All waterfowlers share the dream of having their own private marsh, where they can hunt without the pressures and restrictions of public areas. No crowds. No racing to claim the best blinds. No calling contests to leery ducks or geese. No artillery duels. Just hunting the way it should be, an encounter between man and bird.
This desire has changed the face of waterfowling. The last several years have seen a major trend toward the leasing of hunting lands and the establishment of private clubs. In all four North American flyways, many of the best marshes, sloughs, fields, and flooded woodlands have come under the control of hunters who could afford the asking price. In many cases, this requires a princely sum. Still, hunters’ quest for their sport’s best has kept the competition for prime spots keen.
But as many know from experience, finding, securing, and managing a new hunting lease takes a lot of work, and it can also be a gamble. Just because you hunt behind a locked gate doesn’t mean ducks or geese will fog into your decoys. Instead, bad research, bad management, or just plain bad luck can cause your best laid plans to go awry.
This is why hunters should do everything possible to stack the odds in their favor. By understanding what it takes to make a new lease work, and by borrowing from the experiences of others, hunters have a much better chance of turning hopes into high fives over the success of their new club.
Here are some valuable tips for finding, setting up, and managing a hunting lease from three veterans who have proven track records in developing prime waterfowl hunting spots.
Picking the Right Spot
Hunters have two general options for finding a new hunting lease. They can rent a place that’s already proven, or they can start from scratch and develop a new area. The first prospect will likely be expensive. Good hunting spots don’t come for a song. The second option will likely be expensive and risky. There is always the chance that, after a field or farm is leased and developed to attract waterfowl, the birds might not like it.
“The keys to finding a good lease are to take your time, make reliable contacts, and conduct thorough research,” says Allen Hughes of Memphis, Tennessee. Hughes is a partner in Avery Outdoors, a company that manufactures waterfowl hunting blinds and accessories. In the past 20 years, he has located, leased, and successfully managed several farms in mallard-rich east Arkansas.
“I’d advise somebody looking for a new lease to pick a general area, then start scouting a year ahead of time,” Hughes advises. “Get a county road map, and spend as much time as you can driving the backroads, watching where ducks fly, and learning who’s getting consistent shooting and who’s not. Talk to biologists and game wardens. Study plat maps to see who owns which tracts. Check all references, and follow up on all leads. Just do whatever you can to learn which areas the birds like best.
“Also, by scouting in the winter, you can see how the water lays on a field or in a slough. In contrast, if you scout in the summer when the water and the ducks are gone, then you’re just having to take somebody’s word on how good a spot is, and that’s chancy.”
Hughes contends that the best thing someone looking for a lease can do is make friends with local farmers. “If you get a couple of reliable contacts in the farm community, they can put out feelers and uncover leads for you. Right now, with commodity prices so low, more farmers are amenable to leasing their personal hunting spots, and the best way to find them is through people they know.”
What about leases that are advertised in newspapers or hunting magazines? “Hunters should be careful with these,” Hughes warns. “I’m sure some are okay, but others will be losers. Somebody considering an advertised lease should learn why it’s available and why it hasn’t already been snapped up by a local hunter. Usually, competition for duck leases is sharp. If a good one comes open, the owner won’t have to list it in the newspaper. So, I’d be careful about advertised leases.”
Hughes recommends limiting a new lease to one year, with options on additional years. “This keeps you from getting stuck too long with a lemon. If a lease doesn’t work out, you can go somewhere else the next season. But, if the lease produces and you want to keep it, then you can exercise your options for the remaining years.”
Developing a new spot (one that’s never been hunted) can be a crap shoot. A newly flooded field, slough, or woods may draw waterfowl like a magnet, or it might be ignored by ducks or geese flying overhead. Who knows why the birds flock to one spot and shun another?
Hughes recalls, “We leased and flooded a woods next to a reservoir that held a lot of ducks. There was no reason why this spot wouldn’t pull some birds, but we never killed a duck on it. Not one. They’d sail over us each morning by the hundreds and go into the reservoir. We just wasted our lease money.”
Hughes cautions that hunters should guard against a “build it and they will come” mentality. “Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. There’s no real way of knowing until you pump the water into a new spot and see how the ducks react to it.”
He adds that the fee on a brand new lease should be lower than that for a proven spot, especially if the lessees are paying development costs. And, in this case, he definitely recommends against leasing for more than one year. Again, a single year with options for more is a better alternative.
“The best advice I could give you in terms of locating a new place to develop for waterfowl would be to scout during the hunting season and watch for places where water collects and ducks go naturally,” Hughes explains. “The best time to do this is after a hard rain, when the creeks are rising and backing out into adjacent lowlands. If you can find a place the ducks are hitting, and you can lease it and flood it the next season, then you might be onto a honey hole.”
Putting a Lease Group Together
How many members should share the lease? What will be expected of members? Should formal membership rules be written, or is an informal rules agreement good enough?
Greg Keats of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a custom duck call maker who has leased the same farm near Chestertown for duck and goose hunting for 15 years. He worked the initial deal with the landowner, then he invited nine other hunters to join his club. “With that many people, I found myself babysitting all the time. Some of our members weren’t as responsible as I thought they’d be. I felt responsible to the landowner since I cut the deal with him, so I went around cleaning up behind others, correcting their mistakes, and trying to make sure the farmer was happy. Instead of enjoying the lease, it turned out to be a headache for me. The next year, I didn’t invite the people causing the problems to rejoin,” Keats says.
In the following years, Keats pared the membership down even further until only three members remained. “My other two partners are impeccable in their ethics, manners, and other aspects of their behavior. We don’t have a lot of formal rules. We just decide what we’re going to do before the season starts and stick to it. But, if there are several members on a lease, then formal rules on such things as work details, shooting times, and guest privileges are a good idea.”
Keats says other attributes of a good lease partner are a willingness to share the work, respecting the landowner’s property, obeying all game laws, being unselfish toward others, and dependably meeting financial obligations.
How many members should share a lease? “That’ll vary depending on how big the club is, how much the lease costs, and so on,” Keats contends. “But, in my opinion, the fewer members you have, the less chance there is for rules to be skirted or disharmony to develop. If possible, keep your lease group small and confined to hunters you know very well.”
Another critical element in developing a lease is maintaining a strong relationship with the landowner. “Don’t drive across his fields, even if he says it’s okay to do so,” Keats warns. “Make sure which areas you have access to and which ones are off limits. Be clear on when your payment is due, and get the money to him on time. Make sure there’s no misunderstanding about who’s responsible for pumping water (if water is to be pumped), when water will be pumped, where vehicles should be parked, and other such matters.
“We invite the landowner and his family members to hunt with us. We are fastidious about treating his property with respect. We ask if we can help him with chores. We take him a gift at Christmas and send a card on his birthday. We call him from time to time in the off-season. Overall, we work hard to make our landowner happy to see us. We want to be his friends as well as his lessees. Such a proactive approach has served us—and him—well over the years.”
Managing the Lease
Once a lease is obtained and the membership organized, those involved must decide how the club will be managed. Food crops, hunting days and times, and blind and decoy setups will factor largely into how consistent the shooting will be.
For years, brothers Ronnie and Larry Hill of Pleasant Hill, Illinois, have managed a duck club on their farm in the nearby Mississippi River bottoms. They flood two 40-acre ponds in which they have grown a variety of grain crops. “We mainly raise corn, but we also flood a few acres of soybeans and Japanese millet,” Ronnie Hill says. “The beans and millet are better early-season crops, while the corn attracts ducks better in colder weather. Also, “wooly” crops (those with a grassy understory) are better than clean crops. Ducks love corn with foxtail and various grasses growing in the rows. These grasses provide extra food and cover. So, we manage our herbicide application to keep broadleaves in check, but allow grasses to grow underneath the corn.”
Hill adds one mistake some hunters make is trying to establish a hunting club on “junk ground.” “You need good ground to grow good crops. If you start out with a piece of ground that won’t grow anything but cockleburs, then you’re probably never going to have a very good hunting spot.”
Hill says another key to attracting and holding ducks is precise water level control. “We have our ponds cross-levied into compartments so we can raise water in increments. I call this spoon-feeding the ducks. We pump with electric pumps, and we can raise the water a few inches at a time. You’ve got to be able to put the water where you want it, when you want it, to keep fresh food available.”
Hill starts pumping approximately 10 days before the hunting season. “Our farm is next to a refuge; so we’ve already got ducks close by,” he says. “All I have to do is pull ‘em across the line, so I don’t start pumping too early to make my crops last longer. But, if I didn’t have this concentration of birds readily available, I’d probably start pumping a week or two earlier to give ‘em more time to find my food.”
Hill slowly, but continuously raises his water through the season. “I hate black stalks, where the water’s dropped out of corn. Instead, ducks like newly flooded areas. This means new food. It just looks better, and it is better.”
Another consideration in successful duck-club management is hunting pressure. How can a club regulate shooting so as not to run ducks away?
“We rarely hunt past noon, and we never shoot past 3:30 p.m.,” Hill says. “You’ve got to give the ducks a chance to come and feed. They learn the rules real fast. They’ve got little clocks on their feet, and, if you cut off shooting at a certain time, they’ll show up shortly after this time to eat. This keeps ‘em using the field. If you don’t give ‘em some break, they’ll leave you. You’ve got to keep ‘em coming, and you do this by regulating your shooting pressure.
“Sometimes we’ll have a lot of ducks in the area, but they’re hard to kill because the weather’s warm or whatever. If our success starts dropping, then we may quit hunting for a few days to let the ducks get back into the field. We do whatever we have to to keep ‘em using our property.”
The Hill brothers shoot from pits over spreads numbering 300 to 400 decoys. “Obviously, we don’t pick our decoys up each day,” Ronnie Hill says. “Sometimes, the ducks get a little decoy-shy when there hasn’t been a cold front for several days, but this has never been too big a problem.”
They continually experiment with new levees, new blinds, and different management schemes. “We never get through tinkering,” Hill explains. “Each year we get some new idea we want to try the following season. I don’t think we’ll ever discover the perfect setup that doesn’t need tweaking.”
Hill also adds that sometimes it takes several seasons for a new spot to reach its full potential. “A place may not be very good for a season or two, then the ducks will discover it and start spreading the word about it. The first thing you know, you’ve got a lot of birds using it. Sometimes, patience is a virtue when it comes to developing a new spot.”
Successful Lease is a “Fine Kettle of Stew”
Finding and developing a new hunting club is like cooking burgoo, that old Kentucky campfire stew. There is no set recipe to follow and no single best way to blend the ingredients together.
Instead, the “cook” of a new hunting club must work with whatever components are at hand and stir them together by intuition. He must find the right spot, deal with the landowner, sign on members, work out a management plan, and oversee development details. He must proceed patiently, perhaps trying a dash more food here, tweaking the membership there, adding a little water, taking away a little shooting pressure, and doing whatever is needed to season the “stew” to his taste.
Allen Hughes, Greg Keats, Ronnie Hill, and many other hunters have labored in this kitchen for years. They know that setting up a new duck club can be fraught with hard work, expense, and sometimes, disappointment. But, when everything clicks, when the recipe turns out, the satisfaction in terms of unspoiled shooting is supreme, and the banquet can last for seasons to come.