Hunt clubs were formally introduced in Mississippi in the early twentieth century. As William Faulkner depicted in Go Down, Moses, the hunting camp allowed an escape from civilization or at least an opportunity to behave outside normal social conventions. Camp life often blurred the strict racial lines that existed in early twentieth-century Mississippi. Black men served as hunting guides and cooks and often hunted alongside white doctors, lawyers, and prominent businessmen.
Many of Mississippi’s hunt clubs were organized by settlers who were clearing the Delta wilderness for farmland and sought to rid the state of its indigenous black bears. US president Theodore Roosevelt went to Issaquena and Sharkey Counties in 1902 to assist in the eradication efforts with a kill of his own. When he refused to shoot a bear supplied by hunting guide Holt Collier at Smedes Plantation in Sharkey County, the incident became the subject of national folklore and the inspiration for the teddy bear.
The Ten Point Deer Club in the Steele Bayou wilderness of Issaquena County became a legendary hunting camp starting in the mid-1920s, playing host to Mississippi’s elite white lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Despite its name, the club initially focused primarily on hunting bears, turkeys, and occasionally squirrels or foxes. Mississippi had only a small deer population for most of the first four decades of the twentieth century, and not until 1942 did the club report its first official deer hunt.
Today, most of the state’s hunting clubs concentrate on deer or waterfowl. After massive repopulation efforts over the preceding thirty years, hunters killed an average of 25,000 deer per year statewide by 1970; in 2013, by contrast, Mississippi’s 149,046 hunters harvested 263,705 deer. In 2006 white-tailed deer hunting was a $860 million industry, while waterfowl hunting generated $192 million.
Hunting as an economic boost is only a recent phenomenon. In 1937 Mississippi commissioner of agriculture J. C. Holton expressed hope that land control and hunting restrictions could preserve the wildlife population, but he was also concerned about the state being overrun by “game preserves owned by rich men on which others may not hunt and fish.” In 1948 Hendrix Dawson, editor of Mississippi Game and Fish, compared restricted hunting practices to European aristocratic hunting laws, under which peasants could not kill wild game without permission. In 2001, 92 percent of Mississippi’s hunters reportedly hunted on private land, and an estimated 90 percent of the state’s available hunting land was privately owned.
For hunters unwilling or unable to purchase or lease hunting land, hunt club memberships are one of few remaining alternatives. Hunt clubs are not required to register with the state, and there is no way to know how many such clubs exist. Nearly 42 percent of resident and nonresident hunters polled in 2001 belonged to a hunt club. Club organizers’ responsibilities vary, but officers generally are elected to collect dues, map out hunters’ assigned areas, decide where to put the tree stands, pay employees for maintenance, listen to grievances, and ensure that members follow the rules.
Modern camp clubhouses include house trailers, primitive cabins, million-dollar lodges, and everything in between. Upscale cabins can feature deer antler chandeliers hanging over linen-adorned tables bedecked with McCarty pottery and high-definition flat-screen televisions to accompany the traditional storytelling and card-playing entertainment. Each camp has its own characteristics. For example, hunters at Beaver Dam Lake vie for the position of caller—the person responsible for making duck calls—a tradition handed down in some families with as much significance as the first rifle or inheriting the land itself. Wild Abundance (2010) is a cookbook anthology that celebrates food and recreational traditions at various Mississippi camps. Traditional camp cooks were apt to grill fish or roast rattlesnake or frog legs over a campfire or bring chicken, steak, or even chili from home.
Traditionally, women were not allowed to join hunt clubs. They could participate in club activities but could not vote on club rules. However, many women still joined in hunting rituals such as having faces smeared with the blood of the first kill or having shirttails cut off if they missed a shot. In the twenty-first century, entire families—daughters and wives as well as sons—are beginning to hunt together. Thirty thousand of the 240,000 Mississippians who reported hunting in 2006 were female. In addition, women participate in female-only hunts. Mississippi’s Ward Lake Hunting Club, for example, hosts a club of six women who call themselves the Swamp Witches. This nontraditional group follows more conventional duck hunting methods than many male-only clubs, paddling their own canoes and often waiting in naturally formed duck blinds rather than driving or motorboating to the prefabricated camouflaged blinds that many hunters now use.
Whether a club follows traditional or modern hunting and entertaining practices, camaraderie remains a constant. During the season, members of some clubs have a big Sunday dinner together or eat breakfast before leaving the cabin for the day. Many hunters visit their clubs in the off-season to go fishing or horseback riding or to participate in other outdoor recreational activities.
- Karen Brasher, “Hunting and Fishing Boost Economy, Improve Habitat,” Mississippi State University Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries News (21 October 2010)
- Brian Broom and Jacob Threadgill, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (21 November 2014)
- Chad M. Dacus, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, interview (January 2011)
- “Economic Impacts of White-Tailed Deer Hunting in Mississippi,” paper presented at the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (2007)
- Alan Huffman, Ten Point: Deer Camp in the Mississippi Delta (1997)
- Wiley C. Prewitt Jr., “The Best of All Breathing: Hunting and Environmental Change in Mississippi, 1900–1980” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1991)
- Susan Schadt, ed., First Shooting Light: A Photographic Journal Reveals the Legacy and Lure of Hunting Clubs in the Mississippi Flyway (2008)
- Susan Schadt, ed., Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry, and Recipes of the South’s Finest Hunting Clubs (2010)