Mississippi hunters have a couple of basic choices when looking for hunting grounds: public or private land. Public land is open to anyone, and most private lands are owned by individuals, families or timber companies. Unless a hunter owns his own dirt or can barter with landowners for hunting rights, private land has to be leased for hunting privileges.
It’s become something of a tradition for sportsmen in the Magnolia State to join hunting clubs. They pool their money every year and lease land as a group for the chance to chase their favorite wild game, with deer the most sought-after. Turkeys are second in line, followed closely by waterfowl. Small-game species, hogs, predators and sometimes fishing are on the hit-list as well.
May is when the mad scramble happens. Most club leases are due June 15, especially when timber-company land is involved. Club presidents and board members struggle this time every year to scrap up enough members to pay their leases.
While hunting clubs face many trials and tribulations every year, the No. 1 problem they face is the rising cost of leased land. During the past decade, land-per-acre prices have risen dramatically, mostly due to the supply and demand for good hunting grounds. Timber companies are capitalizing, with individual and family landowners following suit.
Red Dot Hunting Club in Jefferson County is no stranger to the struggle. Like many other clubs, Red Dot’s members are very passionate about this issue; it has hit them hard in the wallet, and they have the numbers and records to show it.
Bill Farmer, Red Dot’s president, said 2009 was when the problem started.
“That’s when our long-time timber company landowner, Georgia Pacific, sold out to Plum Creek,” he said. “Then, in 2016, Weyerhaeuser bought it.”
The lease of almost 2,700 acre lease cost $19,230 in 2008 and has increased a by $1,800 nearly every year since. With the latest increase, the Red Dot lease for the 2018-19 season will be $39,907 — more than double in 10 years.
“One year, we didn’t have enough members by the end of May to pay our lease. I had to take $4,000 out of my savings, and Charlie Pevey, our treasurer, took $2,000 out of his pocket just to pay it until we scraped up enough members to get our money back. We’re not doing that anymore,” Farmer said.
The club, near Union Church, has been around since 1983, but with the rising lease costs and the problems that come with them, its future is unclear.
“This year’s increase is $2,960; it’s the largest ever,” Farmer said. “I’m about 95-pecent sure our club won’t survive this time.”
Hunt clubs are doing two things to compensate for the rise in prices: raising annual dues or taking in more members. Both of these solutions result in a domino-effect, with each having their own issues.
Adding more members will result in a higher member-per-acre ratio. Most hunters, especially deer hunters, are looking for a minimum of 100 acres per member. Members would love to have more acres, but this causes the price to join a lease to cost more. It all depends on individual hunters, what they’re looking for in a club, and their budget.
Austin Berry, a hunter from Warren County, said, “The right place is absolutely worth paying more to me. Overcrowding is a problem — too many members per acre can lead to too many hunters on a property at one time. This puts pressure on the deer.”
More members means more pressure on the game. Turkey and small-game species can become more elusive, while deer will turn nocturnal. Clubs are adopting rules to control problems that having more members produces. Some will also produce revenue to help offset costs. Here are a few:
• Restrictions on guests, including raising guest hunting fees;
• Limiting excessive ATV riding, designating parking areas to promote foot travel;
• Creating logs for signing into hunting areas to monitor hunting pressure;
• Charging fees/dues for members’ children who are capable of hunting alone;
• Offering memberships at a cut rate for game other than deer, such as turkey-only or duck-only memberships;
• Limiting the use/checking of game cameras;
• Limits on the number of deer stands;
• Setting bag limits for deer at levels below statewide limits;
Raising annual club dues is the other option to cover rising lease prices, but it comes with its own problems. While some hunters have deep pockets, the vast majority have limits on what can be spent for dues.
“I believe it’s got to the point where the average-income person is not going to be able to hunt unless it’s on public land,” Farmer said. “The older members are dying off or dropping out due to living on fixed incomes, and the younger hunters supporting a family can’t afford the rising cost of dues.”
Sportsmen are all about promoting hunting and getting youngsters to participate, and higher lease fees are one of many things keeping our youth from being exposed to the outdoor lifestyle.
Clubs face struggles and conflicts besides high costs and overcrowding. Their membership can be sort of a melting pot of hunters with different interests and ideas on what they hunt, when they hunt and how they hunt. One age-old deer-hunting conflict is between still-hunters and dog hunters. Managing for a harvest of quality bucks and promoting a family friendly club that allows youngsters to harvest liberally will often causefriction. Duck hunters busting woodies in a beaver pond can conflict with a deer hunter focusing on the peak of the rut in the same general area.
The list of rivalries between different hunting interests could go on and on. Luckily, most hunters are reasonable and courteous towards each other. When searching for a new or different hunting lease, it’s always best for sportsmen to ask questions before paying dues, know the rules and look for clubs with hunters of similar interests.
Most Mississippi lubs are facing the same challenges and share the same concerns. Here is a short list of other burdens concerning many clubs:
• Timber harvest on SMZ’s (Stream Management Zones);
• Loggers damaging or destroying deer stands;
• Logging during hunting seasons—with no compensation for loss of hunting area;
• Roads left inaccessible to normal traffic after timber harvests;
• Short notice on logging operations. Some landowners give plenty of notice, some do not.
Annual lease agreements that need to be longer than one year;
What will become traditional hunting leases in our great state? The answer isn’t easy, and the struggles are real. The best stewards of the land, being the time-honored hunting clubs, are resilient and are sure to find a way to keep the tradition alive.