Confessions of a Whitetail Outfitter

The good, the bad — and the ugly — whitetail clients who occupy a permanent spot in one longtime outfitter’s memory.

Confessions of a Whitetail Outfitter

Food is key to targeting late-season whitetails. The author works with area farmers to ensure his clients can set up near prime ag fields.

My goal as an outfitter is putting my client in the field the following morning and then spending the first evening caping and butchering the ecstatic bowhunter’s trophy of a lifetime. Fortunately, I’ve had it play out this way on many occasions, and savored the satisfaction of having my hard work pay off. Of course, the vast majority of this effort takes place well before the client ever steps into camp.

In contrast, I’ve also been in the position on the last evening of a client’s booked hunt when nothing has gone right, ranging from the hunter’s attitude and unrealistic expectations, to their unbeknownst limited ability and lack of commitment to hunt in general. Sometimes the lack of a shooting opportunity is the result of uncontrollable and adverse weather, and the almost always uncooperative behavior of whitetails. Such times make me wonder why I got into the whitetail outfitting business in the first place.  

Varied Experience

I was in 7th grade when I told my dad, who owned a successful dry cleaning business, that he shouldn’t save the business for me cause I wanted to work in an outdoor-related job. I didn’t see his business as part of my plans. I worked for him part time, but made my spending money by trapping and guiding pheasant hunters during high school. I got a full-ride football and track scholarship to South Dakota State University in Brookings, where I majored in wildlife management. I chose SDSU over the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis because the hunting, fishing and outdoor opportunities in South Dakota were nearly unlimited.

I earned money on gunsmith jobs, and did all the taxidermy for the school’s wildlife department. I worked summers on game management, fisheries biology and as a government trapper in the Black Hills of South Dakota, then spent 2 years working for the Alaska Fish & Game department before getting drafted.

The varied work experience even worked for me in the army at Fort Carson in Colorado because I ended up managing all the hunting and fishing on the property as a PFC (private first class), and probably had more pull than any private on the post.

I had a job waiting in Alaska after my time in the military, but I’d gotten married and had a new youngster, so I took the Colorado civil service test and went to work as a conservation officer for the Colorado Division of Wildlife stationed in Kremmling, Colorado.  

It was a great job. I was one of the first field men with a college degree; most of the field conservation officers were old timers who started out as ranchers, cowboys, trappers, hound men and outdoorsmen in general, with a wide and never ending backlog of real life knowledge, experiences and adventures. My coworkers and I were the last of the mountain men!

Along the way I got involved in the outdoor writing field. For a decade, I worked as a conservation officer and did freelance writing and photography on the side for a few outdoor magazines. Life was good. Then, for a bunch of reasons I don’t want to rehash, I needed a change. I’d told my wife and kids that the day I looked in the mirror to shave in the morning and DIDN’T want to go to work, that I’d be looking for a new job.

It happened after a meeting in Denver, and a week later I quit the state job. The following week, I started an outfitting business on a 60,000-acre ranch that had never been commercially hunted or fished. This began my full-time outfitting career. That said, every year I had been a conservation officer, my home was inundated with a steady stream of big game hunters (non-paying friends).

The author uses trail cams to show clients pictures of whitetails. That way, everyone is on the same page regarding buck size.
The author uses trail cams to show clients pictures of whitetails. That way, everyone is on the same page regarding buck size.

Outfitting In the Early Years

I outfitted on the Colorado ranch for 3 years before my son was diagnosed with a severe form of leukemia. At about this time, the property owners figured they knew everything about outfitting. Let’s just say we had a parting of the ways, and I swore I’d never work for anyone again. 

From that point on, I outfitted for elk, mule deer, black bear and pronghorns in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Canada, and also did some whitetail hunting consultant work and hunt bookings in South Dakota, Texas and Alberta.

Iowa was the last state to allow nonresident hunters; as I recall, the year was 1991. All my relatives were from southern Iowa, and after bowhunting the state for 2 years and seeing the potential for trophy bucks in the Loess Hills area east of Onawa (west-central Iowa), I partnered with local whitetail aficionado, ardent bowhunter and archery shop owner, Ruby Custer. Together we started Iowa Trophy Whitetail Outfitters. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — we were both too hard headed and set in our ways to make the partnership work, and ended up going our own ways.

Time Marches On

During the past 25 years, I’ve experienced the peaks and pits of the bowhunting experience through my clients.

For example, I can usually tell how a bowhunt has gone by the expression and actions of the client when I pick him up. Jeff Hodges looked like death warmed over when I drove to his stand after his morning bowhunt, and I figured a trip to the ER was in the making. He said he felt like he was having either a stroke or a heart attack because of two bucks that had been in a knock-down, drag-out fight 70 to 100 yards from the stand for at least 2 hours. Neither buck presented a shot. 

The two bucks, one a massive long and heavy tined 170-inch 5x5, and the other a heavy antlered 165-inch non-typical  made more noise clattering and smashing antlers, churning up the ground and grunting and wheezing than a hunter could ever come close to reproducing. Their vicious fight skyrocketed his heart rate, which literally gave him a throbbing headache, nausea, a bad case of the shakes and total weakness.

During their combat, a total of seven other deer showed up to observe the ruckus, including several 140-plus-inch bucks. All of them were within bow range as they checked out the three decoys I had set in front of the stand. The curious bucks, nice as they were, weren’t shooters — not with the two humongous antagonists in the vicinity.

Before Jeff lost it completely, the non-typical surrendered and bolted for a nearby fence — toward Jeff’s stand — but the defeated buck got caught from behind and literally tossed over it by the typical 5x5. After a few minutes of recovery, the big non-typical focused on the decoys, and when he stopped broadside to the stand, whiffing the potent doe urine and smoking curiosity scent drifting in the air, Jeff was at full draw. Shaking badly, he released the string and then sat down with his head between his knees to keep from throwing up. His arrow hit was excellent, and the buck was down out of sight at only 50 yards — an experience of a lifetime for the trophy of a lifetime, with enough luck for the lifetime of bowhunter and outfitter alike.

Whitetail clients occupy a permanent spot in one longtime outfitter’s memory.
Whitetail clients occupy a permanent spot in one longtime outfitter’s memory.

The Client From Hell

One season, I booked a client from the East Coast, with, according to him, 20 years of whitetail bowhunting experience. He was vitally interested in hunting a 190-plus-inch buck I’d mentioned in a newsletter. I had told him this particular buck had been missed several times by bowhunters, and was in an isolated area where a bowhunter wouldn’t see many deer, but was a good trophy buck travelway. The client vowed to spend the whole season hunting that location for that buck. An outfitter’s dream, right?

When he got to camp, he was obviously overweight, and he informed me that he had health problems, couldn’t walk more than 200 yards, wouldn’t take a shot over 40 yards, and wouldn’t get into a treestand. Well, all I could do was play the hand I was dealt.

The first day, I set him up to hunt from a ground-level, brushed-in tree seat, on the buck travelway, where he saw only a doe or two and a small buck. That evening, after listening to the other three bowhunters in camp tell about all the deer they had seen on food plots, he insisted on sitting near a food plot. The following morning, I put him in a pop-up on a brassica plot. From a distance, I glassed 14 deer within 100 yards of the blind, including several small bucks within 20 yards of the blind during the morning, and another dozen including a 140-class buck at 50 yards during the afternoon hunt. According to him, when I picked him up, he had seen only five antlerless deer and one small buck all day. Had to have been facing the wrong way in the blind, or asleep.

The following day, I put him back in the ground blind over the brassica plot while one of my guides and I put another pop-up in the standing corn on another food plot. There was a massive deer trail down the center of the corn plot, and any deer passing the blind would be within 20 yards. The breeze was perfect the next morning, but according to my client he only saw a couple antlerless deer saunter past during the whole day. To this day I don’t believe him, but I suppose anything is possible.

My guide and I had spent that day digging a pit blind in the corner of a CRP field where the deer traveling from a cornfield to the nearest timbered bedding area would pass within 30 yards. The next afternoon, we watched in total frustration when the frustrating client, who had never shot a single practice arrow in camp, overshot a 140-inch standing buck at 25 yards.

It gets worse. He took the following morning off, and when I returned to camp after picking up other clients, I learned that he told one of the guides he had an emergency at home and was taken to the airport. During the drive, he told the guide that he had bowhunted for 20 years and never killed a deer! Duh!  

The story doesn’t end there. Everyone had worked to try and make him successful. Even so, a month later I got a nasty letter completely running down our operation and bad mouthing our lack of whitetail knowledge, hunting ability and he requested a full refund. If I had replied, I would have recommended he take up bowling. 

All You Can Do Is Laugh

One of the highlights of an outfitter’s day is when you go to pick up the hunter and see him or her standing by the blind or base of the tree with a grin from ear to ear. However, when they are laughing and not just smiling, and you look over and see your decoy with the three still attached legs, on its back, legs in the air, detached head and antlers 20 yards the other direction, it does make you wonder: Just what the hell has the client been up to?  

I remember dropping off John Pulsipher, a long-time client and good friend, in a 20-foot ladder stand overlooking a deer travelway leading from the grain fields in the valley bottom and up through the timber, which was bisected by a 4x4 roadway along the ridgetop. I’d placed a small 3x3 buck decoy on the roadway directly in front of the stand at 20 yards, so any buck approaching for a nose to nose confrontation would be broadside. About 10 yards behind the buck I set a doe decoy, and next to her I set a foam Feather Flex fawn, which was staked through the front leg to swing back and forth and add effective movement to the decoy setup. The doe and fawn were placed opposed to the buck for maximum visibility on the open roadway.

According to John, a heavy-antlered 140-plus-inch buck moved into the roadway, spotted the decoys and immediately went into combat mode, swelled up, hair on end, ears back. John was still deciding whether to shoot when the buck suddenly dropped his head and charged full tilt into the plastic buck, knocking pieces and sending parts flying. The aggravated buck stood staring at the obliterated phony, and according to John seemed to puff up even more as he turned and literally swaggered, stiff legged back down the roadway leaving John laughing so hard there was no way he could draw his bow.

Outfitting for whitetail deer may be a lot of things, but after 25 years I guarantee that boring ain’t part of my portrayal.

Sidebar: Hunting With Judd

Obsession In The Hills Outdoors in the Loess Hills of Iowa is located in some of the best trophy whitetail producing habitat in the country. The operation is under the intense and knowledgeable management by whitetail fanatic Buddy Hanner — a lifetime Iowa and area resident and farmer — and he works in conjunction with Judd Cooney as a consultant. They take a very limited number of bow and firearms hunters on their 3,000 acres of prime whitetail habitat (numerous farms). 

Non-resident Iowa hunting is all on a drawing quota basis, and they take only two bowhunters per 6-day hunt from the last week in October to the first weekend in December, when firearms season opens. Bowhunting isn’t allowed during firearms season. Bowhunters can also hunt from mid December after the second firearms season through January 10.  

For more information, contact: Buddy Hanner, (402) 650-3686,; or Judd Cooney, (970) 946-3225,


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