We’re huddled over the kitchen sink, holding our phones to the window. It’s the only way we can find a consistent signal in our middle-of-the-prairies farmhouse rental. We had just watched a pile of mallards pouring into a quarter-acre pothole a few miles to the northwest. We have the landowner’s name, but finding a workable phone number to ask for permission has been a Gordian knot. My tech-savvy son, Jack, has been navigating the internet, searching social media pages and small-town newspaper websites to track down a handful of the landowner’s relatives, but we have yet to get one on the phone. “Alright! Here’s another option,” Jack says. “So far we’ve tried to call a Randall, an Amber, and a Terry. Now I found a cousin named John. Come on, big John!”
And off we go, dialing for ducks.
That’s just one of the wacky ways I’ve tried to score permission to hunt waterfowl. I think about that this time of year, when I’m looking for new ducking spots at home in North Carolina. I’m a member of a club with a long, meandering beaver swamp complex, but I like to have a few other possibilities in my back pocket.
Once, I sat down and wrote a letter to the executive directors of every land conservancy within a 75-mile radius, asking if they knew of any landowners who might be willing to lease a beaver swamp. I introduced myself, played up my status as a father, and sucked up as much as I could without being too cheesy. Out of a dozen letters, I got only one bite, but it was a doozy. I connected with a landowner who gave me permission to hunt a pair of his farms, which included access to a long, floatable stretch of creek. We’ve become solid friends over the last 15 years. That’s been much more valuable than ducks in the bag.
A few years back, I was having a diamond replaced in my wife’s engagement ring. Through a bit of small talk, the jeweler found out I was a hunter. “Oh,” she said, “you need to come out to my place and shoot all the deer running around. I’m right up against a wildlife management area. And there’s a big swamp out there too.”
My eyes grew wide. “You’re not serious,” I said, but it was hard to talk when I had my fingers, my toes, and even my tongue crossed.
“No, come on out,” she replied.
I hunted her place for a decade.
For a long time I started every day with a few minutes of rummaging through Craigslist. I searched for “duck swamp” and “duck club” and “duck lease” and “duck hunting.” Most times I struck out. But not every time.
One day a fellow posted about a swamp hardly a half-hour drive from my house. When I called and asked if I could take a look, he laughed. “I have three parties ready to rent it,” he said. “They’re coming tomorrow, but it’s first-come, first-served.” I pulled out of the driveway 10 minutes later, and I was hundreds of dollars lighter within the hour.
I once had a phone call from an older lady concerning a story I’d written about migrating salamanders. The sweet woman had found a frog and thought I might help her identify it. I always try to be kind and receptive when I hear from readers. I try really hard when they tell me they own a big swamp.
It took me four years to finally wrangle a lease on her farm, and for the next decade my children and I had free reign on 400 acres of big woods and cypress bottoms. And Mrs. Edie Pie Wilkins and I remained close friends long after I moved on.
It can be exasperating, the searching, the calling, the networking, the dead ends. But the rewards can be considerable. The keys to success? Don’t ever give up. Always be ready to make your move. And start looking now.