If you spend any time reading hunter surveys or just talking with other hunters at the local diner, you’ll likely hear about a major problem facing the sport: access. It isn’t just a duck hunting problem. In fact, as far as public land hunting is concerned, duck hunters have it pretty good compared to deer or turkey hunters — at least in some areas.
The problem with public hunting is the amount of time and effort required to consistently scout for and kill ducks where competition is high. Ample time is something many of us are short on these days, and a season’s worth of 2 a.m. wake-up calls to claim the best hole in the marsh will take its toll on anyone.
Sadly, in many areas, the days of knocking on a landowner’s door and gaining permission to hunt with a simple handshake are virtually gone. So if you want to successfully hunt ducks without dealing with the public land hassles, particularly in a hot zone of flyway activity, it means joining a lease or club.
Done right, a lease can be money well spent. The hunting pace is typically more relaxed, and that’s what we want with our precious time away from work, right? Plus, if you do some per-bird figuring at the end of the year, you might not spend much more by leasing than if you’d hunted the same amount on public land — particularly if a boat payment and high gas prices are involved.
But entered into carelessly, with the wrong partners or in the wrong spot, a lease can be a waste of cash and worst of all, it can sever friendships. It’s crucial to research all of your options before opening your wallet so there are no surprises.
The following advice highlights common pitfalls associated with initially leasing and subsequently maintaining a good pay-to-play hunting spot. Paying attention to them could mean the difference in a barnburner duck season and a long winter of bird watching with buyer’s remorse.
Tim Soderquist, who hunts the Texas Gulf Coast, says to ask a seemingly basic but sometimes overlooked question when prospecting for a new lease: Where’s the water?
“I’ve seen it time and again when guys join a new club — the season opens and the field they’re hunting is dry. You can’t hunt waterfowl without water,” he said.
Pumping water onto a field can be a significant expense in fuel and pump upkeep alone, and that’s not including the price of the pump itself. Many hunters, particularly in warm, wet regions such as the southern Mississippi Delta, simply stop up their fields just before season and pray for rain, but you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. When making a deal with a landowner on a flooded field, be sure you know in advance whether the price of water is included in the overall lease price, who is supposed to stop up the levy ahead of a big rain and who is responsible for fixing a pump should it break down in the middle of the night.
Establish a Network
Chip Heaps, a member of a club on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, keeps in touch with his hunting buddies every day — sometimes two or three times per day.
“You really need someone who is a point of contact, especially if you have a bigger club,” he said. “We constantly check ahead of time to see who is going to be hunting the next trip, where we’re going, where the landowner is seeing birds and if anyone is bringing guests. By staying constantly in touch over the phone and through e-mail, we avoid any confusion the morning of a hunt.”
Beware of Spring Shopping
Brandon Gavrock is an Arkansas wildlife officer and has grown up duck hunting in the rice country of the Mississippi Delta. He cautions hunters not to commit to a lease if they don’t have solid knowledge of how ducks use the area in the fall.
“Sadly, I’ve seen people end up in bad leases because they go to look at a field in February. There are times in the early spring in this area when every puddle of water around here holds a few ducks that are on their return migration, but some of those same fields may get virtually no traffic during hunting season. If a field loads up after hunting season and a farmer can show it to you, it’s tempting to commit to a lease right away. But it’s important to do your homework. Find out who was leasing the field before you, if they were killing ducks and why they’re not leasing it now. If the farmer won’t provide you with that information, it should be a red flag.”
Tony Vandemore is a guide for Habitat Flats in northwest Missouri. He knows habitat preferences change for ducks throughout the season, so if you’re looking into a long-term lease, having the flexibility to improve the habitat in various ways is a plus.
“It’s rare to find a lease that is productive for the entire 60-day season if there isn’t some flexibility on the habitat,” he said. “Ask the farmer if the crops are rotated each year in a long-term lease, and find out what you may be able to do for management. Can you pay a little extra to leave some standing corn, or will it all be stubble? Can you can drain and add water at your discretion for growing moist-soil grasses that make for good teal hunting in September? And along those same lines, if you’re leasing a wetland, can it be drained in the summer so it doesn’t become inundated with lily pads?”
Plan the Spread
Hunter Johnson of Locked Wings and Labs guide service in Missouri, leases 22 spots to various groups of hunters. He’s been in the business for a dozen years. Each season, he sees groups of hunters overlooking little details of the hunting setup, and consequently causing conflicts amongst themselves.
“Guys definitely need to sit down and talk before season and figure out how many decoys they’re going to use, who all will provide them, whether they’ll pick them up each day or establish a permanent spread, whether they’ll build permanent jerkstrings, if they’ll wire spinners to batteries in the blind and how the blind will be brushed up and arranged,” he said. “It sounds funny, but little differences in hunting style can cause a lot of friction if you have to share a pit with someone all season long.”
Know the Members
Are you joining a club for the first year? Has one of your buddies mentioned the names of a few guys you don’t know who might be interested in splitting up the costs? Although it can be tempting to jump at any opportunity to get the needed cash in hand, make it a point to meet e
veryone and shake hands before spending any money.
Most duck hunters are like-minded folks who get along fine — at least when they aren’t trying to hunt the same hole on public ground. But we’ve all hunted with guys we don’t particularly care to be around. Maybe they don’t take the sport as seriously as we do and won’t put in their portion of the required effort. Maybe you like to go to bed early, but they enjoy post-hunt partying at camp more than the hunting itself. Ask yourself if you can tolerate those differences for the duration of the season. If they have other flaws, such as a reputation for bending the game laws or unsafe gun handling, find different partners or somewhere else to hunt.
Know the Guest Policy
Sharing the blind with good company and introducing new hunters to the sport are among the most enjoyable aspects of duck hunting. But overstepping bounds with guests on a lease is one of the easiest ways to cause hard feelings. Remember, there is only so much space in the blind, and everyone is paying for their respective spot.
Chances are if you want to bring your young son along for a hunt, he’ll be more than welcome. But if your son is in his mid-teens with a driver’s license, a capable duck hunter and wants to bring a few of his own buddies along, discuss it with your fellow lease members before assuming he can automatically accompany you each day, free of charge. Some clubs establish a firm guest policy of no more than two or three guests per hunter, per season, and sometimes no guests are allowed on choice weekends, such as the opener and the final days of season.
Keep Quiet About Success
Should you have the good fortune of securing a red-hot lease and experiencing a great season of hunting, be careful whom you talk to about it.
“Sometimes it’s smart to treat a good lease like a good public-land honeyhole,” says Tim Daughrity, who grew up hunting ducks and geese in western Kentucky and southeast Missouri. “Loose lips sink ships. If word gets around, you never know when someone might call your farmer and offer him a little more money for the spot than you’re currently paying. It’s an unfortunate part of duck hunting, but the fact is there are only so many great spots to go around. If you do end up in a good lease and want to keep it, signing a multi-year contract, if possible, is a good idea.”
Respect the Landowner
Remember that someone else is entrusting you with the land, and that ground is how he or she makes a living.
“If I’m in a spot I like, I always try pay for next year’s lease at the end of season,” said Mike Reed, who is involved in four different clubs in Washington State. “Working with your farmers is important, and paying them early is a good gesture. Plus, paying before the ‘duck fever rush’ that occurs in the summer, when everyone is buying decoys and gear and practicing on their calls, helps ensure that someone won’t lease the spot out from under you next fall.
“Also, it’s usually best to use one person as the point of contact, at least from a business aspect, for the farmer. All the questions about money, habitat management, etc., should go through him. And finally, and this should be common sense but it’s important to note, take care of the place. Keep the trash cleaned out of your blind so it won’t wash into the field during a flood, and take the time to pick up empty hulls so the farmer isn’t disking over them in the spring.”
Let it Rest
Making sure everyone in the lease is on the same page when it comes to hunting hours is important, particularly when hunting over a field lease or other food source. One of the surest ways to run ducks out of an area is to overhunt them. But it does no good to quit hunting at noon yourself if other club members routinely hunt both mornings and evenings.
Figure out a stress management plan for the birds — whether it means stopping at noon or rotating the hunting days to three per week or not shooting into large flocks — and establish strict rules for your lease. It will do wonders to keep your spot fresh. Will Brantley is a fanatic waterfowl hunter from Murray, Ky.