Ask why he became a hunting outfitter and Ken Mayer will tell you, “It was kind of like a dream come true.” Press him some more, and you’ll learn that he worked long and hard to make that dream happen.
The Start of It All
Ken got into the outfitting business because of his love for hunting. His training for this “cool job” started early. “I got a .410 shotgun for my fourth birthday and used it until I was big enough to have a rifle,” says Ken. But even before that, he was on the hunt. “My dad would carry me under his arm,” explains Ken. “If he was going hunting, I went along.”
Some 56 years later, father and son still take to the woods together. Just two weekends ago, Ken and his now-80-year-old father went dove hunting.
Ken got his start as a part-time guide for waterfowl hunters on the Texas coast. Over the next several years, he moved back and forth between Texas and Wyoming, working as a hunting guide and earning additional income by chartering scuba diving and fishing trips. By 1994, he’d settled in Texas for good and was booking a steady stream of hunts. His father would often help out as a guide.
Today, Ken and his wife Roseann operate All American Outfitter in Clarendon, Texas. They are among a handful of outfitters with a full-time, year-round hunting business. “This is the only thing we do,” says Ken. “It isn’t a sideline.”
The Nature of the Job
When asked about his favorite part of the job, Mayer’s enthusiasm shines through. “Helping people get their first critter of a particular species or their biggest one. This is what it’s all about,” he insists.
The thing that makes being a hunting outfitter fun, says Ken, is that there’s no such thing as a typical day. A lot of the real work is completed before the hunting season starts—manning feeders, watching animals to learn their favorite spots, developing land and much of the cooking are done in advance. “When we’re not hunting, we’re working,” Ken says with a smile in his voice.
And with much of that work out of the way, Ken is free to enjoy both the hunt and his customers. “Probably 70 percent of the hunters that come through our business return and become friends,” says Ken.
His least favorite part? “Probably the income,” says Ken with a chuckle. “It’s a little limited, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Kids and Hunting
The Mayers pride themselves on being a family-friendly outfitter—and that includes kids. Ken, who enjoys mentoring young hunters, recommends starting with turkeys and prairie dogs. “The abundance of turkeys here makes it easy to help kids be successful,” he says. In addition, says Roseann, spring turkeys offer kids “an interactive experience because you call the turkeys that time of year.”
One of the Mayer’s youth hunters, a seven-year-old girl from Illinois, killed two turkeys. Her sister, who was there as a nine-year-old, came back at 11. “Last year,” recalls Ken, “both girls got a Grand Slam.”
Kids can also enjoy success at deer hunting in a state where the deer are plentiful and there is a two-day, youth-only season on the last weekend in October. “We had a seven-year-old a couple of years ago,” says Ken. “That’s the youngest we’ve taken. But we’ve had lots of eight-year-olds.”
In the afternoons, when the hunters come in, Roseann takes pictures of them with their harvest and posts the photographs on the Internet. The young hunters love it. “A lot of them link us to their MySpace or Facebook pages,” says Roseann.
Secrets of Success
So what are the qualities of a successful outfitter? “You need to be flexible,” says Ken. “Unexpected things are always going to happen, and that keeps it fresh and exciting for those involved.”
You need to be an expert woodsman, and you must like and get along with people of all personality types. You also, says Ken, “have to be willing to be the one NOT to pull the trigger.” Your goal is keeping your customers happy by providing them with a great experience.
There are other things to consider, too. At first, the Mayers sent their customers to a dude ranch for food and lodging. “But,” says Roseann, “we missed out on a connection with the hunters.” So they turned an old barn into a lodge, complete with a large crystal chandelier in the dining room.
Now, says Roseann, “we dine by candlelight.” Happy hunters chow down on Roseann’s gourmet fare—dove appetizers, turkey bites, ginger venison, “ribeye in the sky” (sandhill crane, which “tastes and looks like a ribeye”), and the house specialty, duck.
Then there’s recordkeeping and publicity. You need to keep your old customers coming back and new ones coming in. With this in mind, Roseann has become a whiz on the computer, managing website text, posting photographs, maintaining a list of customer contacts and marketing the business.
Is It for You?
There are many ways to be a part of the hunting outfitter business. If you have a job that allows you to take three months off in the fall, it can be a great source of extra income. If you own land, you can allow people to hunt it for a trespass fee; if you don’t, you can lease it. Some outfitters work on property where game is penned; others—like Ken Mayer—guide hunters in the wild.
This “cool job” can be a great career if you love nature, hunting and people. It can be a tough way to make a full-time living, so you have to have a plan. For Ken and Roseann Mayer, being a hunting outfitter is the fulfillment of a dream. Is it your dream, too?