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Labor of love

John McCoy
Shotgun in hand, bundled against the cold, and sitting in a duck boat with Mo, his eager young Labrador retriever, is where Dave Hackathorn likes to be on cold winter mornings. Once a duck-hunting hobbyist, the St. Marys resident now operates a successful waterfowl guiding business.

ST. MARYS - At first glance, Dave Hackathorn's job sounds pretty tough: Get up at 4 a.m., lug around hundreds of pounds of equipment in often-foul weather, and work until after dark.

So why does he do it?

Well, mainly because it takes him duck or goose hunting more than 60 times a year. Hackathorn, 45, of St. Marys, is a hunting guide who specializes in waterfowl. In less than 10 years, he has parlayed a beloved hobby into a thriving part-time enterprise.

"Just about every day West Virginia's waterfowl seasons are open, I'm taking clients hunting," said Hackathorn. "I take a couple of days off around Christmas, but that's about it. It wears me down physically, but I love it."

A single pull of a shotgun's trigger ignited that love.

"I've been crazy about waterfowl hunting since I was 14, when I killed my first goose," he said.

Like many dyed-in-the-camouflage waterfowl enthusiasts, Hackathorn learned that his favorite pastime carried a pretty hefty price tag.

The bare essentials - a shotgun, some shells and a hunting license - constitute the tiny tip of an enormous financial iceberg. Calls, decoys, dogs, blinds, boats, waders and camouflage clothing require thousands of dollars more.

In 2004, Hackathorn, who runs a logging business and is a partner in an airport maintenance business, had sunk tens of thousands into his gear collection and found he wanted more.

"I figured that if I started guiding, maybe I could make enough money to offset some of my equipment costs," he said.

It took a while for Hackathorn to build a reputation and a steady client base, but since then his Black Dog Outfitters guide business has enjoyed consistent success.

"Business has been steady for about five years now," he said. "Almost every day of the season, I have at least four clients a day going hunting with me."

West Virginia is far from a waterfowl hunter's paradise. Because it's located west of the Atlantic migration route and east of the one that follows the Mississippi River, the state doesn't attract large numbers of ducks and geese.

Hackathorn makes up for the lack of numbers by learning exactly where the birds are from one day to another.

"I spend a lot of time scouting. By the end of each day, I have a pretty good idea where the next day's hunting will be, as well as what we'll be hunting for," he said.

A typical day of guiding goes something like this: Hackathorn rises at 4 a.m., gets dressed and goes to the garage to take the decoy and boat batteries off their chargers. He meets his clients at 5 a.m., takes them to the chosen hunting spot, sets out decoys and makes all the final preparations for the day's hunt.

"All that has to be accomplished by one-half hour before sunrise," he said. "That's when legal shooting hours begin."

He and his clients hunt all morning. After they have lunch, Hackathorn goes back to work.

"I get the boat loaded back up and clean the birds," he said. "Then I take the equipment back to the garage, lay everything out to dry, and put the batteries back into their chargers. I'm usually done with that by about 4 p.m., so from then until dark I go scouting to see where the birds are."

After he arrives home, he lays out the next day's equipment, which varies from day to day depending on the nature of the birds he's scouted.

"If we have lots of [mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, teal, pintail or other] puddle ducks, we'll need the appropriate decoys and the appropriate kind of boat," Hackathorn explained. "If we have [scaup, redheads, goldeneyes, mergansers or other] diving ducks, we'll need different decoys and boats. If we're hunting geese in fields, we'll need blinds and appropriate decoys."

As much as he enjoys waterfowl hunting, Hackathorn acknowledges that working six-day weeks of 12 to 13 hours a day, and doing that for six consecutive weeks in the dead of winter, gets downright exhausting.

"Even though you're dressed for the conditions, you still get cold," he said. "Doing that day after day wears you down. I usually get sick sometime before the season ends."

The rigors of the job probably explain why waterfowl guides are so few and far between in West Virginia. Hackathorn said that as far as he knows, he's the only one - and the lack of competition works to his advantage.

"I don't have any shortage of clients, that's for sure," he said. "When you consider how expensive it is to equip yourself for waterfowl hunting, it's probably cheaper in the long run to pay $100 a day to hire a guide - who already has all that gear - to take you hunting two or three times a season. At least that's what my clients tell me."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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