Joining a hunting club is a time-honored tradition in Mississippi and a way of life for many sportsmen. But in recent years, clubs in the Magnolia State have seen their fair share of hardships, challenges, and struggles.

Rising lease prices are a challenge for the average club. For most clubs it has causes one of two scenarios: 

• The price of dues has increased, hitting hunters in the pocket book.

• Clubs have taken on more members to cover the total cost of the lease, often resulting in overcrowding.

“Our club has been affected by rising costs,” said Dustin Wilson of Attala County. “We see our lease prices rise every year. We didn’t want to take on any new members and put more hunters on the properties, so we went up on our dues.”

Absorbing the cost by increasing dues is a good solution to the uptick of lease prices, as long as members are in agreement and can swing it. For most clubs, however, this isn’t an option, and they take on more members, often resulting in added pressure on deer herds. Some come up with other solutions to make it lighter on the wallet.

Here are a few things that real Mississippi clubs are doing to address the issues.

More members

Compensating for rising lease prices doesn’t always mean a club’s dues are going up. Taking on new members is a valid option, along with a few other outside-the-box ideas.

“We cater to the working-class guy, the guy that just wants a place to go hunting when he gets off work in the evenings or on weekends,” said David Hamblin, founder and president of Bennet Lake Hunting Club north of Tupelo. “Our members have agreed that we want to keep it affordable, so we’ve taken on more members than most clubs would entertain. We average about 75 acres per member.”

Each club has to evaluate its lease and determine the maximum number of members it can stand to avoid negative impacts on the local deer herd. This can vary throughout the different regions in Mississippi. When deer hunting is the main focus, clubs can consider taking on other types of hunters. 

“We didn’t want to add new deer-hunting members on our Attala County lease, so we took on some turkey members,” Wilson said. “They pay half the normal price of a membership for access to turkey hunting only. This helps counter some of the rise in our lease prices.”

Bennet Lake Hunting Club also added turkey-only memberships, but it didn’t stop there. Members got incentive with revenue raising.

 “We’ve started raffling items a couple of times a year,” Hamblin said. “A .45-70 donated by a member was raffled earlier this year, and soon we’re going to be drawing for a Ruger American 6.5 Creedmoor.”

Any means a club can come up with to generate revenue or save money by cutting costs and overhead will lessen the probability of raising dues. To cover the costs of food plots, many clubs are asking members to provide seed and fertilize as needed.

“Clubs can save bundles money by taking advantage of what they already have,” said Eric Bean with G1 Habitats, “Many hunters don’t recognize it, but most properties have a ton of natural browse and forage that deer utilize. It just takes a little education and recognition on each individual property. We help hunters and clubs with this.”

Good habitat-management practices and putting to use what nature provides is the most cost-effective means of providing deer with extra forage.

People management

Managing to relieve hunting pressure is a necessity for clubs when more members are present. Even when there’s an excellent member-per-acre ratio, the same kind of tactics will yield better results for any property. Today’s hunting clubs are putting sound practices into effect, and it’s making a difference.

“Feeders or feeding deer isn’t allowed on our lease,” Wilson said. “This cuts down on a tremendous amount of traffic ... filling feeders, checking feeders or checking cameras over a feeder. We plant food plots, and that’s it. There’s no joy-riding ATVs during deer season either.”

Like Bennet Lake, many clubs are limiting ATV traffic to specific times. Rules for gas-powered engine travel starts in September, a week before bow season opens, and limits the times ATVs can travel to avoid peak morning and evening hunts. Electric carts are exempt.

Taking on extra members does not always mean excessive pressure is added. Lots of clubs buy into the notion they need a ratio of 100 acres per member. Though it may be a good rule of thumb, it isn’t always correct or the right philosophy for every club.

 “Even though we’ve taken on more members, everyone isn’t there at the same time,” Hamblin said. “We have several members that will only make three or four hunts a year.”

One idea many clubs are doing is keeping a logbook. Hunters sign into and out of areas or stands by dates. Members can see who’s hunted where at what times and avoid hunting the same places over and over.

“We’re starting this year to keep a log on how many are hunting at one time and where, hoping to track pressure on different areas,” Hamblin said.

This provides a way for club presidents and management to go back and look at real club data and determine peak hunting days and how many hunters were on the lease on any given day. Records may show some clubs having a membership ratio of less than 100 acres per member may actually have less pressure than clubs having 200 acres per member.

Deer sanctuaries

Hunting smarter is always a good idea and is crucial when the pressure is on. Hunters put pressure on deer; bucks and does want to avoid human contact. Clubs need to work toward creating a place where deer feel secure.

“Management is a big problem with many clubs,” Bean said. “There will be so many people coming and going, checking cameras, riding 4-wheelers or whatever. The deer don’t have a sense of security. If you can give them a place where they’re not encountering people on a regular basis, and then provide them with plenty of food, water and bedding, whether it’s 15 acres or 1,500 acres, it will improve the property to hold more deer.”

Each club needs to evaluate its tracts and come up with plans on stand placement and hunting the correct wind, along with how to access stands without bumping deer. Large numbers of clubs utilize topographic maps or aerial photos and create maps showing stands, plots, roads and waterways. With Mississippi’s weather patterns changing throughout the season, this tool will help hunters read the wind and determine the smarter approach on the hunt.

If you’ve found yourself in a club or managing a club that’s resulted in higher dues, more hunters or sometimes both, take a look at what other successful clubs are doing to offset the challenges. Every hunting club is different and what works for one may not work for the other. The bottom line is that a deer club has to be innovative and willing to do what it takes to persevere in spite of today’s obstacles.

Some hunting clubs haven’t survived

The rise in prices for leased hunting land has taken its toll on hunting clubs across Mississippi. Most have adapted by whatever means necessary, but a few haven’t been as fortunate. 

For the past 36 years, Red Dot Hunting Club in Jefferson County near the Union Church community, has been a thriving club. Unfortunately, this year the only choice members had was to shut it down.

“We leased timber-company land,” said Bill Farmer, long-time Red Dot president. “Our troubles started in 2009 when Georgia Pacific sold out to Plum Creek. Then, in 2016, Weyerhaeuser bought it. Even though we kept the same timber-company lease manager, the price of the lease doubled in the past 10 years. I attribute this as the No. 1 reason we had to let it go.”

The days of paying $200 or $300 for a hunt club membership are gone, and many hunters struggle to find a good lease at an affordable price.

“I noticed that when our price of dues reached near $1,800, we started having trouble finding new members, and current members were having trouble paying it,” Farmer said. “I had to dip into my pockets some years just to get the lease paid, hoping to find new members to reimburse myself.”

Today’s clubs have to be frugal and innovative when it comes to managing funds and keeping dues as low as possible without overcrowding the land. Each club is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Every club will have find out what works for them to avoid the fate of shutting down. 

Need help? Hire a pro

Sometimes, everyone needs a helping hand, even a hunting club. Professionals are available to help clubs determine good management practices for their specific properties. They can also come up with strategies for hunting, stand placement, approaching stands, parking spots and even things never thought of for a particular lease.

With cost-cutting a big factor, why hire a wildlife-management expert? Actually, it can make found financial sense for some clubs when experts can find other, cheaper ways of management, or to offer ways to make the property more attractive.

The better a club can make a property, the easier it will be to attract prospective members. The more successful a club can become will also justify any future increases in dues. Hunters will dig deep in their wallets for exceptional hunting ground.

Several companies that specialize in helping clubs or individuals improve properties, utilize what’s available, and come up with smarter hunting plans. G1 Habitats in Hattiesburg is one such company.

“We sit down with clients and come up with a property improvement plan,” owner Eric H. Bean said. “Using satellite imagery and graphic design, I come up with a map that a hunting club president can sit down with their members and show them the layout of the property, including food plots, stand locations, bedding areas, travel corridors ... roads and water sources, and that just gets us started.” 

Every lease can be improved, and every club can come up with effective hunting plans. This is what it takes to minimize inadvertent contact with deer accessing different places on a lease. 

“On the map, along with the stand locations, there will stand access routes,” Bean said. “Hunters need to consider, ‘I’ve got a stand hung; now how am I going to get to it without bumping deer? What’s the wind for hunting this stand? How will I approach it?’”