Bo Sloan has quick smile, a fast wit and likes to hang around with people. He’s turned these traits, plus experience in farming and wildlife habitat management into a nice income as a hunting guide in Mississippi and Arkansas.
Sloan grew up on a small family farm, which produced soybeans, corn and wheat and raised horses and cattle near Tupelo, Miss. In addition to the waterfowl guiding business he started in 1994, he has worked with USDA’s wildlife services for 15 years and for the past two years has been the manager of the 39,000-acre Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi.
He makes light of the fact that as a government employee he was once sent “out west” for two years. The experience, in Stuttgart, Ark., had a lasting effect on Sloan. He learned that waterfowl and good, old-fashioned capitalism were not mutually exclusive.
“If you want to see what kind of contribution guiding and outfitting can provide to a local economy, go to Stuttgart. The city capitalized on it a long time ago and it is absolutely tremendous what it brings to Stuttgart, Arkansas County and that part of the state.”
When Sloan returned to Mississippi, “I looked around and realized that we have the same baseline of natural resources as they do. We just need to do a better job of managing them.”
That essentially was the beginning of Bayou Wings, which offers guided hunts in southeast Arkansas. Sloan also manages a 1,300-acre duck club in Mississippi. He leases hunting rights from the farmer and works with him on practices for improving farming and wildlife.
Sloan, speaking to a group of landowners attending the Natural Resource Enterprises Workshop near Valley Park, Miss., on May 23, says there are several keys to success in the business, whether you’re a landowner or a guide, or both.
Start small — “You have plenty of time. Work on it over the years and always deliver high-quality of service. You do that and those guys and gals will come back.”
Run the venture as business — “People fail because they don’t realize that it’s not just hunting and fishing because it’s their passion, but it’s also a business and you have to run it like a business. You can’t overextend and you always sell a good product.”
Keep things in perspective — “Guiding is great for additional income if you’re farming the land. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme by any stretch of the imagination. Sell what you have. You have the opportunity to have good duck hunting or fishing, don’t overstep that. Be true to yourself and be true to your clients.”
Seek professional assistance — “So many of our agricultural practices that we do today can dovetail into quality wildlife management practices,” Sloan said. “But sometimes changes have to be made to maximize the potential for both farming and wildlife. And some people are resistant to making changes, even though they’re not negative to agricultural production and can be very positive to water quality and wildlife habitat.”
A number of agencies and organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, Cooperative Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, provide technical assistance. In many states, financial assistance is available through USDA Farm Service Agency to restore waterfowl habitat.
“You have to work with the professions to make sure you’re doing it right. You can’t just disk up in the fall, put water on it and charge money for people to duck hunt. You’re not living up to your end of the bargain of selling a quality product. That will get you out of business quicker than anything.”
Develop a marketing plan to get started — Most of Sloan’s dove hunting clientele come from the state of Mississippi. Duck hunters come from all over, including a surprisingly large number from Georgia. “There is a tremendous waterfowl hunting interest in Georgia, but the Atlantic Flyway doesn’t produce waterfowl like it used to years ago. There are a lot of duck hunters and very few duck hunting venues. The Carolinas are the same way.”
Early on, Sloan devised a marketing plan in which he traded guided hunts for writeups in the South Carolina Waterfowl Association magazine. “That investment, giving a few hunts for that type of promotion, is worth a lot of money.”
You can also join an outfitters association such as Mississippi Outfitters Association to help establish a client base. These organizations often advertise and promote the benefits of hunting and fishing.
Sloan hardly advertises any more, however. “The industry thrives on repeat business. The first year I started doing it, we were wondering if we were going to get anybody. We thought if we could get two or three people to hunt for three or four days, that would be a good start. We had 84 man-days right out of the gate. We knew that we were doing well when the next year, 90 percent of our business was repeat business.”
Charge what you’re worth — “I cater to small group, private party hunts. I don’t book single individuals, and I usually try to keep the group at four people. That way, I can keep it a quality experience.
“I charge $185 per person per day. If I’m lodging them, I charge $45 per head, but we don’t feed them. We’re so close to Greenville that it just wouldn’t pay. If you do 150 to 200 man-days during the season, that adds up.”
Keep it fun — “Someone once said that the Mississippi Delta is the most Southern place on earth. This area is so unique. People from Atlanta and Charleston and other places absolutely love it. When we leave after a duck hunt to go to dinner, we go from a four-lane road to a two-lane road to a tar slag road and finally hit gravel prior to getting to the restaurant. People love it.”
Infrequently, there are times when the ducks are absent, notes Sloan. That’s when his sense of humor and people skills come in handy. “Anybody can guide a hunt where there are a lot of ducks. But when you have to break out the joke book at 10:15, that’s the difference between a guide and somebody who is just there.”