A sportsman's paradise in Lower Michigan
Photographs courtesy of Meemo’s Farm
The ringneck was a running fool. Twice my setter Ragan had drilled it down, or so we’d thought, but then the artful dodger had slipped past the dog’s normally reliable nose and gotten behind me and the two hunters I was guiding. A pheasant that smart is remindful of a clever point guard able to break the full-court press. But Ragan used a trick learned long ago: run wide circles around the hunters until striking scent again. Eyes following the dog, we did a slow turn-around until Ragan slammed to a stop, his white tail sprung high like a railway-crossing arm signaling “OK to go!” We moved in, and the bird, thinking it was safe in the thick switchgrass, held tight until we were almost on it.
When it finally flushed, the rooster tore straight up like a SpaceX rocket. Having left my gun behind to work Ragan, I crouched while the hunter to either side emptied his double gun and the bird flew off unharmed. That brought a laugh and a comment from one of them: “That was either one helluva lucky rooster or one smart one!”
Actually, he was both, because such feints and up-in-the-sky flights are typically the stuff of wild pheasants, not preserve birds. Then again, Meemo’s Farm is no ordinary preserve . . . .
The last time I wrote about Meemo’s in Shooting Sportsman (see “Going Places,” May/June ’17), current hunt manager Tracey Lieske was working elsewhere. Since hiring on last year to oversee the dog-training and bird-hunting operations at this relatively new hunting preserve in central Lower Michigan, Lieske has been instrumental in helping to raise the bar yet again. According to Lieske, “Meemo’s, with its five-star facilities, already had established itself as one of the country’s premier bird hunting lodges. Our goal is to take its wingshooting amenities to world-class status.”
Bird Quality Is Key
Operations Manager Mark Evans, who has steered Meemo’s since it opened in May 2015, has given Lieske the tools and authority to do just that. Success begins with offering clients what they want and expect, and for dedicated bird hunters it’s always about the birds.
Therefore, the first objective is to provide the best-flying gamebirds available. The story I shared at the beginning is expected behavior for the mature, long-tailed roosters encountered at Meemo’s. Last fall I teamed up with other guests on six different hunts over three days, and whether we were in the field, having dinner or enjoying cocktails, no one complained about the birds. In fact, the comments were just the opposite.
Pheasants and bobwhite quail are hunted on the grounds, with off-site hunts for grouse and woodcock available as well.
The praise was similar for the bobwhite quail. A big part of Lieske’s reputation as a hunting-preserve manager comes from his earlier success at Wild Wing Lodge, in southwestern Kentucky. The goal there was to offer patrons a true taste of Southern quail hunting, not only with stellar accommodations but also from the pure pleasure that comes from hunting quick-flushing, strong-flying birds. Of course, providing quality birds in Michigan is even more challenging, as cold, wet weather can adversely impact bobs’ willingness to fly. “Our goal is to emulate the Southern quail-hunting experience for Northern clients,” Lieske explained. “Besides flying the best birds out there, we plan our bobwhite hunts for the early season when it’s warmer and quail are less weather-averse.”
Meemo’s offers limited and unlimited hunts, and the morning after that rooster eluded us, our group enjoyed the unlimited experience. Friends Jim and Doug and I were paired with veteran guide Tim Lockhart and his seven-year-old Brittany, Blue. To make a brace, Tim encouraged me to hunt either Ragan or my shorthair, Bounce. I chose Ragan, because at age 10 he was more experienced than the three-year-old shorthair.
It was the right decision. Hardly had we stepped into the field when Blue locked up and Ragan slid in to honor a few feet behind. The covey broke in a brrrrrr of frantic wingbeats, just like wild quail do. Jim shot a perfect double with his 20-bore Piotti, and Doug potted a single. Hoping for a crossing shot, I held fire and marked down the two survivors, took a few steps in that direction and nearly fell backward when a second covey blew up in my face. I didn’t shoot, because the birds had flushed wild without being pointed.
As we proceeded that morning, the coveys kept rolling into one another. The experience reminded me of a Kansas hunt for wild bobs years earlier when a friend and I couldn’t walk 20 yards through a tumbleweed-stuffed ditch without flushing a new covey. The birds we didn’t shoot would fly a short distance and settle back into the tumbleweeds. The last hurrah at the ditch end saw 40 to 50 quail erupt. A hunt at Meemo’s can be like that.
Dogs & Dog Training
Lieske brings a wealth of experience to Meemo’s Farm. After 25 years of training dogs and guiding clients at Hunters Creek Club, in Metamora, Michigan, he moved on to gain more expertise. He spent time at the Flying B Ranch, in Idaho; Greystone Castle, in Texas; Paul Nelson Farm, in South Dakota; Deer Creek Lodge, in Kentucky; and Quail Creek, in Florida. Ten years ago he took charge of the upland operations at Wild Wing Lodge, and then left there to head home to Michigan before landing at Meemo’s Farm.
If you want a guided hunt with Meemo’s dogs, breeds include Brittanys, German shorthaired pointers, Drahthaars, pointers and cocker spaniels. Most of the kennel dogs were trained by Lieske and his assistants. Through the years Lieske was tutored by legendary pros including Delmar and Ronnie Smith, Ferrell Miller, Dale Jarvis, Bob West, Preston Mann and Ed Rader. “I’ve learned from each of them,” Lieske said, “which is why my training methods are a compilation of what they taught me.”
Lieske limits training recruits to 12 dogs at any one time. His three-tiered classes are Introduction for Young Dogs (12 weeks and older), Pointing Gun Dog Foundation (at least six months old) and Pointing Advanced-Finished Gun Dog (dogs that passed earlier training). Classes typically last a month.
Size Matters at a Preserve
Most hunting preserves open to the public range from grounds as small as 40 acres to those a few hundred acres in size. Over a nine-month season of concentrated gunning, the cover often gets tramped down, feathers pile up and empty shotshells accumulate on the ground. Any of these conditions is unsavory to a discriminating bird hunter, but I have yet to see such evidence at Meemo’s. At 1,500 acres and with five bird fields, the pressure is spread out. Hunters may hear other guns being fired, but they won’t run into another group of hunters. The habitat is a mix of natural cover and food plots edged with native grasses. Mark Evans plans to incorporate even more big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass into the planting program.
Besides the bird quality and exclusivity, I like the land where Meemo’s is located. The glaciers that shaped mid-Michigan 10,000 years ago were kind to Osceola County, leaving gravel moraines and carving out kettle-hole lakes. The uneven terrain reveals what is known as the “tension zone,” a demarcation in topography, soils and plant life that distinguishes Michigan’s northern hardwood forests from southern farmland. Rolling hills stitch together wooded tracts that include large sections of public timberland open to hunting.
My bird dogs and I have been traveling to the area for many years to hunt grouse and woodcock. A day of poor shooting has me dropping into Meemo’s for a tune-up. Designed by the late Howard Confer, a member of the NSSA Hall of Fame, the 13-stand sporting clays course is the most challenging I’ve ever shot. Each stand has three automatic traps tucked among the undulating landscape and buried somewhere in its foliage. Targets fly over natural cover and water features to simulate the next-best thing to feathers. If you can’t measure up on clays, try the American skeet field or the 5 Stand layout. Come to think of it: Good luck with those too.
With respect to wild birds, guests can book a hunt for grouse and woodcock from mid-September to mid-November with Lieske or one of Meemo’s other guides. These hunts take place in the Upper Peninsula or northern Lower Peninsula and are designed for two or more hunters. Choose from half-day, full-day or longer packages that are either no frills or with luxury accommodations. Other offerings at Meemo’s include Continental shoots, deer and turkey hunting, and trout fishing on famed rivers like the Au Sable, Manistee and Pere Marquette.
The town of Evart, about five miles away, is home to roughly 10 percent of Osceola County’s population of 23,000 people. Evart’s airstrip is big enough for small jets, and there is a helipad a stone’s throw from the lodge. International airports are located at Grand Rapids and Traverse City, each about two hours away.
Because I live relatively close to Meemo’s, I visit often; and when I do, I am always surprised to find something new. Owner Bob Barnes continues to add property as parcels become available. By the time you read this, work probably will be finished on yet another secluded cottage, this one on a 22-acre kettle hole named Pecks Lake. Like the four-bedroom Lanes, with its basement bowling alley, and the two-bedroom Lake Cottage, with its front-porch hot tub overlooking a duck marsh, the latest addition will have a modern kitchen and all the amenities needed for private and group getaways.
Clockwise from top left: State-of-the-art facilities, such as the main lodge (shown here) and several cottages, have guests feeling pampered. The focus at Meemo’s is hunting and shooting, but a climbing wall, ropes courses and other activities have added appeal to corporate groups. A helipad allows Meemo’s to offer custom fishing trips to some of Michigan’s blue-ribbon trout streams.
Meemo is the nickname of Barnes’s daughter Emily. About 20 years ago Barnes, an avid wingshooter, bought the original 80 acres, moved in a trailer and regularly drove the three hours from his Detroit-area home to relax and hunt there. Envisioning a state-of-the-art destination for others to enjoy, Barnes bought contiguous property and began building infrastructure. Besides the main lodge and cottages, there is now The Annex, which doubles the lodge’s sleeping capacity. Today the overall operation can accommodate about 40 guests at one time.
Also on the guest list last fall was my 15-year-old son, Daniel, who I agreed could go with me, provided he brought his schoolbooks and did his homework. On our last day at Meemo’s I let Daniel take my spot and my 28-gauge AyA No. 2 while I acted as dog handler. This time it was our shorthair, Bounce, which seemed fitting because he actually belongs to Daniel—and neither boy nor dog had ever hunted quail.
Daniel started with aplomb, killing a handsome ringneck with a well-placed head shot. But Daniel struggled with quail. Slipping him a few more shells, I advised that he keep swinging and use his index finger, lying under the slim forearm of the AyA, like a paintbrush. “Paint through the bird and squeeze the trigger,” I coached.
Bounce, on the other hand, was finding plenty of birds for Daniel and two others in our party. Shortly after he ran up a slope and disappeared, his locator signaled “point,” which prompted Daniel to scramble up the hill to investigate. A moment later Daniel shot once, and I watched four quail buzz out and head for cover.
“They’re a lot smaller than pheasants,” Daniel said, proudly showing us his first bobwhite.
“Yes, they are, Son. And they get smaller as they fly away.”
“They’re hard to hit, because they fly so fast,” he added.
“Yes, that too.”
For more information, visit Meemo’s Farm.