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Lodge lures waterfowl, a hunting tradition

Tony Vandemore and his dog, Junior, return to the blind after retrieving a mallard that one of Vandemore's customers shot during a recent duck hunt near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Tony Vandemore and his dog, Junior, return to the blind after retrieving a mallard that one of Vandemore's customers shot during a recent duck hunt near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

(MCT) — SUMNER, Mo. — Tony Vandemore put the finishing touches on his decoy spread and paused to admire his work.

“If I were a duck, I don’t think I would last very long,” he said after arranging several dozen block decoys interspersed with battery-operated motion wing imitations. “This setup looks great to me.

‘If I were a duck, I’d come right in.”

Some of the ducks Vandemore was hunting apparently felt the same way. Moments after he tucked into some flooded cover in the Timber Hole on his Habitat Flats hunting operation in northern Missouri, he watched as a flock of mallards reacted to his loud calls. The flocked turned, then headed toward the blind where the four hunters Vandemore was guiding were hiding.

The mallards, their green heads glistening in the morning sun, circled once, then twice before cupping their wings and gliding down on the decoys.

When Vandemore shouted “Take ’em,” guns began blasting and ducks began falling. In short order, three mallards tumbled to the marsh and Junior, Vandemore’s black lab, raced out to do his part.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Vandemore said. “I don’t like shooting them high.

“I like it when they’re completely fooled and they’re close. That’s when it’s exciting.”

Vandemore sees that often at the Habitat Flats hunting operation he and three others — Ira and Aaron McCauley and Dan Daugherty — own near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. “One of our customers called our hunting operation a Disneyland for duck hunters,” Vandemore said.

With almost 2,500 acres of water and 45 blinds scattered in a variety of locations, Habitat Flats is a duck magnet. Hunters can set up everywhere from holes in the flooded timber to flooded crops to shallow marshes with moist-soil foods.

Little is left to chance. Vandemore and his partners have dug dozens of wells to flood the habitat. They also do tireless work on the habitat to ensure that it is desirable to the waterfowl once hunting seasons arrive.

“We’re duck farmers,” Vandemore said. “Everything we do is designed to bring the ducks in. We even try to be cognizant of what the crops look like from above.”

But Habitat Flats is about more than just the duck hunting. Hunters who pay to hunt here aren’t roughing it. When is the last time you’ve had prime rib or filet mignon at a hunting camp?

The lodge is beautifully appointed, with comfortable rooms, a bar, and a large picture window overlooking some of the operation’s flooded acreage and the nearby Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The walls are decorated with large photos Vandemore has taken in the blinds and trophy deer that were taken in the area.

The overall experience is what earned Habitat Flats a place on Field and Stream magazine’s list of America’s top five hunting lodges.

“Before we started this, I had a farm and so did two of my partners, and we were all managing for ducks,” Vandemore said. ‘We decided to start a hunting operation to help us subsidize our costs.

“From the start, we wanted to go first class. We’re all serious duck hunters and we wanted to do things right.”

The hunting operation got off the ground in 2007. Today, it is recognized nationally for its waterfowl hunting. This is a place where limits of ducks are the norm, not the exception.

Vandemore will revolve parties from spot to spot depending on the wind and other conditions.

“We put decoys out every day,” he said. ‘We don’t want to leave them out and have the ducks get used to them.”

Vandemore has guides from across the country to help take hunters out. Each day, they return to the lodge with lanyards filed with everything from mallards to wood ducks to gadwalls and blue-winged teal.

Even as cold weather sets in, there is a plan. Vandemore and his partners use agitators to keep the water open and accessible to ducks.

For Vandemore, this is a labor of love. He grew up duck hunting and he has never gotten away from it.

“My dad and grandpa took me to the duck blind when I was in diapers,” Vandemore said. “They had blinds on the Illinois River and they were out there constantly.

“And my grandpa belonged to a couple of duck clubs and I’d be out there with him, too. It’s something that has always been a big part of my life.”

Vandemore eventually specialized at snow goose hunting, especially during the spring months, and he became known as “the Snowman.” He came out with DVDs on the hunting methods, and his name grew.

Today, he is known nationally as an authority on waterfowl hunting, and his hunting operation has a big following, attracting hunters from all across the nation.

“Less than 5 percent of our customers come from Missouri,” Vandemore said. “We’ve had people from 49 states and several foreign countries hunt with us.

“I think people realize that we have some of the best duck hunting in the nation, and they’re going to get treated right when they come here.”

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