Bryan Koontz, CEO of Guidefitter.com
Bryan, Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am Bryan Koontz, CEO of Guidefitter.com. I’m an odd mix of outdoor enthusiast, technology guy and entrepreneur. I grew up in the Maryland countryside – a small town called Clear Spring, MD (and I lived about 20 min away from the town). watched cows out my bedroom window as a kid and worked for a local farmer during high school.
I’m also married and a dad – two daughters, 13 and 11, and dog owner. Yellow Lab named Pearl who can’t stay out of the water and goes crazy, chomping her jaws and whining, any time I get my gun out. She loves to hunt with me. I now live in Austin, Texas, but also have strong ties to Pennsylvania where I have a farm and a secret largemouth bass pond.
How did you first get into hunting and who influenced you?
Biggest hunting influence was my father. He introduced hunting to me and my two older brothers at a very young age – I was holding his rifle at age 1 or 2 I believe. Growing up, we spent every weekend of the hunting seasons – starting with fall small game – out hunting.
And with my dad, it was an all-day affair. Hunting has always been a Koontz-family tradition. My father, his father, our cousins, and so on. Beyond hunting, it was, clearly as I look back now my dad’s way of spending time with his boys and the rest of his family.
Biggest fishing influence was my late Uncle Francis (“Frank”) Leatherman, on my mother’s side. He was a true Renaissance man who could fix anything, build anything, and even made quilts. He was also a WWII veteran and much more of a fisherman than a hunter. Starting around age 7 or 8, would tell me he’d pick me up at 8am for carp or trout fishing, and then show up at 6am to have coffee with my mother, asking me why I wasn’t out of bed yet.
He showed me how to wrap rags into little rolls and light them so that the smoldering rags would keep the bugs away while sitting on the bank carp fishing, how to make dough balls, and how to prop the handle of your rod on a rock and unlock your drag so that the carp could run a bit with the dough ball before you could see the rod handle turning and set the hook.
And all along the way, I benefitted by hearing all of his stories about growing up during the great depression and his life in the war where he was a radio operator, spending many lonely nights on steep hills in Germany, relaying messages to our troops. I’d give anything to go fishing with him one more time.
Bryan, Tell us about your most memorable hunt?
September, 2009. Elk, archery near White Sulphur Springs, Montana. The outfitter was Rawhide Guide Service, and my guide was Jerry Blake (now owner of LOH Outfitters). This was my first guided hunt ever. I grew up being thrilled to shoot a spike whitetail in PA (when that was legal), and here I was with my bow, along with my brother and my father (who came along for the walk – he wasn’t hunting), chasing screaming bull elk in Montana.
On day 1, Jerry (my guide) got close to putting me on 2 different bulls. And one of them was, in his words, “the biggest $%&!* bull I’ve ever seen in my life! Right over this hill! Are you READY?” Yeah – that doesn’t stress out a first-time elk hunter at all :).
On day 02, while glassing for miles on a hilltop, my father says softly, “There’s a bull.” Sure enough, a 6pt bull had just jumped a jack-fence in front of us, threw his head back and let out a bugle (we could see the steam coming out of his mouth from that far away), and then stood there.
Jerry shouted, “Let’s go let’s go. Drop your pack, grab your bow!” As I’m dropping my pack, Jerry is dousing me in a spray of elk urine, explaining that we have to sprint directly downhill, through waist-high sage while avoiding badger holes, about ½ mile to intercept this bull at the bottom of a ravine.
Jerry is younger than me, and at the time I was 40lbs heavier than I am now (get in shape for hunting folks!), which made Jerry look like an incapacitated marathon runner dragging me, his anchor.
We made it to the bottom of the hill, set up – me about 40 yds ahead of Jerry in the ravine, and almost instantly the bull started responding to Jerry’s calls and thrashing of branches behind me. I grabbed my range finder and started mapping out my yardage and shooting lanes.
At the last min, I decided to move up to a larger tree that would better conceal me, and I thought I would have time to settle in and re-shoot my shooting lanes and yardage. I was wrong. Almost as soon as I slammed in behind the large tree, which I then saw was right next to a big wallow, I saw antlers and brown fur.
There was a fence in front of me, and this bull – now screaming in a demon-like voice, was right on the other side deciding what to do. Jerry hit another challenge bugle call behind me, and this bull jumped the fence, starting to come on the opposite side of the tree for how I was setup. This all happened in about 5-8 seconds. At the last second, the bull turns the other direction and steps out. I drew my bow while sitting indian style and leaning back behind the tree (practice your bow shots many other ways than just standing on a flat surface!), leaned out from behind the tree, made a guess on yardage – I guessed about 25-30 yards, and let an arrow fly.
I saw the arrow hit perfectly aligned right/left, but it seemed a bit high before the bull took off, thundering through the pines. I looked back, saw Jerry giving me the, “Well? What happened?” look and gesture. With pure adrenaline flowing through my body, I gave him a 45-degree thumbs up. I still felt good about the shot, but wasn’t 100% sure. In hindsight, the bull was probably more like 20 yards, possibly less.
We stayed put for about 45 min, letting the bull bed down, and taking a rest and letting my sweat-soaked camo dry. The combination of the ½ mile sprint while trying not to break my legs in a badger hole along with the pure adrenaline rush of the demon bull screaming so closely to me left me drenched in sweat. As I lay there, I replayed the shot and the scenario 100 times in my head. I kept telling myself, “You should’ve moved up to that big tree at the last min. No time to remap the lanes and the yardage.” But that was too late now.
Jerry walked up to get me, and we started heading in the direction of where the bull charged off. Within a few min, we found about a third of my arrow broken off, covered in blood at the base. But – no blood on the ground. No blood trail at all. We walked another 100 yards, still no blood trail. Another 100 yards, 200 yards, still nothing. My heart started to sink.
We decided to split up and keep looking. Jerry climbed up to a bluff overlooking a ravine that intersected the drainage where we were setup on the bull, and I walked along the bottom of the ravine on a small cattle path that was, at times, crowded with small, soft white pines. I walked slowly, very slowly looking for any signs of blood or ahead for any signs of brown and white fur.
As I got within about 100 yards of the end of the ravine, something caught my eye. Elk. Ahead of me, just as the wooded ravine ended into a pasture field, I saw 3 cow Elk and a calf, standing there, grazing in the sun. One mature cow was staring right toward me, but I was concealed nicely by the soft, eye-level young pines that were crowding the cattle path I was on. I stopped on the path and watched the cows for a few seconds, trying not to move while the lead cow kept looking towards me.
She finally looked away, going back to grazing, and so I decided to continue inching my way on the path toward the end of the ravine. I instinctively looked down at my feet before taking my next step, and something else caught my eye. And what caught my eye was – another eye. A big one. Looking right back at me from under one of the soft pine trees, just 10 feet or so from my leg.
What happened in the next 4.5 seconds will stick with me for life. About the same time I realized that eyeball was connected to a resting elk, I saw the glimmer of antler, I snapped my release on my bowstring, my core body temperature and heart rate instantly spiked, and a bull elk EXPLODED out from under that pine in front of me. He ran out through the end of the ravine, and up a hill and stood there for a few seconds, looking right back at me.
This was my elk. I hit him right in the “dead-zone” – that spot right above the vitals and below the spine, and he was obviously recovering under the tree. My heart sank even more as I stood there, in a short-lived stare-down with this bull, who would probably go 330 – 340 inches. He was a monster, and he should’ve been my first elk.
The bull ended the staredown and took off running back up the ravine, on the opposite side from me, back toward the same ravine where all of this started. We spent the next 2 days scouring the hills for the bull, and spotted it reunited with a herd a few days later, looking like nothing ever happened.
I was sick to my stomach for weeks following this hunt, feeling a mix of remorse for making a bad shot on the elk and disappointment that I missed out on killing the monster, demon bull on day 2 of my first ever elk hunt.
I’ve played that day – and those few seconds when I slammed in behind the tree – thousands of times over in my head and will likely replay them thousands more as I continue hunting. For someone who is used to sitting in tree stands back in PA, sniping mostly-voiceless, 100lb whitetails with about 100 – 200 yards maximum visibility, this was hunting in its most extreme form. And the unbelievable experience that bull afforded me that day will stick with me forever.
What exactly is Guidefitter?
Guidefitter is three things:
- The industry network for professional outdoor guides and outfitters.
- The source for consumers wanting to shop for, prepare for, share stories about, or simply dream about guided outdoor adventures
- The influencer marketing and sales channel for outdoor gear manufacturers.
Our goal is to continue to power a large network of professional outdoor guides, help them be more successful, and use the influence they have over gear purchases to fuel the preferred ecommerce channel for gear in the outdoor industry.
What led you to create Guidefitter?
Believe it or not, it was my 2009 Montana elk hunt that planted the seed for Guidefitterhttp://www.guidefitter.com. In the months leading up to the hunt, I realized there was not a “go-to” consumer brand on the Internet that could help me research hunts and outfitters and connect with other people who have been there so that I could prepare.
For most other purchases, you can think of at least one or more go-to brands/sites on the Internet. Want to buy a house? Realtor.com or Zillow.com. Looking for a hotel room? Travelocity or Expedia. But what I found with hunting and fishing guides and outfitters was hundreds of websites with flat, uninteresting “listings” — and outdated business models that still tried to charge the outfitter for everything or take a booking fee. That’s not us.
Since that time, we’ve realize that in building a large network of professional guides and working to help make them successful, that our network had value to outdoor gear manufacturers who offer pro discount programs. So in 2016, we launched “The Grid,” that helps connect gear brands with verified pro guides, and makes it much easier for the verified guides to get the gear they want at exclusively low prices.
What resources are available to the Guidefitter audiences (consumer, guide/outfitter, brand partners)?
- A great mobile app, on iOS and Android, called “Brag!” that enables you to share photos, brag about extra special photos, view and comment on photos from other people, or simply share thoughts or interesting links.
- An extensive search engine on Guidefitter.com for hunting outfitters, featuring almost all the hunting outfitters in the US and Canada. And soon to feature search for great fishing guides, outfitters and charters as well.
- Interesting content related to guided adventures and the industry in general, from news pieces, advice articles, short films, gear reviews, recipes and more
The Guidefitter Journal is a new print magazine. What makes it different from other hunting and fishing magazines out there? Why did you decide to go with print?
We called it the Guidefitter Journal and not the Guidefitter Magazine for a reason. The Journal is not a hunting and fishing magazine, aimed at informing and entertaining hunters and anglers. There are plenty of national and regional hunting and fishing magazines out there.
The Journal is the guide/outfitting industry’s first ever trade publication, aimed at informing and entertaining professional guides, outfitters, lodges, and related businesses and, importantly, helping pros connect with and get to know each other. It provides content that is relevant to running a better outfitting or guide business, tips on improving the experience your clients will have, reviews on new professional gear, and even a section on the crazy things clients often do (which we’ve considered calling “Stupid Sh$! Clients Do.” 😉
We decided to offer the Journal in print for a few reasons. First, many of our pro members would rather read from a physical, printed page than a computer or mobile screen (although we will soon be offering the Journal online as well, only for Guidefitter Verified Pros). Second, we see the Journal as great reading material while the guides are at camp, and many camps either have zero or poor internet or cellular connectivity. And lastly, we saw it as an alternative way for us to communicate with our pro network, augmenting what we’re already doing with the web and mobile web.
We understand you have a tech-based background. How has that influenced the offerings from Guidefitter, and how does that help guides and outfitters?
I do have a tech background. I have a few engineering degrees from Penn State University and another one from MIT, and my career has always been in software and the Internet businesses, including a few I started or helped start in Austin, TX. That goes back to the odd duck that I am as a technology guy who loves to hunt and fish. Not many of us out there.
I realize there are some folks in the outfitting industry that aren’t that tech savvy, and some that downright hate technology. I can relate – we’ve all screamed at our computers at some point. But I also believe that technology can help any industry, including the outdoor guide and outfitting industry.
Technology can help guides find guide work, help outfitters find new and different clients – including those future clients who are becoming more and more tech-savvy themselves and who refuse to travel to trade shows. Technology can help you connect with other professionals that you would otherwise never meet so that you can share war stories, ideas, and experiences. Technology also helps you stay in touch more in real time, so that you can see what’s going on, everywhere, today – which can also be fun, as we’ve seen with our Braggin’ Wall and related mobile apps, especially during the seasons as we view all the great photos our consumer and pro members share.
Any other Guidefitter resources/features you’d like to touch on?
And one last point on mobile technology. Over 60% of the visits we get from consumers and especially from guides to our website is from a mobile device or tablet, like an iPad, and not from a desktop computer. And that percentage grows every year. Guiding is naturally a highly mobile profession, and these days many of us are walking around with a mobile camera, list of all our contacts, a mapping system with GPS receiver, a phone, and other features powered by a mini computer that fits in our pocket. It’s a great consumer device but also an incredible business tool for pro guides and outfitting business owners. You’ll be seeing Guidefitter do even more with mobile apps and technology to help each of our 3 audiences – consumers, pros and our brand partners.