Neal Hunt

NEAL HUNT OF SOAR NO MORE TALKS PI­GEONS, HUNT­ING, AND BUILD­ING A DREAM

Recoil - - Contents - BY DAVE MER­RILL PHO­TOS BY CANDICE HORNER AND SOAR NO MORE

Usu­ally in our “Ze­roed” col­umn we fea­ture com­peti­tors, train­ers, per­son­al­i­ties, and busi­ness­men who are al­ready well known in their re­spec­tive fields. What’s unique about Neal Hunt is that you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of him, but you likely share some of his dreams.

You can’t pick your pas­sions, but you can cul­ti­vate them once you catch the bug. Hunt dis­cov­ered at an early age he had a great love for pi­geon hunt­ing, a sport that hasn’t been pop­u­lar in the United States since the ex­tinc­tion of the Pas­sen­ger Pi­geon more than 100 years ago. This much-ma­ligned winged game has more deroga­tory names than of­fi­cial ones, though the scene is chang­ing — ar­guably di­rectly due to Hunt and his com­pany, Soar No More De­coys.

We’ll talk about hunt­ing in gen­eral and bird­ing in par­tic­u­lar, but this in­ter­view is about dis­cov­er­ing a need in the mar­ket of your love, fill­ing it, and start­ing your own busi­ness. Hunt and his part­ner Andy Phelps still have day jobs, but they sit right on the brink of achiev­ing the Amer­i­can Dream. And it’s some­thing that wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble had Hunt been just 10 years older. At only 33 years old at the time of this writ­ing, Hunt works a full­time job to sup­port his fam­ily of seven, and ev­ery­thing made from his real pas­sion goes right back into his busi­ness.

A scummy used car com­mer­cial on a cheap ca­ble chan­nel can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to pro­duce (we’re just as shocked as any­one else), but a YouTube video? Far less. Some­times it takes more than a good idea and some fol­low-through; some­times it takes per­fect tim­ing and the abil­ity to in­spire a whole seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion as well. Be­hind ev­ery overnight suc­cess, there’s a decade or more of hard work be­hind it, of­ten unseen. To­day we’ll take a glimpse be­hind that cur­tain, learn­ing a thing or two about ledge peck­ers along the way.

RECOIL: On the Soar No More web­page it says you got started in 2009, but what led up to that?

Neal Hunt: If you’re a bird hunter, the big­gest de­press­ing part about be­ing a bird hunter is when duck, goose, or pheas­ant sea­son ends in Jan­uary. So in Jan­uary you have to wait all the way un­til Septem­ber in or­der to start hunt­ing birds again. Ba­si­cally, when I was 14 or 15 my par­ents would go and drop me off on a fam­ily friend’s dairy that we have here in Idaho. They left me there all day long with, I think, five or six boxes of shells for a shot­gun.

It would be me and my friend Derek who would go there ... and there were just thou­sands of star­lings and hundreds of pi­geons that would just flock to those dairies. We would go there just to have fun, shoot­ing these star­lings and pi­geons. They’re pest birds, so you can shoot as many as you want and at any time of the year. We would shoot all day.

We started with star­lings first and then the pi­geons be­came kind of the “tro­phy bird” be­cause they’re the big­ger bird. What we no­ticed is that when we shot some of the pi­geons, they would hit the ground and the other pi­geons would come back around and try to land with the dead bird. Then we would shoot more, then they would turn around and try to land with the dead birds. Then we would shoot more.

At that point, pi­geons be­come our fo­cal point. That’s why we’re go­ing to go to the dairy. We’re go­ing to grab 20 pi­geons we shot the time be­fore. We’re go­ing to freeze them in our freezer, and then we’re go­ing to come back out to the dairy and set up the frozen bird. Then we’re just go­ing to wait and hide, and then when the pi­geons come to the dairy they all try to land with the frozen birds. And we would shoot them, the frozen pi­geons ba­si­cally be­ing the de­coys.

Pi­geon hunt­ing be­came what we would live for. At 16 or 17, wake up early, grab 20 to 30 frozen pi­geons, and shoot maybe a hun­dred birds in one day, just over those dead birds.

You used frozen birds as de­coys. Were any pi­geon de­coys avail­able?

NH: At the time, we looked for pi­geon de­coys on­line, and there weren’t any Amer­i­can pi­geons. But over in the

U.K., pi­geon hunt­ing is the num­berone thing to do when it comes to birds. They had a ton of pi­geon de­coys and pi­geon ac­ces­sories. Down in South Amer­ica pi­geon hunt­ing is huge. All of these pi­geon de­coys and ac­ces­sories were avail­able for birds in other coun­tries but not here in the U.S. It was baf­fling.

I laid some dead pi­geons on the ground with the wings tucked in, tail and head straight, and took pic­tures from top-down. I went to an Of­fice De­pot, and they printed them life-size on this never-tear wa­ter­proof pa­per. Af­ter I got home I cut out the sil­hou­ette, and then I cut out some boards. I ba­si­cally glued that pic­ture on some ¼-inch boards. When the pi­geons were fly­ing, they looked down and it would look like pi­geons were eat­ing on the ground.

They were just flat sil­hou­ette de­coys that you would just lay flat on the ground. I prob­a­bly had 24, maybe 25, of these, and that’s where our first pro­to­type started.

Pi­geons are viewed as dirty birds in the United States. How did you con­vince peo­ple to hunt pi­geons?

NH: Andy Phelps, my busi­ness part­ner, who I met through a reg­u­lar job, was go­ing to col­lege to be a videog­ra­pher — to be able to video­tape dif­fer­ent things and edit and things like that. So I said, “Dude, you got the video cam­era, you got the skills. I prom­ise this pi­geon hunt­ing thing would blow up if we some­how ap­proached the Amer­i­can hunter with this off-sea­son wing shoot­ing that they could go do.” We ac­tu­ally have it on YouTube, of me and Andy go­ing out with those ugly flat pro­to­type pi­geon de­coys on our first hunt to­gether ever, and it to­tally took off.

It’s not only the hunter who misses the bird sea­son, but also the bird dogs. The dog sits there off-sea­son, and you have to get on the pond and train them to keep them in shape. But with pi­geon hunt­ing that dog can re­trieve more than 4,000 birds in the off-sea­son so when wa­ter­fowl sea­son hits, the dog is just lights-out on it. Plus, your shoot­ing skills have be­come a ton bet­ter.

It’s a win for ev­ery per­son who wants to get out and do some­thing in warm weather, and then shoot as many birds as they want.

I mean the wa­ter­fowl in­dus­try is huge. But hun­ters buy thou­sands of dol­lars of gear and de­coys, and then they have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morn­ing to try to beat the next hun­dred hun­ters to the spot that they were go­ing for. And then in the very best-case sce­nario they can just shoot seven ducks. Then you have to pack them, and it’s in the mid­dle of win­ter so it’s freez­ing out­side.

Go from that ex­treme to pi­geon hunt­ing, where you can get up at a rea­son­able hour to get to your spot. No one’s there. And you can shoot and shoot and shoot. Af­ter­ward you’re like “Wow, what just hap­pened?” and there are hundreds of birds at your feet.

There’s thou­sands and thou­sands of pi­geons in South Amer­ica. It’s been a big sport, all those big shoot­ers here in the U.S. trav­eled to Ar­gentina to go pi­geon hunt­ing. This whole se­cret, it’s never came out, not un­til our com­pany started pro­mot­ing it. Then, it’s been in mag­a­zines and on TV shows, and peo­ple see that it’s the ticket.

How did this turn into a busi­ness? NH: There wasn’t a busi­ness at this point, not when we posted that first YouTube video. Peo­ple were email­ing

us and drop­ping com­ments on the videos want­ing the de­coys. They could see that it was crazy fun to hunt these pi­geons.

All the re­quests were a sur­prise, be­cause it was just a fun video, but then it had to be fig­ured out where to ac­tu­ally get them made some­where. A sign shop ended up mak­ing them for us. We went to a trade show, and peo­ple were like ... it’s a re­ally weird busi­ness. It’s an odd busi­ness. But when they saw the YouTube video we had play­ing in our booth, they were hooked. What was the most dif­fi­cult part about get­ting into a busi­ness where molds had to be cre­ated?

NH: We had to first find a per­son who does wood carv­ings. A master carver who ac­tu­ally carves stuff out of wood. We ac­tu­ally found the guy on Face­book. It was a wood carv­ing page, and he not only carved our de­coy, but also al­lowed it to be mass pro­duced for com­mer­cial use.

It took us a year af­ter the carv­ing was done to find a good and re­li­able man­u­fac­turer over­seas that could pro­duce the mold at a price peo­ple were will­ing to pay. It had to look good and be durable and ac­tu­ally work. Re­mem­ber, we started ev­ery­thing from zero, so we found our mass man­u­fac­turer by Googling it. I Googled “mass pro­duc­tion mold­ing” and con­tacted com­pa­nies and re­searched the crap out of it.

How do you jug­gle pur­su­ing your pas­sion with need­ing to keep a job that pro­vides se­cu­rity for your fam­ily? NH: That’s the hard­est ques­tion. I have a cou­ple days a week where I have off my day job. Dur­ing those days I have to take pho­tos, make videos, take peo­ple out who are in­ter­ested in pi­geon hunt­ing — get peo­ple ex­cited about pi­geons and ed­u­cat­ing them about ev­ery­thing be­hind them. I prob­a­bly spend two to three hours a day just on so­cial me­dia and edit­ing videos that I did the other days. When it comes to bal­anc­ing the fam­ily life out, my kids are old enough that they can now help me out with a lot what I do. Pack­ag­ing or­ders, tap­ing things up, and we can still spend some time to­gether even though I’m work­ing.

What’s your fa­vorite shot­gun? Do you like to hunt any­thing else?

NH: My fa­vorite shot­gun is a CZ USA 712 Tar­get G2. That’s the shot­gun I re­ally like to use. Per­son­ally for me it’s all about the birds. I’ll go on a big game hunt maybe once a year, but it’s al­ways pi­geons first. Then duck, geese,

dove, tur­keys — ba­si­cally any­thing that has feath­ers. I just love to go out and hunt them, and any­thing that I can set out a de­coy for and fool the an­i­mal into com­ing to­ward the de­coy is the funnest thing I could do.

How do pi­geons taste?

NH: It’s an amaz­ing tast­ing bird — as long as you know how to cook the meat right. Hon­estly, it’s best if you cook the pi­geon more on the medium side. The big­gest thing is to not over­cook them and dry them out. We have a whole string of recipes on our web­site, our top 15. My fa­vorite is mango pi­geon breast wrapped in ba­con. Holy crap, it’s amaz­ing! Pi­geon doesn’t taste any dif­fer­ent than a dove. It’s iden­ti­cal when it comes to meat-wise.

On the flip side, we gen­er­ally don’t eat the pi­geons we take from a feed­lot or a dairy, be­cause they stink and they’re dirty. But any bird you shoot out in a wheat field or a corn­field, which is about half of the year — those birds are fan­tas­tic. OK, I’ve never been pi­geon hunt­ing. And now I want to. What do I need to start? NH: A place to hunt. What’s crazy about this is that we’re hunt­ing a rock pi­geon. Ev­ery pi­geon we shoot we’re do­ing a fa­vor for ev­ery dairy, ev­ery feed­lot, ev­ery farmer who has a ton of pi­geons in their barns, and they get crap ev­ery­where. It’s one of those things that when you ask per­mis­sion to hunt pi­geons on their land, they are thank­ing you. I’ve had peo­ple ask us how much we charged per pi­geon to shoot. They’re usu­ally happy be­cause you’re do­ing free pest con­trol.

Then, you need a shot­gun and some de­coys. The min­i­mum gear would be 12 to 18 pi­geon de­coys, with one Mojo de­coy. I don’t know if you’re fa­mil­iar with Mojo de­coys or not. Mojo is a com­pany that spe­cial­izes in dif­fer­ent species of birds, and the birds are mo­tor­ized so they spin their wings. Pi­geons love Mojo de­coys. Any­time you can put the flap­ping wing Mojo pi­geon, act­ing like it’s land­ing with the de­coys, the pi­geons start fall­ing out of the sky.

Go set them up where you’ve seen pi­geons fly around. You’ll straight up have the best time of your life, even if you only get 20 pi­geons. It’ll be the funnest thing you’ve done in a long time.

The best hide is that you don’t re­ally need a hide for pi­geon hide. If you’re hunt­ing a wheat field, you would find where the weed line is be­tween two fields. Grab a lit­tle seat and plop your­self on that weed line. Set your de­coys about 20 to 30 yards out into the field. Pi­geons will start drop­ping. If you’re out on a dairy or feed­lot, you just need a bucket to get started.

You shoot pi­geons in the air. You shoot them when they’re 4 to 10 feet off the ground com­ing down to land. That’s when you pop out and take them.

You’ve been at this 10 years. What does the fu­ture hold? Are other com­pa­nies creep­ing in?

NH: No, no com­pany has yet be­cause we have re­ally dom­i­nated the pi­geon hunt­ing. That’s what we spe­cial­ize in. If some­one tried to pitch pi­geon

de­coys, I’m sure they would sell enough of them — but if any­one is look­ing for that one-stop-shop to get ev­ery­thing you need just for pi­geon hunt­ing it’s on our web­site. Ev­ery­thing is strictly on­line, and we send it di­rectly to them.

We’ve had re­tail­ers say, “Hey, we want to carry your de­coys.” But we told them no be­cause we want to stick with di­rect sales. We don’t want to cut our mar­gins in half and deal with the mess of re­tail at the mo­ment. Right now, we can run the com­pany how we want. We can still do guided hunts for mag­a­zine writ­ers and TV shows and keep it where it’s still fun. We en­joy it, and that’s kind of how we’ve al­ways done it.

As far as if other com­pa­nies will start car­ry­ing pi­geon de­coys, just like ev­ery­thing else if some­thing gets big­ger and big­ger and peo­ple see that there’s some money to be made? Yes, def­i­nitely. There will be. As for now there re­ally isn’t. Andy and I rein­vest ev­ery­thing that we make right now right back into the com­pany. We have the coolest, best-look­ing, most ef­fec­tive de­coys on the mar­ket. They’re all rea­son­ably priced. We just keep build­ing the busi­ness and keep hav­ing fun.

When it comes to busi­ness, we keep do­ing bet­ter num­bers each year, ev­ery year. Maybe some­day we will de­cide to go to all of the large re­tail­ers and go big­ger and big­ger, be­cause we def­i­nitely have the name. Our name re­flects the pi­geon in­dus­try. A lot of the big com­pa­nies have in­vestors be­hind them to sup­port them. We have taken this com­pany from zero, from ground level, to some­thing — just off of our own per­sonal money. We have to keep our day jobs; I have five kids, and he has three kids. It’s go­ing to keep grow­ing un­til an op­por­tu­nity arises to take it to the next level.

Let’s time travel the other way. What ad­vice would you give to your­self 10 years ago?

NH: Tak­ing more time. Take more time on ev­ery step that you do, in­stead of pro­duc­ing prod­ucts that aren’t quite right yet. Take them and test them for a sea­son. And never be rushed into any­thing.

It looks like you were keen on scoop­ing up the on­line mar­ket share of ev­ery­thing re­lated to pi­geon hunt­ing — how did you do it?

NH: Re­mem­ber we had to cre­ate the mar­ket from noth­ing. In the be­gin­ning if you Googled “pi­geon hunt­ing” or “pi­geon de­coys,” it was all South Amer­ica and the U.K. Noth­ing was es­tab­lished in the United States. Start­ing from our first web­page that we cre­ated by our-

selves be­cause we had zero money, we did as much re­search as we could about meta data and search en­gines.

In the first six months of hav­ing our web­site, we were on the fourth page on Google. We kept adding con­tent about pi­geon hunt­ing, lit­tle by lit­tle, so Google started to find us more. Now we ac­tu­ally have a guy who runs the web­page so we’re up at the top [of the searches]. If it isn’t Soar No More, it’s a me­dia out­let with sto­ries about us and Soar No More. It all comes back to our name, and we own ev­ery­thing about pi­geon hunt­ing on the mar­ket. I own about 15 or more do­main names all sur­round­ing pi­geon hunt­ing. Since we can do that, we did do that. What else are you into?

NH: [ chuck­les] I love go­ing out and catch­ing crazy an­i­mals. That’s like my next hobby. I go out and get bad­gers with my bare hands. You can ac­tu­ally see some of the videos on Face­book.

Bare-handed badger catch­ing. That’s the most Amer­i­can coun­try-boy thing we’ve ever heard.

NH: It’s hi­lar­i­ous, but I also do any­thing that has an adren­a­line rush when it comes to catch­ing an­i­mals or hunt­ing an­i­mals, or do­ing any­thing like that. I love go­ing out and catch­ing rat­tlesnakes. I like get­ting a whole gun­ny­sack full, like 30 to 40 rat­tle- snakes. I do that bare handed as well, where I’m catch­ing two rat­tlesnakes at a time and I’m throw­ing them in a bag. But I just love the out­doors.

Any­thing when it comes to an­i­mals or to hunt­ing, just do­ing stuff like that. Ba­si­cally my only hobby is bird hunt­ing, but I love badger catch­ing, coyote hunt­ing, rat­tlesnake catch­ing. If I ever have a mo­ment of free time, I would rather be do­ing any one of those over any­thing else.

Does that mean we’ll be read­ing about Neal Hunt and his bare-handed-badger-catch­ing busi­ness then? NH: Ha, yes. It’s just too cool. It’s too much fun.

The best in the bird hunt­ing in­dustr y hunt­ing pi­geon to­gether in the off-sea­son: Terry Den­mon (Mojo Out­doors), Chad Beld­ing ( The Fowl

Life), Skip Knowles ( Wild­fowl mag­a­zine), Mike Plein (Toxic Calls), Scott Jor­gensen (UFC), Chad Ryan

(banded), and Neal Hunt (SNM).

Hunt and Andy

Phelps in 2009 at their ver y first lo­cal Sports

man’s Show.

Top, right: One of the new­est de­coys from the Neal

Hunt Sig­na­ture Se­ries, the up­right pi­geon de­coy. Six de­coys make up the Sig­na­ture Se­ries line and in­clude re­al­is­tic fea­tures, no-shine sand-blast fin­ish, and metal round-based mo­tion stakes.

Top and bot­tom left: The very first Soar No More de­coys.

The Flat and up­right Sil­hou­ette Pi­geon De­coys that put them on the map for pi­geon hunt­ing.

Top: Hunt hand­paint­ing the new­est de­coys.

Above: Hunt and Phelps

Above: Hunt and his old­est son, Brody, on a fa­ther-and­son hunt — their fa­vorite thing to do to­gether.

Top: The Hunt fam­ily

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