It's just after 5 a.m. at Meathead Lodge and a grizzled duck hunter is having a smoke on the back porch. In the pitch black he appears to be cupping a firefly. His shoulders are slumped, his hair matted and his weary eyes belie a lack of sleep. Later, it will be revealed that this sad fellow woke up burdened not only with a hangover but emptier pockets. He hit a losing streak in last night's card game.

Still, there is potential quick redemption in a duck blind. Old-timers will tell you that the best cure for a hangover and hurt feelings is a fine hunt. If things turn out right, this hapless chap will soon emerge from a blind with a smile and his limit, hapless no more.

And Meathead will greet him at the truck.

Making ends meet

Over the last few years, Arkansas Grand Prairie rice has yielded well. Prices, however, are terrible.

“There's still a high-dollar count on chemicals and fertilizer and whatnot, but we're getting low dollars when it's time to sell a crop. It's been a struggle for most rice farmers to make ends meet,” says Brad Koen, Arkansas Extension rice agronomist.

Making ends meet even here in the Grand Prairie — which is a traditionally strong rice location — is hard. In the last couple of years, some big-time area rice farmers have gotten out of farming completely. These are farmers thought to run stable operations. The fact that these farmers abandoned their profession has those left wondering about their own vulnerability.

“This just tells us the state the rice economy is in. And more good farmers are quitting the business this year. There are questions everywhere,” says Koen.

As a result, rice farmers are doing whatever they can to subsidize and stabilize their farming operations. Some work for auctions during the winter, some spread chicken litter — service-type jobs to make some extra money.

Duck hunting, however, is keeping many afloat. Duck hunting, says Koen, has taken off in the area over the last couple of years. Koen reckons some 70 percent of the farmers in the area are tied to duck hunting in some way.

Why Meathead?

The east is just now beginning to brighten. Before climbing into a blind, though, the question must be asked. Why abandon a fine Christian name like Keith Patterson for a moniker like Meathead?

“That's a nickname I got stuck with back when CB radios were big. My brother — Jimmy Don, who runs the operation with me — is Slamhammer and I'm Meathead. The names just seemed to fit, I guess. Everyone's called me that since. More people know me as Meathead than Keith. People actually introduce me as that now.”

Koen says his children call Patterson, “Mr. Meathead.”

The Pattersons farm outside Almyra, Ark., on a three-year crop rotation with rice, beans and wheat. In the past, when the wheat price was up, they planted many of the rice fields they're currently hunting in winter wheat. But when the wheat price dipped, they had to try something else.

“That's another reason we're relying on hunting for extra money — to take up the slack from lost wheat revenue,” says Meathead.

The typical set up

There are two ways farmers typically make money with duck hunting. One, they lease a field out to individuals or groups and get between $7,000 and $10,000 per field. The farmers supply a blind, decoys and flooded rice acreage (usually 75 to 80 acres, although there are instances where large, 150-acre fields have blinds on both ends). Second, they charge hunters by the day.

Some farmers charge on a per-acre basis. Instead of a lump sum, they'll charge hunters $50 to $80 per acre. As a rule of thumb, most hunters pay a solid figure, per shooting hole.

Meathead Lodge, however, has found a niche through charging by the day.

“It's like our hunters have rented the fields for the season, when they've really only got it by the day. All the same things we'd set up for a year lease — decoys, a good blind or pit, water, mojo ducks — are there for the dailies,” says Meathead.

There's more trouble involved in doing things by the day. You've got to schedule hunters, coordinate daily logistics, go over the rules repeatedly, collect money and deal with everything else. But you can figure on a hunter paying $75 to $100 per day.

This isn't an insignificant sum. For figuring purposes, say hunters pay $100 per day. If the lodge averages four hunters per day, per field, that's $400 daily. Multiply that by the 60-day duck season and you're looking at the potential for $24,000 per field.

“Doing things the way we do is a heck of a lot more trouble, but there's more money to be made, too,” says Meathead. “Right now, we're running six duck fields. That gives us a little edge in not having to guide folks too much. It's true that we're missing the guide money. But we don't want be tied up guiding hunters every day.”

The Pattersons have guides available if hunters want one. They cost additional money, of course. But whereas many landowners are renting their fields to others for commercial hunts, the Pattersons don't have to do that.

“We have our own land, and it gives us a bit of a break and means we can be a bit more competitive with our prices,” says Meathead.

Repeat customers

Meathead Lodge, which has only been open for two years, already has repeat customers. Many already have booked dates for next year.

Normally, though, when dove season comes in during September and duck season is set, the phone calls begin. Meathead says he could hardly get off the phone some days.

“This has taken off for us. We toyed with the idea for a bit and then took the plunge last year. We had this house (the lodge) and tried to put a three-field-and-house package together. We were going to take the other two rice fields we had last year and hunt them ourselves. But, live and learn, we seemed to be a little high on the house. They wanted the fields, but not the house.”

That's when the Pattersons struck on the self-guided hunt idea. It was a month prior to the season last year before they started any advertising at all. They ran a few local ads and printed up some business cards. That's all it took.

“We abandoned renting the fields out and went whole-hog with the self-guided hunts. That tripled our business in one year. Now, the duck population has taken away some of our business, too. We give the option of not coming if the ducks aren't flying. So some potential hunters have opted out. The ducks have just been slow so far.”

Prep work

What kind of preparation is there for an operation such as the Patterson's?

“We jumped in feet first. The house was here, and we brought in some decent furniture and put in a bunch of bunk beds,” says Meathead.

Normally, the brothers fix up two or three fields for personal use. But that's a large expense nowadays with pumping costs, blinds, decoys and everything else that goes into duck hunting. There's a lot more cost to duck hunting than most folks realize, says Koen.

“In preparing the five fields last year, we had to build and buy some blinds and decoys. And you have to pump a lot when doing commercial hunts. When water gets low, the hunters squawk. They're paying, and they want a bunch of water in the rice fields. If it was just the family, we probably wouldn't worry about it too much — especially as warm as it is and as few ducks as there are,” says Meathead.

Every blind and pit has about 10 dozen decoys. That isn't a fantastic amount, but when you're fixing up as many fields as the Pattersons have, you've got to cut back somewhere. As it is, there are about 60 dozen decoys floating around.

The lodge can accommodate 19 hunters and “we can handle about as many hunters in the field as we can get.”

The Pattersons do a few timber hunts, too. “As much response as we had this year, many days were booked full with people still calling. We approached a friend of ours who has a place with some timber hunting outside Dewitt, Ark.

“We worked out a deal with him where he gets a share of the take and we send some hunters to him. We hope to continue that in the future. If it works, it should get us even more business because about every third inquiry we get is about timber hunting,” says Meathead. Do the Pattersons have any advice about getting a hunting operation started?

“Everything has gone pretty smoothly with us. We incur a little more expense in running our operation from a liability standpoint. Everyone has to pick up additional liability insurance during hunting season.”

One thing you don't want to do is flood your fields too early, says Meathead. Early on there aren't too many ducks in the area anyway. But what ducks there are will congregate with the geese. Together they will eat a field completely out, leaving no food for the season. Thus the reason many farmers flood just a couple of weeks before the season.

But you also don't want to flood too late, says Koen. You want to have birds around for the early duck season, too.

“This year, without the early ducks we wouldn't have had many ducks at all. It's a juggling act,” says Meathead.

“I've been all over the area looking at fields during duck season. The amount of work you have to put into a duck fields depends on how wet it is when you cut the crop. When it's dry enough, you can harvest and not damage the levees too badly. The levees left during the season have a lot of root mass and don't wash too easily,” says Koen.

But this year, it was extremely muddy during harvest and farmers damaged their levees. They had to re-pull levees. Loose dirt that is pulled up washes easily.

“This year has been a struggle repairing levees. That's doubly true because of all the rain we've gotten. So, even though we've had tons of rain, folks are having to pump lots of water to keep fields flooded,” says Meathead.

Being around this business the last few years, a proper approach is key, says Meathead. If you're going to get involved with duck hunters, especially in an operation like the Patterson's, you have to have a good attitude. All kinds of personalities arrive on the lodge doorstep.

“Keith and Jimmy Don are able to get along with people. Other farmers in this business often have trouble doing that. Folks come to the Grand Prairie from all over the world, and they bring their quirks, moods and faults with them,” says Koen.

That's something to consider if you're pondering day hunts over a per-field seasonal lease, says Meathead. When you lease a field out for the season, you're usually not “hands-on involved with them” more than a few times every year. If they're difficult to deal with, it isn't a constant source of stress.

“The flipside to that, of course, is anyone who's difficult on a day hunt isn't likely to be around for long. You can suck up and handle them for a couple of days. The vast majority of people that come here, though, are great,” says Meathead.

Many visitors are surprised with much of what Delta dwellers take for granted. Meathead says such revelations occur all the time.

“I was riding a group around the property before the hunt the next day. We're riding in a jeep and an armadillo darts across the road. They started hooting and hollering wanting to know what that thing was. I told them, not thinking much about it. They got their cameras out and started snapping away.

dbennett@primediabusiness.com