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Free upland-game hunt is real deal

Farmer Gary Forlines stuffs pheasant invest outdoors blogger Ken Gortowski during free upland-game permit hunt Green River State Wildlife Area.

Farmer Gary Forlines stuffs a pheasant into the vest of outdoors blogger Ken Gortowski during a free upland-game permit hunt at Green River State Wildlife Area. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:27AM

HARMON, Ill. — The first cockbird busted with a cackle from plantings next to the browned, downed sunflower stubble of dove fields. It made the mistake of quartering across the five of us.

Jeff Lampe made a long, clean shot. It sailed a couple of hundred yards, then dropped dead. The dogs — Hawk, Lampe’s Llewellin setter, and Indy, Gary Forlines’ Lab — found it easily.

One bird in one shot was an excellent way to start a special day of upland-game hunting at Green River State Wildlife Area.

Illinois is most renowned for whitetail deer. For my money, though, the free upland-game permit program remains the coolest public hunting in the state.

The application period is in August. Successful applicants — generally 1-in-3 — can bring several hunters and generally have a site to themselves.

Green River is big enough — 2,565 acres — to have had four groups Wednesday. Three of the four groups were from suburban Chicago. This program is vital to urban/suburban hunters.

Green River is big enough that I could invite five guests. Four made it. I have hunted many times with each of them. Lampe, the editor of Heartland Outdoors, and Forlines, a farmer from Toulon, rode together from central Illinois. Steve Palmisano, one of the Henry’s Sports and Bait clan, and I carpooled from New Lenox. Ken Gortowski, a blogger for Water Dog Journal, had the shortest ride from Yorkville.

We ranged from our mid-40s to our early 60s, old enough to be comfortable. That showed in a group with one Republican, two pragmatic Democrats, one progressive and one free thinker able to walk around together with loaded shotguns.

Loaded with steel shot, that is. That’s the one requirement at Green River. It has a good mix of habitat and cover. About a third is slough, swampy in years other than in the Drought of 2012. It’s gently rolling with a mix of planted fields, prairie restorations and timber.

We spread out first off parking lot 11A. We bagged two roosters shot in three hours. We heard enough cackling in the distance
to keep us pressing. The second bird was dropped by a good shot from Gortowski, which was nice because he gets to hunt less than the rest of us.

We meandered back to the cars in the late morning for coffee and talk. And to look at photos of Forlines’ and Lampe’s big bucks from this fall.

After checking maps, we decided to push out the southeast corner near the check station. That turned out to be tough, with only a couple of rabbits flushed.

After we danced through a thicket holding our arms and guns aloft, Lampe captured the moment when he quipped: ‘‘That must be what it is like to be a rock star and walk through an adoring crowd.’’

Sure enough, just before we completed our circle and reached the check station, two cockbirds flushed, and we had to watch them sail.

It was time for a full-spread lunch: Ginny Forlines’ crumb-topped muffins (500 calories each); Italian sausage sandwiches Palmisano had grilled the night before; my Jungle Juice (tomato juice, beef broth, hot sauce, red wine); Lampe’s cheese venison sausage from Elmwood Locker; and chips. Men-at-work food.

The other three had to leave, but Palmisano and I pushed on another hour. Without a dog, the approach is different, more difficult. We targeted rabbit habitat and hoped to stumble on a pheasant.

We had nearly completed our circle when I stopped to savor the scene. Then a rabbit bolted, which I missed by a foot.

The drive home went smoothly, as Palmisano and I talked about kids, life and Chicago outdoors.

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