Five years ago, Brooks Rice was working his butt off as owner of the Loco's Grill & Pub on 13th Street in Columbus. Extremely long hours didn't equate to nearly enough income to offset the stress of running a restaurant day in and day out.
Before that, he also worried about money -- that of other customers -- as a management associate, assistant branch manager, branch manager and private banker with Columbus Bank and Trust. It was a life made up of suits and ties and air-conditioned office comfort.
But something was sorely missing for the LaGrange, Ga., native and Ole Miss graduate. Rice decided he wanted to pursue his passion for the outdoors -- hunting and fishing specifically -- while making a decent living to boot.
In 2007, after selling the restaurant, he pulled the trigger on a startup company called Down South Pond & Land Management. Based out of his Columbus home on 13th Street, Rice took advantage of his natural knowledge of outdoor activities, while heading to Seattle to take courses on electro-fishing with Smith-Root, the company that invented the equipment and techniques.
A business was born. Today, Rice helps prepare and manage ponds and property in and around the Columbus area. It can be early-morning rising and labor intensive, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
In a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, he talked about his job, business and the transition from the stressful indoors to the great outdoors. It has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you go from banking and restaurauteur to pond and land management?
This is something that I've always done. I've always hunted and I've always fished. There was another guy doing this kind of stuff on a lake up in LaGrange and he let me come along with him. I took a couple of classes and got certified to do electro-fishing and aquatic control. It's just a passion and something that I've always wanted to do, and I finally found it two jobs later.
What is electro-fishing?
It's running electric current through the pond in order to sample the fish. It just stuns the fish and you're able to weigh them and measure them and tag them if you want to. You're able to remove them if you need to. It's a good way to sample the fish without hurting them. You ride around in a boat and there's these booms that stick out in front of you and shocks 6 to 8 feet all around the boat.
What's the need for this?
Trophy fish management is what it is. It's helping private owners that want to have trophy fish. It keeps your fish population in check ... We weigh them and measure them and tag them so the next year, when we go back out to sample them again, the ones that are tagged we can compare their growth from year to year.
It's perfectly safe for the fish?
You can kill them if you don't know what you're doing. You could turn the power up too much and electrocute them to death. But it's like a stun gun for a human. In this case, it's fish.
How large are the ponds that you work on?
You can do it on any size, from a quarter of an acre up ... Typically, private ponds will go anywhere from a half acre all the way up to 15 to 45 acres. I have a 77-acre lake, but it's a homeowner's association lake. It's like a subdivision that everybody lives around. We do aquatic weed control, fertilizing and liming for all the ponds. We plant food plots and sell different kinds of seeds like corn and soybean. We can pretty much do anything you want to outside wildlife-wise.
Is there a busy season for you?
Spring is your busy season because everything's starting back. Weeds start growing back, your fertilizing program starts coming back. We do supplemental feedings, so we have feeders that we go and fill up. Winter time is when typically everything dies down a bit.
You help people manage their hunting land?
We have a program set up where we can help somebody get started on any kind of wildlife or fish management program that they're wanting, whether it's dove, deer, turkey, quail, all of that. We sell the right kind of seed. We have wildlife mixes and waterfowl mixes.
We'll come in there and we'll prep all of the food plots; we'll plant all of the food plots; we'll lime them and basically get them set up for hunting season so (owners) don't have to do anything.
Does the weather impact you?
There's really not much you get to do on rainy days. I do computer work and bills and invoices and catch up on phone calls and messages and things like that.
So there is a strong market for your services?
It's a private market, I would say. It's basically just pond and land owners that have had time in the past to do some kind of pond management or trophy fish management on their pond to keep them in line to where they can have big bass or bream or whatever it is. But now they're having to work or they've changed their schedule and they need somebody to come out there and take care of it. We just take over and do the hard work for them so that they can come out there and do the easy stuff, which is just fish and hunt.
You make a good living at it?
I won't be a millionaire ever from doing this. But I'll tell you this, I used to worry about money. I worked at the bank for six years and then I went and did a restaurant for three years thinking that I could make a lot of money there. I realized that I made some decent money, but for the amount of hours I worked -- if you paid me per hour I was making like $15 an hour -- it was just not worth it. We were open seven days a week during that time at the restaurant and it was just a nightmare.
Sounds like you enjoy what you're doing now?
I've been really pleased. I love getting up and going to work. Early mornings don't bother me and I get to do a lot of hunting and fishing because of it. I meet a lot of people that kind of fit my lifestyle, that like the outdoors and doing things outdoors. If you just put yourself in the same situation as your friends and mutual company, everything just kind of falls in your lap.
Did your skills from banking and the restaurant carry over to this venture?
Yes. You're managing your money and some of the Excel and CAD (computer-aided design) programs that we run are useful now ... It helps me manage inventory on my fertilizer and chemicals and different things that I hold in stock for aquatic weed control.
But it's not rocket science on putting in food plots, because there is a lot of technology that we have nowadays that we didn't have back in the day. You can take soil samples to the university and they'll tell you exactly what is in your soil -- if it needs lime, potassium and nitrogen.
You use a lot of equipment?
We have three boats, a tractor and all of the implements that go with that, a tiller, plot master, spreader and (other tools).
What is your coverage area?
I've gone all the way to Ashburn, Ga., and all the way to Roanoke, Ala., but I typically like to stay within about 120 miles or two hours. Once you start getting over that 60-mile range, and with fuel being the way it is, you've got to start charging people a fuel surcharge and then it can get excessive ... Fuel is so high it affects everybody.
Your services are expensive?
We usually do jobs based on the size of their pond. If you have a three-acre pond and want to run a full program for it -- which would include electro-fishing, fertilizing, two trips a month to your pond for water quality analysis -- you're looking at spending on average about $3,000 a year ... You're looking at $200 to $250 a month for a full program. It can range from $100 to $1,500 a month. It really depends on the customer and what they want you to do.