Cold rain fell on November 22 in the Dale Miller campsites of Rend Lake, Ill. It was the first day of firearm deer hunting in Illinois and supposed to be a weekend of hunting made more accessible for disabled hunters.
No amount of rain was going to change that.
For more than three decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff at Rend Lake has worked with Sesser-Valier High School’s Outdoorsmen’s Club. Together, blinds are constructed and installed in parts of the Corps’ property usually reserved for camping. But for the first weekend of Illinois’ firearm deer season, all pedestrian and vehicular traffic is restricted in order for disabled hunters to access and use the blinds.
This year, 26 hunters braved the rain and cold to take six deer, including the largest take of the weekend, an 11-point buck weighing 239 pounds.
Denny Marlow’s 13-point buck was the second-largest take at 202 pounds. He’s traveled here from Millstadt every year of this event, and brought venison home nearly every year.
“But it’s more than the hunt. Meeting people and developing friendships is a big part of this event,” said Marlow. “I have friends I only get to see when I am here.”
One of the friends Marlow has made is Brandon Kirk, who started as a helper at this event in fifth grade. Kirk has been out of high school nearly a decade, but still comes to the Thursday setup to visit hunters around the fire pit and catch up with friends.
Marlow credits the team who had the vision to establish the event and identify the needs of hunters and sportsmen in all degrees of ability.
“They found an opportunity to let hunters return to something they love, and it just grew from there,” he said.
Lena Bennett, Natural Resource Specialist in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District, has spent the past three years in the environmental management of the Rend Lake property. She directs cutting and planting strategies developed with the outdoorsmen’s club in the accessible fields. Overall, she works to encourage deer and other fauna habitats throughout the 40,000 acres of water and land under Corps management at the lake.
She and her staff coordinate with the outdoorsmen’s club to set safe shooting lanes to protect other hunters and their sighted prey. Using areas usually reserved for camping, paved areas provide much improved accessibility for the hunters.
“We provide accessible hunting for sportsmen with a wide variety of disabilities,” says Bennett. “We also take mobility of the hunter into consideration when assigning blinds.”
In all the years of the event, the site has been able to accommodate every hunter who registers.
Of course, after 34 years of the event, sportsmen come and go for a variety of reasons. Some cannot tolerate inclement weather, some can’t travel like they used to, and some have passed away. Marlow remembers a hunter friend he only saw at the Rend Lake hunt.
“I can still see him, and still hear his voice on the second day saying he was going home. But he always stayed.” An easy smile grows on his face as he remembers, “It could only happen in Southern Illinois.”
Don Williams traveled from Swansea, Ill. for his first accessible hunting at Rend. He learned about the event from a friend who had been to an accessible hunt at Rend before.
“This is a great opportunity to enjoy my love of hunting with my disability. Without this type of program, I would not be able to hunt.”
Twelve hours before the hunt was ready to begin, Williams was already planning for next year at Rend. He is planning to bring his son and grandson to be part of his support team. He sees it as a re-connection with his family and the hobby, a reunion he had not hoped for until now.
“I plan to attend every year I can,” says Williams. “I am told that these hunters form a lasting relationship. I am looking forward to the companionship of other hunters that are in my same situation.
“I look forward to starting my day early tomorrow, and if I don’t land a deer, at least I had the opportunity to meet great people.”
Plenty of opportunity came Williams’ way: the largest take of the event, the 11-point buck weighing 239 pounds, was his shot.