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Zeroed In: Neal Hunt of Soar No More Decoys

Photos by Candice Horner and Soar No More

WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT

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 full-time 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.

The best in the bird hunting industry 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).

The best in the bird hunting industry 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).

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 number-one 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.

Hunt and Andy Phelps in 2009 at their very first local Sportsman’s Show.

Hunt and Andy Phelps in 2009 at their very first local Sportsman’s Show.

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.

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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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Hunt hand-painting the newest decoys.

Hunt hand-painting the newest decoys.

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.

Hunt and Phelps

Hunt and Phelps

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.

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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 ourselves 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 rattlesnakes. 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.

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

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

Neal Hunt

Age: 33
Hometown: Boise, Idaho
Current: Nampa, Idaho
Wife: Shawny Hunt
Kids:
Brody, 11
Tucker, 10
Dayson, 9
Savannah, 8
Cannon, 5
First Gun: 760 Crosman BB gun at age 7
Favorite Book: Brian’s Winter by Gary Paulsen
Favorite Quote: “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”
— Conan O’Brien
Favorite Knife: William Henry pocket knife
Website: soarnomore.com

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