ANNAPOLIS- This time of year, Jay Bradshaw wakes up before dawn, jumps into his camouflage pants and shirt, and heads out into the great outdoors with his black lab, Bear, before most of us have even reached for our first cup of coffee.
He’s not going hunting for fun, though. He’s going to work.
Bradshaw, 37, is one of 155 licensed hunting outfitters in Maryland, a group whose number has grown 80 percent since the state lifted its ban on Canada goose hunting in 2001.
Outfitters are the linchpin of the commercial hunting industry. Part land broker, part hunting instructor, they lease land from farmers and maintain blinds, stands and decoys. They also provide guide services, leading hunters to favorable spots, and offering pointers on how to bag wild game. Though legally allowed to hunt while they are on the job, they usually don’t, leaving the action for their clients.
This is Bradshaw’s first year as an outfitter, after years of working as a guide for other outfitters on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“I just got tired of working for someone else,” he said.
Bradshaw charges rates similar to other outfitters in the area: $130 per person for a day’s goose hunt, $150 for deer and $225 for turkey. He takes clients out on 200 acres of leased land as well as his own farm in Cambridge.
He says he has no shortage of clients, and that goose hunting in particular is picking up. He has plans to turn his farmhouse into a lodge and to hire several guides next year.
The growth in the number of outfitters (previously called master hunting guides) like Bradshaw comes despite a tripling in the price of an outfitter’s license to $300 a year, and a new requirement that all guides be licensed as well – at a cost of $50 a person. Those fees, along with other fees and fines collected by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, are what fund the agency’s budget.
And Bradshaw definitely pays his part. Since he is also a commercial waterman part of the year, he winds up buying licenses to legally pursue those livelihoods as well. “By the time I’m done, I’ve spent a grand on licenses alone,” he said.
Not that he’s complaining. For the outfitters and guides, money isn’t necessarily their main motivation. In many cases, it’s the thrill of introducing a new generation to hunting.
Bradshaw said the highlight of his first year in business was youth hunting day, when he took a father and his 12-year-old daughter out on a deer hunt. The girl shot at a deer and missed, but her excitement at coming so close was palpable, Bradshaw said. “I could see myself in her when I was her age.”
That sort of connection isn’t bad for business either, Bradshaw said. “Her father booked two more trips.”
It’s not just the outfitters who benefit from those return trips. It’s also a steady source of income for hotels in the region. Maureen Scott-Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing for the Tidewater Inn in Easton, said she has noticed a pickup in the volume of business from hunters this season.
She said most of the hunters who visit the hotel, which offers a weekend “hunter’s special” for $425 to $465 come from Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and New York.
Larry Albright, owner of Albright’s Gun Shop just across the street from the Tidewater, has also noticed a pickup in business this season. He credits the higher bag limit on geese and an overall improving economy for the renewed interest in Eastern Shore hunting. He said his customers range from blue-collar folks to Vice President Cheney.
The six-year moratorium on hunting Canada geese “devastated the commercial hunting industry,” said Albright, who has owned the store for 20 years and also books hunts for his customers with local outfitters. His business survived, but many others did not.
To stay competitive, many outfitters have found ways to combine their traditional sport with modern technology and marketing, and extra services for their clients.
Joe Austin, owner of DOA Outfitters Inc., said the vast majority of his business comes through his companyÕs Web site, which he set up when he went into business five years ago.
Austin said he has more than 300 regular clients, mostly from Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina and Georgia. He takes them out on the 30,000 acres he leases. His prices, which start at $275 a day, include lodging and lunch.
Another outfitter, Schrader’s Hunting in Henderson, expanded into sporting clays (skeet and trap) to generate another source of revenue. Their facility, adjacent to the bed and breakfast the Schrader family also owns, is open year round.
But this recent uptick, Albright said, is nowhere near like the old days.
Some estimates placed the value of Canada goose hunting alone as high as $40 million a year in the 1980s, the height of the industry. A 2001 study by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies found $161 million in retail hunting revenue in Maryland, with a total economic impact on the state of $301 million.
Douglas Hotton, the deer project leader for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said he sees the impact in Salisbury, where he works. “You’ll see signs saying ‘welcome hunters’ at all the hotels”
When people walk into Albright’s store, they spend money on “everything from a shotgun down to a pair of socks,” he said. Those shotguns are frequently $3,200 Caesar Guerinis.
But it may not just be rebounding enthusiasm for hunting that’s driving the rise in the number of outfitter licenses issued. Some say it’s fear.
Many people are concerned that the state may cap the number of outfitter licenses available, said Tyler Johnson, president of the Maryland Outfitters and Guides Association, a trade group that formed earlier this year to lobby the legislature on behalf of its members.
Johnson’s group has about 120 members, he said. About 50 of them are professional outfitters.
Johnson himself is an outfitter, the owner of Quaker Neck Gun Club Inc. in Chestertown. He employs two full-time guides and four part-timers.
Johnson doesn’t share Bradshaw’s optimism about the industry, saying it has become tougher to make a living as an outfitter than it used to be. The reason? Land values. Farmers generally aim to collect enough from leasing their hunting rights to cover their property taxes. In Maryland, hunting rights can cost an outfitter as much as $100 an acre, compared with $3 to $5 an acre in Alabama.
“The land just isn’t available for these guys to hunt anymore,” Albright said.
But commercial hunting still contributes significantly to the Eastern Shore economy, Johnson said, as visiting hunters spend money on restaurants, shells, clothing, gas and hotels. “It spreads out throughout the community.” And as tough as those relatively high land rents are for outfitters, they benefit farmers, providing an extra source of income that helps stave off development pressures, Johnson said. “And we’re still losing farms like they are going out of style.” –