How To Spot a Phony Outfitter

Just like any other business, outfitting is filled with a range of business personalities, from honest, to deceitful, to downright criminal. When shopping for an outfitter, don’t let your hard-earned hunt turn into a nightmare.

By Les Davenport

whitetail deer hunting outfitterLike used car salesmen, whitetail outfitters range from honest to deceitful. Prospective clients need to ask telling questions to single out the good from the bad and remember that even a good outfitter needs to be the right fit!

Making bogus whitetail outfitters squirm by asking all the right questions is one of my favorite things to do in the off season. I annually go from booth to booth at outdoor shows and see how much fertilizer some of these guys are selling. A few years back, at the Wisconsin Deer & Turkey Expo in Madison, an Iowa outfitter told me, “We killed four Boone and Crockett bucks last year.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “Are they on this brochure?”

The guy proudly pointed out four deer on his handout.

“Who scored these bucks?” I questioned. Before allowing the guy to answer, I added, “Whoever did had the first 10 inches lopped off his tape measure.”

Not one of the bucks would have grossed 160 inches. Either the outfitter had no clue how to score deer, or he was hoping that I, as a potential client, was the clueless one.

At a more recent Harrisburg Sports and Outdoor Show, I asked an Ohio outfitter how many Pope and Young bucks his archers had taken in the past season. He elusively answered, “We had a 95 percent shot opportunity on P&Y whitetails last year.”

“How do you know they were P&Y-class bucks if the hunters didn’t kill them?” I asked. “Hunters exaggerate antler size, especially if they weren’t close enough to release an arrow.”

He finally admitted that his 40-plus bowhunters had harvested a total of six bucks the previous season. When he showed me the photos of those six bucks, only three would have netted P&Y. One of those hunters, however, had taken a monster that easily netted B&C. Coincidentally, the hunter was one of the guys in the booth selling hunts. Further inquiring revealed that lucky archer was one of the guides! I’m quite sure that he hadn’t put a single client near that deer’s hideout.

Last year, at the Illinois Deer Classic, I tried my best to get Chris Jorde, a North Dakota whitetail outfitter, to tell a lie about his operation. He responded to every question with straightforward answers and an honesty that was impossible to ignore. The mission statement on his brochure seemed impressively true: “To provide a fully guided whitetail bowhunting experience that allows the hunter to see lots of healthy, big-bodied deer, have a great chance of successfully harvesting a Pope-and-Young-class buck, and have an affordable, enjoyable time doing it!”

I asked, “Why do you think you can attract Illinois whitetail hunters to North Dakota — a place with far fewer trophy book entries?”

“Our deer are pressured far less than in Illinois,” he answered. “Also, our best bowhunting for trophy bucks is in September, a time when the Illinois season has not yet opened.”

I looked through his trail camera shots and was fascinated at the deer quality in a state that gets very little credit for big whitetails.

Almost two days of the Illinois show had passed, and this overly honest outfitter had not booked a single hunt. In my opinion, the sad truth of the matter is this: A booth full of giant sheds, lofty-antlered mounts, an array of impressive brag photos — and a verbal line of manure — can bamboozle most deer hunters seeking an outfitted hunt. It seems that we, as trophy-crazed dreamers, want to be lied to about the promise of big whitetails. Frankly, too many young deer hunters today believe almost everything they are told by a hypothetical “pro.”

Beware of the Sales Pitch!
It’s my opinion that 50 percent of the outfitters selling whitetail hunts at outdoor shows can’t — or won’t — deliver what they offer. You would think that fiction fabricated year after year would end the businesses of unscrupulous outfitters; however, that is not the case. For every cheated hunter, 10 more are standing in line with their checkbooks in hand. The large number of deer shows around the nation these days makes it easy for shady outfitters to retell their untruths to new crowds of probable clients.

The easiest hunters for unprincipled Corn Belt or Canadian outfitters to deceive are those from Eastern and Southern states that are not known for trophy-class bucks. Many outdoor television shows encourage the notion that there’s a giant buck behind every tree in the Midwest and Canada, because making the harvest of a trophy whitetail look easy is a large part of promoting a pro hunter’s image of expertise. With that said, here are a few sales pitches that should raise your suspicions.

1. “I’ve hunted with so-and-so.”
If an outfitter brags more about the TV personalities who hunt with him than the relationships he has with his everyday clients … beware!
Booking with these guys could mean you’ll be hunting a string of second-best stand sites and listening to Joe Hollywood brag about himself at the supper table.

A good outfitter won’t play favorites by giving preferential treatment to other hunters who are in camp the same time you’re there.

2. “Don’t delay, book today!”
If an outfitter at a deer expo pressures you to book a hunt by saying there are only a limited number of openings remaining … beware!

This is similar to a realtor showing an interested buyer a property and then telling them that a previous viewer “might” make an offer. Do not impulsively book a hunt at an outdoor show thinking you might miss out by waiting. The best advice is to never give an outfitter a down payment on a hunt without thoroughly checking out the operation. That takes phone calls and background work.

3. “We’re new on the block.”
Beware of new operations. True, everyone has to start somewhere, but this is the first red flag that you might be dealing with a fly-by-night outfitter.  The plummeting economy since 2008 has given rise to a new collection of part-time outfitters looking to supplement their incomes at your expense.
Here are some signs to look for:

•They severely undercut the going price in their given area.

•They are willing to tailor their hunt to you.

For example, when a fledgling Kentucky outfitter at the Ohio Deer Classic ranted about his great new stand locations, I changed tactics and told him that, before rut, I only spotted and stalked from the ground. Without any clue as to my stealth (or lack thereof), he quickly offered me a chance to come in the early season and, “have at it.”

Can you imagine the damage a clueless hunter could do to a property if given five days to walk around on it?

4. “These deer have never been hunted before.”
You will not believe how many shady outfitters use this line on prospective clients. They usually weave it into a tale about how they just acquired the lease rights to the land from a little old lady who prohibited hunters from using her property in the past.

When I hear such claims, all I can do is chuckle … and ask the outfitter where he parks his manure spreader on the property.

5. “We offer cash discounts.”
If an outfitter offers to reduce your overall hunt cost if you pay cash … beware!
If you pay cash, you’ll have no proof of payment if something goes wrong. A shady outfitter’s intention is usually to avoid state and federal income taxes by simply leaving your name and payment off the roster. In states where outfitting is regulated, a simple roadside check by a game warden could land you in court as a witness against that outfitter.

Good Outfitters
Don’t read this article wrong. There are numerous reputable whitetail outfitters in North America. To make sure customers are treated properly, many of these outfitters have taken steps to organize associations that work in the best interests of the hunters.

A few states have outfitter and guide associations. Kansas outfitters, for example, started the Kansas Outfitters Association (KOA) in 1994 (www.kansasoutfittersassociation.com).

According to KOA, “Our goal is to provide sports enthusiasts in Kansas, and throughout the nation, an opportunity to enjoy the Kansas great outdoors and to create an environment of trust in the outfitters they choose.”

This coalition formed to give Kansas outfitters a voice with state legislators. Maryland is another state with a strong outfitter and guide federation.

In my home state of Illinois, outfitters must be licensed by the state. A strict set of rules governs their behavior. A violation point system is in place that can be used to revoke a license. Unfortunately, many with revoked licenses simply start another operation under a friend or family member’s name.

Regardless of any state’s control over outfitting, it’s always wise to call their wildlife agency and ask about a particular operation. It’s even smarter to call a game warden in the outfitter’s immediate area and get a feel for his legitimacy. Always report any problem with an outfitter to the state’s conservation agency head; you’ll be doing your fellow hunters a favor.

Conclusive proof is needed for a defrauded client to win a court case against a no-good outfitter. This is especially true if you are an out-of-state hunter. Judges tend to favor a resident business when evidence is no more than a “he-said, he-said” argument. A written document from the outfitter stating their services (that you can prove were not fulfilled) is almost a must for winning a judgment.

So when things start going south during a hunt, begin logging events, dates/times and conversations.

The mere threat of a lawsuit through a lawyer may recover your hunt fee if a solid case is made on paper. Even if a hunt fee is recovered after a court case, the lion’s portion of it will go for a lawyer, travel expenses and time off work. However, you will have done a great justice to others who may have been taken in by that same outfitter.

The most cost-effective means of dealing with an underhanded outfitter is through the small claims court. This is a civil court where you can represent yourself. You’ll have a filing fee that is usually $100 to $200 and the cost of a sheriff serving a summons ($60 or less). These expenses are recoverable if you win the case.

Rules, Guides and Accommodations        
A ship is only as good as its captain, and an outfitter is only as good as their rules, guides and accommodations. You cannot ask enough questions about these details before booking a hunt. If the answers you get are vague, move on.

Be thrilled, not alarmed, if you’re handed a strict set of guidelines on how hunters are expected to conduct themselves in camp. During the first day of a weelong hunt, many of the best outfitters hold a group meeting and restate the expected code of conduct for their hunters. This helps set the record straight for hunters who think they have paid for the privilege of doing as they like.

Don’t be surprised to get a second round of dos and don’ts from a personal guide on the first day of the hunt. Experienced guides already know the problems that arise from hunters with bad habits or ones oblivious to rules. Listening to a knowledgeable guide can dramatically increase your odds of success.

When guiding hunters a decade ago, I required each of them to sign a contract stating that if they were caught not using a safety belt or trespassing off the property, they would be immediately ejected from camp without a refund. In a half-dozen years of guiding, only four clients ever broke these rules, including a two-man video team from a popular television show. Never again did I allow a television production on the property.

Reputable outfitters will often brag as much about their amenities as their hunting. Without a full-meal deal, most clients will not rebook. Paying to eat miserable food and being with disruptive campmates after a long day afield is not what most outfitted hunters want.

Conclusion
References offered by an outfitter are worth little. After all, what idiot would give you a name and phone number of an unhappy client? Your best reference is an acquaintance that has already hunted at an operation and has good things to say about it.

When trolling for a reputable outfitter at an outdoor show, ask plenty of detailed questions. Call the outfitter weeks later and ask the same questions again to see if you get the same answers. Bad outfitters have a way of forgetting their own lies.

There are multiple categories that even good outfitters fall into. A few camps cater to only serious hunters looking for top-end bucks. These outfitters usually have harvest minimums with fines for racks that are under par. Some camps have average hunting with above-average food and accommodations, and others have well-above-average hunting with mediocre amenities. Fully-guided and self-guided hunts may be offered, but make sure the do-it-yourselfers don’t share the same tracts with guided hunters. Whatever an outfitter offers, make sure it’s right for you.

— D&DH Field Editor Les Davenport is an accomplished whitetail hunter from Illinois.

For more hunting tips check out our expert resources.

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