June 01, 2016
There's a yellow farmhouse, the last stop in Sumner, Missouri, before you drive down a gravely dirt road surrounded by some of the best duck habitat in the world. Inside is a living history of the McCauley family and their friends lucky enough to come to north-central Missouri or travel the world with them in pursuit of waterfowl.
The walls are lined with countless pictures of great hunts gone by; enough mounted ducks and deer hang to fill a Cabela's store. Piles of half-folded shirts and pants sit in corners during the 60-day season because there's not always enough time to finish the laundry while you're running four premiere hunting lodges, two veterinarian clinics, an inventive waterfowl company and chasing greenheads. And brothers Ira and Aaron McCauley do chase the ducks like few others.
"It's all because of everyone besides me," says Ira, who with younger brother Aaron co-owns Habitat Flats lodges and a vet clinic in St. Louis, as well as being the head of MOmarsh, which makes small boats, blinds and other handy waterfowl gear. "I get to hunt like I do because my wife allows it to happen, Tony (Vandemore) allows it to happen, Aaron allows it to happen...it's all these great people around me."
Duck season wasn't always open season for the McCauleys to hunt as they saw fit, in fact it rarely is now with all their responsibilities, though they get out plenty. But the reasons they are where they are started in that yellow farmhouse. The brothers bought some land together in Sumner, but had no place to hang their waders come fall. A friend was driving past the McCauley's new purchase one day and saw the owner of a nearby home about to spike a for sale sign in the yard.
"He called me and said there was a house for sale that would be perfect for us," said Aaron. "So I got the guy's number and he was still putting the sign in the front yard. I asked him some questions and told him we would take it."
"Guys with the best towers might kill a pile of birds one day and the next find it burnt to the ground"
Both brothers graduated from the University of Missouri and became veterinarians. Aaron was subbing for various clinics in St. Louis and doing pro-bono work for the family of a vet who recently died. He devoted so much of his time that when the family decided to sell, they wanted Aaron to buy it for whatever price he decided on.
"I turned them down the first time, because I just didn't feel right about buying it like that," he said. "But they didn't want to sell it to anyone else, so we got it."
To fund their new land/home purchase in Sumner, the McCauleys put an addition on the house and started running veterinarian corporate hunts, taking clients and their dogs on duck shoots. That's how they got involved with Tony Vandemore (another HF co-owner), who was running snow goose hunts with Tyson Keller (both were Avery guys at the time).
Then Vandemore and Aaron came up with a business plan and presented it to Ira. They wanted to become full-time outfitters.
"I thought they were crazy," Ira said. "But the more I looked at it and thought about it — it could work. Those two had a plan."
And so in 2007 Habitat Flats hosted its first customers in the yellow farmhouse. Friends and acquaintances filled the guest book. The guides lived in what Ira described as a "rat hole near the highway." But they showed hunters why Habitat Flats would soon be a bucket-list destination, and more than just about shooting limits of greenheads.
Clients continue to come back to HF for the entire experience. To guide there you have to be more than a great caller and killer — you have to be someone everyone wants to hunt with, which is why the McCauleys, Vandemore and Dan Daugherity (a fourth co-owner), have seen their outfit grow to four operations in three states and Canada. The original Missouri locale is so coveted, trying to book a spot is like waiting to score season tickets for the Green Bay Packers.
"It's not something we set out to do," said Ira of the success HF has enjoyed. "We had a deep passion for hunting and guiding, and it led to Habitat Flats and MOmarsh. We've had a good run because we manage our resources and treat people right."
The McCauleys' father, Dan, was in the Air Force and the two boys spent their formative years overseas in the Philippines. When Ira was 9, the family moved to Texas where the brothers became infatuated with fowl. When Dan was sent to South Carolina, Ira and Aaron had to settle for scant flocks of wood ducks and a few divers before finally landing in Missouri.
From an early age, they were killers, and still, in their mid-40s, love to shoot ducks and doves and railâ€¦really any legal game that flies. As kids, they spent nearly all their time outdoors. What else were they going to do? Dan and Connie (their mother) only allowed one hour of TV a week. There's no cable at the Sumner house, just a dusty mini-flat screen hooked up to a DVD player with a similar film coating.
"If it was five miles to get to the ducks, we would ride (our bikes) out there. Ira said. "It's not like that (for kids) anymore, but I have tried to put access to hunting at my own kids' fingertips."
Tradition and respect are important to the McCauleys, and Sumner is the kind of place where those values are held closely by its residents (at least the people I met). Last November, I bought my hunting license at the only tavern in town, drank a beer and asked directions to Ira's house from two nice-as-can-be locals swaying back-and-forth on wooden rockers.
They gave me a turn-by-turn synopsis (I had to make two of them, a left and right). The lady behind the counter at the convenience store up the street must have been the sweetest woman in the world, and the wealthiest man in town was wearing a pair of faded jeans older than me and driving a Dodge that only gets a car wash when it rains. It's a special place, for sure.
Ira and Aaron have soaked right into Sumner, which is full of fowling history. It used to be the "Canada Goose Capital of the World." Photos and punt guns from a bygone era hang in that bar where I bought my license. Hunters built goose towers (some of which stand today), climbed up in them and pass shot honkers. It was cutthroat. Guys with the best towers might kill a pile of birds one day and the next find their tower burnt to the ground. Drinking and brawling were also rampant.
You might think a place with such history and superb hunting would get locked up by rich men and guides willing to pay for high-dollar leases. But outside of the McCauleys and a few others, the land is all owned by locals who just want to shoot a few ducks and deer off their own property.
"Sumner is just one of those great small towns," Aaron said. "I always say it's like Hazzard Countyâ€¦all everybody wants to do is drink beer, hunt and fish."
There isn't one thing in particular that makes the McCauley brothers unconventional duck hunters. Sure, they are well-versed in calling, shooting, and land management, but you can be sure if they are ever stuck out in the marsh with only their guns and blind bags, they are going to somehow find their way home...and no way are they gonna go hungry.
"My claim to fame came in Alaska where I killed a harlequin on the wing with a rock," Ira said. "And honestly I only did it because I had been up there for three or four weeks and only eaten peanut butter and instant rice. We ate it and the next day I said 'boys we're going to go kill some ducks.' We each took a bag of rocks and threw and threw, but never hit another one."
But his ingenuity goes far beyond chucking rocks at ill-tasting fowl, which is legal in Alaska (we double-checked). Take Ira's company MOmarsh. Out of vet school he teamed with another guy and started building duck boats. They were nothing spectacular, but those early designs led to a boat any duck man who hunts skinny water would want — the Fat Boy, named such because it can comfortably hold a 300-pound hunter.
His products are original; not copies of someone else's concept with a new name slapped on it. If you hunt flooded corn, what's a more useful hide than a heavy-duty lawn chair wrapped in camo that you can brush up and sit in?
Or how about hunting a layout blind on retractable legs in a marsh full of knee-deep water with no cover? Well, Ira makes both of those: see the Ivisichair and Invisilay.
"I was just building boats. I didn't plan on it turning into a business," Ira said. "I was just trying to make my life a little bit easier. When Aaron and I ran those corporate hunts out of the house, we weren't looking to start an outfitting business, we just wanted to pay some of our bills, hopefully stay married and sane and not go broke duck hunting."
Ira also carves decoys, and both men are painters and cooks, though Ira defers to his younger brother on those two talents. Last summer the McCauleys, with help from friends, built a blind in a timber hole any hunter would feel lucky to sit in. The mondo-blind, which could probably fit an entire hockey team, has a stove/oven, racks of spices and a coffee maker Aaron once mistook as a pissed off raccoon hissing at him.
Someone had thoughtfully put the coffee on a timer so it would be pipping hot in the morning, but Aaron believed it to be a rabid varmint and entered with extreme caution.
Ira made an awesome breakfast of pork sausage, eggs, biscuits and homemade fig jam the last morning I spent there. Aaron and his friends regularly eat dinner and have a few drinks there once the hunting is done. You may never eat better in the woods than with the McCauleys. We dined on smoked boudin, shrimp stew with rice, fried flounder and even gator during my few days in Sumner.
There's a captain's seat in the blind (a nice cushy office chair on rollers), and right next to it is a small electric panel that controls all the Mojos in the pool and the ceiling of the blind is covered by a mural of a mallard coming down out of the clouds Aaron and his father painted. They call the serene hole Heaven, because it is directly north of another diabolical mud-sucked oxbow they had to name Hell after two sweltering summer days of cutting brush and being eaten by mosquitoes.
"I had a Monday and Tuesday off and just decided to paint it," Aaron said of the mallard mural. "I felt like there was a strong possibility that this would be a hole we'd hunt with our kids and they would hunt with their kids. And so I wanted to capture the appreciation we will always have for that spot. Something for the entire family to enjoy."
What's next for the brothers? Well, MOmarsh just delivered a new boat and blind for the season ahead. And you can bet 2016 will closely resemble last year for the McCauleys: another busy fall spent eating, laughing and sharing mornings in Heaven with family and friends.