After market hunting was banned, many of the hunters became guides for the wealthy men who came to sport hunt waterfowl. Since the mid-1930s, duck hunting has been limited to the fall season. Sport hunting also had an economic impact on the towns of the Illinois River. As wetlands decreased at the turn of the century, wealthy hunters bought thousands of acres of Illinois river land and built gun clubs on them. By the 1940s up to 60 percent of the state's waterfowl habitat, concentrated in thirty-three counties, was privately owned. This caused resentment from the local hunters and those hunters who did not have the wealth required to join private clubs. By 1918, the forty-mile area above and below Beardstown was thickly populated with private hunting clubs. Even in the 1970s, there were seventy-six of these clubs registered in Mason County. Here are a few examples:
Duck Island Club was founded at Banner, Illinois on 3,000 acres in 1880 by businessmen from Peoria and Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1928 it became a non-profit organization with the mission of protecting all game for legal acts of recreation. Membership was small, between eight and twelve men.
The Central Illinois Hunting Club of 2,000 acres was built in 1902 (clubhouse added in 1910) between the towns of Browning and Bath. Other clubs were the Sanganois (1902) and the Meredosia Gun Club on Meredosia Island. The Grand Island Lodge, across the Bath Chute on a 4,700 acre island, featured several lakes, a lodge house, and cabins. It continues today with its dozen members, who use row boats to hunt on the managed lakes. They maintain a large rest area where hundreds of thousands of ducks have been inventoried.
About 1919, the Treadway Rod and Gun Club, located on a lake where the Sangamon joins the Illinois River, was the first private duck refuge. It started a trend for clubs to practice good management of natural resources by setting aside rest areas for the migrating flocks. Meredosia Lake, Clear Lake, and the Grand Island Club on Jack Lake contained refuges.
Thompson Lake Rod and Gun Club was located briefly on this lake, which was considered to be the most valuable in Illinois because of its rich aquatic habitat that made it a fishing mecca and important point on the waterfowl migration flyway. The club was established in 1901 by some Indianapolis businessmen. From then until 1923, duck hunting flourished on the lake, but relations with locals deteriorated into legal suits about the private versus public functions of the lake. Finally, the Supreme Court declared the lake private property in 1917. Joy Morton, the owner, proceeded to build levees and change the property into agricultural land. All the water was pumped out of the lake, a third of the fish were transferred to other lakes, and farming began in 1924.
There were many commercial gun clubs started by local hunters. They offered one-day shoots for those hunters not wealthy enough to join the exclusive clubs. Bill Boyd's Gun Club near Browning and the Lakewood Club of Havana are examples.
Every adult and teen in a family could be involved in hosting duck hunting. Hunters came from larger towns and cities such as Jacksonville, Peoria, Springfield, Chicago, and St. Louis and would usually rent rooms with their guide's family for from $4.00 to $10.00 per day each. The men and boys of the family would act as guides and pushers for $10.00 to $12.00 per day. A resident of Browning recalls:
The daily hunt consisted of taking two hunters in a skiff to the slough, using the "kicker" (outboard motor) until the water became too shallow, then 'pushing' the boat with a pole or paddle to the blind, where they would set the hunters up with boxes for seats, spread out the decoys over the water, leaving an open area for ducks to land. Standard gear for duck hunters was the shotgun. Breech-loading shotguns enabled highly skilled hunters to bring down 200 ducks in a single day around the turn of the century. The pusher used the duck calls, often shot ducks, too (especially if the hunters were having trouble making their limit), and then sending a dog out (usually a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, English Springer Spaniel, or a Water Spaniel) or paddling out to pick up the fallen ducks. When dusk or the duck limit was reached, the boat took the hunters back to their host's home, where after supper, the pushers and the women dressed the ducks to ready them for shipping or travel with the hunter (charging .25 per duck). They sold the feathers or used them to make down comforters and pillows.
Other businesses such as boat builders, engine and gun repair shops, decoy carvers, grocers, clothing stores, and owners of small hotels also made a profit during the duck hunting season. Along with independent guides, there were duck hunt clubs on islands in the rivers or sloughs. They charged large fees for membership, ran launches to take their members from the trains to the clubs, and employed guides, pushers, and others.