By Wade Bourne
When you get down to it, there are really only three ways most of us can hunt waterfowl. You can pay to lease a spot. You can hire a guide for the day. Or you can freelance on either public or private land (with permission). Which is better? It all depends on your personal needs, expectations, and capabilities. Here are some basic guidelines to help hunters choose which of these options is best for them.
Avery pro-staffer Jeremy McIntyre of Yuba City, California, has leased the same pit in a rice field for the past four seasons. Overall, he has been satisfied with the experience. "Leasing gives you stability, convenience and a measure of control over your hunting circumstances," McIntyre says. "When you lease a spot, you know where you are going to hunt. You can leave your decoys out, which allows you to use a larger spread, and you have the flexibility to go on short one- or two-hour hunts when you don't have much time."
The biggest drawbacks to leasing are expense (a seat in a blind rents for $1,000-2,500 per season in McIntyre's area), a lack of mobility if the birds go elsewhere, and the effort of working with a landowner to manage the hunting area.
"Things just change sometimes," he adds, "and a lease that used to be red hot will go cold. You've got to be careful not to pay big money for a spot that may no longer be any good."
Johnny Porter runs Webfoot Guide Service out of Stockton, Missouri. Like many outfitters, he offers package hunts, which include lodging and food.
"Guides provide the spot, the equipment, and the know-how to have a good hunt in safe, comfortable conditions," he explains. "The guide does the work and the worrying, and the hunters just have a good time."
The main downside to guided hunting is the expense. Porter's fee of $250 per day may be cost-prohibitive for hunters on a limited budget. But it's not a bad deal for waterfowlers who can hunt only one or two weekends a year, or for those without much hunting equipment or experience.
Freelancers hunt mostly on public land from boats or temporary blinds. They depend on their own scouting and hunting skills to locate and harvest birds. Mike Terry of Obion, Tennessee, freelances in the Obion River bottoms and on the nearby Mississippi River.
"There's nothing quite like a good freelance hunt," he attests. "When you get on ducks in a spot they've just started working, you can have the best hunt of your life."
Freelance hunting is considerably less expensive than paying lease or guide fees. Once you have your own boat, decoys, and other gear, the only costs are gas, food, ammunition, and license fees. But freelancing isn't for everyone.
"Sometimes it's hard to get to where ducks are working," Terry says. "You have to cut brush and dig pits and other hard work. You can get lost. On big rivers, you have to deal with towboats, strong current, and big waves. And after all that, other hunters might set up nearby. But when everything works according to plan, the rewards make all the effort worthwhile."