Waterfowl hunting is soaring to new heights in the Southeast, encouraging two brothers from Autauga County to tap into the industry.
“Duck hunting seems to be the thing in the outdoor world,” said Will Shackelford, who opened Dutch Bend Hunting Preserve with his brother, Reid, last year.
The brothers, 22 and 15 respectively, lead waterfowl hunts on the family row crop and cattle farm from October to March. With a modest amount of ducks traveling across Alabama through the Mississippi Flyway, Will said hunters don’t consider the state an Eden for felling birds. To increase bird diversity and quantity, and to build hunt quality, the Shackelfords pen raised and released ducks last fall.
“In this part of the state, there aren’t many mallards,” Will said. “We wanted to provide a variety of ducks for hunters.”
Last spring, Will learned about a duck farm near Scottsboro. After researching loans, reading about raising ducks and combining that information with his knowledge of guiding deer hunts, Will was all in. All it took was one conversation with his father, Rob, and Dutch Bend Hunting Preserve was a go.
“I had a whole speech written out, but he was immediately on board,” said Will, an Auburn University agricultural economics student.
Before coming home to roost on the Shackelfords’ property in early July, 500 baby ducks were fed cracked corn. Will and Reid call their ducks free-range, and though the ducks are released, the brothers scatter poultry feed to supplement wild forage.
While Will is at Auburn, Reid, a freshman at Marbury High School, juggles duck tending with school and athletics. The Shackelfords’ sister, Raegan, is also a Dutch Bend business partner.
The farm’s cattle operation received a double benefit last summer when the ducks kept armyworms at bay, and Dutch Bend seized an unexpected bonus when drought drove wild waterfowl populations to their ponds, situated in a pasture near the Alabama River.
Though most of their ducks are pen raised, the Shackelfords say hunt quality doesn’t suffer.
“They fly like a wild duck, so you have to shoot like it’s a wild duck,” Will said.
After months of preparation, Dutch Bend’s first shots were finally fired last October.
Most Dutch Bend visitors hunt while preparing to head to fly zones in other states, which have up to six times more birds than Alabama.
“People mainly come because they want their dogs to practice before hunting in Louisiana or Arkansas,” Reid said.
While hunting seasons vary depending on state and duck type, preserves like Dutch Bend are open from Oct. 1 to March 31.
“Our season is a lot longer so more people can come out and practice,” said Will. “In Alabama, it’s hard to get this kind of experience outside a preserve.”
Will and Reid, who learned to duck hunt when they were 12 and 9, call Dutch Bend an ideal first-time hunting experience.
“Our setup is perfect for first-time or young hunters,” Will said. “Even our location and duck blind are easily accessible to make the hunting experience better.”
The blind is built to reduce detection of hunters and is made of cedar trees, reeds, swamp grass and natural vegetation. It can hold up to nine hunters.
“It’s a walk-in-the-park kind of duck hunting,” Reid said. “Customers get to enjoy the hunt.”
Though it’s not essential to hunting waterfowl, Will said cold, windy, cloudy, drizzly days make for the best duck hunting experience. Their blind keeps hunters somewhat hidden from the elements.
“If it’s the kind of weather that makes you want to stay inside, it’s perfect,” he said.
Prime time for duck hunting is sunrise, the brothers say, and hunts ring up to $225 per person and include six ducks. Unlike daily kill limits in the wild, hunting on preserves is unlimited, though additional birds come at a cost, Reid said.
“We want hunters to let their dogs fetch as many ducks as they want,” said Will, whose yellow Labrador Mojo is on hand to retrieve birds if guests don’t bring a dog. “It’s all about making our customers feel comfortable and giving them an enjoyable hunting experience in central Alabama.”