By Bailey White // Photos by Josh Alberius
During the annual dog days under the southern sun, a particular breed of Arkansas hunters spend more time envisioning their ideal mornings in camouflaged gear than summer sandals. With the possibility of quiet sunrises spent nestled in the waterfowl-rich property only a short four months away in Arkansas, practiced and novice duck hunters alike are already picturing the ins and outs of the season ahead. Although the anticipation for the sport is synonymous among waterfowl fanatics, the way they choose to hunt the top-notch timbers and fields of the state isn’t always so.
When considering huntable land options, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reported that hunters are more likely to invest in private land experiences over free wildlife management areas in the state. According to a 2017 AGFC survey, 77 percent of Arkansas residents report spending their typical season primarily on private lands. The same report mentions that more than half of the out-of-state visitors that flock to Arkansas’s rewarding hunting grounds choose to hunt privately as well.
Although the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission actively works to acquire publicly accessible land for thousands interested in the sport, privately-owned hunting opportunities are vast in Arkansas. With this in mind, we have set our sights on detailing the private-hunting industry’s intricacies.
On a weekend hunt with professional guide Spencer Jeu in Northeast Arkansas, the Saturday duck hunting operations began with a 4:30 a.m. call time on the agenda. Jeu and his fellow guides take small-scale groups of hunters to concealed duck blind and pits across 7,000 acres of private crop fields and flooded timbers. As the hunters listen to Jeu’s whispered commands, they watch his accommodating duck dog retrieve the group’s prized ducks until the clock strikes 11 a.m. or bag limits are harvested.
This is an example of what a typical hunt looks like for Spencer and the guides he employs as co-owner of Duxmen Outfitters Inc. Over the last 14 years, Jeu has dedicated his career to the ins and outs of the duck and geese hunting industry. Like a real waterfowl woodsman, Jeu doesn’t skimp on any of the 60 days available for duck hunting in Arkansas’ cold months. “Good or bad, I’m still going out, helping and hunting,” Jeu explained. “It’s a way of life.”
Although the ease and convenience of hunting alongside a professional guide is quite apparent, the vast world of private land hunting operations goes well beyond short-term agreements. In addition to offering packaged weekend hunts, Duxmen Outfitters offers seasonal and day pit leasing options as well. This effort, which is available up and down the Mississippi Flyway and Delta by numerous guide and lease services, gives lessor’s the opportunity to have their own sought-after piece of Arkansas’ treasured hunting land.
With the private leasing industry having the opportunity to be a highly beneficial partnership for all parties involved, many leases are available throughout Arkansas’s hunting hot-spots.
With the attainable access to private land in Arkansas, Jeu notes that it is crucial to do extensive research for the right property. “Figure out what kind of hunting land and location you are looking for first,” Jeu said. Do you want to be close to one of east Arkansas’s major rivers like the White, Black or Cache? Or are you more interested in prairie hunting? Once set on a type of land, Jeu suggests making in-person visits and not being afraid to call a landowner and ask questions beforehand. Before making any decisions, follow Jeu’s advice to do your research and your due diligence to really scope out the property, talk with people who have hunted the area and get very specific about what is being offered.
Once a lessor reaches out to a landowner to secure a property, land protections and written lease agreements between the parties should be enacted. The job of forestry companies is to ensure the landowner’s pits are protected and provisions in the lease agreement remain honored. Ricky O’Neill, Arkansas manager for one of the state’s forestry companies, said his firm’s wildlife management services “ensure there is an executed lease agreement between the two parties, communication with the club about management activities on the land, and communication with the landowner.”
For landowners that include wildlife management resources into its private hunting leases, many will additionally incorporate services that include water pumping, food plots and more.
For proprietor, landowner and Elms Plantation Owner Kim Vassaur Freeman, these amenities are a vital aspect of her leasing operations.
Every year, Freeman leases large chunks of huntable land to individuals, private duck clubs and non-resident groups on a seasonal and annual basis. While hunters have the leisure to hunt and go as they please, Freeman is the woman behind the scenes making sure the land is both suitable for her lessors and beneficial to the waterfowl that visit for the winter.
I do many things to prepare the leases for hunting, Freeman said. “I plant millet grass in the designated lands for waterfowl so they have something to eat.” In addition, Freeman employs two full-time field managers that control the water levels of her fields to make for an ideal habitat for landing waterfowl.
Despite the complexities of paying to hunt on private grounds being hardly absolute, the benefits of having a little piece of Arkansas’ duck country (even for just a day) fosters more than just bragging rights and harvested hunts.
“As big of a deal as duck hunting is in Arkansas, so many clubs have gotten together over the years and brought friends and family together just to have fun,” Jeu said. With the ability to own and hunt land with the people you chose to, explained Jeu, good conversation about life and quality time inevitably cultivates in waterfowl holes across the state.