Whitetail outfitters across the Midwest offer a variety of services, packages, and accommodations and are usually guided, if not governed, by the state's multiple governing bodies. All of them share the same goal for the most part, to put their clients on a deer that they're happy with claiming as their trophy. Unfortunately, like any line of work, there are those who have done wrong on their clients and have established a cloud that hovers over the term "outfitter" around their neighborhood, their town, their county, their state, and/or their region. Prior to outfitting myself, I was a client of an outfitter in west-central Illinois in Schuyler & Pike County.
Back in 2010, I had just graduated from USN RTC (The Recruit Training Command of the United States Navy, or Navy's Bootcamp) after leaving a high-level junior college baseball program while on scholarship. Upon graduation from boot, I went to NTTC (Naval Technical Training Center) Lackland AFB (Air Force Base) where I was completing the certification and "A-School" to be a Master-at-Arms (Navy Security Forces). While sitting in my room on-base, I was thinking about what I would spend part of my signing bonus on. I should have bought some land, but I didn't. I decided I wanted to spend a little on whitetail hunting. I looked at outfitters in Iowa and Illinois, and I came down to one in Illinois that I wanted to try. Mind you, I was a dumb 19-year old kid then and didn't know much about the hunting industry, especially outfitting. As an Iowa resident, I thought I could do it cheaper, so I looked for a lease. So, after graduating at the top of my MAA "A-School" Class, moving back home to work as a reservist, I leased a spot in SE Iowa, and I bought a guided gun hunt in the golden triangle of whitetails of Illinois (Pike, Schuyler, Brown, Adams Counties).
I arrived at this outfitter in Illinois, and I was shocked at the operation, from the lodge and the different cabins to the number of hunters and guides, the big mounts, the business-aspect, the celebrities in camp, etc. I was just a kid. The outfitter said he's never had a paid client my age without a parent with him. I ended up realizing later that I had a target on my back, an opportunity to make money off of me and my naiveness. I recorded my first-day hunt and was told I would be in the hot seat in front of the shooters I had filmed. I showed everyone at camp being a go-happy kid. That was a bad move on my part. I was told by my guide that I would go to that stand. The next morning, I was informed by my guide while driving to the farm with the other two guys that I would not be moving stands but this other guy was going to where I was going to go. He seemed nervous to tell me. I didn't hesitate, nor thinking anything of it, and I wished him luck. I'm a team player. I watched him miss a shooter at 50yds with 3 shots out of his Mossberg shotgun from that blind. We got back to our cabin after the whole-day sit, and someone else heard what happened and brought me into their room privately to share with me what they had witnessed the night before at dinner in the big lodge. They saw that hunter who missed the buck pay the guide & outfitter under the table to move me from that spot and let him sit there. My heart sunk. That followed with anger. I was very upset, and with 2 days left, I was pissed, but I never said anything. I was scared that if I did I would blow up and do something regretful. I was moved into that spot where he had missed the next day. I saw a 135-140" 10pt at 200yds, and I passed. I was after a 160-170+ whitetail, which was well worth the cost of $4000+ that I paid for the spot. My guide & outfitter made a supposed extra $2000 each for that decision to move me. I have a muzzleloader driving sabots at 250yds. I don't miss under 200yds, let alone 50yds. I should be tagged out at that point with this stud heading back to Iowa and my taxidermist, but that wasn't the case. I ended up shooting a doe on the last day, and after the guide processed it for me, I didn't pay him and I left. He made big bucks off of me already, and I wasn't tipping for a doe that I shot for some meat as a consolation prize.
At this point, I hated outfitters & guides, and I threw each and every outfitter out there into a bad category. I looked down on them for taking big money and doing crap like this to me, a servicemember and a kid at that. A year or two later, that guide I had in Illinois was arrested. It was not hunting related. This dude was 30-32 years old and was on a quad with some high school aged girl (just graduated weeks earlier) that he was with, both consuming a lot of alcohol and doing stupid things, and they rolled the quad on the farm we were hunting. She died, and he was arrested. I believe that he is still in prison, but I'm not sure. I decided to do some digging on that outfitter and found a ton of DNR violations for poaching and baiting. DO YOUR RESEARCH! Anyways, to this date, this was the last guided hunt that I have went on. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last encounter I would have with an outfitter. These times, it would be from a business angle instead of client/personal level.
In 2015, I was selling hunting leases (sub-leasing) in Iowa, and I found a great piece in Van Buren County 1.5 miles from Tiffany's mother's farm, which is a stellar piece. I ended up making a lifelong friendship with this landowner and his family. We reached an agreement that I would try to lease their farm, which was phenomenal with multiple 200" bucks on that farm that year. I had no takers, and it was understandable because of the cost. It was much more expensive than anything I even pay for as an outfitter today. So, through the year, it goes only hunted by the landowner and their son. Both took nice bucks but not the big boys. Advertising such on social media, I was contacted by a SE Iowa outfitter who had quite a presence on social media as well. I must have forgotten my encounter in Illinois, because I didn't hesitate once to work with this guy. He calls me after Christmas saying he doesn't have a farm with any standing beans, and needs stuff for this film crew from the Drury's Dream Season. I had this farm that had multiple bean plots on it. So, we reached an agreement that was expensive but fair. If I remember correctly, I structured it with a hunt cost for 7-days and a trophy fee if they killed one of the 200" bucks. I believe that it was $3,500 and $1,000 respectively. I made him write two checks for those items individually, and that I told him that I would deposit them. I also stated the $1,000 would be refunded upon either a smaller buck being shot or an unsuccessful hunt. He didn't know that I was paying the landowner $3,000 of the $3,500 and $1,000 of the trophy fee if successful. I only made $500 on it. I'm a nice guy, what can I say? Well, I let that crew start hunting before the checks were cleared. The outfitter said they were fine and would clear. They shot a buck on Sunday night before the checks processed. I had went right to the bank Saturday in the lobby to deposit the checks and to send a certified check to the landowner after they were deposited. The bank honored by check. The outfitter's check for $3,500 bounced. The $1,000 check cleared. My account for leases went red for -$2,500 as I paid the landowner $3,000 as it was the only activity we had in there aside from me taking $500 out into my personal account. By the time that I was notified of the check not clearing, the hunters had a shot a 130" buck and went home to Alabama. I was screwed. I wasn't going to hurt my landowner by asking him to pay it back to me. I took it, and was in deep doo-doo by my bank. I started calling the outfitter's bank to get a status on the checks, but all I heard each time was that that check couldn't clear. The outfitter stopped responding to texts/calls for a while. Sh*t!!! I looked up my district attorney's office to see what I had to do for a claim in court. Luckily, the District Attorney's office had a program for small businesses that were paid with a bad check. Some odd weeks later, he ended up saying he needed to write me another check, and took me out to lunch at Hooters. His wife showed up, and he said he had the check written in his truck for me and not to let his wife see. I thought that was weird, but again, all of this was weird to me. His wife knew he didn't have the money, I figured out later. That check bounced too! He stopped responding The day before a warrant would be issued for his arrest on the commercial bad check claim, he contacted me and said he'd arrive at my house and pay in cash. He did. He even offered to pay extra, so I made him pay me $500 extra for the hassle. He did. I went right to the bank and then stopped all communication with him and ceased the warrant being issued by the district attorney.
I was so pissed about this thing that I decided to finally start outfitting. I figured that I wouldn't ever get myself into this situation, and I would take better care of all people that I involve myself with through my business. 2016 would be our first operating year. This outfitter was so torn over me starting up in his key area that he went overboard and booked 40 hunters. Unknown to me in full, he was in financial trouble already... more than just a bad check or two. Apparently, I was one of many, many people getting bad checks, including landowners. Being in the same location, we ran into his hunters at local restaurants, and we found out what was happening from them and locals. The police and sheriff's department were looking for him as he had committed crimes. He didn't have land for his people to hunt down here, and he even put guys with Missouri Rifle Tags on an Iowa farm that wasn't his. It was a complete s**t show. I ended up taking one of his late muzzleloader guys because I felt bad. Unforuntately, many hunters got screwed. Like 30-35 hunters. The others hunted in east/northeast Iowa. He was finally arrested, charged, and convicted of court and sentence to a long sentence for the fraudulent & other criminal acts. He is that bad apple.
So, I've had two major run-in's with outfitters from two different angles prior to outfitting myself. I am thankful for those experiences to help guide me along my way with MDL Outfitters. Outfitting hunts for mature free-range whitetails is challenging no matter what. Those two experiences have made it easier showing me how not to lose sight on the privilege to outfit clients the right way. I haven't been a perfect outfitter in the past, but I do strive to improve each and every day, learn from my mistakes and failures, and try to provide a better service each year.
Blessings to you all from Iowa. Thanks for reading! -Matt