Napanee — Since his teen years, Steve Prather can hardly recall a day during duck hunting season that he wasn’t out in the field.
“If we weren’t hunting, we were hunting a place to hunt the next day,” joked Prather, owner of Mississippi Delta Hunts in Napanee.
Prather’s father was a rice farmer in Crowley, La., who moved the family to the Mississippi Delta in 1963, when Prather was in the seventh grade. Prather began farming on his own in North Louisiana, not far from the Arkansas border, while his brother farmed on the home place in Mississippi. “So for several years, I was hunting almost daily in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” he said.
Several years ago, Prather returned to Mississippi to farm rice and soybeans on 1,600 acres of land in Napanee, a tiny community located five miles north of Leland. When he established a guide service 14 years ago, the phone calls trickled in. The first year, he guided 10 duck hunts during the 60-day season. The next year, he guided 20 hunts, and the following year, the number doubled to 40. Now, he and three guides usher about 300 duck hunters — averaging four groups of four daily — to any of 15 pits on Prather’s farm.
“I enjoy hunting, and that time of the year, as far as farming goes, it fits,” said Prather. “It’s our downtime. Plus, with duck hunting, you get to sit in a nice warm pit. If it’s cold, we’ll take a heater. If it’s raining, we’ll cock the lid up. At the very least, we’ve managed to take all the guesswork out of the hunting here on this farm. We have retrievers, and we know when to call and how loud. Guys driving on Friday after working all week can’t do their homework. We know the ducks’ patterns, what’s flying in the morning and late afternoon. All they have to do is show up.”
Because Prather’s farm is 90% irrigated, he can provide a water source during dry spells. “Ducks look for water, and one of the first questions we get asked is, do you have water? We sure do,” he said.
At one time, Prather guided deer hunting trips, but the risks involved prompted him to stick primarily with duck hunts. “When you take hunters to a deer stand and leave them 12 to 15 feet off the ground, you’re responsible for them even though you’re not there with them,” he explained. “If they fell and broke their neck, they wouldn’t hold it against you, but their wife might. With duck hunting, we’re there 100% of time and are totally in control of the situation.”
Prather’s son, Justin, serves as one of his guides. Another son, Jason, is stationed with the military in Afghanistan and will soon be moved to Iraq.
“I really enjoy the slow times and good fellowship with people from all over,” said Justin Prather, who also hunts deer, dove and turkey. “It’s always interesting conversation to hear what other hunters hunt and where, and how they grew to love hunting. It’s great to see them enjoying the results of efforts put into a good hunt.”
Last summer, Prather built a lodge with six bunks and foldout sofas that will accommodate up to 10 people. Located on the farm next to shop headquarters, the lodge rents for a flat fee of $150 per night. Guided duck hunts cost $120 for a half-day and $150 for a full day. Guests who do not stay in the lodge typically come from Washington County.
“I had a retired doctor from Greenville who hunted with me during the last years of his life,” said Prather. “He’d only hunt with me, and told all his friends. He’d say I was set up to take hospital patients. And we’ve taken people on hunts that are handicapped. It’s not hard to put them on a two-wheel trailer we pull with four-wheelers. We can take them right to the pit with no walking involved. They don’t have to carry decoys. The younger generation that wants to get in the mud and water and crawl for a half-mile, we’ll send those to other guys.”
Justin Prather, who often escorts younger hunters, said “a lot of people don’t think you’re duck hunting unless you’re wearing waders. We’re not big on waders. It’s not a necessity. So there are a lot of shocked faces when we tell them they don’t need them. But, if that’s what they want and expect, we’ll accommodate them.”
Prather has regular customers — some have hunted with him every year since he’s been in business — from as far away as Indiana, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia. “We have some guys from Madison, Wis., who tell me they know when they leave their house and all the lakes are frozen over with three feet of snow on the ground, they’ll have a good chance at shooting ducks, but when they leave their house and ducks are still sitting on the lake where there’s no ice fishing or snow on the ground, they know they’re in for a tough hunt,” he said. “Duck hunting is strictly weather and snow cover. If there’s six feet of snow from Memphis north, we’ll get wrapped up in ducks.”
Prather’s customers represent both ends of the moneymaking spectrum, from college students, firefighters, truck drivers and construction company owners to doctors, lawyers and politicians, all clamoring to get in as much hunting as possible before duck season ends in late January.
“It’s easy. It’s comfortable. If the weather and ducks cooperate, we get to shoot some,” said Prather.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.