Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Guides and Guiding

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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you did not get good service and certainly not what you were expecting. You're right, guiding is a business like any other. If everything else was done well and you still got skunked that's one thing. It doesn't sound like that's what happened in these cases.

Swamp Thing said...

Or to use another metaphor, how about if you hired a landscaper to plant & regrade your yard (bear with me here). He might say, "I can't guarantee that all the plants will live, but I guarantee I'll give these 100 plants the best chance they can possibly have."

When he shows up for the job, he has a mule, some shovels, and 30 plants, all the wrong species, which are already dead. He plants them in the wrong spots, with the root wad hanging out above the ground. He looks at you, shrugs, and says, "Hey, it's mother nature. Can't do nothin' about it. Acts of God and what-not."

Would you pay this person, or recommend him to others? If it were you, would you expect repeat business?

Of course not.

The Rabid Outdoorsman said...

My stomach is turning just listening to your story. We went out shark fishing in August and never had a single strike . . . which is ok since that is why it is called fishing and not catching . . . I get it. But the guide was so overly apologetic that it bordered on irritating.

I have a guide application sitting on my desk that I need to file sometime in the immediate future. Once you get to a certain level a guide is superfluous unless you are hunting or fishing a species that you are completely unequipped to handle.

Ever hunt Eiders on the Atlantic? I know a couple "guides" in Maine who work for free!

tugboatdude said...

Yeah Swamp Thing you hit it on the nose.There is no reason to use a guide in the future.I think we have enough contacts between the two of us to make it happen.

Hey Rabid no we haven't hunted Eiders however that does sound interesting,hmmmmmmm.

Swamp Thing said...

As long as these "guides" you speak of accept payment in liquor and Cuban cigars, then we are on the right track.

Seriously, we should all talk about doing a "home and away series" next season.

My wife and I love the New England coast and we have missed 3 opportunities in a row to get up to Maine (although I don't think Mrs. Swamp Thing has any interest in going to Maine in December, hahahahaa).

Terry Scoville said...

Well Swamp Thing your story reminds me of a bad experience I had with a taxidermist. When they're bad, there's nothing worse & might as well toss'em to the sharks. After the "guide" was bragging about his poaching I think I might have given someone a heads up. Sorry you got shafted. Guess he didn't have a conscience.

Phillip said...

Just curious and no negative implication toward you here, but did you check references on these guys?

With what I take as your high expectations, I'd definitely look for references from both successful and unsuccessful hunters. If a guide can't provide those references, then that guide doesn't get my business. Period.

Before I ever book a guide, I ask a ton of questions, both of the guide and his/her references. I also listen very carefully to what those references have to say... Sometimes what they don't say, or what stays between the lines is more important than their actual words.

I don't know about MD, but here in CA my Guide License can be pulled if a client complains to the DFG that I didn't provide the service they paid for. You may have recourse, or at least be able to save someone else from suffering the same crappy experience you had. Just a thought...

On another note, I'm enjoying your blog! Keep up the great work!

Swamp Thing said...

You make a good point. I received several good and luke-warm references from other folks, but it was what they "didn't say" that really would have made the difference. And when I tell the story after-the-fact to other hunters here in MD, they're like "Oh yeah, those guys are horrible, they'll lie to your face just to get your money." Thanks for the heads up, buddies!

As a guide (correct me if I'm wrong), your job is to put people in the best possible setup, with the best possible gear, to have the highest likelihood (no promise) of a good harvest. You can guarantee nothing ABOVE that - not one shot, not one bird or buck or turkey or fish.

I don't think that paying $100-200 per hour for a professional service (of any kind), and then asking for professional behavior and equipment, qualifies as high expectations.

I don't ask that a mechanic be able to fix a bombed out 1975 F150, even if I were paying him $100/hour to do so. But I would expect that he would come prepared to work with something more than duct tape and a hot glue gun, and that he wouldn't say, "Yeah, remember how I told you I just worked on 3 F-150's last week?" I really meant I worked on 2 Ford Rangers, 9 years ago, well, really, I mean I changed the oil in 2 Ford Festivas.

Phillip said...

Swamp thing, you asked,
As a guide (correct me if I'm wrong), your job is to put people in the best possible setup, with the best possible gear, to have the highest likelihood (no promise) of a good harvest. You can guarantee nothing ABOVE that - not one shot, not one bird or buck or turkey or fish.

I don't think your expectations, as I understand them, are unreasonable... they are just high. There's nothing wrong with that at all.

As a guide, I try to get a clear understanding of those expectations, and then do what I can to manage them to a realistic level. To do that I want to talk to the client prior to the hunt, and discuss what they're looking for and let them know, honestly, if I can provide that. Sometimes I can't, and I'll lay that on the table. The client then has the choice of hunting with me or not.

For example, I occasionally guide turkey hunters. My skills as a caller are passable and I can generally bring in birds, but I won't be winning any competitions. If the hunter is looking for an award-winning caller, then I let him know that he might need to find someone else.

Likewise, my decoys are old but functional. If you come hunting with me and expect me to have the latest flocked decoys, you'll be disappointed. If I tried to keep the latest-greatest equipment, I'd either have to charge an insane amount for a hunt, or I'd go broke. But what I have works, and if it didn't I'd replace it.

It's a shame there are dishonest people out there, but it's a fact of life... just like you're gonna have the hack mechanic out there who does more damage than he repairs, or the landscaper who butchers your yard. They're not gonna tell you they're hacks, and a lot of times, you're not gonna know until it's too late.

Caveat emptor. It's your only defense.

Spread the word when you get screwed. This blog is an ideal place for that. Word of mouth is good too. Help someone else avoid having the same crappy experience you did. It's perfectly legal and acceptable to name names when you post an honestly negative experience.

The Rabid Outdoorsman said...


Liqueur and Cigars always accepted! LOL!

Consider late October or early November. Sea ducks should be relatively plentiful and the REALLY cold weather will have yet to set in. Only down side is it may be extremely difficult to get you a trophy bird in full plumage.


Swamp Thing said...

Phillip - thanks for that response. I can see from your end, the idea of "managing expectations" upfront is the best way to keep wild egos (and dreams) in check, and also prevent a PR nightmare when a dissatisfied client "goes rogue."

Also great point about the old decoys - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Thanks for swinging by!