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Rural Missouri Magazine

Greenheads galore in the Bootheel
Waterfowl hunters migrate to East Prairie for expanded hunting opportunities

by Jason Jenkins
John Koepp of Benton, left, and James Faught of Cape Girardeau, watch the sky for passing ducks as they collect decoys following a hunt. The region has seen the development of businesses catering to waterfowl hunters.

With tail fiercely wagging, Dolly could hardly contain herself. The 8-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever’s entire body quivered with excitement as her owner, James Faught of Cape Girardeau, slid a camouflage neoprene vest around her upper body to keep the dog warm.

It was time to go duck hunting.

Truth be told, the men who piled into the ATV with Dolly were just as excited, even if their exuberance wasn’t as visibly obvious.

They traveled to a well-masked hunting blind as a cold, steady rain fell. Dawn would arrive in less than an hour. When the veil of darkness finally lifted, the group found itself gazing out over a spread of duck decoys floating in a flooded field with strips of standing corn.

Soon, a cacophony of waterfowl, both geese and ducks, steadily rose from the nearby refuge. As the birds took flight, the hunters’ calls came to life, feverishly attempting to attract the groups of mallards passing overhead. They hoped for a brace of greenheads to come backpedaling into their decoy set — wings cupped, feet extended — committing to what would be their final pass.

Dolly retrieves a mallard that Charlie Southworth of Gaffney, S.C., shot during a recent trip to Pinhook Hunting Club near East Prairie.

“When you hear the wings coming over the top of you and they start fluttering down, you can’t really describe what it’s like,” says Faught, who guides hunts for Pinhook Hunting Club outside East Prairie. “It’s a rush.”

By no means is waterfowl hunting new to Missouri’s Bootheel. Located along the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory route millions of North American ducks and geese have followed for eons, hunting opportunities have always abounded here.

But in the area surrounding East Prairie, farmers and other landowners are acutely aware that this traditional pastime also has business potential. As the number of hunters has exceeded the availability of hunting spots on nearby public lands, many have stepped in to fill the void.

Where men toiled generations ago to drain the swampy landscape to raise corn, soybeans and cotton, some are now purposely flooding their fields in winter. Their goal is to not only attract ducks but also the waterfowl hunters who will pay to pursue them. This new cash crop is yielding dividends.

“It’s really all just happened in the past three years or so,” says Silvey Barker, tourism director for the city of East Prairie. “We recognized that we had the potential, and we’ve worked hard to develop it.”

As hunters have flocked to the new opportunities that surround this town of about 3,200, they’ve spurred economic development.

“We have some new lodging here in town, as well as a taxidermist and a sporting goods store that’s become a pretty good business,” Barker says. “All of these are offshoots of what the clubs are doing.”

Charlie and John watch mallards circle overhead.

One of the clubs attracting both in-state and out-of-state hunters is Pinhook Hunting Club, which was started by friends and hunting partners Rick Schuerenberg, Jamie Pollock, David Crader and Mark Dugan. Originally, the club was intended to be a private hunting retreat for the four men. They secured a hunting lease for one field adjacent to Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area, a nearly 3,800-acre wetland complex that has attracted waterfowl hunters since the Missouri Department of Conservation began managing it in the early 1980s.

“Like a lot of other people, we were just looking for a place to hunt ducks,” says Schuerenberg, an agricultural chemical dealer from Sikeston. “We leased it just for ourselves, and it kind of grew from there.”

Over time, the men leased other acreage in the vicinity, and eventually they bought the land outright. That’s when Schuerenberg says the group started looking for ways to maximize the return on their investment.

Today, Pinhook, which is served by SEMO Electric Cooperative, comprises about 650 acres and offers guided day hunts for both ducks and geese. For a current rate of $350 per day per hunter, the club offers lodging, three meals, a local hunting guide and everything needed for a successful hunt. All hunters need to bring is their shotguns and shells, warm clothing, waders and a camera to capture the memories.

Left: With the exception of a firearm, few pieces of equipment are as vital to a successful duck hunt as the duck call, which helps attract the waterfowl to decoys. Most hunters keep their calls on a lanyard around their necks. It’s also where they display leg bands taken from ducks they’ve shot. The bands, placed on birds by various government agencies, are relatively few, making them a prized trophy for waterfowl hunters.

“The unique thing about what we have here at Pinhook is the variety of hunting situations,” Schuerenberg says. “We have about 250 acres of green timber and the rest is flooded fields and flooded willow brakes. So, if you want to hunt the timber, we can do that. Or if you want to stand in the willow brakes or get in a blind and hunt over the corn, we can do that, too.”

This past year, Pinhook completed a new cabin where hunters can warm up, have a meal and visit after the hunt. “We try to make everyone feel at home and welcome and a part of what we’re doing here,” Schuerenberg says. “And, we certainly try to kill some ducks, too, but if we’re not killing ducks, we want to still make sure the guys have a good time.”

“Pinhook has some of the best managed flooded food plots I’ve seen,” says duck hunter Charlie Southworth of Gaffney, S.C., who hunted three days early in the season. “They certainly know what they’re doing, and even though we didn’t kill many ducks, I had a great time.”

Southworth has hunted waterfowl from Alaska to Texas, but this was his first Missouri Bootheel duck hunt. He says he plans to return again next year and bring a group of friends.

For hunters seeking a more permanent solution for their duck-hunting desires, leasing is a growing option around East Prairie. Among those offering leases are Steve and Angie Jones, who operate Second Chance Outfitters on their farm south of town.

As avid waterfowl hunters, the couple had developed acreage for family hunting outings, but as Steve and Angie’s three sons grew up and became involved in other activities, they recognized the potential to earn a little extra income. Though they initially offered day hunting, the couple now strictly leases their pit blinds by the season. Eight pits were available for the 2009-2010 waterfowl season.

“We actually have a waiting list,” notes Angie. “We had a couple guys from Georgia who gave up their leases and then changed their minds, but it was too late. We had booked their pits already.”

While leases vary from landowner to landowner, at Second Chance Outfitters, a yearly lease includes both duck and goose season.

Hunting guide James Faught calls to a pair of mallards in hopes of attracting them within shooting range.

“We guarantee them water and a pit on an 80-acre field, and they can hunt it any way they want to,” Steve explains. “They can camouflage the pit any way they want. If they want to hunt mornings only, they can do that. It’s their field for the season.”

Thanks to their leasing operation’s success, the couple felt confident enough this past year to build a 12-bed lodge behind their home. The accommodations are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. Steve says they plan to sink two more pit blinds next year and offer a total of 10 leases. “We’re just starting out, and we’re learning as we go,” he says.

According to Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist with the conservation department, wetland restoration efforts across Missouri in the past 10 to 20 years have tremendously increased the numbers of ducks and geese that visit Missouri during the fall and winter migration. In the Bootheel, these efforts include areas such as 10 Mile Pond outside of East Prairie.

“Those public areas have high-quality refuge, and they serve as an anchoring point,” he says. “Then you have the private ground, whether it’s flooded rice fields or restored wetlands, and that public and private land together provides great habitat.”

Raedeke says he believes the prospects for growth in hunting opportunities abound in the Bootheel. “It’s always going to depend on the year and the weather and the habitat, but I think the area has tremendous potential.”

Pinhook Hunting Club co-owners Rick Schuerenberg, left, and Jamie Pollock show off the success of a duck hunt with Sam Hunter of New Madrid. Photo courtesy of Pinhook.

It’s an assessment that outfitters including Schuerenberg echo. “I think the business of duck hunting in this area is in its infancy right now and just waiting to be developed,” he says. “We have a hidden jewel down here in the Bootheel.”

Duck season in the Bootheel ends Jan. 24. For more information about booking day hunts at Pinhook Hunting Club, contact Rick Schuerenberg at 573-380-0249 or go online to www.phchuntingclub.com. To inquire about leasing options at Second Chance Outfitters, call Steve Jones at 573-380-6651. For information on lodging and other accommodations in East Prairie, contact Silvey Barker at 573-649-3057, ext. 6, or visit www.eastprairiemo.net.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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