Some people search the world over trying to find what they should do with their lives. Wade Henson discovered his calling practically in his backyard.
Henson is the owner of Cypress Lodge Outfitters, one of a growing number of outdoor recreation businesses or “natural resource enterprises” that are helping Mid-South farmers and ranchers restore profits to their bottom lines.
Cypress Lodge Outfitters offers deer, dove, duck, quail, rabbit and turkey hunting on 3,500 acres of rolling hills and timberland that include his family’s farm near Kilmichael, Miss. Other amenities include a lodge, dining facilities and a 20-acre fishing lake.
Henson’s operation has played host to hunters and other guests from 42 states and several countries in Europe, but, as he told participants at a Natural Resources Enterprises Workshop at the lodge, creating a successful outdoor recreation business took a lot of work – and more than a little bit of courage.
“When I started this business in 1994, I had $720 in my pocket,” he said. “Right across the pasture over there on the highway, there’s a big white house. That’s where it all started.
“I had some old 2 X 6s, and I screwed them together and made beds. I knew a guy who was in the mattress business, and I traded him two hunts for some mattresses. I had $268 in my advertising budget that year. I took out two classified ads – one in the Jackson daily newspaper and one in the Times-Picayune.”
Henson said he made six or eight deer stands in his shop. “I hate to think about what those looked like, but it was all I had,” he said. “I made $7,500 that first year. I charged people $125 a day to hunt, and I thought I was robbing them.”
Today, Henson charges considerably more than that per day and says he does about a 70-percent repeat business. “Some of them don’t come back every year, but some do.”
A 1983 graduate of Mississippi State University, Henson didn’t start out to operate a guide-hunting business. With a degree in animal science, he spent several years heading up the embryo transfer operation for a cattle ranch near Columbus, Miss., until a change in the tax laws ended it.
In 1988, he came back to the family farm near Kilmichael, he said, “to help stop the bleeding.
“We took some marginal pastures and put them into forestry,” he said. “So now we have an area for wildlife habitat that we can hunt.” He put other parts of the farm in the Conservation Reserve Program and planted those acres in pine trees.
“When I started the guide-hunting operation, frankly, I was looking for something to complement the cattle business,” he said. “The winter season was a slow time for me. Now the hunting operation carries us from Sept. 1 to May 1. We still run cattle, and we have a prosperous goat herd.”
Henson’s guests hunt over 3,500 acres from the Cypress Lodge Outfitters lodge he built in 1999. He owns about half of those acres and the lodge through a separate corporation and rents the other half. Part of the land adjoins the Big Black River Basin.
“The River and it tributary creeks has been the ideal hunting destination for centuries,” reads a brochure Cypress Lodge Outfitters distributes. “The ancient native Americans and the more modern tribes of the Choctaw and Chickasaw have camped, hunted and fished these fertile swamps and rolling hills for eons.”
“We start our season every year with a dove hunt,” he told workshop participants. “Then we do archery hunting for deer, rifle hunting for deer, water-fowl hunting and spring turkey hunting. The last several years we’ve also done a rabbit hunt for some guys out of Atlanta. They kennel their dogs here and stay with us for about a week.”
Henson had some eye-opening experiences when he began to “carry folks hunting,” as he describes it.
“I had a couple of guys who were in law school at Mississippi College who brought their own deer stands,” he said. “We found a real hot deer trail, and the only tree we could use was a pin oak. He had the kind of stand where you had to put your foot on the tree, and you know how hard and slick the bark can be on a pin oak. He put his foot down and the stand flipped. He went off headfirst and landed on his shoulder.
“He was OK, but it scared me to death. I didn’t have a bit of liability insurance then – I wouldn’t be without it now. They still hunt with us today.”
Henson spoke to a “standing room only” crowd in the dining room of his hunting lodge at the Natural Resources Enterprises Workshop attended by more than more than 60 landowners and other wildlife enthusiasts on March 8.
The workshop was one of two sponsored by Mississippi State University, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Ducks Unlimited, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, EPA, National Wildlife and Fish Foundation, University of Arkansas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The other was held in Lake Village, Ark., March 1.
An estimated 13 million people hunt in Mississippi annually, says W. Daryl Jones, coordinator of the Natural Resources Enterprises Program in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at Mississippi State. Many of those come from out-of-state.
“Hunting is now a $1-billion-a-year business in Mississippi,” he said. “That’s as big as poultry, which is the leading agricultural enterprise in the state. But it’s about equal with forestry.”
Besides bringing in additional revenue to landowners and to state businesses through purchases of food, gasoline and other travel-related items, a 2005 Mississippi State University study indicates that fee-based hunting and fishing and other outdoor recreation activities has helped increase Mississippi land values by $415 an acre.
“Waterfowl hunting is a significant determinant of land values in the Delta portion of the states,” said Jones. “From what we understand, it’s driving land values in the north Delta.”
Along with adding liability insurance, Henson has made other changes in his operation since 1994. He no longer spends $8,000 to $9,000 a year for print advertising as he once did.
“They say word-of-mouth is the best advertising you can have, but the Internet has changed everything. I now spend pennies compared to what I did and most of that is for fees for directories on hunting and fishing-oriented Web sites.”
He has also incorporated different parts of his operation, such as the lodge and the land he hunts. “What I’ve done is to try to building several layers of protection between my businesses and my personal assets,” he said.
While some outdoor recreation businesses are successful without the hassle of providing lodging and meals, Henson believes his facilities are a critical part of his success, given the lack of hotel and motel rooms in Montgomery and Carroll Counties.
“There are a few places a long the Interstate (55), but when you get beyond those, there aren’t a whole lot of places to stay,” he said. “In fact, there are few places in Mississippi more rural than Montgomery and Carroll Counties.”
That’s reflected in comments he hears from high school friends who grew up in the area and left. “I’ve had friends tell me they want to come back home, but they don’t know what they would do to make a living.”
Henson has turned the lack of such facilities into another source of revenue.
“We were staying busy from Sept. 1 to the beginning of May, but I had a problem with what to do with the rest of the year,” he said. “So I decided to start advertising for a place for family reunion and class reunions.”
Now he stays booked up most weekends in the summer months with reunions and church gatherings and retreats. His own family has their reunion the first weekend in August, and his wife’s family is planning to hold theirs in Kilmichael this year as well.
Henson gave workshop participants a thrill when he took them to his waterfowl-hunting area, a water impoundment that he floods in the fall using overflow from the Big Black River.
As a trailer carrying the participants topped the hill overlooking the impoundment, about 60 mallards took flight and headed out over the tree line that bordered the water.
“We got flooded late last fall because it was so dry in this part of (central) Mississippi,” said Henson, who spent about 30 minutes discussing the operation of the backwater’s biological and hydrological control features. “These ducks have stayed here later than I’ve ever seen them. We’ll leave the water on until they go back north.”
When he welcomed his visitors to the lodge, Henson expressed amazement at the interest shown in outdoor recreation and at the diversity of the audience, which included a number of landowners.
“I never dreamed that this industry would grow and support what it does today,” he said. “I would have given anything to be in your shoes and have this much help and support to get started.”