“I’d known about it forever,” says John Williams, speaking about a large, diamond-in-the-rough bottomland hardwood tract along a river in Oklahoma, “And dreamed of owning something like it one day.” He cut his teeth duck hunting Oklahoma public lands and followed his father’s footsteps into realty, forging his way into recreational properties before it was really even a thing. That dream property finally came for sell. He’s since spent decades learning the property, developing it into the largest hardwood wetland in the state, fine-tuning management, and instilling in his sons the same love and appreciation for it that he himself feels.  We cover lots of topics you’ll appreciate whether you’re a landowner or, like myself, still dreaming.

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Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast where today I’m in Rogers County, Oklahoma, on the outskirts, I’d call it of Tulsa, in a place simply called Skelly. And it starts like this, a couple years ago, I get an inbox on social media and somebody invited me to, hey, if you’re passing through Oklahoma, we’ve got little flooded timber here. We’d love for you to stop by and maybe come hunt with us one morning and I’m thinking to myself, there’s flooded timber in Oklahoma, can’t be. But I had a day and I stopped by and I met today’s guest, Mr. John Williams and his family and his friends and I was introduced not only to an amazing property and amazing hunting traditions, but also to a land ethos, to a long term vision that resonated with me. I thought it would make a great conversation. John, how the heck are you?

John Williams: I’m doing good.

Ramsey Russell: That was kind of interesting this morning. You all been froze out?

John Williams: We have.

Ramsey Russell: And we pulled up to the hole and it looked like water to me until I stepped on it and it was water on top of ice. I cannot remember ever seeing that situation before.

John Williams: Sure, doesn’t happen very often. But, yes, we occasionally, oh, it happens once a year, I’d say typically first week of January. It’s happened the last 2 or 3 years, but here we are at the end of the season and we’re standing on ice.

Ramsey Russell: I’m just glad we got to go out because you told me last week you just hoped you all would thaw out well enough and we’re talking some serious ice you all got.

John Williams: We did. We had, obviously, temperatures hovering around 0 and had – oh, we’ve got 4 inches of ice in the woods right now, at least. So it’s starting to thaw out as you know, with the water sitting on top of the ice. But, yes, it’s been kind of a rough 2 weeks, but we still have some ducks hanging around.

Ramsey Russell: You all have had a good duck.

John Williams: We have. We’ve had a really good duck season and expect a good one next year.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about, you were telling me last night how it was a little weird duck season. You had a productive duck season as normal. But you all were weird like you’ve got some impoundments down here, some marsh impoundments that you don’t hunt. You can see them right below the hill at us and you had a lot of ducks, like pintails, for example. Do you all not normally get a lot of pintails?

John Williams: We do not. Yeah, typically the first week or so are October mallards or Halloween mallards or whatever you want to call them. Typically, those ducks will show up around Halloween or the first week or 2 in November. But this year was highly unusual. We had, I don’t know how many pintails, I’m guessing in the neighborhood of 3000 to 5000 pintails show up.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

John Williams: And it was just pretty unusual for us to see that many pintails. Now, we do see pintails coming back in January, starting in mid January, we start to see a few pintails, but that’s not what – we shoot very few pintails, let me put it that way because the way we hunt is typically in the woods and so we don’t spend a lot of time in a duck blind, let me put it that way.

Ramsey Russell: Right. How do you hunt? How would you describe the way you hunt?

John Williams: I would just –

Ramsey Russell: It is absolutely flooded green timber, shin deep, pin oaks. Unbelievable.

John Williams: It is. I guess the way we hunt is probably similar to the way most people in Arkansas would hunt, except for the fact that we actually drive. We drive a jeep, we drive a Polaris ranger, we drive to get to the holes and we are walking into the holes, but we drive to get to that area.

Ramsey Russell: Let me clarify this a minute, John, because to anybody listening, everybody drives to their duck hole. I mean, we all drive ATV’s and whatever to get to a duck hole. But sure, from where I’m looking, I’m going to say maybe a mile to the river over there, would you say that, a mile?

John Williams: It is.

Ramsey Russell: And it would take me 5 minutes. It’d probably take me 5 minutes to go from this hilltop down a turn road across that levee to get to where we hunted this morning.

John Williams: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: Pull your mic just a little bit closer. But you’re not doing that. We’re driving 20 minutes in a jeep in and we were going all the way around all that wetland.

John Williams: That’s correct.

Ramsey Russell: Coming in from the other side. We’re not going through and disturbing your sanctuary, we’re not disturbing anything in your woods. We’re driving through upland and coming around and then walking in from the other side.

John Williams: That is correct.

Ramsey Russell: And that’s a deal. That’s what you’re talking about. You don’t disturb at all.

John Williams: That is our one thing that we do is we try not to put any pressure whatsoever on these ducks and driving, it does take us, it takes us 20, 30 minutes to drive around basically the border of the river, the Verdigris river and so, yes, it does take us a while to get to our duck holes. But we have seen, throughout the last 7 or 8 years, we’ve seen what that has done to our duck numbers. It has certainly increased them and it’s helped out with the pressure. And so we’re highly aware of pressurized ducks and that, I think sets, probably sets us apart from other places.

Ramsey Russell: Pressure ducks are a booger. I mean, they’re hard to mess with.

John Williams: They are.

Ramsey Russell: They go nocturnal.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And you don’t have that problem here.

John Williams: We don’t.

Ramsey Russell: You’ve got parts of this property. Ducks are – you got a sanctuary but then if I’m not shooting this one particular hole, it could be that a quarter mile away. Nobody else is shooting it either, those ducks have got it kind of to themselves.

John Williams: That’s right. No, that’s right. We as a whole, I don’t know what the percentage is. The percentages that we actually hunt versus what we actually give those ducks, but we’re hunting in a very small percentage of the total property and so –

Ramsey Russell: One group a day.

John Williams: One group a day.

Ramsey Russell: One party.

John Williams: One party.

Ramsey Russell: You and your boys, you all friends.

John Williams: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: One duck hole.

John Williams: One duck hole a day and there are occasions that we’ll have 2 groups, we split up accordingly. But at the same time, we’re going to have probably on the neighborhood of no more than 8 hunters total. So you might have 4 guys going in one hole, 4 guys going in the other. But like I said, that only happens once or twice or maybe 3 times a year. So out of the 70 plus day duck season, we are only splitting up like I said, 2 or 3 times a year. So most of our, as far as hunting group size, that can go from anywhere from 4 to 8 people. Some guys like to watch, some guys like to shoot, some guys like to call, some guy, just your standard group of hunters.

Ramsey Russell: Standard collection of duck hunters.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: One in every crowd.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: One thing I appreciate about your setup here is you got this very high bluff and last year when I showed up, I don’t know, the last 30 minutes or so with daylight, we all stood right out here on the bluff with our binoculars and watched the ducks work. And you know having hunted here for years, which hole that is and you start getting an idea, well, based on the conditions and based on weather hitting down, I think we’re going to go into this part and you get to do that without disturbing the birds.

John Williams: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: Disturbance is a real big part of you all’s.

John Williams: Oh, it is.

Ramsey Russell: Hunting program.

John Williams: It is and, yeah, we –

Ramsey Russell: Or non disturbance, I should say.

John Williams: Right. And we’ve even gone as far as utilize trail cameras in those duck holes and we watch those, we watch basically afternoon and evening we sit up here and we watch the ducks and we don’t necessarily go where all the ducks are going. We just watch the ducks and I think I get as much enjoyment out of having large numbers of ducks on the property as I do out hunting them. So consequently, that does make some of our decisions a little bit easier on exactly where we’re hunting the next day. But obviously, the wind, obviously the sunshine, the clouds, the weather conditions, we’ll make that other part of the decision.

Ramsey Russell: The way you all hunt is different than just what we’ve talked about the obvious, absolute positive, going to great extremes to minimize any form of disturbance other than the hunt itself. This morning, Brett brought a flashback decoy, he loves them and you pointed out, as you and I were huddled up over there. You pointed out, he said Ramsey, that’s one of the first battery operated decoys we’ve had maybe ever in one of our duck holes.

John Williams: Yes, that’s right.

Ramsey Russell: It’s a very traditional and fundamental approach to duck hunting that you all do here.

John Williams: No, that’s right. Yeah. We don’t use any battery operated, any type of decoys –

Ramsey Russell: Is it because you don’t have to or is it because you don’t want to?

John Williams: Well, a little of both. Yeah, well, obviously we don’t have to and the want to part is, yeah, I really don’t want to. I don’t have any desire of killing a duck that’s coming into a spinning wing decoy or any other type of decoy like that. We’ve just noticed over the years that, man, we can kill them without it.

Ramsey Russell: Sometimes less is best in terms of just, it’s like this morning, we got to the parking place. I let Char out of the box. I shouldered my gun, put on my ammo belt, put on my duck calls, my tetra hearing and walked to the blind, that’s it.

John Williams: Sure. It’s pretty simple.

Ramsey Russell: And if I carried anything else, it had been decoys.

John Williams: No, that’s right.

Ramsey Russell: 2 clumps of decoys. Clump.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: We just got 2 dozen decoys.

John Williams: 2 dozen decoys, that’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And that’s it.

John Williams: That’s it.

Ramsey Russell: Kind of like hunting back in the 1970s.

John Williams: It is. It’s pretty simple. But no, we will, some of those days that obviously we don’t have wind and we do use a jerk string and have done that for years. But I’m not saying that I’ve never used a spinning wing decoy because I have, when we first purchased the property back in 2000. Yeah, we did. We used spinning wing decoys and the little pucks that would shake in the –

Ramsey Russell: Little vibrate quivers.

John Williams: Those little quiver magnets or whatever they were we used some of that and we just – I don’t know, kind of evolved quickly, got away from them and –

Ramsey Russell: Is it cut? Everybody listening knows I use spinning wing decoy, but I don’t. Certainly, I don’t care how man kills a duck. My point is, I sense that somehow the less is more, speaks to you –

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: It’s a real fundamental level. It’s just a real, to me the closer I can get, the fewer devices I can use, to bring that duck to hand, the more intimate I feel related to that.

John Williams: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Ramsey Russell: In the same way that, like your son killing that deer, he hunted that buck all year long and he finally got to draw back and kill him with a bow and arrow. That’s a totally different, that’s a lot closer, a lot different than a powered rifle at 200 or 300 yards and I think it’s just, I just, I respect and appreciate when I meet guys like yourself that just have an extremely fundamental approach to it.

John Williams: Sure. No, we have, like I said, it has developed into that over the years. The older I get, I just I don’t need it. If I don’t need it, I’m not going to use it.

Ramsey Russell: Let’s change the sub, just a minute, I want to talk about this, we’ve talked about Skelly, magnificent piece of property, iconic piece of property, as far as I’m concerned and your approach to a very fundamental hunt, whether it’s holding the birds, not disturbing the birds, hunting the birds, it’s just a very old school and fundamental approach. Did you grow up here in Oklahoma, John?

John Williams: I did.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, right here in Brown Tulsa or?

John Williams: Claremore, yes. Grew up in Claremore and been here all of my life, except for the time I spent obviously in college at Stillwater, at OSU. Immediately moved back from Stillwater and went and got my real estate license and went to work for my dad.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about growing up. Did you grow up duck hunting? Like, was your dad a big duck hunter?

John Williams: No.

Ramsey Russell: Was duck hunting even a big thing out here in Oklahoma back in those days?

John Williams: I’m not going to say that it wasn’t a big thing because, yes, there was lots of duck hunters in the area. I grew up quail hunting, I grew up pheasant hunting.

Ramsey Russell: There was some big, I mean, Oklahoma was like the quail mecca back in the day.

John Williams: It was. And we would 10 to 12 coveys a day, I’d get out of school and get out of high school there and immediately go out to the family farm and during quail season and yeah, it was an everyday thing that we were behind those bird dogs and chasing quail. So junior high up until my high school years, I guess, is when I started duck hunting, I was 14, 15 years old and been hooked ever since.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about your first duck hunt. How did you transition from chasing bird dogs over eastern and Central Oklahoma? 12 coveys a day, man. How did you transition from that into these big, beautiful mallards greenheads you chase now?

John Williams: Oh, really, just a really good friend of mine kind of got me started, a guy by the name of Paul Fowler and we would start hunting. Paul got me into duck hunting, we would go to Oologah Lake and Oologah Lake at that time, had a green tree reservoir area and we would hunt the lake areas and a lot of – well, there was a big pond we would hunt up there right off of the lake and we would do that about every weekend and so that kind of got me started.

Ramsey Russell: How old were you? Driver’s license –

John Williams: No, not quite. I was 14, I guess. I think, is about the first time that we started doing that 14 or 15 or something. But anyway, then that transitioned into get your driver’s license obviously and you –

Ramsey Russell: The world is yours when you get the driver’s license.

John Williams: Exactly. And so you get that and then you start chasing them all over the place. And I went, like I said, I went to OSU and really grew up out there duck hunting a lot.

Ramsey Russell: Well, it’s mostly mallards.

John Williams: It was, we would we’d hunt the Chikaskia river, we’d hunt Salt Fork, we’d hunt Sooner Lake, we’d hunt all the areas out north of Stillwater. So graduated college, came back here went to work and started this kind of a recreation real estate.

Ramsey Russell: Well, that was my next question. You told me a really cool story last night over supper. James had cooked those beautiful rib eye steaks, I couldn’t eat all mine, I tried, but you told me a really good story. Cause I just got that real estate license, state of Mississippi, working for national land realty and wanting to kind of work in this recreational space in as much as my schedule will allow and we talked a little bit about that last night, but you kind of told me your origins. You got out and I guess got into residential, just doing what everybody does when they get the real estate license. But you realize real quick, maybe there was a different opportunity for you.

John Williams: Yes, I did. I started out in residential real estate, worked it for several years and just realized that was not for me and quickly moved into farm and ranch real estate and recreational type real estate.

Ramsey Russell: Was it a real competitive back in old days?

John Williams: It was competitive. It’s no different in today’s market. The residential market was competitive.

Ramsey Russell: What about the recreational market?

John Williams: Yeah, it wasn’t. It was not.

Ramsey Russell: Wide open.

John Williams: It was wide open. The recreation market was wide open. There was very few realtors that even handled any land deals. There’s 2 or 3 in eastern Oklahoma that really concentrated on that market.

Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy to imagine because, man, Oklahoma is tremendously good, deer hunting, great duck hunting, bass fishing. I know there’s still some enclaves of quail hunting. I mean, it’s a, in a lot of senses, it’s a hunter’s paradise.

John Williams: No, it is.

Ramsey Russell: Do you remember waking up one day and going, wow, I may have gotten into recreational properties, hunting, lamb type properties and had it to myself but, oh, my gosh, all of a sudden, was there any event or anything on the timeline that made it just surge forward into what it is today?

John Williams: No, not that I can really recall. I would say that the opportunities that were back then, the opportunities were people trying to, the real surge came when people were trying to probably get out and –

Ramsey Russell: To the farming and ranching.

Future Trends in Recreational and Large Property Markets.

And so I kind of got into that and worked that for a long time and had really good success at that and then the recreation properties kind of just evolved.

John Williams: Correct. You start seeing smaller properties or larger properties being broken up into smaller properties and then you start seeing well, gosh, I’d like to own 100 acres, I’d like to own 200 acres or I’d like to whatever it may be and so that market kind of took off and my thing was always try to sell larger farms and ranches. And so I kind of got into that and worked that for a long time and had really good success at that and then the recreation properties kind of just evolved. You just start seeing more and more people wanting hunting, fishing, just places that they could kind of call their own, I guess.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I think we all want that.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: We spent a lot of time, John, you and I, just sitting around a camp or sitting in the duck hole we talk a lot about the duck situation, the habitat situation, the changing landscape. You and I are the same age, practically and what we can remember back in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s and the 1000s and now the 10s and the 20s, it’s been a lot of landscape change in Oklahoma, Mississippi, up north Canada and the good lord like Will Rogers I believe it was, it said that good lord ain’t making no more land.

John Williams: That’s right. There has been a lot of changes.

Ramsey Russell: And good land is hard to come by now.

John Williams: It really is. Yes, it is. It always seems like it’s the pressure of the markets from the cities. People want to be within a certain distance of Tulsa or Oklahoma City or Wichita or they don’t want to drive 3 or 4 hours, they want to drive an hour and so to get to those properties, and yeah, the smaller 5 and 10 acre tracks, people want, they still want to be out in the country but probably don’t want to maintain as much acreage as they still want to live within a commute, let me put it that way, of one of the cities. And so we see these areas really expanding quick. The Rogers County area for instance, when I was a kid or when I was in high school or when I was even in college, those areas have just exploded and consequently, you have a house sitting on 10 acres overlooking a pond. Well, that pond used to be a loafing area for waterfowl and so diminished habitat, we’re losing habitat quickly.

Ramsey Russell: I’m growing of the opinion increasingly that take any element in the duck hunting world, there’s not as many mallards as there were in the past. There’s too much hunting pressure. There’s not as much access. The boat ramps are too crowded and the list goes on and on and on, pick a problem.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Pick any problem in the world of duck hunting and I can loop it back to where there’s not as much habitat continentally as what you and I have seen just in our lifetime.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Let alone our daddy and granddaddies.

John Williams: Yes, I do. I agree with that 100%. The habitat on the landscape has changed dramatically and we see it right here locally. You can go about anywhere, agriculture practices have changed dramatically. But, yeah, I do, I relate it all back to habitat loss.

Ramsey Russell: It’s hard to get my mind wrapped around. I feel like too many times when my feathers get ruffled over something in the hunting world, crowding pressure, no ducks, whatever. I tend to vent and my feathers ruffle at the symptoms, but I need to go to the root of the calls.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: And I think we’re looking, I even wonder about this environmental change, this warming trend we’re in. Well too much habitat, we’re losing too many wetlands, we got too much atmospheric carbon, I mean, just the habitat loss and the conversion from green space to civilization could be driving this warming trend we’re in. I just feel like I could take everything back to, we need more habitat, we need more green space.

John Williams: That’s right. That’s exactly right. You have a, no matter what anybody says about the numbers of hunters out there, duck hunters in particular, but they say we’re losing duck hunters, losing people that participate, losing donations, losing whatever you want to say about it. Well, I mean, to me, yeah, we might be losing that, but that’s why I think it’s just so important that we do as individuals, create more habitat and I’m really hopeful that some of these people can transition into creating more habitat these new and upcoming duck hunters, the younger generation that can go out and buy a piece of land, build a wetland and provide more habitat, I hope the state and federal agencies can get behind that and start creating more opportunities for waterfowlers. I don’t have any answers necessarily, but I do know it’s a big problem.

Ramsey Russell: Yep, it’s daunting. It’s a very big problem which, everybody wants their piece of pie. We want to get our piece of the pie, our little land, our little 100 acres of our toehold into something, a piece of property or something while there’s still some out there to get. As you got into realty and you got into recreational property, you bought some land, you traded in land, you listed some properties, sold some properties, bought some land, sold some land. But here’s a question, did you ever buy a piece of land and sell it that you wish you still had? I mean, you know what I’m saying? It was one of them kind of properties that you go, man, that plays a paradise, I wish I hadn’t sold it.

John Williams: I mean, yeah, all of them. I always feel like, yeah, I wish I would have kept that. But, here we are today and sitting on a beautiful piece of property and yeah, I have no regrets. I enjoy helping people, I enjoy even the guy that calls me and says, hey, I’m looking at this 80 acre track, you think you can help me develop it and help me develop it into a flooded marsh or a wetland area. Let’s look at the timber, let’s look at the dykes, let’s look at the topography, the floodplain area, I do enjoy that. So as far as helping people out to do those kind of things and create more habitat, I’m all for it.

Ramsey Russell: What was it about this piece of property, if somebody in your trade – Well, I’ll ask it this way, when you bought this piece of property, did you buy it with forever in mind or was it just a nice piece of property, I’m going to hunt it and see what comes? Cause John, there are these people in the world, maybe myself included, but you hear it said all the time, for sale everything I got for sale, son.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: You know what I’m saying? I mean, you hear that mindset. But when you bought this piece of property that you’ve put so much of your heart and soul and time vision into, did you buy it with a forever in mind or was it just, let’s see.

John Williams: Well, it was always of the mindset that. Yeah, everything we have is for sale.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, everything I got for sale for son.

John Williams: Exactly. And then the deeper you commit yourself to a property and the more you’re doing and the harder you’re working at it and my boys.

Ramsey Russell: They’d have grown up on this place.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: They would have been babies when you bought this place.

John Williams: Exactly. My oldest son, John, was actually born the same year we purchased this property, so 24 years ago. So, yes it quickly turned from everything that we own is for sale to quickly turn many years ago to, yeah, we’re going to own this thing forever.

Ramsey Russell: It’s never ceased to amaze me how otherwise inanimate objects like trees and soil and water and physical structures and characteristics, how somehow those inanimate objects, we form a connection to, an emotional connection to land that’s beyond just the income value it takes on. I’ve seen that I worked for us department of agriculture forever and I saw that and meeting with these landowners, this was their living. It was their poultry farm or their forestry or their timber production, their agricultural land or their grazing land, but it was beyond that. It was a part of who they were.

John Williams: That’s right. Yeah, that’s right.

Ramsey Russell: When was the first time you told me a story this morning while we were hunting about the first time you ever saw this place. It was way before you bought it. It’s like your first impression of this place.

John Williams: Yeah, that was like the mid 80s.

Ramsey Russell: Golly, way back where we hunting, a river or something?

John Williams: We did. We used to hunt the river a lot. And I was always kind of enamored with just looking at soils maps, topography maps, aerial maps, kind of and I was always looking for real estate, looking for land. And so, yeah, this one was obviously caught my eye just from the large block of timber and where it sat in relation to Tulsa, in relation to Claremore, in relation to kind of the general area and sure it was something that had always caught my eye. Cause you just don’t see several 1000 acres of bottom land, hardwoods.

Ramsey Russell: Even at a real young man back in the 80s.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: A decade and a half before you were a professional realtor.

John Williams: Yes.

Ramsey Russell: You happened to be hunting out in this area or driving by this area and just, it caught your eye.

John Williams: It did.

Ramsey Russell: And you dreamed about having something like this way back then.

John Williams: Yes.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me, you told me a fascinating story about the history of this property and about some of the history of this region in terms of clubs and camps and stuff like that. Could you tell me a few details about the history of this property? And you were showing me about the Tulsa Finn and Feather Club. Man, that was crazy. Tell me a little bit about that.

John Williams: Yeah, just the rules and regulations of, we have copies of all the old documents and shows the club itself, breakfast for $0.15. Dinner –

Ramsey Russell: I’ll have 3 up.

John Williams: Dinner for $0.25 and the use of, always found an interesting use of live ducks for decoys.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. What year would this have been, reckon? Early 1900s or –

John Williams: No, I would say that was probably in obviously before they banned the use of live decoys, live ducks.

Ramsey Russell: Early 19s. Yeah, 1910s.

WG Skelly and Tulsa Oilmen’s Purchase: 1930.

I guess it was 1930, WG Skelly and several of the local oil men around the Tulsa area came together and purchased the property and I don’t know the exact date, 40s or 50s, sometime in that era.

John Williams: Right. But no, I have looked up some records of just doing research on the history of this property and there was a document that was filed at the Rogers County courthouse 1906, there was a recreational lease or 1905 or shortly after statehood. It was one of the first records that was recorded. So there was a recreational lease on this property at one and that’s something you just don’t think about or hear about. Somebody actually leased this property for recreational purposes and whether it be duck hunting or deer hunting or whatever. And then back in 1900, I guess it was 1930, WG Skelly and several of the local oil men around the Tulsa area came together and purchased the property and I don’t know the exact date, 40s or 50s, sometime in that era.

Ramsey Russell: Would they have bought it for recreational value for timber or what?

John Williams: Well, they had harvested some timber off the property then, but from my understanding, yes, they bought it for recreational. A place to kind of escape, a place to get out of Tulsa, a place to, for those men to escape the rat race, so to speak and yes, they did duck hunting. Sometime in the 50s they went through a period of time that the duck hunting wasn’t great and they decided to split up. WG Skelly ended up purchasing the property from the rest of the owners and from his group and kind of, the rest is history, I guess. There was another owner in the property that was purchased at some time in the 80s, I believe, from the Skelly family and then the property was obviously auctioned off in the year 2000 when we purchased it.

Ramsey Russell: And you knew, I mean, it flew upon your radar immediately when you saw it for sale, having seen it back in the 80s and said, man, what a nice piece of property. I mean, how quickly did you move on it?

John Williams: Well, it was a big auction. I don’t know how many people attended. I’d heard somewhere between 3000 and 5000 people are running around. And of course, they auctioned off all the contents in the property. It was a bankruptcy auction and all the contents, all the bird dogs, all the sporting items, auctioned everything off.

Ramsey Russell: What was some of the stuff they sold like it?

John Williams: I was really more interested in just concentrating on the land portion than any of the contents. I do remember several of the above the original fireplace in the lodge. I remember a big buffalo head and –

Ramsey Russell: Where would the original lodge have been from here?

John Williams: It’s just down the road here, just 200, 300 yards, it’s not far. But, yeah, they’re obviously, they had a lot of items, a lot of people.

Ramsey Russell: We’re talking half a century or more of hunting camp.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. So you got your property. How had the previous landowners hunted it, I mean, versus how you hunted it, like we talked about? What would have been some of the differences then versus now?

John Williams: Well, I think probably the main difference was they didn’t hunt, from my understanding, they didn’t hunt the flooded timber that we have now, most of the property was flooded. Most of the, what I call the moist soil areas, the open areas, those were the areas that were hunted with duck blinds. And so I immediately started looking around the area, obviously and learning the property and just trying to figure out the best way to get water on and get water off the property and so that was our first thing was obviously to put the correct plumbing in and if you –

Ramsey Russell: Push up some dykes, do some dirt work, take some elevations.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: And I’m assuming, because it’s always, I forget when you go east of the Mississippi river, that water is kind of a big deal.

John Williams: It is.

Ramsey Russell: You’ve got to have permits to move water. You must have permits to move water out of river.

John Williams: That’s correct.

Ramsey Russell: And if it doesn’t have it, you can’t hardly get it, can you?

John Williams: You can’t. That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You can’t drive. You can’t put a hole in the ground for to flood up recreationally.

John Williams: It’s tough. Farther south where there’s some irrigation land. Yeah, you can drill a well and irrigate that way. We, in this area, you just can’t pump enough water through a well to do what we’re doing. So consequently, yeah, we do. We pump out of the river, have permits through the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and purchase those permits every year. But we did, oh, I don’t know, we’ve added several miles worth of dykes or levees and multiple water structures that not only hold the water, but release the water. And so we’re kind of cognizant of the timing of putting the water on the trees, releasing the water when we need to shortly after duck season.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a big deal and I noticed from talking to you this year, you wait until first frost, you know that those trees are dormant before you start putting, get making their feet wet.

John Williams: Yes, that’s correct.

Ramsey Russell: You don’t want to stick pond out the future.

John Williams: Correct. Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Talk a little bit about, because I know you’ve done a lot of habitat improvement, but I also know that anybody listening may not understand that there are programs out there that, where it doesn’t have to necessarily be all out of pocket. I mean, there’s some great programs like you were telling me about these moist soil units enrolled in some USDA programs that offset a lot of your cost.

John Williams: That’s correct, yes. Shortly after we purchased the property, we did enroll the bottom land portion or the floodplain portion into a WRP program. And so that obviously, they pay you a percentage depending on how many years you enroll the property. If you enroll the property for 30 years, they pay 75% of the appraised value of the property. And we did, we enrolled the property into a 30 year program.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. That helps out.

John Williams: It did, it helped out and also with the US Fish & Wildlife, we worked with them on their partners program. And so we did, we made some big changes on the property just shortly after we purchased it.

Ramsey Russell: When you bought this property all of them years ago, John, had your land ethic, in terms of some of the stuff we started up front, in terms of disturbance, in terms of hunting pressure, in terms of sanctuary, was that already intact or did it evolve pursuant to you forming an emotional connection to this property? That makes sense, I mean, were you at a stage in your life back then that you knew exactly how I got to do this and this and this or did it just kind of come with trial and error?

John Williams: Trial and error, obviously and it takes a lot of years. A lot of years of watching, a lot of years of learning, a lot of years of studying the property, a lot of years of, like I said, just learning about the property. And so, yeah, we did, we had, we went through the first 10 years just kind of learning about the property. We entered into a lease agreement about, oh, I don’t know, it’s been 7 or 8 years ago now, but it was pressure. When we entered into that lease agreement, we had a group of guys that they hunted 8 guys and we hunted 4, 5, 6 guys and 2 groups running around and driving all over the property, and quickly realized that I’ve got to make some changes. So when the lease expired, we made some big changes. Like I said, we leave a large percentage of it for the ducks and a large percentage of it, we don’t ever see those ducks. We don’t drive through the property. It’s very limited pressure.

Ramsey Russell: It helped to have that lease agreement to offset some of your overhead and your cost. What were some of the events that you just said, this ain’t working at all? Was it strictly disturbance or was there just some other things in play?

John Williams: Well, it was a lot of disturbance and I was obviously previous to the lease, I was, had noticed the duck numbers during the lease go down every year. And then it’s not that we didn’t have good years, because we did. But, boy, by the time the lease expired it was, I just felt that this place was better than what I was doing.

Ramsey Russell: It was beat up a little bit.

John Williams: It was.

Ramsey Russell: And by that time, apparently after a period of time with this property, your kids have grown up. They’re probably getting close to a hunting age now.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: It’s all about quality, not quantity, isn’t it?

John Williams: It is, like I said, you can take 16 guys out here and hunt the property, split up into 2 groups of 8 and you can pressure those ducks or you can take a single group of 8 out here and do it the way that we’re doing it and still end up shooting the same number of birds every year. I mean, that’s kind of the payoff, our duck numbers as far as the numbers of ducks that we kill today versus the number of ducks that we kill during the lease really haven’t changed. And what I mean by that is, I mean, they have changed, but your overall harvest numbers haven’t changed and we’re hunting less people. So that just shows me that pressure and just simply by watching the duck numbers increase year after year you know you’re doing the right thing.

Personal Reflections on Duck Hunting and Conservation.

They got this, what they call, the biologists call philopatry and they come back to the haunts.

Ramsey Russell: It’s amazing what you’ll learn about ducks. And some of the things I’ve heard as we talk to scientists that are using these radio backpacks what they’ve learned about duck movements, we were talking about this also in the blind today. I’d have imagined back in the day that snow cover cold weather, ducks fly south and they just exploit whatever resource they can find. But we’re starting to learn that a lot of these ducks have an affinity for certain pieces of property. They got this, what they call, the biologists call philopatry and they come back to the haunts. So a lot of these ducks you’re seeing, your Halloween ducks you all do get them. They’re coming home to your property, to your management, to your lack of disturbance, to your, you know what I’m saying? They’re coming home to your program. How do you feel about that, John? Like we were talking to blind this morning, before I ask you how you feel, you all have killed some bands. You and your boys have all killed bands. A lot of them come from Saskatchewan.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: And a lot of them over the years have come from, where did you, Yellowknife up in the Northern Territory.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Not just one, but several of them. There’s coming from a very specific geography to this track of woods right here.

John Williams: That’s right. No, yeah, there’s been a lot of banded ducks shot out here that have came from Yellowknife area. And yeah, that’s the northwest –

Ramsey Russell: 2500 miles away.

John Williams: That’s right. That’s Northwest Territories and that’s 2500 miles away. A lot of them from the same bander, the same guys that are up there banning them, those ducks are coming here, so it is interesting to think about it. And yes, those ducks come to the same area and they’ve been coming here for, obviously, 100s of years. I mean, even though we make habitat changes or habitat, what we think as humans is habitat improvement, they’re still coming and so we haven’t made any major changes other than the fact that we’re flooding a lot more timber than was flooded in the past. And so, yeah, those ducks are still making their way here.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me some memorable moments. I look out there in your, I call it a giant mudroom.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: This area out here, I love how you’ve got this area right up in here around the kitchen and the den. But then out there, that’s where everybody hangs out by the fireplace and the lockers, but there’s a lot of pictures hanging above those lockers. Tell me about some of your favorite memories out here, raising, cause now your boys are, Jack is what, high school?

John Williams: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: Yes. Your youngest son, Ben, is he high school or younger college?

John Williams: He’s out. Yeah, he’s out of high school.

Ramsey Russell: And your oldest son’s fixing to graduate college this year.

John Williams: Correct.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about some of the memories. Cause you’ve raised your boys out here and you all have all got a very similar ethos to how you approach hunting. Tell me some of your favorite memories, John, over the years.

John Williams: Oh, gosh.

Ramsey Russell: First memory comes to mind. What sticks out? Just something you never forget with them boys.

John Williams: Oh, I guess probably, I’m trying to think. It must have been 2010 or so. No, because that was John, he would have been 10 years old or so. I’m thinking, just thinking of, it was shortly after, it was right after thanksgiving and we had just put up a new dyke in a new area, what we call the 8 point and we took the boys in there and had a really good hunt. And it had rained pretty much all day that day, but we were hunting in the rain, hunting in the flooded timber. And yeah, they were little at that time.

Ramsey Russell: What makes that particular memory, that particular time, hunting in the rain stand out?

John Williams: Probably because I’d built that dyke around that timber. And when you create that habitat and I think that, yeah, that was the very first, it’s about an 80 acre track of flooded timber. So when I first built that dyke that was our very first hunt in there.

Ramsey Russell: So your very first hunt were your boys. Wow. Never forget that. Did your boys kill a deer or kill a duck?

John Williams: They did.

Ramsey Russell: Last year I showed up hunted with you and I had that little 28 gauge Benelli and I was sitting there with Ben and I handed it to him. He shot a few ducks. I think John took a shot with it.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: I believe Jack walked over and took a shot with it.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: I remember you called me about a month or 2 later saying, blankety blank. I couldn’t buy just one, I had to buy us all of one.

John Williams: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Do you think that 28 gauge has changed? I mean, it’s just, to me, it’s a continuance of you all’s approach to hunting. But, I mean, it’s a lot less sound going out through the woods.

John Williams: Absolutely it is.

Ramsey Russell: Most of the shots or most of your holes are chip shots. They come down through the trees. They’re right there on you, they’re coming off into the wind. So they’re coming at you when they’re climbing out.

John Williams: Sure. No, that 28 gauge is certainly the ticket. We always shot 20 gauges, but, man, that 28 gauge is really nice. Certainly less disturbance on the ducks. When you’re talking about putting pressure on a duck, I’ve seen it firsthand, what it, the blast, the decibels off of a 12 gauge and ripping through those woods versus a 28 gauge, it’s noticeable. And so –

Ramsey Russell: Were you saying you’ve seen ducks off a ways in the timber react to a volley?

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: Rolling up, they might come back down, but still it jolted them.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You want your duck just sitting there quiet as a baby and happy as can be till you get off in that duck hole to hunt them.

John Williams: Exactly. Now, that’s right. So, that 28 gauge is nice and we’ve all enjoyed shooting those 28 this year.

Ramsey Russell: You bought this property like everybody else. Everything I’ve got for sale. You’ve now been here decades. You’ve watched your boys grow up, you’ve refined and you’re continuing to refine your habitat and your approach to it all. But what’s your future vision? Have you thought that far ahead, John? What do you hope 10 years from now, 50 years from now, for this piece of property?

John Williams: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: Do you envision your grandkids, your great grandkids, coming from –

John Williams: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I think you try as an older adult, you certainly want to teach the kids, obviously to respect the land, teach the kids and they do. And they enjoy it enough, they enjoy the habitat, they enjoy the conservation end of it, they enjoy everything we do out here.

Ramsey Russell: Have they gotten to the point they can appreciate the return on their investment of time out there on the habitat?

John Williams: Oh, yes, they have. They see it on a daily basis. They spend a lot of time out here, let me put it that way and they certainly appreciate what we have as a family.

Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty dang important John, I don’t care where on God’s earth you hunt. Duck hunting is duck hunting. Not every day is going to be a guarantee. We were talking at the jeep this morning, we got back, the only single thing we had going for us this morning was showing up. There wasn’t a wind, there was ice, there was fog, there was nothing at all. And really and truly, you all ain’t completely thawed out. So a lot of you ducks hadn’t transitioned back into it. The only thing we had in our favor was the fact that we got up this morning, went out there.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: But what a great time we had.

John Williams: It was.

Ramsey Russell: You’re like, well, Ramsey, you ready to go? You got to drive home, I’m like, this is my last day, John. This is my last day of the American season and I’m not going to wish it away.

John Williams: Sure. No, you don’t.

Ramsey Russell: I enjoy it every minute and I have every time I’ve been out here with you, with your boys, with their friends, with your friend Brett. There’s always a conversation.

John Williams: No, there is. Yeah, we always.

Ramsey Russell: And what better place to just sit and stand and talk if the ducks ain’t flying than right there.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: It’s like on the worst duck hunting day I’ve ever been on. At no time can I think of anywhere else I’d rather be than right there.

John Williams: Right there. That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Huh?

John Williams: That’s exactly right.

Ramsey Russell: Do you ever miss hunting public property or do you ever go out chase public anymore? Cause you got your teeth on public.

John Williams: Exactly. No, we still do.

Ramsey Russell: Do your boys go out and hunt public some stuff.

John Williams: They still do. They do. And no, it’s just the experience and just being out there. Yeah, it’s the public ground has certainly changed, the landscape has changed. But no, it still gets back to just being outdoors, being outside, being out in it. No, we enjoy it all.

Ramsey Russell: I kind of bring that topic up because every once in a blue moon, you hear some disgruntled American talking about almost like resentfully resenting somebody that has invested time and money into private land habitat.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: I cut my teeth on public. I think public land duck hunting makes you a better duck hunter. I think that when we start talking flooded timber east of here, I get asked all the time about Arkansas flooded timber and there are some iconic, amazing private timber holes. But, boy, you better believe some of the best flooded timber hunting on God’s earth is public.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Or all them people wouldn’t be out there chasing and right now, as we’re talking at this recording I heard yesterday, the Cache river jumped its banks. And you notice in the last couple of days, between the cold front and the rain and the water getting up, the ducks coming down, the water getting up.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: You ain’t hear nobody asking where the heck of ducks are down south right now. They’re out there hunting and getting after them.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: But as we were talking about sometime during the show, as we were talking about last night at dinner, about just the staggering amount of habitat loss in North America, just in yours and I’s hunting career I think we got to think to ourselves that yourself and many others around the country that have invested time and money in private land. It wouldn’t shock me that the overwhelming amount of available quality duck hunting habitat in America is on private land. But the ducks don’t, even though you leave these ducks and you manage these ducks, the ducks don’t just sit on Skelly.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: They benefit a wide geography.

John Williams: Correct.

Reflections on the Importance of Habitat Management.

As far as that goes, all of society in America benefits from the time and money that private landowners put into habitat management.

Ramsey Russell: The ducks don’t just come and live on a certain amount of property. They fly around. They got wings and they fly when it’s ice, they fly when it’s something else going on with the weather, they go somewhere else. They’ve got to go somewhere to feed on grain so, I mean, I guess my whole point I wanted to bring up is that there’s a tremendous value not only to duck hunters own your property, but duck hunters beyond your property. As far as that goes, all of society in America benefits from the time and money that private landowners put into habitat management.

John Williams: That’s correct. Yes. Obviously, there’s people out there that do give a lot of time and do give a lot of money in developing these properties and whether you’re a public land hunter or a private land hunter, everybody benefits.

Ramsey Russell: I’m a everything duck hunter, John.

John Williams: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, that’s a fact.

John Williams: Exactly. So, no, everybody benefits when there’s habitat improvements and that really needs to be, hear a lot of public land hunters say, gosh, the private land hunters are holding all the birds. Well, yeah, that may be the case, but there’s a reason for that. And it gets right back to the type of habitat and the type of pressure they’re put on. So, like I said, I’m always preaching that pressure. There’s years out here that we don’t have the prime habitat, I mean you go through a drought in July and August and that habitat whether it be millet or smartweed or whatever, it doesn’t grow and you’re left with what mother nature’s provided you.

Ramsey Russell: You’ve got a lot of red oaks and red oaks are 2 year crop of course, you’re always putting them on, but at the same time, there’s a lot of between the bugs and the weather and the frost and the freezes and the wind, I mean, there’s a lot of reasons that not every year is going to be a bumper acorn crop.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And I’ve just, I’ve come of the opinion that waterfowl, wintering here have different life cycle requirements. They need cover, they need brooding areas, they need areas to go off in seclusion, they need areas to feed, sometimes they need this kind of food, sometimes they need that kind of food.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: And they’re going to move around a geographic area.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: So as good as this private land may be, it does not likely satisfy all the life cycle requirements of wintering waterfowl. They need it all.

John Williams: Sure and no. Like I said we’ve had years where we have gone through drought. Just 2 years ago it was a bad drought and we didn’t have the food sources that those ducks needed. We still had a lot of ducks, but we still held a lot of ducks that year. And so, but as an overall, you’re right. They do get up and move around and it’s important, obviously, to do everything you can for them.

Ramsey Russell: Last question, John. Are you mad at ducks? And I’m asked because I funnel with you twice now, we’re the same age. I’ll shoot the heck out of ducks, I love it. But I don’t feel like I’m mad at him no more.

John Williams: No.

Ramsey Russell: And even like, we had a young man today, great young man, Grant. And he’s at that look, man, he’s at that prime young age of being in a prime of being mad at ducks. He went out with a camera, didn’t even bring a shotgun.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: And I’ve noticed both duck calls. I’ve been on your property had seating. The one place we hunted last year had a beautiful bench and I know John will shoot, but John don’t have to shoot. John’s just out there happy to watch the duck.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Is that a function of age?

John Williams: I guess it probably is. I still like killing them. I’m not saying that I don’t, but –

Ramsey Russell: It’s like –

John Williams: I guess you just kind of as you age. I enjoy watching them as much as I do killing them, let me put it that way.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I noticed that last year, another part of your hunting program. You don’t shoot into big flocks when the big flocks are working and I saw that last year, man, there were big flocks.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Spilling into the hole, into the timber and nobody shot.

John Williams: Right.

Ramsey Russell: 7, 8 guns sitting out there, loaded, ready to shoot a duck, nobody shot. It was when those birds come in, settle and fly off. Here come 5, here come 2, here come 4.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Those were the greenheads, you better look out.

John Williams: That’s right. No, that’s right. We don’t, just another aspect of the limited pressure we try to put on them is exactly that. If we get a good group in what I call good group 20 or more, we’re not shooting and I do not call the shot. And so I don’t know if it makes any difference, but it does in my mind.

Ramsey Russell: Well, there’s so much to having your cake and eating it, too. Part of it is the show and hunting in true green timber habitat, point case, I was hunting in some green timber up in Kansas yesterday. There was no wind, it was foggy, it was raining. Very similar to today.

John Williams: Right.

Ramsey Russell: And one of the scouts found out that just not too far from us, a big open feed had started. So we were calling ducks, we were working ducks. Man, I hate when duck, when the wind ain’t right or ain’t no wind, because you can’t really steer the ducks and it’s like if they turn too many times, they’ll almost talk themselves out of coming in.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: But yesterday morning, the highlight and I guarantee you, within 6 months from now, I won’t be able to tell you how many ducks we shot. It wasn’t a limit, nowhere near it. But the highlight, never mind the big gap, they could have veered in very easily and come in. They circle, circle, got tighter, tighter, spilled into a hole by the side of this kitchen table and landed right in our laps.

John Williams: Right.

Ramsey Russell: Unfortunately, when we said, kill the green, it wasn’t one. Can you believe that? 15 mallards come in, it was one greenhead. But this morning and it’ll be the highlight of certainly my visit. This visit here was that flock of mallards came over, I don’t know, 15 or 20 and they somehow kind of fractured to where there was 3. And then the rest of them, they just they’re kind of loose like that.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: And I’m kind of, we’re all kind of quacking and talking and I’m thinking of this one flock that was out of my peripheral on my right and I’m looking down about an inch of water on the ice and I just never will forget those 3 greenheads.

John Williams: Sure.

Ramsey Russell: Floating across that reflection right above me. That is something, it’s just one of them little nuances of duck hunting.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: That you never, ever forget. You get that spark in your heart just looking down and seeing those 3 greenheads in the reflection of that ice right above you.

John Williams: That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that what it’s about?

John Williams: That’s exactly what it’s about.

Ramsey Russell: John, I appreciate you. And I appreciate you coming on and sharing your vision and your ethos and your ethic and your philosophy and duck hunting. It really does show here. It really does show. I think something all private landowners, a lot of folks are frustrated at times and maybe there is a way we could reduce hunting pressure and reduce traffic and reduce things and increase our odds or increase the quality of our hunting experiences just with a little looking and learning and thoughtful consideration.

John Williams: That’s right. No, it doesn’t take much. You do, you just have to be aware. You have to be aware of what you’re doing and yeah, I appreciate you having me on your show.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, man. You know it, I told you 6 months ago I wanted to do this and you got a beautiful place, you got a very iconic piece of praise, and it’s just I chalk up meeting you to just right about time you think you’ve seen and done it all and heard everything in the duck hunting world, flooded timber in Oklahoma and there’s really, but you mentioned hunting a piece of property. There was more elsewhere but that, but there’s not a lot of flooded timber in Oklahoma, is it?

John Williams: There’s really not. No.

Ramsey Russell: Its very small.

John Williams: Very small, it is. Yeah, there’s just not a lot of it. Oklahoma is known for its hills and valleys and you go farther west and it’s known for its agriculture.

Ramsey Russell: Dry feed country.

John Williams: That’s right. So no, it’s a unique property and certainly proud to be a part of it.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to my buddy John Williams at Skelly here in Rogers County near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thank you all for listening to this episode of MOJO’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast, we’ll see you next time.

[End of Audio]

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