Baker's Wildwing and Angling Adventures/Baker's Fish Hatchery
By Dan Burden and Connie Hardy, content specialists, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Written October 2008.
Denny Baker – owner/manager
1130 Canfield Ave.
Clemons, IA 50051
Office: (641) 477-8680
Mobile: (641) 751-4484
On the net: www.bakersfish.com
Aquaculture and Game Birds
Often a business venture is a second career, purely something in which a person enjoys being immersed on a daily basis. This is definitely the case with Denny Baker, who has created two businesses or as he calls them, “post-retirement hobbies,” that singly would be more than enough of an adventure for most entrepreneurs; one, a natural-reproduction aquaculture operation that produces several species of fish for stocking programs; the other, a unique seasonal preserve-hunting business.
Denny Baker grew up on a farm in Iowa and attended Iowa State University where he graduated with a degree in Animal Science. He then joined the U.S. Air Force where he served as a T-38 jet instructor pilot. After he completed his military commitment, he returned to Iowa to be involved with the family farm. Denny retired from Kent Feeds, Muscatine, Iowa, in 2003 after serving as District Sales Manager and Consumer Products sales Manager. Nineteen years ago, Denny purchased the property where the hatchery is operated. The quail- and pheasant- hunting-preserve operation began seven years ago and is operated seasonally according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Regulations from September 1 through March 30.
Natural-Reproduction Aquaculture: Fish for Stocking Programs
The opportunity to purchase a nearby dilapidated farmstead and gravel quarry site and an interest in fish and fishing, prompted Denny to try a natural-reproduction aquaculture operation. This enterprise focused on sustainable “wild” stocks of several fish species that could be harvested for sale to individuals interested in stocking farm ponds and other waters according to whichever age or size cohort was requested by the customer.
Denny loves to fish, which led him to buy this particular property and consider developing it into a fish hatchery. Because the land is located on the east side of the Wisconsin Glacier Lateral Morain geologic feature, the soil conditions create clean-flowing spring-fed ponds that make excellent, very close to completely natural, fish habitat.
Denny markets smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegills and hybrid bluegills (bluegill/sunfish), white Amur (grass carp), channel catfish, walleye pike, and black crappies. He supplies fry, fingerlings and adult fish of several species for private- and public-water stocking programs, as well as other fish hatcheries. However, it is the smallmouth bass that separates Denny’s operation from most other Midwestern hatchery operations. Small mouth bass are most at home in cold streams and deep rocky lake habitats; making them particularly challenging to rear in the typical fish-hatchery system in much of the Midwest where the fry are crowded into raceways, fed artificial diets and may not have optimal water temperatures.
Catching and delivering fish for stocking from a natural-reproduction-type system is not an easy business. Fry and fingerlings are seined then hand-counted and inspected so that the customer is sure to get all they fish for which they contracted, as well as fish in top condition. Adult fish are often harvested by rod and reel. Denny recounted one situation where he had an order for 1,000 8- to 10-inch bluegills (quite large fish for this species). To harvest the fish, Denny and a friend “intensively” fished together. Their best recovery rate was “clocked” at 238 fish within a two-hour period.
This is of course, a very different business model than production-oriented fish farming where the constant production of product for market is the object of the venture. In the Baker’s system, limited-scale sustainable production of several species is based on the natural reproduction and carrying capacity of their spring-fed ponds. As part of a diversified business model, the aquaculture operation is seen as one of several profit centers that the property can support. The population density of fish in the ponds is optimal for fish growth and health, so supplemental feeding and pharmaceutical applications for fish diseases is minimal or unnecessary.
Quail and Covey Quail Hunting
Denny Baker spent a great deal of time in Texas while in the armed forces. In Texas, he found quail and dove hunting a relaxing and highly enjoyable way to spend time in the outdoors and around pointing dogs. Many years later, after returning to his home state, this would eventually lead to a covey-quail-based member-driven hunting-preserve operation on his property in central Iowa.
Early in the evolution of the business, the Bakers raised their own bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus L). The quail-production operation began as the Baker’s son’s 4-H project. As Denny said, “My son needed a 4-H project and it seemed like every kid was doing the usual sheep and cow thing, so I said, hey, how about quail?” Soon Denny’s son’s project became an interesting hobby for Dad too. His son’s well-developed quail-rearing system soon became a hobby business that over time became Dad’s quail business.
In time, the game-bird-production side of the quail business was sold to Malloy Game Birds, Marty Malloy, State Center, Iowa, who continues to operate it as a side business and has increased annual production to over 18,000 bobwhites. The Bakers and other hunt club operators in Iowa continue to regularly and in some cases exclusively use these hard-flying birds for their preserve-hunting operations.
It was twenty years later that the quail project took on more of a life of its own. The avenue to explore was to develop managed habitat that would be optimal for released birds that also would be challenging cover for hunters, and thinking about models for a hunting-preserve operation. Rather than raise his own birds for release, Denny purchases adult quail from the same proven flock of hard-flying birds that he and his son started 27 years ago. The game preserve continued to evolve as a complementary use for land entered into the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.
The preserve harvests only male “ring-neck” pheasants if customers are interested in pheasants or trying for a mixed-bag during their outing. Denny Baker’s pheasants are wild and pen-reared stock raised by Denny Anderson from nearby Zearing, Iowa. Hunters harvest approximately 250 pheasants and 3,500 quail per year at Baker’s Wildwing Adventures.
Providing first-class hunting experiences is Denny Baker’s most important goal for his business. The preserve has 590 acres of land that can be utilized for hunting. However; 95 percent of the hunting is done on approximately 60 acres of intensively mixed food plots (field corn, popcorn, milo) and warm- and cool-season grasses that provide good cover for birds and safe and exciting hunting for hunters and their dogs. Denny allows only one group with a maximum of four guns in the preserve at any time. All hunters must participate in a safety briefing before heading to the field. Denny checks on the hunters every hour and a half or so and brings fresh water and snacks for both hunters and dogs.
Baker’s Wildwing is primarily a membership-oriented hunting preserve. The hunt club will have approximately 35 “named” members (including corporate members) who can bring up to three guests for half-day or full-day hunts during the fall 2008 winter 2009 hunting season. More than 200 people hunt on the preserve each year. The average harvest rate for released birds is 50 to 60 percent; although it might range from a low of 25 percent to a high of 100 percent depending on the marksmanship of the client, the performance of the client’s dogs if they are used, weather conditions and other factors. Most hunters bring their own dogs, but guides with dogs are available if sufficient time is allowed ahead of time to make the necessary arrangements.
Denny Baker also has his own dogs that he will provide to some parties by prior arrangement. The Bakers have Vizslas and a Griffon puppy. The Vizsla is classified as an AKC Sporting Group Gun Dog; they are natural hunters endowed with an excellent nose. The breed originated in Hungary with ancient breeds that included the Transylvanian hound and the now extinct Turkish yellow dog, and modern breeds that include the German Shorthaired Pointer, Spanish Pointer and English Pointer. In Hungarian, the name "vizsla" means "pointer." The Vizsla is a fine pointer and retriever and for many of the Baker’s clients, the opportunity to hunt behind a brace of these lively, gentle-mannered companions is yet another fine aspect of the Wildwing Adventures experience.
Any hunting preserve operation is at the mercy of many factors. The ice storms during the winter of 2007 into 2008 and the wet spring record rains of 2008 was a nasty one-two punch from Mother Nature. The statewide index of pheasant numbers for 2008 is 31.6 percent lower than 2007 counts and 37 percent lower than the ten-year average; and the second lowest statewide pheasant count since the bird survey was standardized in 1962. It could be concluded that these low natural bird numbers would result in increased interest in preserve hunting, but this is not necessarily the case.
Most hunters who visit preserves are members who are dog owners, who do it to have access to birds and habitat in which to work their dogs. The other hunters tend to guests of these hunters. Fluctuations in natural bird populations do not tend to influence preserve hunts but do influence out-of-state travel to neighboring states.
Economics however, does impact preserve hunting. The national/international financial crisis of fall 2008 have caused most people from all walks of life to carefully consider their recreational-dollar expenditures. Within Iowa this is being noticed by some of the preserve operators. However, for many clients, these types of factors reinforce the “bang-for-the-buck” that a good preserve delivers in time and money savings compared to out-of-state travel or spending a lot of time chasing wild birds in habitat where they simply do not exist. Almost all of Baker’s advertising and marketing is through word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers.
AgMRC Game Birds page.
Baker’s Wildwing and Angling Adventures
Hunting and Conservation Issues: Gamebird Preserves - James E. Miller, National Program Leader, Fish and Wildlife, USDA/CSREES/NRE; Washington, DC 20250-2210
Nature-based Tourism and Agri-tourism Trends: Unlimited Opportunities, NRCS, USDA - This site gives an overview of agri-tourism and a listing of possible enterprises.