Last week, I had my second bad experience with a guide/outfitter in less than a year, as you may have read about on my brother's blog.
Let me sum them up:
Hunt 1 was a late season resident goose hunt (5 bird limit per person). I gave the guide a 4 day window that we could hunt (his choice). I told him that we were flexible to location (even state!) and day - we just wanted to be on top of the geese. Not difficult in FEBRUARY, right? We showed up to the location on time, and were told to start pulling grass out of the ground and to grass our own blinds (we had properly grassed blinds at home, WTF). The guide chose the location but had forgotten that the grass was green in that field. We were literally hunting in someone's yard (20 acre farmette), about 100 yards from their house, next to their pond. We scared out dozens of roosting geese (nice scouting, Mr. Guide!), and I only shot 4 times all morning. The "elaborate setup" included 4 goose floaters and 3 Big Foot Decoys. The guide was an above-average caller, which was the EXPECTATION. We had 3 paying hunters, and bagged a total of 2 geese. I've heard that the Guide is still upset that I haven't referred him to more clients. Hahahahahaha!
Hunt 2 was a mid-season combo goose/duck hunt (6 ducks + 5 geese) last week. I gave the guide a 3-day window (his choice), and told him that we would go anywhere the ducks were. He ultimately chose a spot that sounded public to me, but he assured me that the spot had no hunting pressure and that they had scouted the area VERY heavily, and "nobody can hunt there, there's no access." OK dude, I trust you.
Everything our guide, "Name Removed" told us about the hunt was wrong. First of all, the only thing "private" about the hunt was the ILLEGAL boat ramp we used on private land, to zip across 100 yards to a public island in the public Potomac River, all perfectly legal for anybody (with a MD resident license) to hunt. He told us to expect hundreds of mallards and black ducks from one direction, and a swarm of geese from the other.
We saw two single mallards (his calling was awful and he couldn't call them in), and saw our first flight of geese at 12:45pm...from the opposite direction. The guide tore the boat up and down the river (remember, "a barely hunted sanctuary"), and to my surprise, as soon as a flock of rafted birds saw the boat from hundreds of yards away, they IMMEDIATELY got up and hauled ass up the river. That is NOT how unhunted birds behave!!!! The guide encouraged us to shoot at birds from the boat, while the boat was in gear and under power (illegal), and his calling sounded like Squanto the Algonquin had carved a duck call out of a cattail. It was AWFUL. For his totally awesome decoy setup, he used a dozen goose floaters (old, chipped paint), about 10 GHG mallards, and about 4 GHG bluebills. At my house, I have burlap/hand-painted black ducks, hand-painted bluebills on Herters bases, flocked head goose floaters, and all kinds of good stuff. Why was I paying to hunt over dinged up, PLASTIC CRAP?
By 10AM, en route to a giant skunking (we had seen only a dozen black ducks, who zipped by about 200 yards up, while Dukk Man Dave blew high balls through his Quaker Boy (or whatever Wal Mart sells) Mallard call at them), the guide realized that we were extremely unhappy and started to say things like, "Hey if you get skunked, the next hunt is half price!" And "That's why they call it huntin'!" I swear, we almost sent him over the dam like they did in that movie "The Mission." Like, on a cross and the whole nine F-ing yards!!!!!!
He tried to get "on our side" by talking about all the poaching he does for deer, and how hilarious it all is to evade the Natural Resource Police - a group of people who I have an enormouse amount of respect & admiration for, even though I sure hate to see them headed toward my duck blind! PLUS the minor detail that I have dedicated my career (and my life) to wildlife conservation, and apparently it's all just a big joke to this jackass. WHO I HAD TO PAY.
At the end of the hunt, the conversation turned toward DuKk Man Dave talking about how the economy is bad and he needs all the help he can get, and then he let it slip that his "bonus from my regular job was only $11,000 last year." Homey, the after-tax take-home on my annual bonus this year was $352.00, which is less than we paid you for this pitiful excuse for a duck hunt, so....yeah....go ahead and shove it. Thanks Duck Head.
As we drove out, we saw thousands of ducks and geese roosted up on islands in the river, less than 10 miles from where we hunted. We could have easily hunted that stretch - by ourselves or with DukK Man. That is, if he had scouted like he claimed he had. At some point, when you've failed to deliver any modicum to your clients, you have to answer that either you:
1) lied to them (you did not scout or you did not have birds or you predicted the birds would leave), or
2) you're not a very good guide (you were not able to predict, in any way, shape or form, that the birds would leave the area or selected a different roost - and you missed it while scouting).
I'm sure some would respond, "Hey man, that's hunting/fishing/surfing." NO. That's "the outdoors" when you and I, Joe Hunter/Angler/Surfer, are doing it - getting totally fooled/skunked/tricked by the birds/weather/fish is not uncommon -and is often an important and worthwhile experience. However, guides get paid for their expertise and access to good areas that have not been overused. If you are a guide and you have trouble providing those services, how can you honestly take peoples' money, except out of sheer poverty or some other bizarre circumstance?
Now, I'm sure that if I booked a hunt with Tyler Johnson, who winters at least 1 million ducks and geese a year on his 2,500 acre duck farm, or Sean Mann, Goose Calling Champion of Champions, I might have a great experience.
But I don't think I'll be doing that. We have two boats (same exact boat that our guide had this time), plus two kayaks, and a total of about 12 or 15 dozen duck and goose decoys. We are decent, but not great, callers, and we understand how birds work. In the future, I'll be spending my money on food and lodging-not an idiot local guide- so we can hit the road together and spend 3 or 4 days on the same stretch of river. We'll mostly get skunked, and hopefully we'll get it figured out for one great hunt (per trip) that we'll never forget. Then we'll dry everything out, drive home, and plan on how we can do it better the next time. Harvesting game is great. But if you're doing it because you've paid for somebody else's (half-assed) recon, scouting, and local knowledge, what have you done, except shoot well (maybe)?
This goes for the other sports we pursue as well - we have the gear, and we have some knowledge, and we have TIME and a little bit of money. Let's put them to good use and actually learn a thing or two, right?
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic for now. Fire away, any of you guides out there. And I'm totally anticipating the line of, "sounds like you just had bad luck." But you've missed my point - I could have easily had the same success/luck, and a better overall experience (which is what I'm after), for less money, by doing it myself.
Then there's the little detail of business ethics. Guides are business owners. What ever happened to calling clients and saying, "Sorry - we just don't have birds/fish/surf/high water, and it would be irresponsible to show up there, have a bad time, and take your money. Let's reschedule for a better time or a different location - I want to make sure you come back and use my guide service every year, not just tomorrow." In any other business, that's how things are done.
But what do I know? Surely, in my 20 years of hunting, 30 years of fishing, 16 years of surfing, and 5 years of kayaking, I have not even STARTED to gain the wealth of knowledge that a "professional guide" has. What.Ever.