Clay O’Rourke, outfitter and owner of Whiteout Outfitters, concealed in a blind with clients, says of outfitting “This life’s tough, man. It’s not easy. ...”
Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my 57 years on the planet. Some folks are cut out for what we’ll call Project X, where Project X may be an occupation, a hobby, a short-term undertaking, or what-have-you. They can handle the project well while maintaining their sanity and general overall well-being.
Other folks? Well, other folks just aren’t cut out for it. It’s certainly nothing against them, mind you. Oh, they can do Project Y just fine, but X? Nah, it’s just beyond them for any number of reasons.
Want an example of the latter? How about a “spring snow-goose hunting guide?” The job runs from February to April, every day. All day long. When you’re not hunting, you’re driving. Looking for the next big feed—that ‘Yeah, we can kill some birds there,’ kind of find. Grassing blinds. Pumping out pits. Scouting. Logistics. Electronics. Often working with inexperienced hunters.
And did we mention decoys? Thousands upon thousands of them. You set them up here and then, a day later, pick them all up and move them over there. But, you have to find “there” first. Meals are on the run washed down with oceans of coffee, Monster, or Red Bull. A little sleep followed by a whole hell of a lot of awake. Sound like fun?
“What am I going to ask you if you come to me and tell me that want to be a snow-goose guide? My first questions are, ‘What brought you to this decision? Do you have any experience being separated from family and friends for an extended period of time?’ ” said Clay O’Rourke, owner and outfitter of Whiteout Outfitters (springsnowgoosehunts.com) in Carrollton, Missouri. “I want to know if you’re going to be able to handle being in and out of the fields all day every day. Driving around constantly. Separating yourself from mainstream society.
“This life’s tough, man. It’s not easy. A lot of people think you can just throw some decoys out and have at it. There’s a mental aspect to it, too, that people just don’t often talk about. That’s the biggest thing I want to know from a prospective guide: Are you going to be able to maintain the lifestyle?”
Walk the walk and talk the talk? O’Rourke certainly does. Now 42, married, and a father of four—two boys and two girls ranging in age from six months to seven years—O’Rourke, a Vicksburg, Michigan, native, has been playing the outfitter game for more than a quarter century. And the down-and-dirty challenge that is professional snow-goose hunting since the Light Goose Conservation Order began in 1999.
“I started guiding for a local outfitter, Scott Robinson’s Waterfowl Specialists, right out of high school,” said O’Rourke. “I started doing more and more of that and then got hooked up with a friend— David Lewis—who was making custom duck and goose calls. Then it was into the videos, and it just snowballed from there.”
O’Rourke worked for Robinson for nigh on 15 years, jumped into the madness that was—and still is—the Light Goose Conservation Order in a big way, went to school, lost touch with Robinson, and in 2015 started his own business: Whiteout Outfitters.
“And that brings us to where we are now,” he said, chuckling.
A drone captures the Whiteout crew with clients nestledin their layout blinds surrounded by decoys.
Almost Turned Back
Please you’ll allow me just a moment to interject a personal observation. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to hunt spring snow geese with any number of guides and outfitters, and from Arkansas north along the Central Flyway to Nebraska and South Dakota. Enjoyable?
Absolutely. It’s a wonderful time of year to get out, particularly as the ducks and geese both are at their finest in terms of pre-breeding plumage. Spring snow goose hunting is, to me, all about camaraderie. Of early frosty mornings, a Thermos of hot coffee, and some of the finest sights and sounds Mother Nature has to offer.
But, and all that positivity aside, would I want to be a snow goose guide, or, heaven forbid, an outfitter in charge not only of the logistics, but also a cadre of rough-and-tumble guides? Definitely not. Fortunately, there are folks such as O’Rourke enjoys the chaos and apparently thrive on it.
“When we first went to Missouri,” he began, “we were taking five groups a year. That turned into five or six groups a day for two months. Eventually, I started saving money and putting my own set together, and a buddy and I went out on our own. We had some decent hunts with some really good guys, but to be honest, I was on the verge of not doing it. I just didn’t know if it was going to be profitable.
“It’s daunting,” he continued, “to be away from the family for such a long time. And chasing snows can make a man go nuts. But my guys said let’s keep going. Let’s give it another year.
“And,” he admits, “I do love chasing them.”
Like many snow goose outfitters, O’Rourke works each spring with two distinct groups of clients—waterfowlers who are as passionate about everything associated with the Conservation Order and white geese as is he is and those wonderfully new to the sport. The former, and I can speak to this firsthand, never grow weary of the hunt, living day in and day out on the off-chance of having a front-row seat to one of the greatest spectacles in the Great Outdoors: the annual northward migration of waterfowl.
The latter? Often, these nimrods don’t know what to expect when they first hop a layout blind. They are often ignorant—and I don’t mean that in a negative way—of the ins and outs, save for what they’ve seen and heard on social media. And that education, O’Rourke said, can prove a challenge to overcome.
“Everyone sees the snow-goose hunting videos on YouTube,” he said, “and they give a very vague reality of what it’s like to hunt snows constantly. Online, they see videos and pictures of the big days—rarely do they see the bad days, the mediocre days. So, everyone comes in thinking they’re going to shoot 100 geese a day. That it’s going to be a slam dunk. That’s a major misconception.”
It’s difficult, the outfitter said, to operate a successful business when, albeit misguided, the underlying premise is huge numbers at the end of the day.
“We don’t sell piles of geese,” O’Rourke said. “We sell the experience. When you’re under those swarms, those thousands of geese, it can make you feel really tiny in this world. It’s very humbling. The shooting is just a bonus.”
Spring hunting for snow geese was implemented to reduce their numbers and save their habitat. There is no bag limit.
For Those Who Can’t Help Themselves
Some years ago, O’Rourke teamed up with Matthew Cagle, the man behind Rig ’Em Right Waterfowl, both as an on-screen presence, as well as a production director and video editor, for RMR’s waterfowling DVD series, Dawn Patrol. Having done a little bit of in-front-of-the-camera work myself, per se, for the outdoor industry, I was curious as to the outfitter’s thoughts on his role in—well—the roles.
“It was fun,” he laughed. “I was a lot younger and in a different mindset back then, though. It opened my eyes to the behind-the-scenes aspect of the hunting industry. The problems that people don’t ordinarily get to see. It was a good learning experience for me, but it’s also a little deceptive. Once I got into it, I realized it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be in a sense.”
Perhaps not surprising when it’s heard coming from a father of four, O’Rourke’s emphasis today is largely on a trio of topics—youth, change, and opportunity for those without opportunity.
“Waterfowl hunting,” he began, “has gotten to be quite cutthroat. There seems to be a loss of ethics and morals. The way it’s going, it’s really not sustainable for anyone. I’m looking for a way to facilitate a change. To resurrect those ethics and morals. A return to the days when waterfowlers could talk cordially. The days when it was a gentleman’s sport.”
Young people, he went on to explain, are indeed the future, not only of ’fowling, but also of hunting in general. “My hope is to introduce these young hunters to a better environment in terms of hunting waterfowl.”
And this change, O’Rourke will tell you, goes hand-in-hand with opportunity, or rather, an expansion of outdoor opportunities for those for whom the outdoors might prove difficult, if not impossible, without the help of him and others like him.
“I’ve been in talks,” O’Rourke said, “with a company called Capable Partners (capablepartners.org). They offer experiences for hunters who can’t or have difficulty getting into the field, and I want to do more in that respect. So, it’s really both. I’d like to expand my outfitting business while bringing the outdoor experience to young people and those who can’t get outdoors on their own. That’s my vision.”
And a most noble vision it is, Mister O’Rourke.
M.D. JOHNSON is a full-time freelance outdoor writer and wildland firefighter living in southwestern Washington with his talented wife, Julie, who’s a photographer, along with two black dogs, three cats, three ducks, and five chickens.