Landers: Check outfitters before trying one on
UPDATE: Since the publication of this column, Sean Siegel’s ads for moose and elk hunts in Eastern Washington appear to have been removed from the eBay website.
A Spokane-area man is providing a classic example of why sportsmen should do their homework before paying an outfitter big bucks for a big-game hunt.
Sean Siegel said he’s been organizing self-guided hunts for deer, elk, moose and bear in northeastern Washington since 1997. He advertises on eBay under the name “firemansean354.”
He doesn’t promise a lot, but he indicates hunters will have access to private and public land he’s scouted and blinds he’s established.
He says he’ll help the hunters get the right maps and pack out meat if they are successful.
“I’m not a guide service,” he said. “I don’t guide anybody. People who book hunts with me know how to hunt. I just provide them with an area, put them in good locations and they do the rest.
“It’s them and Mother Nature. I have lots of satisfied customers.”
But Rev. Thomas Fritz, who booked a hunt with Siegel for the recent general elk season, isn’t one of them.
The pastor of the St. John United Church of Christ in Appleton, Wis., said he bought the hunt after seeing the eBay post for a “Seven-Day Eastern Washington Elk Hunt” complete with a photo of a trophy bull.
Siegel asked Fritz to cancel the hunt on eBay and pay him $1,400 directly so he could avoid the eBay seller’s fee.
“That should have been a red flag,” Fritz said. “He said he was a volunteer fireman and I figured he needed the money, but that left me with no recourse.”
Indeed, that’s part of the reason Siegel has a “100% positive feedback” rating on eBay. Several other dissatisfied clients say they, too, were asked to pay Siegel directly.
Fritz said he was attracted to the promise of hunting out of a blind on private and public land that had been scouted.
“We didn’t need a guide, just a good place to hunt,” he said.
After spending another $1,000 on non-resident elk tags, Fritz and his son traveled to Spokane.
“Sean drove us in the dark out of Spokane, showed us a few roads to walk up the next day and told us we could call him if necessary, but not to bother him if it was just a matter of not seeing elk,” Fritz said.
“I asked for maps. He didn’t have them. It was dark. I asked for the trail-cam scouting photos he promised and he didn’t have them.”
For $1,400, Siegel took the Wisconsin men to the 500-some acres in section 36 northeast of Newman Lake managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
“We learned later that we needed a Discover Pass, but he never mentioned it,” Fritz said.
The hunters found no elk the next day, just numerous recreational shooters firing semi-automatic rifles at silhouette targets.
“Shortly after sunrise, all hell breaks loose,” said the Rev, who has a professional stake in knowing that subject. “It sounded like a military training site.
“We hunted a couple days and realized we’d been taken from the get-go.”
The Fritzes aren’t alone.
Washington Fish and Wildlife police have been involved in several issues related to Siegel’s clients. Examples:
In 2010, Jeff Hunt of Modesto, Calif., and a friend booked a five-day bear hunt. First problem: “He’d promised us tree blinds,” Hunt said. “I have it in writing. But he sets us up in a ground blind by someone’s house. I’m glassing through the trees at daylight. I see lady doing dishes through her kitchen window. There’s a road right there, another house, a school bus. I have a .300 Win. Mag and I’m afraid to shoot the thing.”
The clincher: Siegel gave the men directions to timber company land on Mica Peak, but he never told them they were required to have an Inland Empire Paper Company access permit. They were apprehended by a security guard and given the boot.
A company security guard caught them and called Fish and Wildlife police.
“We went to a restaurant, and we’re all pissed off, and somebody we don’t know from Adam hears us and offers to take us hunting,” Hunt said. “The next morning he drives us all the way north near the Canada border and we saw several bears. We didn’t shoot one, but at least we saw some. The best part of our hunting experience was through a guy who wouldn’t take a dime.
On Oct. 31, 2011, Joe Imperio of Blaine, Wash., told an officer that Siegel had left him and is friend on private land on which he had no permission to hunt and they were run off by the landowner. The officer who responded to the complaint wrote: “After he confronted Sean about this scam, Sean agreed to refund his money. The refund check bounced.”
Contacted at his home in Blaine, Imperio said he finally got his money back after threatening legal action, but Siegel’s attorney had him sign a form the precludes from saying anything else about the case.
“It’s buyer beware on eBay,” he said. “I don’t know how he covers his tracks.”
Also last fall, David Pierce of Portland said he booked an elk hunt for his party of four and paid Siegel $3,500 to hunt on 9,000 acres of private land. Instead, Siegel led them up the Pend Oreille River Valley, apparently to the Batey-Bould off-road vehicle area on the Colville National Forest.
“When we realized we’d been had and there was no private land, we confronted Siegel,” Pierce said. “He signed a note saying he’d refund our money, but he never has.”
The Washington Outfitters and Guides Association hears quite often from people who feel like they’ve been burned, said Bruce Wick, long-time outfitter in Leavenworth.
“The problem is that they call the association after they lose their money,” he said. “They should be contacting the association first.”
Unlike Idaho and Montana, Washington does not require hunting outfitters to be licensed. But the association scrutinizes its members to make sure they’re reputable and have required permits.
Siegel says he’s getting a bum rap. “I’ve done nothing illegal,” he said.
Fish and Wildlife police officer Lenny Hahn agreed that he has found no state wildlife rules infraction in Siegel’s operation, “but we get complaints,” he said. “It seems like a scam that could be avoided if we had an outfitter licensing system.”
Asked whether his operation is ethical, Siegel said it’s their word against his. “I have 10-12 clients a year and this is just a handful who are complaining,” he said.
Asked for references to satisfied customers, he gave me only one name. Californian Bill Minjares said he’s returning for the sixth year to hunt whitetails on private land. “That speaks for itself,” Minjares said.
Wick said a Washington business license is needed to charge clients an outfitting fee. Asked if he had one, Siegel said “yes.” But the Washington Department of Licensing shows no record of it.
Siegel said he didn’t need a permit to charge a fee for facilitating hunters on national forest land because he doesn’t go onto the forest and guide the hunters.
However, his current eBay ad says that he scouts his areas pre-season and his hunters will be on private land or on “over 30 miles of Forrest (sic) Service land….” He also says he will assist his clients in retrieving their elk.
However, Forest Service regulations require a person to secure a permit if he derives income from, among other things, “supervising, packing or other assistance” on national forest lands.
Hunters contacted for this column said they’d previously had good experiences with outfitters and realize they let their guard down.
“My job is to have faith in people,” Rev. Fritz said in a phone interview. “But I’m sitting here feeling pretty stupid and ripped off.”