October 30, 2015
Access to private land was getting tougher, leases getting more expensive and public hunting areas were getting crazier, so Brett Kik did what a growing number of hunters are doing these days: He plunked down a big chunk of money on a 160-acre tract of western Kentucky hunting land for sale. It wasn't much of a duck hunting property, at least not at first, but after making some improvements, it ended up being a pretty decent spot.
He's not alone. It seems everywhere you go, our public lands are more crowded than ever, and knocking on doors for permission gets tougher with each passing year. Buying a piece of hunting land is turning out to be the best option if you can swing it.
The advantages are obvious, says Kik, a 46-year-old highway contractor from Madisonville, Kentucky. It's yours. No one will outbid you for the lease. The landowner's family won't decide they want to hunt your blind, and you are free to do whatever you want.
You can build on it, cut trees, plant trees, develop a seasonal wetland and plant food plots. You can even sell it if you want, something Kik has done on several occasions since he bought that first tract in 1994. In fact, he's actually made a tidy profit on several properties he improved. Flipping isn't just for houses.
"We've built levees and installed a pump system to create a green timber spot, we've created wetlands where there were none and planted crops and native vegetation to attract birds. We bought one property and improved it and now we lease it to a group of six guys," he says.
"We bought another property, improved it and turned around and sold it for a real nice profit."
Of course, hunting land for sale, even swampland, isn't cheap these days. The demand for recreational property is driving up prices in areas where few people would have considered buying duck hunting land a decade ago.
Kik bought his first property only after he cashed out his savings account and stocks, a risky move but something he doesn't regret. Since then, he's bought a half-dozen properties. Some have had fantastic duck hunting; others only marginal.
"You need to be realistic. Don't expect limits every time you hunt. You might get that at a $5 million duck club, but a 50-acre swamp might be hit-or-miss, depending on the time of year, the weather and other factors," says Kik.
Hunting land is somewhat cheaper where he likes to buy property. It can be considerably more expensive in the better-known and more popular duck hunting destinations. Prime green timber around Stuttgart, Arkansas, for example, is selling for upwards of $6,000 an acre, says Mossy Oak Properties broker Jeramy Stephens. Rice fields cost about $4,000 an acre and even untillable swampland is going for $2,000 an acre.
But, you don't have to buy a multi-million dollar duck club to have a great spot to hunt. Nor do you have to buy in the middle of world-famous duck country. There are lots of other places that have equally good duck hunting land, if you can afford them.
Waterfowl Properties, a spin-off of Whitetail Properties, has a 339-acre parcel with over two miles of Mississippi River frontage in west-central Illinois for $425,000. They haves maller parcels with wetlands listed for as little as $100,000. Something as small as five acres with a beaver pond on it in a state with marginal duck hunting can still attract good numbers of birds if managed properly.
But Are There Ducks?
The mere presence of water does not mean mallards will be pitching into the decoys come fall. This is where thorough vetting comes into the equation. It helps to hire a real estate agent who not only knows the recreational market, but who also knows ducks, duck hunting and the local waterfowl scene, because even land in great areas can offer marginal hunting.
For example, you can buy property that sits between two of the best duck spots on the river, thinking it's a can't-miss purchase. Only to find out, the two clubs have more resources and better habitat, so you're shooting maybe a third of the birds they do.
Remember, the presence of blinds and food sources are good signs, but for a real glimpse at the potential look at properties during the season. Scout it as much as you possibly can. Ask local biologists and other hunters to get a general idea of what to expect.
"Some clubs keep detailed records of their harvest, which can be a big help," says Stephens. "Most people who own smaller properties don't keep track of those things, though."
If you can afford land and it holds a good number of birds during the season, you'll still be making monthly payments all year, even when there isn't a duck for a thousand miles. That's OK with Kik, though. His properties aren't just places to spend a Saturday in November and December. He's doing something, even if it's just relaxing, at one of his properties all year.
"I tell people if they aren't willing to put in the effort necessary to improve and maintain the land, then don't buy property," says Kik. "If all you want it for is to hunt ducks, go on a bunch of guided hunts. You'll actually save money. Buying hunting land isn't cheap and neither is improving it and maintaining it."
That's one mistake Stephens sees with first-time buyers. They acquire a piece of property without realizing that even swampland needs to be maintained. Levees can break or leak, pumps need regular maintenance, roads and trails need to be kept up and some properties need to be planted with crops to attract birds. All these activities are expensive and time-consuming.
Part of the joy of owning property is putting sweat equity into it. Planting food plots, creating impoundments, even building a small cabin is as rewarding to many hunters as shooting a limit of greenheads. It's what they love to do.
It's how they spend every free moment and every spare cent. Fixing up property is truly a labor of love that is rewarded when duck season rolls around.
"I would recommend buying something relatively close to your home so you don't spend hours just driving to the property. You want to be able to spend just a few hours there if that's all you have time for," adds Kik.
Make It Pay
Purchasing hunting land is costly, but there are some things you can do to recoup at least some of the expense. Kik has sold the timber off some of the land he bought and placed others in a conservation easement, including the wetland reserve easement program (WRP), administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Under the new program, landowners can receive technical assistance and cost-share funding to restore wetlands. Stephens has seen payments as high as $2,400 per acre for irrigated cropland and about $740 for forested land. The one-time payment won't likely pay the mortgage, but it will help.
"Putting land into WRP places a number of restrictions on the land, so it may not be the right choice for you," says Stephens.
That's assuming the land even qualifies. Typically, NRCS agents will visit the site and determine if it is eligible. It's a lengthy process and there's no guarantee you'll see any money, even if you do qualify.
A WRP contract typically does not allow crops, but you can recoup some costs if part of the land is farmed. Many new landowners simply lease the farming rights to a local farmer, often the previous owner. Lease rates vary dramatically, but if nothing else, the money will help offset monthly payments and the routine expenses that come with owning property.
If the net out-of-pocket costs still put a duck hole out of your price range, consider forming a limited liability corporation with a couple of friends. Pooling resources not only cushions the blow to your bank account, but it can actually help you buy better hunting land for sale or more of it.
Stephens says the majority of the hunting properties he sells are bought by some sort of LLC, usually a couple of buddies who love to hunt. Be warned. A partnership can test the best of friendships. Add money and duck hunting to the mix and you can threaten a lifelong relationship. Stephens has seen it happen.
"Work out all the details before you sign the contracts. Spell out how all the financials will work, clarify how the maintenance work and expenses will be divided and even consider coming up with a binding agreement about the hunting," says Stephens.
"It's also a good idea to have an exit strategy worked out, as well. Someone may have money issues or they may just want to sell their share. Go over all those things before you sign anything."
But friendships can thrive when the right piece of land is purchased. Kik has bought numerous properties with a good buddy and while they've certainly had some disagreements, they have always managed to iron out differences.
If it doesn't work out, with or without a partner, you can always put the land back on the market and recoup at least part of your investment. If the market is strong, you might even make a profit. If nothing else, you will have learned a valuable lesson about the entire process of buying duck hunting property.
You can apply what you learned to the next piece of hunting land you buy, hopefully one that's larger and full of ducks.