In Features

by Steve Smith

The Traveling Wingshooter, August/September 2016

This is the first in a two-part series to help you enjoy your travels, make them more affordable and productive, and keep you out of jail. Okay, I’m kidding about jail.

For most of us, an out-of-state hunt represents a fairly major investment. We invest a block of our vacation time, time away from family, and we invest money. Maybe there are some tips in here that will help you save a little on the first and third ones; as far as the family goes, well, you’re on your own.


It’s no surprise to you, I’m sure, that you can save time and you can save money, but you’re unlikely to save both, so it’s best to make your choice early and plan for it. For example, getting to a distant destination takes a formidable amount of time and/or money. If your destination is far off and time is a problem, you could consider flying commercial airlines. Having said that, I do everything I can to avoid air travel: It’s getting harder and harder with a firearm, and even harder with a dog. My advice: flying – forget it. So let’s talk about the way we should and do, do it,

Driving a long distance, as this is being written, is a lot more of a bargain than it was a couple years ago. Budgeting is pretty simple. You need to cover gas, food, lodging, license, and incidentals.

This past spring I drove to Alabama with my pointer pup to do some dog training with the breeder. Five years earlier, I had driven there to pick up my other pointer. Five years ago, gas for the round trip cost $378; this spring, $175.

It’s a rare year that I don’t make it to South Dakota. My habit is to take two days to get there so I don’t arrive too tired to hunt. The return trip, I drive it straight through, so I budget for a night on the road going, and the nights I’m there. Food budget is going to depend on your taste and your appetite.

Of course, if you go with someone, and we usually do, all the costs can be spilt. I suggest that the fellow who drives pays for a third of the gas because of the wear and tear on his vehicle, the lodging should be 50/50, and each guy buys his own food.


The timing of your trip can help you save as well. I live in a town that is pretty much a resort community, a summer vacation spot, and it’s going to get worse because this spring, it was named the top city in the Midwest by Midwest Living magazine. During the tourist season, the local businesses have what could charitably be called a “seasonal pricing structure” in restaurants, motels, and gas stations. It’s how the town survives; do you thinkAspen,Colorado, charges the same rates in July that is does in January?

Well, there are a lot of fall hunting hotspots that do the same thing. Some small-town motels in South Dakota, for example, are known to actually raise their rates for the opening week of pheasant season, if you can believe such a thing. Later, toward the middle or the end of the season when the crowds have thinned, the rates can come down, or you can possibly negotiate them down when the place is half full (tip: Offer to pay in cash instead of using a credit card). Late in the season, I have been in small motels in theDakotas – little eight-unit type mom-and-pop places – where mine was the only room rented. The rates have a way of becoming flexible when that’s the case.

The prices tend to get lower later in the year in restaurants and maybe gas stations, too, though I’ve never noticed because the gas is always cheaper when I travel than it is at home. As you’ve no doubt surmised, you can’t negotiate with restaurants and gas stations.

If you are so inclined and want to visit a shooting lodge for a couple days, late in the season can find some places with the same flexible rate structure because of scant bookings, and a guide for hire for the day may charge you less if he hasn’t had a client in a week or more. All you have to do is ask. I know, I hate asking, too, but you can save some money.

Late in the season brings its own risks, of course, the main one being weather. No matter how you get to where you’re going, weather can slow you down or make the trip impossible. Bad roads can lay you up long enough that the only option left to you is to go home.

That’s one reason that I almost never buy my license ahead of time on the Internet or over the phone but wait until I’m at my destination. A few years ago, I planned a driving trip to Iowa in December but I got the flu and had to cancel. I hadn’t bought my license, so I wasn’t out the $85. Last year, I was planning to go to Nebraska to meet my old friend Jim Nelson for a December duck and quail hunt. I was going to arrive late at night, and we had a duck hunt planned for very early the next morning, so I bought my license ahead of time on the state’s website.   The evening before I was to leave, Nebraska got a foot of snow, and I got a call from Jim: “Stay home.” I lost the license money. Maybe I just need to stay home in December.

Another timing consideration is that too often we stay longer than we should, which adds to the expense. By that, I mean that a six-day trip is about right for me and my dog: two days there, three days hunting, one day back. Any more hunting than that, and the dog and I are both about played out because of age (me) and being out of shape (the dog and me). If I stay another day, I often don’t do much hunting and end up doing a lot more wandering around and knocking off early. If you are with another person or two to share the driving, it’s often possible to not stay that last night, saving the motel expense: Get up in the morning, check out of the motel, hunt until early afternoon, and hit the road.

Your success may be of the sort that if you’re hunting a bird with a low possession limit – ducks inNorth Dakota, for example — and you have good luck, you may have all the birds you can legally possess very quickly. Last year, the daily limit in that state was six ducks and the possession limit was 12. In two days, you could be done hunting anyway and maybe head for home a day or two early, saving some money. Of course, you wouldn’t because there are other birds you can hunt and/or you can eat some of the ducks; a tailgate dinner cooked on a gas grill is a lot of fun — and it saves meal money.

One last thought on timing, and that is the natural instinct to save time is to make your trip extend over a weekend so that you can have two days longer to hunt without using up vacation time, on the surface a good idea. But competition from other hunters is the most intense on weekends because of other out-of-staters doing the same thing as well as local hunters off from work.  You can still use the weekends to your advantage, though, and avoid the crowds if you use Saturday/Sunday to travel and arrive at your destination on a Monday, hunting Tuesday – Thursday or Friday, and driving home the next weekend.

Last fall, I was grouse and woodcock hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was midweek, and of the dozen or so hunting rigs I saw on the back roads, only two had Michigan license tags. I saw some Ohios, an Indiana, a couple Wisconsins, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Texas. I talked to a couple of the fellows, and they said they like to drive on the weekend and hunt the weekdays to beat the crowds. Smart. Had it been the weekend, I can tell you from experience the Michigan tags would have outnumbered everything else put together.

I think most of us are aware that we need to avoid the Thanksgiving holiday because that’s when the farm kids now computer programmers or CPAs head back to the old homestead for a family hunt, and the land is promised to them. In fact, often it’s hard to get permission a week or two before that because the landowner is “saving the place” for that hunt.

Where to Hunt

Given the choice, most of prefer to take a trip to a place that has a lot of public land available. No trespass fees and no leased land to contend with. Of course, when we do, in a lot of cases we have to put up with fewer birds and more out-of-state hunters, some of which can be obviated by avoiding weekends, like I said.

But you may want to think about a guide or a lodge/leased land operation for one of the days of your trip. One gang of fellows I know goes toNorth Dakotafor pheasants every year. They travel overnight, stay in a motel once they get there, and hunt public land.

But the last day of the hunt, they have booked in advance with an outfit that has a lot of leased property. It costs them about $200 per day per man, and all they get is access to the land, but it’s good land and they usually have their limits by early afternoon and get a lot of good work for their Labs. If they have had success earlier in their hunt, this last day is the capper; if they haven’t, at least they know their trip probably won’t be a bust and they can look forward to the final day.

Part two appears in the October/November 2016 print edition.

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