On a low, levee-protected tongue of Illinois land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers there sleeps a remnant of a city called Cairo. Years ago Cairo (rhymes with Pharaoh) was a roaring river town, full of side-wheelers and railroads and money; but most of the money—and the people—moved on. If, however, the sandbars and cornfields of Cairo were unappealing to migrant Americans, they proved irresistible to migrant geese. Each fall, hundreds of thousands of the big birds swarm down from Canada to rest on the sandbars and feed in the fields. This is the time when Cairo wakes again, when hotels and gun clubs bulge with hunters, when the riverbanks echo to shotgun fire and the roadhouses near the shooting grounds rock all night—till the shooting starts again at dawn.
Evening in Cairo begins with a recap of the day's hunt in the marvelously gaudy 19th century lobby of the Hotel Cairo (left), where industrialists from Chicago often hire suites in which to entertain their clients. Later there will be a dinner at the Mark Twain, or Harper's, then perhaps a game of poker with the boys and hit the sack early so as to be ready for the geese at sunrise. Another way is not to go to bed at all, but to hit the nightspots: Tallo's 51 Club, the Latin Quarter, the Stork Club. This is the rough side of Cairo, and it can get very rough indeed. In 1960 two ex-convicts from Quincy, Ill. were tried for the killing (one above the limit) of the proprietor of the Latin Quarter. Some said the killing was over a girl; others said it was over whole flights of girls; one man got eight years for voluntary manslaughter, the other got off. This kind of advanced gunship is hard to tie in with goose shooting until one realizes that each year $1.5 million is spent by hunters around Cairo. This is big money in a sleepy town; and when it comes, the town stays up to get it.
Early morning finds hunters clustered around the porch of the Hoosier Club, run by Too Tall Yates.
After sunrise (next page) flights of geese rise along the Mississippi as the hunters fire from their blinds.
November 27, 1961
Waiting for geese, hunters crouch in their pit blind and peer through a tangle of corn, hoping that flights of honkers will spot their decoys and circle close enough for a telling shot.
Tuning for geese, craftsman Kenneth Martin cups his hands and gives an experimental toot on one of the goose calls he fashions in the attic of his father's hunting club near Cairo.
Biggest bargain in town is the hunter's breakfast served every day at 4 a.m. at Les Grah's Lake View Tavern. For only a dollar a man can buy all the ham, bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, jam and coffee he can eat. The breakfast sometimes is enlivened by the presence of entertainers from Cairo's goose-season taverns, who drop by in the shank of their long, long evening to see what may be cooking for the next night.
A game warden leaves his car to make a check on two gunners who have downed a goose near the Patton Hunting Club. Strict laws limit hunters in the Mississippi flyway to two Canada geese per day.
A stern sentinel for Cairo hunters, Mrs. Vera McCoy, waits at the gate of her rooming house to see if the men coming back from the pits have bagged anything worth plucking and cooking.
Retrieving a goose he has just shot from a pit blind, a hunter trudges through a patch of broken cornstalks on the property of Spice Yates, brother of Hoosier Club manager, Too Tall.
The day's bag of fat, corn-fed geese lies on the porch as triumphant hunters, their limits already in hand, watch die-hards still shooting along the edge of a game refuge across the road.
After the hunt, shooters pack their guns and climb into a jeep for a ride back to their club before heading home with the weekend kill of geese.