Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"What Every Traveling Hunter AND Guide Should Read"

The idea for this article stems from both personal experience free lancing across the country; along with, paying an outfitter for guiding services, and hearing both the satisfied client's experience and the disgruntled hunter's take. In fact, a couple of recent experiences - one a free lancing debacle, the other a paid hunt which saw better than average hunting opportunities but left a good bit to be desired in the safety department - led me to start seriously considering my options when it comes to out of state hunting opportunities.

Question my experience concerning the matter?  Let me tell you my freelancing experience from last turkey season.  I spent 6 days in the mountains of New Mexico, climbing mountains, and traversing snow banks attempting to kill my second Merriams turkey.  Every hunt attempted was met with other hunters coming to the sound of my calling and the responding gobbling. Every last hunt was ruined by other hunters. After six days of frustration and coming home empty handed, I tallied what was spent, not to mention valuable time from my family.  Had I booked from a reputable guide that had already done the manual labor and home work, I could have spent half that time away from home for much the same amount of money. This also would have increased the odds that the only thing keeping me from harvesting a Merriams would be my own ability.

As previously mentioned, another experience in which I was a paying client led me to seriously reconsider the way I handle out of state hunting. Basically this is to say - how I handle my hard earned money and vacation time. I should first say that I was told upfront how hard the hunt could be, and that it was going to be a very hands-on type of hunt. I went on the hunt understanding everything. I also went on the premise that I would relay my thoughts concerning the hunt - what was good and bad - so that the guide, who is not officially taking clients yet, would use the info to become better. After thinking about the hunt itself, as it stands right now, there is no one I could recommend that hunt to on a clear conscience - it's just too dangerous. We hand lifted the sink box out of the boat, and placed it in the water. It's too heavy and there's too many moving parts, to accomplish this safely. At some point, someone is going to go overboard or get seriously hurt. I told our host as much, and I truly believe he's going to reevaluate the process. A wench, pulley, and solid steel spar will go along way to accomplishing this.

Please understand, I'm not writing anything I haven't expressed to the guides I've used before. In fact, it can not be said enough, but I've had nothing but solid hunts when using outfitters. It also can not be said to a guide enough - there's always something you can do better. I'll not list a guide or service by name. I've wrestled with this, and I'm not here to disparage anyone nor am I getting paid to advertise for anyone either. What I want to do is give you (the reader, be paying client or outfitter) some things to consider when you book a "destination" hunt or when you take money for hunting opportunities.

Over the last 10-15 years I have been fortunate enough to do quite a bit of traveling across the continent chasing both ducks and turkeys.  On those travels, I have been both freelancer and paying customer/client, and see the value in both.  But, as I age, my family becomes ever larger requiring more time, and I begin to realize the value of "time", it's becoming more important for me to spend less time in a more quality environment.  Five years ago, I would have thought nothing about taking off for a couple of weeks to Montana to hunt ducks, geese and upland game (and, I didn't think twice about it several different times).  Over the last several years, I have seen the traveling hunter population explode.  My best guess is it's the internet and the increasing popularity of hunting "message boards".  Never has it been easier for a guiding service to post immaculate photos of a hunt, tell the story, and garnish fame from the membership. 

Conversely, never has it been easier for someone with a boat and an internet connection to promote themselves as a guide service, leaving out the important stuff/little details, and post to a message board the one good hunt they had last year.  And, typically, it takes one group of hunters with the same internet connection to post their experience while on the outfitter's hunt (or, more likely the lack thereof), disgruntled over half truths, few opportunities, and lack of planning on the guides part to seperate the wheat from the shaft.  These hunters have lost both time and hard earned money, they feel it, and want others to as well.

But, who's to blame?  The guide who's trying to make a name for himself who promotes half truths and, at times, outright lies in order to make a buck?  Or, is it the group of hunters who failed to do their homework, failed to get proper references from other hunters, and who were probably wanting to invest little to nothing in hopes of a grand return?  In my opinion, BOTH parties are to blame.

Never in our history has time (or lack thereof) meant more.  I've realized that substituting time with money makes best use of my time and money. I work hard and want a vacation, not a goat roping. I'd rather go on a 5 day excursion to Canada in September or October, shoot more birds in that week than many will in a year, and make the most of the few days of vacation I have.  In fact, I contend that it's best to pay a premium to a reputable guide service, who's backed by proper references (and lots of them), and who consistently puts hunters on the quarry. This allows the hunter to spend less time away from their home and family.

But, what is a reputable guide?  What should you ask of the guide as a minimum before laying down that deposit?  Below are my own thoughts on the subject, and by no means am I saying I'm an expert or this is an all-inclusive list.  I'm just trying to outline from my own experiences what I have started looking for in a service.  While focusing mainly on duck hunting excursions, one could easily insert any form of wildlife hunting pursuit, with minor tweeks here and there, and begin to form your own list:
  •  SAFETY - I can't stress safety enough.  Having hunted sea ducks in Alaska, New England, and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, I have come to respect those guides that refuse to put their clients in harms way.  While the above examples are extreme environments, it's just as important for the rice field or flooded timber in the lower Mississippi River valley.  Clients should feel safe at all times, and feel as though their guide is experienced enough to pull them through in the case of the "worst case scenario".
  • CONSISTENCY - considering time = money and that hunters are paying for the opportunity, you better be able to deliver under most any situation or you will reap the whirlwind.
  • TRUSTWORTHINESS - sadly, this has to be mentioned, but it does. Basically, did the hunt end up "as billed"? Where the opportunities there for the game being pursued?  A potential client should remember that an outfitter isn't selling you the birds, they are selling you the hunt.  If they don't sell hunts, they can't pay their guides, leases, or bills.  To that end, many may put honesty on the shelf in order to make money.  So, who can you trust?  Experience is a great teacher, but face it, if you're like me, you don't have the time or extra money laying around to take many gambles. Later I'll explain one method that may help ensure you're going on a quality hunt.
  • CONTINGENCY PLANS - when people are paying to hunt, there's no excuse for "weather" days.  Not now, not ever.  Sure "weather" may keep you from where you want to hunt, but there's no excuse for it shutting the entire day down. If taking paying clients, one should have the equipment, resources, knowledge and where-with-all to maintain a quality hunt; regarless of rain, snow, high winds, or heavy seas.  And, in the rare event that it is so bad that there is no where available to hunt and maintain the safety of the client, refunds of the value of the hunt should be strongly considered.  A client is more apt to be a returning customer if he/she sees the guide as doing all they can and offering reparations when they come up short. Along similar lines, every hunt I've ever booked was a "cost per day". I want everyone to read that again - PER DAY. If I'm paying for a day, I want a day's effort from the guide. If I'm in New England on a sea duck hunt, and we get our birds early, I don't want to hear "great job, see you tomorrow fellas". I want to hear "guys let's go get something to eat, maybe check a few areas out for the morning and by then, it'll be time to go shoot some black duck on the ponds in the evening." This example really happened. We had eider limits by 8 a.m. two mornings in a row, and short of a trip to a decoy shop and some breakfast, we were basically on our on. We had other sea ducks we could have set up to hunt or black ducks on marshes. Instead, we paid close to 300 per DAY, and didn't get a day's effort from the guide. Do you think I'll ever go back on that hunt? Do you think I'll ever recommend the guide? Not on your life. There are too many guides in the area that have those same sea ducks, yet won't stop working for their clients until shooting time comes to a close.
  • PROPER EQUIPMENT - it's a hard sale to load a group of hunters in a 14 ft john boat and hunt the Mississippi river. As a paying customer, I get a bad feeling when I look on an outfitters website and see no mention of what equipment will be used. I want to know, before I waste my time making a phone call, that if we're hunting rice fields, we're doing so from pits or sleds or layouts. I want to know I'm not heading out to sea in a 16 foot Carolina skiff.
Also, as stated previously, the best value is not always the cheapest; it's the right hunt.  If it's a limit of Greenheads one is looking for, it's probably not the best idea to book a hunt on the southern end of the flyway in mid-November, just because the hunt is available and the price reduced.  If it's a King Eider, pay the money, and go where King's are consistently killed.  This will help ensure a more pleasurable experience.  While I'm on the subject, if all of the above have been taken care of by the outfitter, and the opportunity to harvest the animals were afforded as advertised, yet you failed to connect - it's NOT the guides fault.

Another thing to think about is that the majority of the guides are in the business "part time". While not being a deal breaker, it does make the feeling of complete professionalism on the guides part imperative. If an outfitter has the ability to run several groups at a time, one client should never feel less important than the others. That client is paying for the hunt just like the TV crew or crew using the latest in layout boat technology. I also don't need to sit in a boat and listen to the guide I'm paying drone on ad nauseum about another guide. Running another service through the mud is not what I'm paying you for. When a client pays a fee, they should always expect to be treated with courtesy and respect the entire time, until the services are fully rendered. If that's asking too much of you, I can find another outfitter in your area to use...and, I will.

Now, how do we ensure we're paying the right people for the right hunt?  Well, we (the paying client) could spend literally hours filtering through the available information in the hopes of hitting pay dirt.  Honestly, I'm realizing I don't have that kind of time.  My guess is that many reading this don't either.  The answer then is to utilize an outfitter booking service such as GETDUCKS.COM - It's Duck Season Somewhere, owned and operated by Ramsey Russell.

Ramsey's service is highlighted, not because I consider him a close friend, but because I've known him since GETDUCKS.COM was a small blip on the world wide web.  I've watched him work tirelessly to deliver hunts that ensure his clients both have a pleasurable, complete hunting experience, while being afforded ample opportunity at their chosen quarry.  From Argentina Duck Hunting to Gould's turkey hunting in Mexico to Alaskan sea duck hunting to just about any other destination in the Americas and becoming the world. Ramsey has burned the midnight oil to ensure his clients get what they pay for.

When a hunt is listed on Ramsey's website GETDUCKS.COM the hunter can rest a little easier at night understanding that prior to it being listed, Ramsey or an associate has been on the hunt and seen the guide in action. Ramsey is after the complete experience on the hunts offered. He wants his clients to be able to take away the dead birds on the wall, ask themselves "was it worth it?" and the answer never in doubt.

Can I say that when using GETDUCKS.COM that there will never be problems? Of course not. But I can say that when problems arise, someone that can AND WILL find answers for you is just a phone call away. Remember that New Mexico hunt? All the time and money wasted. Had I booked the hunt through Ramsey at GETDUCKS.COM - It's Duck Season Somewhere I could have spent half as much time away from my family AND had the travel and accommodations taken care of, for much the same price.

In short, TIME and MONEY - you'll never have enough of either.


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