Viewed from the limestone bluffs of Illinois high above the Mississippi River, the glow of the small light, a half-mile away on the Missouri shore, appears as two; one atop the weathered pole, the other a reflection on the stained water of Brick House Slough.
Every evening at dusk the miniature beacon goes to work, reminding river men of the crude boat launch location. The access lies a couple hundred yards from the mouth of Brick House and is sparingly used by sporting anglers, waterfowl enthusiasts, commercial fishermen and a few trappers. They all trust the light as a guide during their night and predawn adventures. Frequently, I’ve wondered about the folks who set the pole, change the element and pay the ’lectric bill. I’m grateful for their thoughtfulness and consideration.
Brick House is aptly named after the stately red brick dwelling built in the early 1900s that once sat on the “high ground” near the mouth of the waterway. In one of her rampages, the mighty River destroyed the house except for the foundation and reclaimed the land, but allowed man to keep the name “Brick House Slough.”
The ancient oxbow’s head lies just downstream from Portage Des Sioux and its body separates the Dresser Island complex from the Missouri mainland. Nearly two miles in length and partially visible across the river from the Great River Road, the slough meanders in a gentle curve. Three miles down from its mouth at Alton sits the Mel Price Locks and Dam, the last Army Corps of Engineers structure trying to harness the largest of America’s rivers.
The dam forms Pool No. 26 used by commercial tows, recreational boaters, sailors and sportsmen whose stories of giant catfish have become legend.
National recognition for Brick House came in 1991 when Bass Pro fisherman Woo Daves won the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society’s Illinois Invitational. His winning catch in the three-day event were all “Brick House Largemouth.” For weeks after, the old slough was overwhelmed by locals trying to duplicate Mr. Daves’ feat.
The 500-year flood of 1993 not only destroyed, displaced and devastated life on the Mississippi as we had known it, the calamity revamped the entire area. For months, floodwater covered the region between the two sister rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri, known as the Missouri Bottoms. Backwater lakes, sloughs and cutoffs were left with tons of silt, debris and trash. Some survived but were drastically changed and Brick House was among the wounded. The 6-foot plus channel where I’d learned to water ski in my youth was reduced to a narrow path and bass’n stumps and crappie holes all but disappeared beneath the muck. However, as she often does, Mother Nature replaces bad with good, old with new. Beds of smartweed, aquatic grasses and arrowhead began to flourish in the extended flats and shallow backwater banks, making the area a natural attraction for migrating waterfowl.
My love affair grows daily for the River in general and for the Brick House area in particular. Our Illinois home, high above the “Father of Waters,” is a wonderful vantage point to observe the endless action on and about the water. We count bald eagles in the cold winter, feed ruby-throat “hummers” spring till migration, watch scouring turkey vultures most anytime, as well as white pelicans, egrets, great blue herons and, of course, waterfowl. By using her high-power scope, Jan can watch me set the decoys, hide the johnboat and get my “daily fix” during the season. Most nights, clearly visible, the twinkle of Brick House Light is a reminder that tomorrow a new outdoor experience awaits.
The September teal season had been slow; unproductive by most standards; not many early migrators. As I prepared for bed on the night before the last day of tealing, I pondered the little light’s call, “See you in the morning.” Awakening to heavy fog, I questioned my decision to give it one more try. But “you never know unless you go.” After launching the boat and motoring slowly with the shorelight visible over my shoulder, I navigated to the ghostly dark outer bank of Brick House. Finding a desirable spot, I set the teal decoys, shoved the boat into heavy smartweed and prepared for action. About the time I’d decided the fog was too heavy for even teal to see, let alone fly, they appeared like magic out of the mist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a squadron of these little anas discors, flying at 60 mph (mach duck speed), doing aerobatics that would make the Blue Angels envious; but to me, it ranks atop my waterfowl list.
The group of a dozen blue-wing buzzed the smartweed bed some 50 yards from my set and squeals from my trusty teal call brought them flippin’, dippin’ and diving; heading for a traumatic encounter. Blasts from my 20 gauge A-5 Browning sent the startled birds into a steep climb, but not before two splashed, belly-up, in the shallow water of the decoys. My heart raced with joy and excitement as the brace was retrieved.
It’s of little consequence that my limit of birds was filled within a half-hour. Seven-thirty, what a morning, and to think I’d almost stayed home.
Motoring up the slough toward the truck, I’m almost sure I saw the little light wink, as if to say, “Aren’t you glad you came.” Out loud, I said, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have even tried.”
So, each night before retiring, I check the River, remember when . . . and make sure someone “left the light on.”
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs Sundays at noon on WBGZ Radio, 1570 AM.