The Club Scene: How to Make Room for Your Dream Lodge
Every season, thousands of waterfowl hunters hit the field in pursuit of ducks and geese. Arkansas is a prime destination for many of these duck and goose hunting addicts. That makes Arkansas a perfect home to a waterfowling institution, the duck club. How is a club created? Take a closer look at clubs old and new to see how they come together.
A brisk north wind greeted the hunters, remnants of a strong cold front sweeping across the prairie the day before. Soon shooting time would arrive as streaks of morning sun colored the eastern sky. With clear, cold, fresh ducks in the area, anticipation for a good hunt ran high among the group. Chattering mallards could be heard crossing high and low. Yodeling specklebellies sang out while rising from the roost. It was a good day at the Back 9 Duck Club.
Nestled just outside Clarendon, the Pines Golf Club was built in the 1960s with funds provided by a government grant. It was the place to be in the 1970s; the pool there attracted folks from miles around. But the years passed and the club fell into disrepair, eventually being put up for sale. It’s a nine-hole tract with clubhouse, cart barn and driving range. Pretty standard for any golf course. Two things make it ideal for a duck club headquarters however — a creek running along the eastern boundary that annually fills with ducks and a location in the heart of Arkansas duck country.
Enter Jacob Wallace, a lifelong duck hunter with a love for Arkansas and its great waterfowl hunting. He first discovered it tagging along with a family friend in 2001 at the age of 13. By the time he could drive, he was traveling from his native South Carolina to hunt the WMA’s and federal refuges open to public hunting. Wallace’s personal favorite is the White River Refuge, which he still hunts today when conditions are right.
As good as the public hunting was, though, Wallace found himself searching for private lands in order to escape the crowds. He formed his first club several years ago near Clarendon and leased more than 2,000 acres of croplands holding thousands of ducks every season. He built a lodge and everything ran smoothly.
The golf course property came on the market in August, 2017, and plans were made to make an offer. He and his club members continued to operate from the old facility near Clarendon until disaster struck and the lodge burned down in January. The focus then shifted in full to acquiring the golf course property and converting existing buildings into suitable lodging and storage facilities. March came and Wallace and his partner Bill Crawford closed on the Pines. The Back 9 Duck Club was born.
Soon work began on transforming a golf course into a working duck club.
“It’s scary how perfect this property sets up for a duck club,” Wallace said. “Irrigation is already run to every corner so anything can be leveed to hold water, including the driving range. We no-till planted it in corn to have great waterfowl habitat right behind the converted clubhouse that is the main lodge. Even if we never hunt it we can watch ducks and geese use it during the season.”
Wallace’s initial plans include building a levee around the eight-acre range and renovation of the three-bedroom house on the land. The golf carts will be gone and the barn set up for duck club storage.
In addition to the land at the site, more than 2,000 acres of croplands will be leased and available for hunting to the 20 club members. A unique feature of the club is the creek on the east side of the land that played havoc on the golf course when it left its banks and flooded the swimming pool, much to the inconvenience of the former members. That creek floods a wooded brake, however, and it holds plenty of ducks.
“I have seen ducks in large numbers on that creek ever since I have been hunting in this area,” Wallace said. “That is what attracted me to the place initially. That creek ensures we will have ducks on the Back 9 club property. Sure, you can enhance any piece of land to potentially attract ducks. It sure is nice however to have an established draw already in place.”
Many Arkansas hunting properties are brokered through Lile Real Estate in Little Rock and the Back 9 land is no exception. Company president Gar Lile is an avid hunter himself and has sold many tracts over the years, large and small. He not only brokers sales of duck hunting land but develops them as well by enhancing the landscape to make it more attractive to wildlife. Lile said hunting property demand is skyrocketing and many of these places will become duck clubs.
“Demand has increased tenfold for a place someone can call their own,” Lile said. “Twenty-five years ago, there were only a handful of people looking for a dedicated duck hunting property. Those numbers have really increased in the last 10 years as hunters have embraced the idea of having their own place.”
Supply and demand have sent property values soaring, as land is a limited resource. And much of this property is low lying land that would have little value if ducks didn’t migrate south for the winter.
“Land that cost as little as $500 an acre 20 years ago is now selling for more than $1,500 to $3,000 per acre,” Lile said. “And the historic areas have reached astronomical prices, into the millions of dollars.”
Look To The Lodge
Northwest of Clarendon lies Des Arc, another duck hunting town on the White River. This area is home to the Double Drake Hunting Club. The club was formed a little over five years ago and offers exceptional deer hunting as well as waterfowl. Shawn Fecher is a founding member and gave a look inside the process he and other members undertook to make this club a reality.
“Myself and several buddies started hunting around Des Arc about ten years ago,” Fecher said. “We leased land in the area and hunted it with success. The years passed and we decided to build a place of our own. We signed a long-term lease with the farmer for 1,000 acres of diverse land. We have a variety of places to hunt, from timber to [Conservation Reserve Program] moist soil grass impoundments and willow breaks. And we purchased 80 acres so we would own some land and have a home for our lodge.”
And quite a lodge it is. The importance of where hunters gather for fellowship can’t be overstated at any hunting club. This is where so many memories are made. Where sons and daughters learn about the hunting tradition. Where great meals are shared. Where college football teams are cheered during crisp, fall afternoons. The lodging is what brings a club together. Shawn and his fellow members put a lot into theirs, creating a nine-bedroom and nine-bath home for members and their guests.
“The area that the lodge occupies is in the floodplain,” Fecher said. “We had to bring in 65 loads of shell to bring the building up enough to stay dry in a flood.”
Fecher also said that every effort was made to use local contractors for lodge construction. That is an added benefit of the duck club, a boost in the local economy. Thousands of hunters in Arkansas every season means millions of dollars in business revenue.
Family And Fraternity
Farther north near Jonesboro sit the headwaters of the L’Anguille River, basically a confluence of ditches at that point. The river is a tributary of the St. Francis and is approximately 110 miles long. Where the river begins there is an old farmhouse, the headquarters of the L’Anguille Lounge Duck Club. Legendary waterfowl hunter and taxidermist Pat Pitt formed the club starting with a solitary rice field blind in 1992. Pat has hunted ducks and geese around the world but his favorite spot is still the Lounge.
Pitt started hunting Arkansas in 1971 after moving to Memphis from east Tennessee for college. The reason was simple, that’s where the ducks were.
After hunting different areas for 20 years, Pitt started looking for a more permanent location. The reason was simple — his two sons were old enough to hunt with him. The boys had already taken their first ducks, now Pitt would indoctrinate them in the duck hunting fraternity.
Northeast Arkansas was close enough to their home in Olive Branch, Mississippi, and the crowds that frequented parts farther south such as Stuttgart had yet to invade Poinsett County. Pitt leased a pit blind and secured a place to stay from the farmer. Another Arkansas duck club came into the fold.
The club is still going strong 26 years later. The membership is up to 18 and Stephen and Patrick Pitt are accomplished hunters with families of their own. This past season, Patrick introduced his daughter Mary Claire to duck hunting and Stephen took his son Reid to a pit for the first time.
“I didn’t realize how fortunate I was growing up with a place to hunt like this,” Stephen Pitt said. “I just thought everyone had a duck club to go to. As I got older, I appreciated what my dad built for us more and more. The camaraderie and friendship I have experienced over the past 26 years is priceless. And to be able to pass it along to my son is incredible.”
Pat Pitt has six to nine pits available every season.
“We have kept two of our original pits all these years and have rotated others in and out depending upon production,” he said. “And of those two, only one is hunted every year based on the crop in the field. We only hunt those pits when they are in rice.”
In 2012, Pat Pitt expanded on the farmhouse they had been leasing.
“We had outgrown our accommodations and decided to build onto the house,” he said. “We added around 300 SF and made the house more comfortable. A new great room was built along with a new kitchen. The old kitchen then became the mud room and the old living room was converted into a bedroom. It’s a lot more livable now and that’s important to myself and all the members.”
More Than Ducks
South of Jonesboro along Highway 1 sits the town of Wynne. Southwest of the town is Oldham’s Duck Club, started in 1994 and still growing. Jamie Oldham is the founder and his story is unlike the beginning of most clubs.
“My dad bought the property because he loves to catch crappie,” Oldham said. “It has a 60-acre lake that is full of them. I would come over and fish with him in the winter. It didn’t take me long to notice all of the ducks falling in on the back side of the land. That got me thinking that this place has a lot more potential than just fishing.”
Indeed it did, and Jamie formed the club with five close friends. The membership has grown to 18 and the club is still very much a work in progress.
“This place looks nothing like it used to,” Oldham said. “Everything is leveed now and has stainless steel controls with valves to control the water levels. The original 60-acre lake now has an 84-acre lake beside it. Both of the lakes are extensively managed for trophy largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, and bream. We have a cabin, dog kennels that can be cooled in summer and warmed in winter, storage barns and a separate bunk house. It’s been a labor of love for sure.”
In addition to the 300-acre main property, Oldham has several thousand acres in the surrounding area to hunt. Conventional leasing means contacting the farmer, negotiating a price and paying for the land for the season. At Oldham’s, a more old-fashioned approach is taken.
“Area farmers would rather fish than hunt, I have learned. And they are willing to trade hunting rights for fishing rights on my place,” Oldham said. “It’s a winning situation for both of us. They gain access to great fishing and I and my members get to hunt quality land. It’s as easy as that.”
Oldham’s is a year-round club, an attractive bonus many clubs can’t offer. In addition to fantastic fishing, club members are welcome to come any time and just hang out and enjoy the place.
“We have at least four planned get togethers at the club every year,” Oldham said. “These are normally crawfish boils and cookouts. Guys bring their families and dogs and have a good time. Speaking of dogs, we are building a technical pond so members can tune up their retrievers in the offseason for hunting and hunt test purposes.”
The club also holds a fishing tournament on the lakes every May to benefit St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Oldham believes in building more than just a duck club; it’s a family-oriented destination.
It doesn’t take a Rockefeller’s wealth or rocket scientist’s knowledge to build a duck club. It does take planning, perseverance and passion to bring it all together.
Whether you buy or lease property, hunt green timber or rice ground — or hunt deer and catch fish in addition to waterfowling — all quality clubs have the same thing in common. There is an individual behind the scenes who took a vision and made it reality.
Here’s to the duck clubs — may they always be a part of Arkansas’ waterfowl hunting experience.
5 Things to Know Before You Buy
Ownership or membership in a duck club helps waterfowlers skirt around problems like private land access, expensive leases or over-hunted public areas.
But there are things to know before coughing up the chunk of money needed to buy your own tract and build or remodel your own lodge:
1. Your Limits
Land in the heart of a duck hunting mecca can be pricey — green timber near Stuttgart can go for more than $6,000 an acre and rice field land can go for more than $4,000 an acre. Know what you can pay, shop around and don’t buy more scenery than you can afford to look at.
Maybe it’s fewer than 10 acres and a pond, but with proper effort the property can be massaged into an attractive stopover for ducks. Cut, plant, irrigate and plant food plots until you have a four-star hunting hole.
Also, consider buying close to home if possible because …
2. It’s All Year
Monthly payments don’t stop at the end of duck season and maintenance waits for no one. Levees won’t patch themselves and roads and trails need clearing. Fixing up a property can be rewarding, however, and it keeps the hunting juices flowing in the offseason.
3. If There Are Ducks
Unless you know the area where you are prospecting for property, find a local guide or expert or an agent who knows the market, knows hunting and knows the local scene.
In addition to consulting local experts, scout properties yourself, as thoroughly as possible, while the season is under way.
4. Where The Money Is
A club owner can recoup some of his or her outlay by selling timber or leasing farming rights.
Also look into things like the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s wetland reserve easement program. If the land qualifies to be placed in a conservation easement, owners can receive technical help and cost-share funding.
5. How Partners Help
A limited liability partnership with friends is a way of combining resources while also enabling the group to buy more and better land.
It could be a strain on a relationship, but sitting by the fire and watching football after a successful morning hunt is a reward that most partners will find worth the initial stress.
Some information for this story was provided by WildfowlMag.com