For The Birds
Starting with a cattle shed and 1,000 pheasant chicks, a Le Center native created an 800-acre hunting preserve that goes through 30,000 birds every year.
Jeff Traxler glanced out of the lodge window and his eyes lit up as he saw two young hunters posing with their grandfather outside of the Club House.
“Families frequently pose for pictures,” he said, “several generations, each person holding a pheasant.”
Over the past 27 years, Traxler’s Hunting Preserve, located about two miles east of Le Center, has become a million-dollar, multi-faceted business. From mid-August through mid-April, 325 hunters who pay $525 annual membership dues can bring their families and their guests to 800 acres of rolling hills, woods, lakes, sloughs, natural grasses and brush. (An annual corporate membership for four people costs $1900.) Visitors can pay a daily fee and have a trial hunt while deciding whether to sign up for membership.
Many hunters bring their bird dogs, with the aim of shooting pheasants, mallards, and Hungarian and chukar partridge. This season, the Traxlers have ordered 1,000 to 2,000 birds a week from the Oakwood Game Farm in Princeton, adding up to 30,000 birds in all.
The game preserve might have been a bait shop if Traxler had made a different decision back in 1987, when he realized he was tired of the daily grind. At the time, he was working at his family’s company, Traxler Construction, running backhoes and bulldozers while also serving in the Army Reserves.
“Times were kind of tough, so I decided I either was going to have a hunting preserve or trap and sell minnows for bait,” he said. “I didn’t have a business background, just hard work and common sense. I wasn’t a good high school student, and college was not my thing. Some people laughed when I started the hunting preserve, but my grandma loaned me $5,000 at seven percent. She forgave me the interest when I married Kathy three years later.”
Traxler started out buying 1,000 pheasant chicks and using a tin shed on his family farm that used to hold cattle and pigs. Some friends helped him fix it up and put a bar inside. Whenever he didn’t have a hunt booked, he worked other jobs; one year, he juggled six jobs in addition to the time spent at the preserve.
Along the way, he met his wife Kathy, who is in many ways his opposite, offering a good complement as his business partner. Their partnership seems to have been fated, perhaps because their first meeting was unforgettable. He tells it thus: “I went to a friend’s Halloween party in Chanhassen, dressed in my Army fatigues and beret. I had on face paint and was carrying my M-16 rifle. At the party, I ran across this gorgeous blonde, but she wouldn’t even sit by me. She did take my phone number and gave me hers. I called her to come down for a date and a meal. Once she came in, we had a good conversation. I married her nine months later. She has grounded me. She’s more of the business person, and she helped me settle into the business.”
Kathy interjected, “I live the adventure of keeping my husband grounded and organized.”
In 1994, Traxler’s father said their business was growing too big for their location, so he sold them 20 acres and they built the current preserve.
“We were scared to death,” Traxler said.
But the move paid off: those first two rooms have expanded to five in the lodge, and the Traxlers also built a two-unit cabin and bought a house on the neighboring farm. Now they’re able to accommodate 20 people in the Bird Lodge and the Bunk House.
“Customers reserve a field, indicating how many birds they want to hunt,” Traxler explained. “The birds are kept in flight pens, covered by nets. When the customer wants to shoot 10 birds, we put the 10 birds into a field of 10 to 40 acres. Some hunters get all 10 birds. Other times, some birds stay in the field, so the next hunter might get 15 birds.”
The preserve also offers a 50-bird sporting clay course, a trap range and clay shooting. The Traxlers rent out pointers and flushers, including Labradors, German Shorthair Pointers and Springer Spaniels, at $40 per hunt.
“Our dogs are booked out well in advance,” Kathy said. “We get some in as started dogs and some as puppies. We do some basic training ourselves, and then the dogs are sent out for additional advanced training. Most dogs need experience to be a good hunter, and our dogs get plenty of that here. Our dogs hunt with anyone.”
You might say Traxler’s decision to have a hunting preserve is a result of his DNA. His 78-year-old father, Dale Traxler, recently brought home a musk ox he shot in Greenland.
“My father is a huge hunter,” Traxler said. “Over the years he has shot everything but me–and I still sleep with one eye open.”
But the Traxlers have trophies of their own, which can be seen in wall displays decorating the various rooms of the lodge: antelopes, deer, a jaguar, a rhino… There’s even an elephant, which Kathy helped her father-in-law take down during a trip to Zimbabwe—their second hunting trip together to Africa. She also shot zebras and impala while she was there.
Her affinity for firearms began long before her marriage. “I shot handguns in my teens as a hobby,” she explained. “When Jeff and I got engaged, he bought me a shotgun. That’s when I started hunting. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
As for Traxler, he said he prefers to hunt in North America, and he’s collected some impressive trophies himself: bears, moose, even an alligator. But at this point, he said he actually spends more time fishing. (Don’t be fooled into thinking he took the boring route—there’s a 450-lb shark mounted on one of his walls that will tell you differently.)
A typical day on the preserve can see more than a dozen different hunting parties come to shoot. Sometimes, parties will stay over at the cabin, hiking as well as hunting, but most parties only come for a half-day shoot.
And while traditional hunting parties may have been dominated by men, Kathy said more women are starting to participate, as well as whole families.
“A hunting preserve is a family activity,” she said. “People can bring their kids, age 12 and above, to hunt. They must have passed the state firearms safety test. Younger children can walk along.”
Hunting parties can also eat at the Club House, which started because the Traxlers enjoyed entertaining. At first, they served pizza, then branched out to burgers. About 15 years ago, they expanded their menu even more by offering wild game dishes, which are only offered twice a month, every other Thursday night.
The regular menu, though, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Tuesday. Liquor is served to hunting groups only after they have completed their shoot. The daily specials range from the mundanely elegant, such as prime rib, to the more imaginative, such as elk cheeseburgers topped with venison bacon, served with a side dish of elk chili. Other memorable specialties for wild game dining nights are goose breast, walleye mac and cheese, quail with cranberry wild rice stuffing and orange-roasted wild mallard. In the exotic realm are alligator gar cakes and blacktip shark.
“We used to be a hunting preserve with a restaurant, and now I sometimes feel like a restaurant with a hunting preserve,” Traxler said.
However, he added that there are advantages to having a two-fold business.
“Having the game preserve is weather-related, like being farmers,” he said. “Long, cold winters are not good for hunting, but the restaurant makes up for that somewhat. Every day is a bit different.”
Like many entrepreneurs, the Traxlers seldom separate their professional and personal lives. Their home is just down the road, on the farm where Traxler grew up.
Kathy explained, “Working as a couple, running a business is an amazing experience. We’re out here seven days a week, but come and go as business and family obligations require. During the busy season, we could be here for a 14-hour day, so Jeff takes a nap every afternoon to reboot. When our children were babies, I brought them to work. I’ve been full-time for the past 20 years. The most interesting part of my workday is planning events.”
The events include fundraisers for causes such as the Wounded Warrior. A recent event to raise funds for cancer research involved 88 participants, 12 corporate sponsors, 80 auctions and raffles, and 10 Minnesota Vikings football players. More than $85,000 was raised.
“When the Vikings players and coaches come here, we don’t talk about football; we talk about hunting,” Traxler said. “We’re all about hunting. We’ve had some amazing events.”
The four Traxler children have all been involved in the family business, although the oldest now works in the movie industry in Los Angeles. Samuel, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, works outdoors on weekends, along with 24 other employees who catch, plant, clean and care for the birds. As school schedules permit, Megan, a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Mary, a high school student, work in the lodge. They take bookings, shoot photos of hunters holding their game, assist in the kitchen and deliver a plate of shark or an elk burger to a hungry customer.
There also are other staff members, without whom Traxler said he could not operate. “I hired a general manager to be my boss,” he said, “and two men as outdoor managers of 15-18 boys. In a farming community, you know the kids. We hire young staff because they want to work. We give them responsibility, and they take the bull by the horns and run with it. ”
Kathy added, “We’ve had many young people work for us, both inside and outdoors. They learn to talk with people and to make customers feel like family. We get compliments on our staff. We’re family-friendly, clean, and have repeat business, unless the hunter moves away. This year we’ve seen the biggest upswing in new business in a long time.”
In addition to word-of-mouth promotion from satisfied customers, the Traxlers have used posters in advancing their business. In fact, in the early days, the posters provided a real boost to the business, which is easy to understand when you look at them: young, pretty ladies bearing arms and baring midriffs. Kathy said the models were friends and family, adding that more than 6,000 posters have been circulated.
“People don’t take them down,” she said. “They leave them up in fish houses and man caves. One of our posters even was in the movie ‘Fargo.’”
The wholesome models wear apparel that sports the Traxler logo, available on coats, shirts, vests and caps in the pro shop. The clothing carries the message far and wide. Traxler said he saw a fellow passenger wearing a cami print cap with the Traxler logo on it during an Amsterdam-to-Milan flight.
While the preserve has grown and changed over the years, Traxler says the reason for their success has always been the same.
“When we started this business,” he said, “we had little knowledge about what we were doing. We learned from our mistakes, and we’re still learning. We gave this business to God long ago. We just work for Him.”
Kathy agreed. “We couldn’t do this without the Lord in our life. We pray for our staff and our hunters’ safety, and we tell them we’re doing that. We’ve never had an earth-shaking occurrence, just small things, like people getting their fingers caught in the action of the gun.”
As for the future, Traxler says it’s both hopeful and exciting.
“There are quite a few hunting preserves in the state, but most of our members continue year after year,” he said. “As long as there is a Cabela’s, a Gander Mountain, a Scheels, a Fleet Farm, people will need places like this to hunt on. It’s hard now, with land prices, for people to start a game preserve. We’ve worked for 27 years to build this up. We like to give people the experiences we’ve enjoyed–food and hunting. We’re going to continue improving, but not expanding…. But I never say, ‘never.’”
A Love Of History
In addition to hunting, Traxler has a passion for history—especially World War II. He has made a pilgrimage to the beaches and cemeteries of Normandy, France, and he uses one of the walls in the lodge to showcase WWII weapons from the United States, Japan and Germany.
He took his love of history a step farther in 2008, when he began organizing “Military History” events at the preserve. For three years in a row, once a year, the preserve offered large-scale military reenactments of battles, ranging from the Civil War all the way to present day. The reenactments included real WWII tanks and fighter planes, live cannon firing, appearances from current military forces as well as veterans, and scripted public battle segments. However, after terrible weather ruined the event two years in a row, Traxler decided to stop organizing it.
But that didn’t mean he gave up on the concept. Instead, he turned to the big screen. Working with friend and fellow veteran Kyle O’Malley, he launched a four-year project to create a war film, which eventually became the 2011 film, “Memorial Day.” The two of them managed to raise $1,000,000 to finance the project, and Traxler wrote the story, which was about a grandfather telling his grandson stories about his time overseas. He also ended up producing it. The battle scenes were filmed at the preserve, while other scenes were shot in Mankato and other Minnesota locations. They used real WWII war planes and equipment from the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division, which helped ensure the film’s authenticity.
While the movie didn’t receive a theater release, it did win the GI Film Festival for best story, and hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold. In addition, the CW Channel bought it to play every year on Memorial Day.
“It was one of our crazier ideas,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s all go on an adventure and see what we can do with this.’ But it was amazing. It’s a great American story, and it was well worth what we did.”
Favorite school subject:
Most disliked class:
He: Math. That’s why God made calculators.
He: I farmed with my family, worked in the family construction business and served in the U.S. Army Reserves.
She: I learned customer service working as a waitress and in retail sales when I was a teenager. After four years of business education, I worked for Pillsbury in special commodities and the accounting area.
He: I hunt for a living and fish for fun, from the oceans to locally.
She: I’m a runner and have run the Chicago Marathon. I have done the three-day, 60-mile Breast Cancer Walk, and I’m training with our daughter Megan for Grandma’s Half Marathon in Duluth. I also like cooking, photography and scrapbooking the photos.
Accomplishment of which most proud:
Both: My family.
Most valued intangible:
He: The making of the movie “Memorial Day.”
She: “My health.”
Words that describe Jeff:
Kathy’s answer: Trustworthy, a leader, fun-loving.
Words that describe Kathy:
Jeff’s answer: Dependable, driven, a mama bear.
If you didn’t have this business?
She: I’d probably do something in the hospitality or entertainment industries.
He: I don’t even want to think about it.
- Le Center Area Chamber of Commerce
- Le Center American Legion Post 108
- Minnesota Game Breeders Association
- National Association of Game Breeders
Traxler’s Hunting Preserve
Address: 37699 Hunting Preserve Lane, Le Center, Minnesota
Facebook: Traxler’s Hunting Preserve