A Chef to Remember

You just look over and when you’re in that duck blind as a little kid, all you do is shiver and shoot and feed the dog.

Ramsey Russell: Mrs. Adrian Erickson. Boy, you’ve got some history with this camp right here. First, I’m going to ask you, how long have you been cooking for these old duck hunters and how do you cook for so many men like this?

Adrian Erickson: Oh, my goodness, right around 10 years. But I’ve grown up in a family, that’s what we do, cook for the men that go out and shoot these birds.

Ramsey Russell: Are you a duck hunter yourself?

Adrian Erickson: I am. I’ve been in a duck blind since the day after I was out of diapers.

Ramsey Russell: Who was your dad? And what I’m getting at is we’re in this beautiful camphouse here at Willow Creek and it’s got a storied history that Preston told us a little bit about, but you’ve been here for a long time. You grew up in this building, is that right?

Adrian Erickson: Indeed. I’ll admit I’m 55 years old and I’ve been coming down here since I was right around 2. And my grandfather was a member here, my father’s name was Merville Brown Jr and his father’s name was Merv Brown and he’s listed on the roster downstairs membership number 28 out of 50. My father was number 13, my brother’s number 11, so I’ve been coming down here since I was a little girl and my brother and I would join my father hunting as soon as we were able to take care of ourselves a little bit.

Ramsey Russell: I was here the other day and drank a little hot coffee before we jumped into a duck blind and you showed me that old roster and you were coming here at the time.

Adrian Erickson: Yes, sir.

Ramsey Russell: And you told me a little bit about the history of Princeton Hunting Club. This was their camp house or their hunting property?

Adrian Erickson: Princeton Game and Fish Club, it’s one of the oldest hunting clubs in the state of Illinois and it’s my understanding that this particular building was leased by them for many years and their hunting property is down the river a little bit. But we would get here early in the morning with my father, 2 nice old lady cooks that would make breakfast for all the gentlemen before they went hunting, they would have their blind draw and you could come down and order your breakfast. And I just remember as a little girl getting up really early and it was kind of a family ritual to take your daughter and your son, your children, on an opening day, even though it was elbow to elbow down in the dining room. And I just remember it felt like forever to get down here, even though it was only maybe a 20 minutes drive, it just felt like forever, early in the morning and so dark. And we’d open up the door and come up those steps, even though we never went downstairs, the basement was just as creepy as could be. It’s like no, I’m not going in there. So you’d come up the steps and Faye and Betsy would be cooking their enormous breakfast and you’d take a right at the top of those wooden steps and there’s a room full of gentlemen. And back in the 60s and 70s, they were smoking and drinking coffees and talking about the hunts before and I wish now that I would have been able to remember all the hunting stories that they had. And we still giggle about them around Thanksgiving and Christmas and different hunting times. My brother’s got a library in his brain of all these wonderful hunting stories.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, I need to meet him one day, I would love to.

Adrian Erickson: Yeah, he’s a great guy. But the walls were lined with old couches that had blankets strewn over them to cover up the holes and springs were shooting through the seats and everyone was just in a good mood and sit around the table when your breakfast would come. I love to cook breakfast, but these ladies, you didn’t leave here hungry. And my father would always make me order what they call the works, which is a big stack of pancakes and huge helpings of bacon and eggs and I was a little girl, I could never eat that much. But what he would do is, he’d take all the pancakes and stuff them either in his pocket or his duck bag and out in the blind we’d start feeding the dog’s pancakes to keep him warm. And one of his best buddies had a big old yellow lab named Shammy, but I nicknamed him Pancake because that dog ate probably 7, 8, 9, 10. You just look over and when you’re in that duck blind as a little kid, all you do is shiver and shoot and feed the dog.

Ramsey Russell: How old were you when he handed you a shotgun and let you try shooting your own ducks? How old might you have been?

Adrian Erickson: I passed the hunter safety course, I think, if I’m not mistaken, I was one of the first young girls in the state of Illinois to pass the hunter safety course 100%. So there, Brett Brown, I beat him, it’s always a healthy competition. I was 10 years old and if the truth be told, it was right down the road or this little levee here. My dad and my brother and his friend, we went to shoot clay pigeons and as soon as I got to the point that I was pretty good, off we went.

Ramsey Russell: What was your first duck? A mallard I’m guessing.

Adrian Erickson: It was a mallard drake.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Adrian Erickson: And I was 11 years old. I could barely hold that shotgun up, but I did and I still have that gun and I was with my dad ever since then.

Ramsey Russell: Princeton, the club had a rule that didn’t let, you had to be a member of this county, is that right?

Adrian Erickson: That’s correct.

Ramsey Russell: Why is that?

Adrian Erickson: It’s basically to make sure that throughout time that residents of Bureau County maintain that ability to hunt down here. I guess it’s to kind of keep people away.

Ramsey Russell: Keep the rich outsiders at bay, so they can’t jump in and buy the joint up.

Adrian Erickson: Yeah, I think that’s probably.

Ramsey Russell: But this is not a particularly metropolitan area, it’s rural, it’s country.

Adrian Erickson: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: So if you had 30 or 40 or 50 members in this camp, just from this county, you probably knew everybody. They were your school teachers, they were your butchers and your mechanics and just, it was the whole local economy right here.

Adrian Erickson: Absolutely. I was just looking at the roster with Christian, one of the other guests here and explained to him several members on there, you can buck signs and fullers and they’re all local people, they’re all local names we still have around here, whether they’re uncles or nephews. But you did have to maintain a permanent residence here for at least 12 months before you could even apply to be a member for Princeton Game and Fish Club.

Ramsey Russell: Then they had to vote you in.

Adrian Erickson: And then you have to be voted in, it’s a little like a fraternity. You have to meet with each member and be interviewed and then a vote. And I can tell you to this day, not everyone who applies has approved.

Ramsey Russell: That’s the way it should be. I think that’s the way it should be.

Adrian Erickson: I agree.

Ramsey Russell: Because hunting is so personal.

Adrian Erickson: It is a very personal. I knew at a relatively young age if I wanted to have that connection with my father that I would have to do things that he wanted to do. And to this day I’m thankful and I’m grateful for the time that he and I had in a fishing boat or a duck blind or a truck on the way down or a local tavern on the way home, even if you limited out at 9:30 in the morning and you were well hydrated by 11:00.

Ramsey Russell: It really wasn’t about duck hunting, it was about T-I-M-E. Kids spell love TIME, that’s what I’ve always said.

Adrian Erickson: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: Being with the people you care for, your brother, your dad. What would you all talk about in a blind sometimes?

Adrian Erickson: Well, when we were younger kids, we didn’t talk about anything because he said, keep quiet and keep your eyes down and don’t look up and I think he kind of bribed us. He said, if you 2 behave and you don’t pull each other’s eyes out, I’ll give you a Hershey bar at the end of the day. I’ll tell you, as soon as that candy bar was gone, we were at each other’s throats.

Ramsey Russell: That’s what brothers and sisters do, isn’t it?

Adrian Erickson: Right on. But as time went by, we would talk. My father was an avid hunter, he went from one hunting season to the next and the joke was that he’d start packing his bag for the Canadian fishing trip as soon as we were done with Easter. And basically the same with Labor Day, he’d start getting everything ready for hunting season. And he used every single piece of a bird. He and my mom, actually, they picked ducks to put my mom through nurses training.

Ramsey Russell: Really? Talk about that.

Pickin Ducks in the Basement

How many ducks a night or a week, might you guess? 100, 200?

Adrian Erickson: I owe a lot of my – I’ll just say middle class childhood to the fact that ducks provided income, additional income to my family. My dad was an engineer with the state, my mom went to nurses training when I was 3 years old. So they decided to pick ducks in the basement of our little house on Chestnut street in Princeton. And that was in the early 70s, it was a bucket duck, which was big money back then. They took the opportunity and people would come at all times of the day and drop their ducks off on the porch and when my mom and dad got done with work, we had our dinner, everyone round the table down we went to the basement, which was a dirt floor and we had these tiny little metal chairs, my brother and I, and we’d sit there and we’d pick out the pin feathers and my dad would clean them and my mom would take care of the rest and package them up, put them out on the porch and people drop their money in a bucket and pick up their ducks.

Ramsey Russell: How many ducks a night or a week, might you guess? 100, 200?

Adrian Erickson: Easily.

Ramsey Russell: What a great time in America that people just did that.

Adrian Erickson: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: That’s how I grew. Americans just did what they had to do to get ahead, to live that American dream.

Adrian Erickson: To this day, I cannot ever remember my mother or my father complaining, we laughed. I mean, it’s a very visceral thing when you’ve got 2 little kids in the basement in the dark, it seemed like a dungeon. But we laughed. I had a picture of a little Labrador puppy that my dad, that was our first hunting dog and that was in the basement there. That little Jenny, she ran around and you’d pick feathers off of her nose and off of her toes and we just laughed and giggled. I had a very rich childhood, rich in heritage, rich in education and appreciation, especially for a family.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about your first dog. You brought a little bag of mementos to share with us at breakfast this morning and one of those was a picture of your first dog, your dad brought, this little lab puppy named Jenny.

Adrian Erickson: Jenny. Yeah, she’s a little black lab. And that dog had a heart of gold, she was an outdoor dog and for an outdoor dog, you would never know, she could come inside and outside, but that dog could hunt, she could just retrieve those birds. And my dad spent a lot of time with all of us doing just outdoors and she lived to be almost 18 years old. Came home, it was in the summer and my dad was mowing the lawn and for whatever reason, I looked at him and he had stopped and I thought he was wiping the sweat off his brow, but I know now that he had tears welled up in his eyes.

Ramsey Russell: He was crying.

Adrian Erickson: He was crying and he said, we were going to put Jenny down today, but we decided that we couldn’t without you. And I said, it’s a good thing you didn’t. I said, you just saved your own life, because she’s my dog, I’ll do it.

Ramsey Russell: How long did she hunt?

Adrian Erickson: 18 years.

Ramsey Russell: All the way to the very end?

Adrian Erickson: You bet. She hunted that last season. She was a loyal dog, never had another one like her.

Ramsey Russell: Where’d you bury a dog like Jenny?

Adrian Erickson: She was in our yard, backyard. You bet.

Growing Up in the Great Outdoors

…if we could take a material thing with us when we go to heaven, I think I’d take those boots with me.

Ramsey Russell: Your dad was quite a hunter, quite an outdoorsman and you brought this tiny little pair of boots. Please tell that story about your dad growing up, the little boy that grew up, that loved the outdoors.

Adrian Erickson: Well, the worst thing in the world for my father as a young man or a little boy would be to not be able to go outside. And I feel the same way about myself and my brother, that’s the way it is, the way it was. And my grandfather was a lawyer in town and he used to call home and say, come up and get your son, because he’d rip out of the house in his diapers and run uptown, that was 7 or 8 blocks away and my grandma had no idea we was gone again. Secretary would say, I’m going to bring Lee home, so if he was naughty, my grandmother, his worst punishment on the planet would be to take his boots, because he wore these little boots outside, winter, summer, spring, fall, he wore his LL Bean mud boots, his duck boots. And in 1992, after I got married, we bought my grandmother’s home, the home my father was raised in and I was trying to do some work in the house and I noticed a little access panel to the bathtub in her rear bedroom. And I opened up that door and something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye and I reached around and there’s this tiny little pair of LL Bean boots, they are tiny and maybe he was maybe 5 or 6 years old, I have no idea. But I loaded him up in the car and drove over to my parents house and I said, look what I found in grandma’s house in the back bedroom. Do you know anything about these? My father wasn’t an emotional man, I think I saw him cry maybe 4 or 5 times in my entire life, when my grandma passed and when he accidentally trapped a river otter in a beaver trap and he didn’t get down there in time to save it, but I look over and there are tears welling up in his eyes and he said, you found my boots. He said, your grandmother hid my boots as a punishment for me doing something wrong and to this day, can see right now, I have goosebumps talking about them and I meant what I said, if we could take a material thing with us when we go to heaven, I think I’d take those boots with me.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve never seen the soles of a pair of LL Bean boots worn so smooth, that little boy must have walked every inch of this county.

Adrian Erickson: That little boy, he had a slingshot in his hands, he either had a slingshot or a fishing pole, but he had those boots on and I doubt you’ll ever see a pair of children’s boots worn like that. The soles are cracked, it still has the leather shoelaces or the leather boot laces. The LL Bean logo is worn almost smooth on the back. And I never even had the heart to dust them off, it’s still got the original dust. They’re vintage. They’re the real deal. So was he.

Ramsey Russell: You walk around this part of the world, there’s so much history and lore and legend here in the Illinois River bottom, at the museum with the old decoys and the old duck calls. Today, you showed me your father’s duck call and I would have no idea who made it, although there are people that would, but I recognize it as an Illinois River duck call. And there are people, Adrian, that believe that the modern duck call as we know it, the instrument that we consider a duck call was invented somewhere in this river bottom by a couple of brothers, I heard. And there are a lot of people that place a lot of commodity value on that collectible folk art. What does that duck call mean to mean? I’m guessing it was probably the same duck call he blew when you and Jenny and your little brother were feeding them pancakes in the duck blind.

Adrian Erickson: That’s a duck call that I learned. My brother and I both learned using his duck call and then I remember on my 10th birthday, my father gave me my own duck call that I still have. It’s the only one I have, it’s the only one I ever used, it’s the only one I ever will use. So to me personally and I know I speak for my brother, you couldn’t put a price on that duck call.

Ramsey Russell: It’s such a value beyond daughter and sin.

Adrian Erickson: It is. His spirit is embodied in that duck call. And I’m not honestly so sure that wasn’t a call that he used in his teenage years and later on in life.

Ramsey Russell: Did he only have one duck call?

Adrian Erickson: He had several. And I know that that’s the one that embodies him and who he stood for as an outdoorsman, as an avid outdoorsman. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 73 hunted the season before. We just got back from a Canadian fishing trip, right before. The last thing on the planet you’d ever think of would be my father being buried in a suit and a tie that just wasn’t him. So I picked out his favorite shammy shirt and his khakis and he was buried and in his visitation, he had his duck call in his hand. We have to laugh, because right before the visitation began, my brother came to me. Oh, my gosh, Adrian said, what’s the matter? And I just thought, he’s overwhelmed with emotion, aren’t we all? And he said, the duck call, it’s the wrong way, they’ve got it facing the wrong way, he’ll never forgive us. And I said, this is exactly what he would have wanted. He would want us to laugh, I said, you have to appreciate the humor, even though it’s a sad time for us all. But those little boots sit on my fireplace and his duck call, I don’t put that too close to the fireplace, I don’t want it to dry out.

Ramsey Russell: Right there, where you can see it, focal point, remind you. Properties change hands, I mean, this property, since 1880, something when it was incorporated, second oldest club in Illinois, it’s traded hands a few times over the years and this camphouse has traded hands. So there was a period of time, even though you live just a little up the road, there was a period of time you had not been here for years. What was it like when the Wagner’s took over? What was it like walking back in for the first time? All those memories. What was it like when you walked up those stairs as you described it in detail the truck park, you walk up those stairs, the men, the couches. What was it like walking in for the first time after all those years?

Adrian Erickson: It certainly emotional.

Ramsey Russell: Bring back memories.

Adrian Erickson: It did. I mean, nothing but the fondest memories of my childhood and even into my late 20s and early 30s when I was still hunting here. It’s really hard to describe. What I can tell you about Preston and Mark. If you meet Preston, you just grow to love him instantly, he’s got a smile.

Ramsey Russell: Smile every moment of the day.

Adrian Erickson: You can’t kick the smile off his face, even if you tried and even when unlucky things happen, he still comes up smiling.

Ramsey Russell: He sure does.

Adrian Erickson: And he embraced immediately the heritage behind this establishment, the history and he’s done wonderful and remarkable things. And his helpers really honor this place by maintaining a lot of the history here. When I walked in and I saw that roster hanging up on the wall with my grandfather’s name, it stopped me in my tracks. This summer, my aunt, who now lives in Montana and my cousin were here and the Wagner’s have been so gracious in allowing this place to be open to all who want to come here. My aunt is now 78 years old and she’s still hunting elk in Montana and I didn’t tell her anything about this place. And we went for dinner and I said, I need to run an errand real quick. And I had told my cousin and I’d given her directions and we were on the road down here and she said, well, this is really close to know your dad and your grandpa used to hunt? And I said, it is. I said, in fact, if you turn left right here, so she said, Adrian, where are you taking me? And I said, come on in, I want to show you something. So we were here overnight, we shared a glass of wine in front of the fireplace which, mark my words, there was no fireplace and there was no wine when we were little girls. But she had the opportunity to walk into the same hunting club that she came with her father and that she came hunting with my father, her brother, year after year after year. And there’s not enough thank you and appreciation in the world. And she was home from my daughter’s wedding and that was such a nice time, I’ll never forget that. So we were able to spend the night here, have a cup of coffee on the deck and just look out over this beautiful wetland and share yet another memory 40, 50, 60 years later. That’s what it’s all about.

All from Scratch…With a Little Bit of Love

Because your food, coming from somebody that travels worldwide and eats a lot of cook, everything you cook was the best I ever had.

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to change subjects drastically. Have you ever thought about having a cooking channel? Because your food, coming from somebody that travels worldwide and eats a lot of cook, everything you cook was the best I ever had. The biscuits and gravies were the best I ever had, I don’t eat a lot of that kind of stuff.

Adrian Erickson: You’re from Mississippi.

Ramsey Russell: The desserts were amazing.

Adrian Erickson: Thank you.

Ramsey Russell: The prime rib was absolutely the best I ever. And I find myself gravitating towards the kitchen when I come to hunting camp, especially when there’s someone as friendly as yourself that’ll share space. The fried chicken was amazing, everything was so good. But you’ve been cooking like this for 10 years with some of these camps. How did you get into the catering and cooking and things of that nature? Who inspired, because you showed me a family recipe book last night, but who inspired your cooking style and your level of cooking?

Adrian Erickson: First of all, thank you. I’m incredibly humbled. Thank you very much.

Ramsey Russell: No, it was really good. Look, I had to loosen my belt for the first time in a long time, I had to loosen myself a little bit.

Adrian Erickson: You’re not leaving here without weighing out. Well, my mother was a fantastic cook and her father was a sheriff and she learned how to cook for a large group of people because my grandmother cooked for the inmates of the Bureau County jail in the 60s. They ate well. In fact, they lived in the house next to the jail, they’d go over, let the inmates out in the early 60s, they’d come over, eat dinner at my grandparents house and then he’d walk them back and lock them up.

Ramsey Russell: Sounds like Mayberry.

Adrian Erickson: It is. I often say, welcome to Mayberry in the middle of the cornfield. But definitely my mother and my father went out and growing up, we had dove, we had squirrel, we had duck, a lot of duck, deer, venison, everything. My father never let anything go to waste. Squirrel, rabbit, he was a provider in the true sense of the word. As a career, though, I ended up in long term care. I was a nursing home administrator for 22 years and worked in a hospital for a while, but owned a catering company with a very good friend and that’s actually how I ended up in this arena. My friend and I catered for Princeton Game and Fish Club, we were asked to cater for their 125th anniversary. And they had just opened up their new clubhouse and went down there and I think we did two rooms full of appetizers and, oh, my gosh, we had a wonderful time. And about a year after that, I got a phone call from Senachwine Club and they had asked if we would be interested in catering their anniversary dinner as well. So I remember it well, we did an elk Wellington and it was phenomenal. And shortly after that, I received a phone call from 2 or 3 gentlemen there and asked if I knew anyone that would be willing to talk about managing their hunting club. And I said, me. And that’s basically how it started. Their house manager had been there 28 years and her husband had been their groundskeeper for a long time and their son is now the manager, the groundskeeper there. And so I’ve been cooking down there and during COVID I got a call from Nathan Compton and asked me if I’d meet with the Wagner’s and I said, absolutely. So between the Wagner family and the Senachwine Club, I’ve been cooking like a wild woman.

Ramsey Russell: What are some of your specialties? What are some of your pocket recipes, I call it.

Adrian Erickson: Oh, my goodness. Well, I love to prepare prime rib.

Ramsey Russell: And you do an amazing job, let me tell you.

Adrian Erickson: I make another dish that’s like a sour cream chicken and you just can’t go wrong with wild rice and mushrooms and gravy and chicken. I told you that I’m paranoid about my fried chicken just because I don’t want to ever serve anyone undercooked chicken. What you had last night was a berry compote over a homemade pound cake.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, my gosh.

Adrian Erickson: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: How did you make that sauce, that compote sauce? Just in vague terms. I don’t want to give up, no trade secret. How do you make something like that? It was out of this world.

Adrian Erickson: I take some berries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, whatever you have sitting around and you just reduce it with some butter and sugar and throw in a little rosemary and a little balsamic vinegar and about 2 or 3, 4 or 5 cups of love.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s the secret. The pound cake you just buy from the grocery?

Adrian Erickson: This entire weekend, I’ve tried to keep my manners, I know you’re a very nice Southern man, come over here, I’ll slap you a little bit. No, I have a homemade pound cake.

Ramsey Russell: Everything you make is from scratch.

Adrian Erickson: Yes, sir.

Ramsey Russell: With a little bit of love.

Adrian Erickson: With a little bit of love. That’s how we show one another that we care about them and we care about what they’re doing. They’re being respectful to our wildlife, they’re being respectful to our environment and this is all we have left. The cities are concrete jungles, I mean, it really, truly is happening, I’ve witnessed it in my own experience. The floodwaters in the spring and the fall, when the rains come and the ice melts, the water is rising quicker and it’s happening.

A Chef’s Duck Recipe

Ramsey Russell: Because we are losing a lot of our wetlands, that’s right. That’s exactly what’s happening. I asked you the other night what your favorite duck recipe was and you said it was one of your mother’s recipes. Describe that recipe.

Adrian Erickson: Well, it’s a recipe that she made for our Christmas meal, we would have that duck in the middle of July. I mean, we just loved it.

Ramsey Russell: And it’s in the family only section of your family cook book.

Adrian Erickson: It’s in the family only section. And if she were alive today, she’d be honoured, but she’d say, don’t give my recipe out. But it’s got some rice and it’s got some wine, some onions, some mushrooms. She’d always add a little wheat berries to the rice and make a little crunch, a little pop. But it’s a slow recipe and a lot of people like their ducks served rare now, but this one was slow cooked over time and the duck just fell apart. And it’s got a nice gravy over the top of it and always homemade biscuits and yeah, nothing bad in the world can happen when you’re sitting around a table with your family enjoying a meal like that.

Ramsey Russell: Adrian, thank you for your time this morning, I know you’re very busy and you are managing this camp and keeping everybody happy and smiling and full fat and happy, I should say. But so much of what we talk about and so much of what, as I met you, I immediately recognized, let me put it to you this way. I was in a duck blind recently with a PBS film crew and they don’t hunt and they asked me a lot of questions that really made me look inside because they were asking me questions. Well, I showed them this wood duck and they’re like, what would you say to somebody who asks if you love ducks, how do you kill them? I’ve never asked myself, I just grew up a hunter, I shoot stuff, but I love them and it makes me wonder, how do you. He says, he asks himself and he says, I love nature, but I don’t see myself interacting with it with a trigger pull like you do and we just had a real interesting talk. But as we talked very respectfully to each other, back and forth, trying to explain our positions and explain what we do in this hunting thing of ours, what I tried to really explain to him, I said, it’s really not about the ducks, that’s the focal point. I come out here to hunt in this river bottom wild mallard ducks, but in this conversation and conversations with Preston and Pete, it’s about so much more than that. What some people would regard as a piece of collectible folk art is an absolute keepsake reminder of you and your dog, Jenny, in times in the blind with your daddy and this camphouse and those old men and the laughter and the cooks and the food and the warmth and this entire culture that spun around the pursuit of wild ducks. And that’s where we are, I think, in the modern era. And maybe that’s where we’ve always been, as this conversation bears out to me, that’s where your dad was. He ate the ducks, they provided meals for his family, but it was more than that, wasn’t it?

Adrian Erickson: That’s about relationship.

Ramsey Russell: It’s about relationships. Relationships with other people and relationships with the community, relationships with the habitat and relationships with the duck. And that’s why it was important for me to have you come on and tell your story about this part of the world.

Adrian Erickson: I thank you so very much, I’m honored.

Ramsey Russell: It’s snowing outside, if we were back home in Mississippi, I can tell you right now, every school would be shut and you couldn’t find a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk in the grocery store, it’s a beautiful day out here, cold weather is coming. Folks, I’m sitting at an old historic Illinois River Duck Club named Willow Creek, original in 1883. And now you’ve got to get a real perspective of the people that are involved here and of the culture that exists in this part of the world and probably right there in your part of the world, too. Thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ramsey Russell’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe, rate and review Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Share your favorite episodes with friends. Business inquiries or comments contact Ramsey Russell at ramsey@getducks.com. And be sure to check out our new GetDucks Shop.  Connect with Ramsey Russell as he chases waterfowl hunting experiences worldwide year-round: Insta @ramseyrussellgetducks, YouTube @DuckSeasonSomewherePodcast,  Facebook @GetDucks