This story was reprinted with permission of the Ole Miss Alumni Review.
Most people are fast asleep in the hours just before dawn, but for Mike “Catfish” Flautt, owner of Tallahatchie Hunts in Swan Lake, Mississippi, his day begins with a ride across his sprawling 8,000-acre plot of premium Delta hunting grounds in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway.
“My favorite part is when I’m out in the morning,” Flautt says. “I don’t hunt anymore, but I scout. I’m out at first light, and it takes me about three hours to ride through the property. We probably have 75 to 80 different spots to hunt on, so I try to scout and keep an inventory of the duck population every day. It’s really something to see when you’re out riding in the morning.”
From massive whitetail bucks to ducks, geese, wild turkeys and beavers splashing around in the water, the grounds of Tallahatchie Hunts, where the Coldwater, Yocona and Tallahatchie rivers converge, are an outdoors enthusiast’s playground.
“I’ve got really good binoculars, so I know where about five or six eagles’ nests are around here,” Flautt says. “And of course we have thousands and thousands of ducks every year. After I finish scouting, I come back in, and we have a big breakfast where all the hunters come up to my house. This morning I’ve got hunters from Phoenix, Tulsa, South Africa, Trinidad and some from California — you never know who’s going to come in here. I love meeting all the different people that come through my kitchen.”
The son of a catfish farmer, Flautt grew up hunting, farming and playing basketball. He graduated from Delta Academy in 1971, then went on to Millsaps College in Jackson, where he played basketball and earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1975 with an emphasis in accounting and economics.
He continued his education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he received a master’s degree in business administration in 1977, before returning home to Swan Lake to pursue a career in cotton farming.
“My wife, Hedy (BBA 75), and I had always planned on moving back to Tallahatchie County and farming,” Flautt says. “We moved back in 1977 and had three children (Bolton, Alben and Clansey). We had a big cotton gin and did that forever. Cotton farming was pretty tough on a lot of the farmers. A lot of guys didn’t quit farming because they wanted to; they quit because they had to. But we were able and fortunate enough to hold on.”
After a bad crop due to back-to-back hurricanes Isidore and Lili in fall 2002, Flautt lost $1.3 million.
“We needed a wintertime job and income because there wasn’t any money coming in,” Flautt says. “So everybody said you need to start a guide service.”
After meeting with a friend in Florida who had already been in the business for a few years, Flautt stuck to advice and his own instincts on how to implement a business strategy for his guide service.
“I have a degree in accounting, so I know my numbers pretty well,” he says. “I tell everybody my master’s is in creative finance, because I always had to create equity every year during the winter to talk the bankers into loaning me money to farm again. My friend told me not to start out building a big lodge that I had to maintain all year, which was really good advice.
“Then I had other people telling me I had to build these big, fancy blinds because all of these people love to be real comfortable when they come. I thought about it for a second and said, ‘You know everybody I’ve ever hunted with just liked to kill ducks, so I’m going to do it my way.’”
With his basic expense being money spent on groceries to cook and feed the hunters, Tallahatchie Hunts was officially formed.
“My brother and I would take people out hunting, and Hedy did the cooking, so we clicked right along like that averaging about 300 hunts a year,” Flautt says. “Hedy died in early November 2005, and I basically quit hunting completely and hired my sister-in-law to check my houses.”
Soon after, Flautt decided to offer the job of cooking for the hunters to his daughter, Clansey Flautt (BBA 09), and his daughter-in-law, Emily Flautt, despite knowing neither knew how to cook.
“They both looked at me at the same time and said, ‘We can’t cook,’” Flautt laughs. “I told them how much I was going to pay them per person for everybody that walks in that door, and on top of that I was going to pay all of their expenses. They quickly said they could do it. It’s funny how money motivates people.”
Around the same time, Flautt decided to hire guides to take on that portion of the business, while he took on the sole role of scouting the land.
“I’ve got about 20 boys that work for me, and most of them are Ole Miss students,” he says. “They just come and move in with me, and they love it.”
Business was booming with the number of hunts booked each year steadily growing in the hundreds. Then amid the stock market mayhem of 2008, Flautt’s business all but came to a screeching halt. With most of his clients being large corporations and consulting companies, the cuts on spending trickled down to his bottom line.
“They cut out all extra spending like that,” Flautt says. “I had done 700 hunts the year before, and my book at Thanksgiving for the season for December and January was zero. So I basically had to start advertising again.”
After revamping his website in 2008, his son, Bolton Flautt, a writer in Dallas at the time, jumped into the advertising side of the business with a few suggestions to help get
the word out in a digital age.
“He said let’s try Google AdWords, where you put in keywords and pay so much a click,” Flautt says. “So we put together a monthly budget, and I started getting a few people in. Then my phone started ringing about the middle of December, and it was these wives calling, saying their husband loves to duck hunt, and they don’t know what else to get them for Christmas. They asked if I could take a credit card over the phone, and I said absolutely.
“That’s kind of how it got started, and it was just nonstop daily getting calls from folks all over. Then my job became more of a salesman’s job. And that’s pretty much what I do. I sell Tallahatchie County and get people to come here.”
That year, Tallahatchie Hunts went from 150 hunts in December to 500 hunts in January with 75 to 80 percent of those people being new clients all related to advertising.
“I figured out the best way to advertise Tallahatchie Hunts, using Google AdWords, and monitor how much we spent to see which keyword searches were working and which were not and adjust accordingly,” Bolton Flautt says.
He also served as a full-time guide and the “No. 2 person” in the organization. For him, working with his father profes- sionally has been a rewarding learning experience.
“He is my dad and one of the most generous and caring role models I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with, on both a personal and professional level,” he says. “He is smart, fair, honest and hardworking. The main reason we work well together is trust. He trusts me to spend our advertising dollars wisely, and we know that when any customer talks to either one of us it’s like talking to the same person. Being on the same page so o en as we are is truly a blessing and makes everything I do so enjoyable. I’m so extremely grateful for a boss and a dad like him.”
The next logical step in developing the business was to get involved in the outdoor trade show circuit. From Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham to Pennsylvania and Charlottesville, Virginia, Bolton Flautt capitalized on numerous networking opportunities, meeting the industry’s leaders.
“I started organizing trade show events in di erent states across the Southeast to attract new customers from areas where we wanted to establish a presence,” he says. “From the trade shows, I made contacts in the outdoor television industry to get Tallahatchie Hunts on the Outdoor Channel and Sportsman Channel, where we actually won a Telly Award for an episode called ‘Out tters Showcase.’ Since 2008, we have [been on] several outdoor television shows and grown our business by an average of 25 percent every year.”
More and more outdoor television shows started popping up, one of them being “Mississippi Outdoors” on the Pursuit Channel.
“I was on [that show] probably 15 or 20 times that year ,” Catfish Flautt says. “At that time DirecTV had over 40 million subscribers, so when that show played, my phone was ringing with all of these di erent numbers from people all over the world wanting to come to Tallahatchie County. We started getting 1,300 to 1,500 hunts per year. I even raised my prices three times during that period to slow them down, but it never stopped.”
Another boost to booking duck hunts came from A&E Network’s “Duck Dynasty” series, featuring Duck Commander’s Phil Robertson and his family. A longtime Tallahatchie County hunter, Robertson’s rise to fame led to numerous referrals to Flautt’s hunting business.
“All of these kids were watching the show and decide they wanted to go duck hunting,” Flautt says. “They would call [Robertson] or look people up on his website, and he couldn’t take them so the next person that popped up on Google was me. So many new people from all over the world that had never been hunting started contacting us. That [TV show] was a big push. It’s just been amazing, and I’m really blessed to be in an area that’s kind of a mecca for ducks in Mississippi.”
Flautt’s business has boomed so much that he now has the luxury of limiting the number of hunters he can take. Further bolstering Tallahatchie Hunts’ exposure was a recent article in Garden & Gun magazine featuring 25 dream trips for the Southern sportsman.
Bolton Flautt looks back in awe on how much the business has grown since its humble beginnings with just his parents running it all.
“Mom would cook, and Dad would guide. Fast-forward to present day, where we have a staff of probably 50 guides cooks and house cleaners catering to a diverse clientele from all over the world coming to spend money and provide a much-needed jolt to our local economy — [it’s] indescribably wonderful. [But] probably the most important attribute of our business is that we treat every customer like family and have since day one, when Mom would cook eggs Benedict with tomato gravy for 30 people.”
With his late wife, Hedy, and daughter, Clansey, both being Ole Miss alumnae, Catfish Flautt has been a Rebel for decades.
“When Ole Miss hired Steve Sloan as the football coach, I went to a meeting in Clarksdale, and he started talking about what was called walk-on alumni back then,” Flautt says. “He gave me an alumni card, and I’ve been an (alumnus) ever since. I love Ole Miss.”
Flautt visits campus each year to speak to students of his friend Bill Luckett (JD 73), University of Mississippi School of Law adjunct professor and partner at Luckett Tyner law firm in Clarksdale, about entrepreneurship, describing how Tallahatchie Hunts was built from the ground up.
“Bill and I are good friends, and I come speak to his class every year about how my business got started,” Flautt says. “I never had a clue that this is what I would be doing. I tell them that every day is payday, and every night is Saturday night. We have two vacations a year, and each one lasts six months. My hunting season is my second vacation, and truly the people are what makes it fun.”
By Annie Rhoades. Photos courtesy of tallahatchiehunts.com.
This story was reprinted with permission from the Ole Miss Alumni Review. The Alumni Review is published quarterly for members of the Ole Miss Alumni Association. Join or renew your membership with the Alumni Association today, and don’t miss a single issue.
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