Those counties drained by the Pee Dee River
possess some of the richest history and most fertile ground in the great state of South Carolina. Many hardwood species thrive in this environment, along with tall stands of long leaf pines; both types of trees are necessary to balance the soil. Francis Marion bivouacked with his men here, and generations of Native Americans hunted and fished these lush areas.
Ten minutes outside of Marion, a 2,300-acre wildlife management project known as “The Catfish Farm” offers pristine habitat for outdoor enthusiasts to hunt, fish, or observe nature. This property changed hands several times during the 1990s and early 2000s, spending part of its life as a catfish farm venture. Though the fish-farming operation failed, the remaining infrastructure provided the perfect framework for attracting ducks in the Atlantic Flyway. Since then, the operation has expanded to include sanctuary for deer, wild turkey, doves, and bobwhite quail.
Lynn Collins manages the property, credentialed with a two-year degree in wildlife conservation and plenty of on-the-job experience. Whenever the property changes hands, he becomes part of the deal.
“Seems I’ve been sold, foreclosed on, and traded, but I’ve managed to win this battle and still be here,” he jokes. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s not a tough job. I told my boss when he bought this place that I’d work for free if he’d let me stay here.”
He started with the property in 1996 when it was under the ownership of International Paper as a training facility. The place was sold in 2004, and Lynn stayed on with the new owner, Jim Battle, who started an aquaculture business venture, but the property failed to meet its financial goals. Lynn’s mentors and fellow conservationists, Art Cates and Bob Perry, began managing the property for waterfowl. As avid duck hunters and well-educated woodsmen, they knew the potential of the property and what it would take to cultivate a premium habitat.
Joseph Richardson also knew the potential of this property and, with his sister Lauren Pittard, began diverting financial resources for its acquisition and rehabilitation. In 2016, they opened The Catfish Farm with limited hunting opportunities while continuing to focus on cultivation, restoration, and expansion. They’ve intensified successful previous efforts, doubling-down on the waterfowl habitat, while also managing for doves, wild turkey, deer, quail, and catch-and-release fishing. Their goal is to grow The Catfish Farm into a 5,000-acre paradise for naturalists and sportsmen alike, offering everything from bird hunting to bird watching.
Lauren and Joseph have shared a passion for hunting and conservation since their youth. Before the property came under their stewardship, Lauren fished there with her father as a child. Little did she know their family would eventually come to its rescue. One of the biggest challenges they’ve faced is allowing nature to catch up with their ambitious plans.
“It’s taken some time, but we’re seeing the payoff. It’s a product of love,” Lauren admits.
Both of them make time to expose their children and their little friends to the natural world through opportunities at The Catfish Farm, creating the next generation of conservationists.
A large amount of the property is carved into catfish farming ponds, now used as a habitat for ducks. Each 12-acre cell is drained and planted with corn or rice, then harvested and flooded to provide food for waterfowl. All species of dabbler ducks, and even some divers such as redheads and canvasbacks, make an appearance at The Catfish Farm, according to Lynn.
“We help maintain what’s left of the Atlantic Flyway because we provide an awful lot of food and habitat for these ducks to loaf around.”
Acres and acres of chufa, millet, milo, and corn flourish in the thinly wooded landscape; this is turkey and deer territory. A newly constructed shoot-house sits high above the forest floor, rivaling a backyard shed in size and featuring finished windows, doors, and electricity. If so inclined, one could comfortably spend hours (maybe days) while waiting to harvest a trophy buck, or opt not to shoot a single thing and just absorb the beauty and serenity of this place.
The task of reclaiming forested areas for quail habitat can in many ways be likened to the care of a golf course. It requires vast amounts of time, money, and knowledge to be successful. Prescribed burning is an important part of the maintenance schedule, in addition to planting specific species of grasses. As ground birds, quail need thick grasses and trees, but the trees can’t be too thick, and the grasses and shrubs need to provide food and nesting opportunities. Habitat loss from development and property mismanagement represents the biggest challenge for these creatures, in addition to a prolific list of natural predators, ranging from numerous birds of prey to coyotes.
“We take as much care as possible in this area,” Lynn explains.
A large pond, which might classify as a small lake, boasts a newly constructed house and observation tower on the far side. The observation tower utilizes an old feed silo used to nourish catfish as part of its architecture, which serves as another nod to the former purpose of this property.
The Catfish Farm welcomes the opportunity to satiate the needs of all outdoor enthusiasts with their pristine habitat, friendly demeanor, and newly constructed accommodations.