How does a Ducks Unlimited chapter in the vast Lone Star State achieve the status of largest event? The same way every DU chapter supports the ducks—through hard work, dedication, and fun. The Ellis County chapter, located just outside Dallas, may have a few tricks up its sleeve, but the committee members largely focus on making sure they create a fun atmosphere for attendees and reward those who return each year.
"You can always get someone to come to an event once, but to get them to come back year after year, they have to feel like they had a good shot at winning something," says Chapter Chairman John Reagan. "Every kid walks away with a bag of goodies, including hats, calls, and pocketknives, and we give away three guns exclusively to kids."
The chapter also presents a longevity award each year. "Anyone that has been a table sponsor for more than 10 years gets recognized in the program and put into a drawing for a great item, like a nice shotgun," John explains. Last year, there were about 15 sponsors on that list.
The Ellis County chapter went from selling only individual tickets and having an event attendance of around 175 to selling almost exclusively tables and boasting approximately 1,000 attendees. In addition, tickets consistently sell out a month in advance.
"This event is truly something you have to see in person," says DU Regional Director Russ Hawley. "John and his outstanding committee are always coming up with new ideas to entertain the massive crowd, and people always look forward to attending the event on the last Friday in April every year."
Keeping the event on a set date is one of the many keys to its success. The committee also brings in Louisiana caterer Savoie's to serve up a variety of Cajun food. The doors and the buffet line open at the same time, which allows attendees to spread out and helps the cook keep up.
As chairman for nearly 15 years, John has been keeping a spreadsheet of attendees, sponsors, and donors since 2004. "I go through the list every year, see which committee member sold which table or secured a donation, and we go back to those same supporters," he explains. "We can remind them what they gave last year or the year before, thank them, and encourage them to do so again or maybe even step up this year."
The Ellis County committee has around 50 members. As with all DU committees, some members excel at selling tickets, while others are more comfortable with setup and cleanup. This division of labor lightens the load and keeps anyone from getting burnt out. It also lets them play to their strengths.
"Terry Graham and Malcolm Glaspy take care of the silent auction. Adrian Sanchez handles the bucket raffle. Brothers Matt and Chad Newsom do a great job of getting a lot of people to the event because they know a lot of people in the community," John says. "There's a core group of guys and gals that make this thing work. It takes 20-plus people an entire day to set it up."
Because of the size of the event, in addition to the usual silent and live auctions, raffles, and games, the Ellis County chapter holds a 50-gun raffle. "We have more than 100 guns at the event, and that's a big draw," John says. "Most of the people come for the party, the guns, and the socializing, but they're all contributing to the cause of conservation."