Loving the Land: The Life Of A Duck Club Caretaker
A career working on the property of a landowner is nothing new.
The English gamekeeper has been around for centuries, caring for the land and the game that lives on it. He wears many hats: game warden, game bird manager, pest eradicator and health monitor to the game on the estate.
The job requirements are much the same here in the United States. Property managers must be willing to do any job at hand to ensure hunting success for the landowners and club members they work for.
Those who maintain hunting properties in Arkansas have duties such as planting management for deer and waterfowl as well as housing upkeep and general land maintenance responsibilities.
So you think you have what it takes to do the job? Let’s take a closer look into the lives of some of the best managers in the state to see what they do to earn a living.
Kip Turner is property manager and head guide for the Greentree Hunting Club in Desha County near Rohwer. He has overseen operations at the club since its founding in 2008.
Turner started out as a waterfowl guide before his current job, which led him to be where he is now.
“I actually stated out guiding for myself,” Turner said. “I owned a commercial hunting lodge out of Stuttgart at Humphrey. Then I came down here. It will be five full years and six summers ago this year. I actually met my boss Bill Benton through a friend that’s in the same business.”
Turner’s job is year-round but it changes with the seasons. He described a typical year at Greentree.
“There is something to do 365 days a year here,” he said. “I am responsible for managing all the water in the rest areas and the timber. We have a square mile of flooded timber that needs draining and planting in rice and milo and we manage about 25 acres inside this green tree reservoir. I try to farm it just like I would do out in the field. We spray it, water it, and fertilize the crop. We use pesticides as well as herbicides.”
Turner is also responsible for general maintenance of all club equipment such as tractors and ATVs and directing the duties of a housekeeper and groundskeeper as well.
As if this wasn’t enough to do, he also consults for other clubs.
“I actually do some subcontracting in food plot management for a couple of other clubs around,” Turner said. “ Some in whitetail management and some in waterfowl management.”
Once fall comes and the hunting seasons begin Turner’s focus is on the members and their needs.
“In waterfowl season, my day consists of waking the members and their guests, preparing the coffee, and appointing everyone to their guides for that morning,” Turner said. “We hunt until 10 or 10:30 and return to the lodge for breakfast, then myself and the other guides clean ducks and light the fireplaces. If guys want to hunt deer in the afternoon I will put them on stands and then make any necessary repairs to the hunting gear. We’ll have dinner prepared every night.”
Turner does the cooking only if there is a long weekend with few hunters in camp.
“I like to cook but I am too busy with this job to do it much anymore,” he said. “We have two chefs that split time throughout the week that keep the members full and happy.”
What’s the best part of his job? Turner can answer that question easily and quickly.
“I enjoy the people, I love my members,” he said. “They’re all really great guys. They’re like a family; we look forward to them coming every year. My reward at the end of the day, after all of the hard work, is seeing the smiles on their faces while holding a bunch of ducks.”
The worst part?
“Man there’s not really anything tough about it,” Turner said. “I shouldn’t say that because I love it. My wife would tell you it’s when we don’t kill ducks and it does get a little tough then. It is challenging to try to keep my members rotated in the best spots. Other than that is the mental strain that comes with making sure all of my employees are here doing their jobs.”
Lying to the north of the Greentree Club is Arkansas County, home to Stuttgart. Around this area, the name McCollum is synonymous with ducks and duck hunting.
Otis McCollum was a pioneer in creating the hunting mystique that surrounds Stuttgart and the fame that came with it when he built levees in the Bayou Meto-Big Ditch bottoms. There are some 15 miles of levees there today as a result of his efforts. These hold the water that attracts countless waterfowl to winter there every fall.
McCollum bought property that he later sold to his nephew Russell McCollum, who transformed it into what he called Wildlife Acres. This became one of the best destinations in the country for green timber duck hunting and Russell started taking clients there using local guides.
One of the best was Buck Mayhue, who came to guide for Russell in the early 1970s.
“I started out there with Russell in 1973 and I’ve been affiliated with it ever since,” Mayhue said. “I worked with Russell when he was running that as a guide service and I was one of five guides that worked for him.”
When Mayhue wasn’t guiding he worked for GTE, for 30 years in fact. He loved the woods and the ducks though, and spent every moment he could spare in the timber.
“I usually took all my vacation in the winter and it helped that I had a job with flexible hours,” Mayhue said. “It worked out real nice that I could duck hunt full time and have a full time job too.”
Mayhue was strictly a guide for many years until Russell McCollum’s health took a turn and he wasn’t able to handle the day-to-day workload the business required. He asked Mayhue to step in and take over some of the responsibilities.
“I started handling all of the booking in 1988,” Mayhue said. “Mike Smith, Russell’s son-in-law, took over the power of attorney and handled all of the legal and financial parts of the business. Mike took over that and I took over the duck hunting end.”
Just like Turner, it is the people he met along the way that really made Mayhue’s job special.
“We hunted people from all over the world, a different group every two or three days,” he said. “The people, I guess you might say, is what attracted me to it a lot along with being in the outdoors.”
Mayhue has hunted with people from all walks of life over the years, some more famous than others.
“We hunted some celebrities,” he said. “Ted Williams is one that pops up in my mind. We also hunted all of the Busch family from St. Louis. Augustus Busch II sent us a lot of clients and he always came down around Christmas and hunted before he went to Florida because he liked to play polo.”
Mayhue also recalls hunting with Henry Reynolds who was then sports editor for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. “We always hunted with him around Thanksgiving and he would always write us up a good article in the paper.”
While hunting methods have changed somewhat over the years, attracting and keeping ducks on property has stayed the same. Ducks need a place to rest and a place to feed or they will find those elsewhere. Mayhue has been performing the same offseason duties every year to ensure success in the fall.
“Duck hunting is a year round job,” he said. “People don’t look at it like that but it is. At the end of the duck season the first thing you want to do is get all of the water out of the woods. Then it falls into place. Once it dries out you’ve got to get in there and clean all the boat roads out.”
Mayhue said this is just the beginning of preparations for the season.
“It’s a never ending thing,” he said. “After you get all your woods and all your blinds and all your roads clean you have to start on the boats. … Everything has got to be checked out so when the season opens you are ready. That’s the way we do it.
“We have steps we go through and we follow them every year. After you do it for several years it just kind of becomes routine.”
Ups And Downs
Mayhue believes that lack of pressure is the key to great hunts.
“The place is secluded with no traffic through it,” he said. “We don’t have any disturbance. The farm fields act as a rest area. You hold the ducks out there and they’re going to come to the woods when the sun gets up about 7:30 or 8 o’clock.”
Mayhue still loves to be there with his hunters to make sure they have a memorable experience.
“You hunt along with them,” he said. “You call the shots and get them down in the hole so everybody has an equal opportunity.”
Several years ago a major change took place at the property when it was offered for sale.
Witt Stephens Jr., CEO of The Stephens Group LLC, bought the place and changed the name from Wildlife Acres to Screaming Wings. It is now a private club but Stephens kept the same routines that make the place special. And he kept Mayhue on, of course, along with guide Greg Fisher who has also been a valuable asset to the club for many years.
The only major change has been the addition of Sam Leder to help Buck with the work.
“Sam Leder, we hired him about a year and a half ago to kind of take over a lot of my responsibilities,” Mayhue said. “With my age I’m not able to do a whole bunch of stuff anymore and we hired him to help me out and take over a lot of the day to day transactions.”
Of course not every hunt is filled with ducks pouring in and gunfire echoing through the timber. These are the times Mayhue could do without.
“I never like telling anyone not to come because we don’t have any ducks,” he said. “That has been the most irritating part of the job. I have always hated to take them out there and not kill their limit.”
Hunting the woods is difficult in frozen conditions, Mayhue said.
“It would freeze up and we would call them and tell them not to come,” he said. “But they insisted on coming because they had taken their vacation time and so forth.”
McCrory in Woodruff County also contains a famous duck hunting location, the Coca-Cola Woods. The name comes from the days when Everett Pidgeon owned the land; his family bought the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Memphis in the early 1900s.
Clients were entertained there often and soon people were referring to it as “that Coca-Cola place.” Current owner John Dobbs Jr., made the name official when he bought the property several years ago.
Rusty Creasey is the man Dobbs relies upon to make sure the place is one for great experiences and fond memories. Creasey grew up around there while helping his uncle, the late Harvey Shue, who was club manager for four decades.
Creasey recalls Shue fondly.
“My uncle was a dog trainer and manager of the club for about 40 years,” he said. “I just grew up around the club with him. He got sick in 2001 and passed away in 2002 and I’m just carrying on what he started back years and years ago.”
Mike Creasey, Rusty’s brother, had a brief stint running the place but it was ultimately to be Rusty’s job.
“I stepped in then and took the place over and I’ve been caretaker ever since,” he said.
Much like his counterparts at the other clubs, Creasey has many jobs to do.
“Man, I am actually a jack of all trades,” he said. “I plant food plots through the summer and keep the place up. I plant rice in the woods and then come winter I get the woods ready for hunting.”
Creasey’s primary jobs are guide and grill master at that point.
“Once duck season starts I’m the head guide; I go out every day with the people,” Creasey said. “Then I work the grill at night. I’m always the one cooking on the grill.”
Creasey hunts when he guides but the clients always come first.
“I do hunt when I’m guiding,” he said. “Obviously though I take care of my guests first. If the boss ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.”
The Fun Part
Hunting ducks remains one of Creasey’s favorite parts of the job.
“I enjoy it. It’s all about the experience for me,” he said. “I like saying that it’s all about the show, to see the show. Pulling the trigger is the easy part but getting the ducks at your feet in the timber, so close they are splashing water on you, is the real thrill.”
Creasey loves to harvest ducks but that takes a back seat now to just being there watching the sun rise through the trees and hearing the air ripping through cupped wings.
“If we go kill eight limits out of 10 but see stuff most people just dream about then it’s been a great hunt,” Creasey said. “The limit doesn’t really matter.”
It’s not all wine and roses on a hunt though.
“The toughest part is just handling the people, especially inexperienced hunters,” Creasey said. “You’ve got to be really careful and make sure everyone is safe. Staying hid is a big factor as well; everybody wants to watch the ducks work.”
Though the work is stressful at times, the people keep Creasey wanting more.
“The most rewarding part is that I’ve had a chance to take several kids out and put them on their first duck,” he said. “The smiles, the high fives, that’s what makes it great for me.”
Creasey has had the opportunity to hunt with American heroes as well.
“I had the real honor to take a group of Army Rangers hunting that had spent a lot of time in combat zones overseas,” Creasey said. “That was a pretty humbling experience because we spend our time shooting ducks for fun while they’re over there putting their lives on the line for our freedom. … If I can take their minds off of that for a morning and let them shoot some ducks, that’s as rewarding as it gets.”
The common thread among the guides and caretakers and managers is a love of the land they care for and a love of the people that enjoy that land with them. Their labor is hard and long, their hours numerous, and they will never be rich by monetary standards.
But they have few complaints and many rewards from their livelihoods.
“I get worked up about it today, a 77-year-old man,” Mayhue said. “If you don’t get excited about what you are doing you need to change jobs. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done out there and I’m still enjoying it. I guess you might say it’s what keeps me going.”