“I wasn’t born in Maine, but I got here as fast as I could.”
“I have always known deep in my soul that Maine is where I belong,” Matt Whitegiver told me. Matt runs Eagle Mountain Guide Service and anybody can see he is a true Mainer. (They are called Mainers, not Maniacs, no matter what you have heard.)
A step further in the evolution are the Downeasters, who are the people who live in southeast Maine and are thought to be the epitome of a Mainer. That’s Matt.
Born in California, he grew up in the same small Vermont town where I live, although he is six years younger than me and I never met him before 2021. It turns out that a couple of my younger brothers were friends with him in high school. My family was friends with the family of his high school sweetheart and we have many other mutual friends and acquaintances. I even briefly dated the hot high school teacher he was crushing on in the ’70s. That gave me some street cred at his lodge.
“I joined the Navy right out of high school and requested to be stationed in Maine. I have never left,” Matt said. “Forty-some years later with a wife and three grown kids, I am still here and I have no desire to live anyplace else.”
When I asked how he ended up a Master Maine Guide I heard a familiar story.
“I was in my 30s when my wife came to me one day and said, ‘If all you are going to do is hunt and fish, then you better find a way to make some money at it!’ So I decided to get my guide license,” Matt replied.
Matt looks like a Maine Guide picked out of central casting: more than 6 feet tall, long-limbed and lanky. He is one of those guys who could track a deer all day and still have energy left to arm wrestle at camp that night. At 60 years old his beard is getting gray, but he maintains the enthusiasm and energy of a much younger man. His stern look betrays his good nature and sense of humor.
Ask him to speak a bit about hunting and guiding and you’re in for a long and interesting tale. In it are threads familiar to anyone who is driven to hunt. In Matt’s case, that drive led to a way to hunt for a living.
“I heard that duck identification was a big part of the test and I freaked out a little. I didn’t know anything about ducks, so I spent a lot of time studying waterfowl. I even went to a school to learn about ducks. I aced the test and have never once hunted, guided for or shot a duck in the state of Maine since. I ended up getting all three licenses—Hunting, Fishing and Recreation—which made you a Master Maine Guide back in those days. Today, I am told, it’s much tougher.
“After passing the test, I picked a business name, Eagle Mountain Guide Service. I was doing bear hunts, but that’s a six-week-long thing, so I needed a job. My wife spotted a Northwoods Journal that I had left on the desk and noticed an unusual name on the cover. ‘There can only be one Hal Blood,’ she said out loud. ‘Who the hell is Hal Blood?’ I asked. It had to be the same childhood friend that had lived across the street from her when they were kids, so she gave him a call to say hello. She mentioned during the conversation that I had just got my guide’s license and he asked to talk to me. He offered me a job guiding deer hunters in the Jackman area.”
Hal Blood went on to become one of the most famous deer hunters in Maine. Those who have heard of him know he produced multiple books and videos.
“I worked for Hal for 10 years and he taught me a lot,” said Matt. “I had a pretty good success rate guiding deer hunters for him. In the spring and summers I guided for landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass for Leen’s Lodge in Grand Lake Stream.” (GLS is the premier destination for landlocked salmon, both in the lakes and the stream. It holds a spot on any serious fisherman’s bucket list.) “In the fall, after bear season,” continued Matt, “I guided upland hunters for ruffed grouse and woodcock at Leen’s. I had some good dogs and developed a good clientele. Overall, I guided for Leen’s for 20 years.
“By the time I got my license, I had already been hunting bears with my brother-in-law for some time. Back then, I didn’t have a guide license; he did. So I couldn’t put out hunters. But, I could help with baiting bears and I gained a lot of experience feeding bears. I love being in the woods and doing the whole bear thing and I have now been baiting bears for more than 35 years. It’s still my favorite time of year.
“When I started on my own, I had a small camp that slept four people on bunks and maybe a few more in the loft. Most of the hunters brought tents while the guides and I slept in the cabin. Before that we all pitched tents, usually on the shore of a lake someplace, and hunted out of there. You can’t do that now. The landowners have closed most of the camping locations and you have to reserve and lease the few places that are left.
“After I bought the Wilderness Lodge in 2008 the bear hunting really took off. I now have leases for 40,000 acres of paper company land, along with a few pieces of private land. At the moment I run 49 active bear baits during the season.
“The one thing that’s maintained or gotten better over the years is the bear hunting. The state says that the population is growing and we always have plenty of bears.
Learning the ropes as an extra hand for his brother-in-law, Matt Whitegiver, now a Master Maine Guide, has been baiting bears for over 35 years and considers the spring bear season—and all the hard work that goes with it—his favorite time of year.
“My hunting land is a study area for bears and the biologists say that there are just under three bears per square mile. At one point, some years back, it was two and a half bears ... I looked for years and never found a half bear. Now the fraction is higher so we round to three bears per square mile. It’s better to have whole bears anyway, and all in all that’s a pretty good population of bears.
“We run 12 hunters a week, although I have enough land and bears to handle a lot more. I have a good team, but if we tried to grow bigger, at some point I would lose control over the quality of the experience. We are very comfortable at 12 hunters per week. That maintains plenty of bears for the future. The hunters have a good experience and I stay more or less sane during the season.
“We turn people away every year and I have seen an increase in hunters wanting to bear hunt. I think that’s a good trend and speaks well for the future.”
Hunting the Big Woods
Maine’s bear population is said to be as high as 36,000, making it the largest in the Lower 48. It has been growing by 2 to 4 percent a year for the last 15 or 20 years and the state says hunters have fallen short of harvesting enough bears to stabilize the population. That means more bears every year. I booked a bear hunt at Matt’s Wilderness Lodge last year.
After 40 years together, Matt is still in love with Maine hunting. After we shot three bears in a 20-minute period in September 2021, he was like a little kid at Disneyland for the first time. I don’t believe he will ever lose the wonder or enthusiasm for hunting and for guiding hunters. Clearly this is the life he was born to live.
The lodge is a big rambling place. It is said it was built for Jackie Gleason in 1963. Local legend holds that it was built to be a wilderness getaway for beautiful people of Hollywood. All the big names of the time came here: the Rat Pack, John Wayne and many others. Then they stopped. Some say an early snow stranded them for a week while others claim they came in black fly season and the winged demons chased them off. No matter the truth, they never caught “Maine Fever” and they didn’t come back.
Before Matt bought the place it had been used for a wide range of things including, for a while, a house of ill repute. When he bought it, the place was being used as a yoga retreat. I think, finally, it’s found peace as a hunting lodge. I believe it is shaking off the nightmare of the hippie infestation and you can barely smell the lingering patchouli.
The lodge is a study in contrasts. It’s named Wilderness, yet it’s situated along Route 9, a major east-west, two-lane road. A new arrival might be confused about the “wilderness” thing. At least until he realizes there is no electricity, no cell service, no Wi-Fi and no gas or food for almost 20 miles in either direction. Step out of the lodge and head north or south and it would be a massive straight-line walk before you hit the next paved road. This is the Maine Big Woods. It might be near a paved road, but this lodge is sitting in true wilderness.
On the other hand, a generator provides electricity when necessary. Propane heats the water, and each room has its own bath with a shower. The kitchen is big and equipped enough to run a restaurant. A wood stove keeps the dining room cozy. Wilderness? Yes, but it ain’t exactly the roughing it kind of wilderness.
If you are lucky enough to draw a moose tag in Maine Zone 18, 19 or 28, give Matt a call. He and his guides are on a first-name basis with most of the moose in those zones.
Matt books deer hunters who want the experience of hunting Big Woods bucks. If there is snow and his hunters can track, success rates can run pretty high. On bare ground, it’s a tough hunt. Still, I know dozens of hunters who return to Maine year after year for a chance at a huge-bodied, gnarly horned brute of a whitetail. Success rates are not high, but that chance of a huge buck is the lure that brings back serious hunters year after year.
It’s a bit hard to explain a Big Woods deer hunt to those who have not done it. I have just returned from a week of hunting with Matt for deer. It seems like everything from the weather to the rut conspired against us. Yet, I am energized and my soul is healthier from spending a week there. I have hunted the Big Woods in New England and Canada all my life. It seems, though, that in recent years I have been distracted with other hunting opportunities and I had not returned for some time. My last trip to Maine was many years ago. Then, I saw what is perhaps the biggest buck I have ever seen in the wild. I tried to coach my then-teenaged son to shoot him, but instead he experienced his first case of buck fever.
I am not sure why I have not been back until now, except that life moves a lot faster than we realize. This year, I sat high on a mountain one day, soaking in the silence of the north and letting the Big Woods experience flow back into my psyche.
“It’s good to be back,” I said out loud.
I swear I heard an answer with the same words my wife chose when I asked her to marry me: “What took you so long?”
Matt fishes in the spring and summer. He has a big, comfortable boat for trolling for landlocked salmon or lake trout. He also has some world-class smallmouth bass fishing. If you love to fly fish, the lodge is a short drive from Grand Lake Stream, one of the big bucket list check-offs for most fly guys. I spent a day there in May and loved every minute. Fishing for landlocked salmon on a fly is something, in addition to world peace, that I would wish for all humanity.
Matt currently has six English Pointers, (and one yappy-dog) yet he is no longer offering guided bird hunts. I asked why.
“Any hardcore bird hunter will tell you it’s about the dogs. I love my bird dogs and I love hunting with them. I had a male named Gunner and a female named Tina who were only a year apart. When Gunner died at 12 years old I realized that I had never hunted over him or Tina. I had only guided and had never actually hunted with or shot birds over either of my dogs. Life is too short, and I decided that it was time to stop guiding for upland birds and to start enjoying the time in the woods with my dogs. It’s as simple as that.”
I got a glimpse of Matt’s character early one pre-dawn morning while I was looking for some gear in my truck. Matt didn’t see me as he came around the front of the lodge and placed the American flag in its holder. He then took a step back, stood tall and saluted sharply. It was a telling moment; he didn’t know anybody was watching, he was simply showing respect for the flag and country.
A Guide Gives Back
Ask him what he is most passionate about and he will tell you it is what he calls SOWW Week. SOWW stands for Special Operations Wounded Warriors. It’s a group devoted to working with Special Operations veterans and providing outdoor experiences for them. As one can read on the group’s website: “SOWW feels that there is not a more deserving group of individuals than our Special Operations Forces members that frequently stand in harm’s way for the protection of our freedoms, often with little or no recognition. Providing unique outdoor experiences and targeted therapeutic treatments to the deserving men and women of our U.S. Special Operations Forces that have sustained wounds in battle and/or in significant service to our Country. It is the belief of SOWW (Special Operations Wounded Warriors) that we truly can make a difference in the life of a service member who has chosen to put their safety at risk while defending our freedoms and that has suffered personal injury in that endeavor.”
Matt donates a lot of time and money to this cause. As a veteran himself, he can see that it makes a difference.
These SO guys are the elite, but they are also humans. They bleed red like everybody else and because they’re all exceptionally intelligent, I suspect that they feel mental pain more acutely than most. They might be highly trained, but years of war take a toll on anybody.
The current government has sold them out, ignored their sacrifice and offers little viable help. Biden’s unbelievable betrayal in Afghanistan happened shortly before SOWW Week 2021. Most of the guys kept up the positive front that SO guys always seem to have, but down deep they were hurting. How could they not be?
Biden may have sold them out, but SOWW was there to help. Because the guys are with their own kind, the shields are lowered a bit and maybe they heal a little.
Matt probably won’t tell you the story, but he and his wife, Lisa, literally saved the life of one of these men who decided that he couldn’t stand the demons any longer. Even though he was a thousand miles away, due to Matt and Lisa’s quick and innovative thinking, that man is alive and doing well. At one point, they actually took this man into their home. They didn’t know him, only that he needed somebody. Matt doesn’t just talk the talk, he is a guy you want watching your six.
The first time I heard of SOWW was when a family member who is a retired Delta guy called me to ask about a rifle he wanted to buy for a bear hunt. I didn’t realize the hunt was with Matt’s camp until I booked my own bear hunt two years later. Knowing how important SOWW is to him, I asked Matt how he started these hunts. “It began in 2010 when an active duty SEAL named Master Chief Ron Bellan booked a bear hunt along with his dad and brother,” Matt replied.
Master Maine Guide Matt Whitegiver began hosting Special Operations bear hunts in 2010 after he met SEAL Master Chief Ron Bellan, above left.
Oddly enough, I knew Ron. He was making a name in the hunting industry with his “Reaper Outdoors—Survive the Hunt” TV show. He also started an ammo company called Reaper Outdoors Ammunition. (Reaper01 was his call sign as a SEAL.)
Ron was a big and intimidating man, made more so by a huge beard and a black patch over one eye. As I got to know him a little, I could see that he was a good guy, one I expected to do well in the hunting and shooting industry. But, he never got the chance. After surviving multiple deployments, Ron passed away in 2019 from a blood clot in his leg. At 49, he was far too young. He gave too much to his country to have Part II of his life and career yanked away by a random turn of events. Sometimes the universe just sucks.
“I mentioned to Ron that I had always wanted to do something for our veterans,” Matt continued. “As it turns out, Ron was a board member for SOWW and we worked out a way to host some hunts. The next year we had our first SOWW hunters. It grew from three hunters that year to a full camp of a dozen most years. Our fourth week of bear hunting season is always dedicated to them. I don’t book any other hunters, just the SOWW guys. These guys deserve a little peace. Ron and I became close friends and I was devastated when he passed.”
Matt paused for a moment then continued: “Hosting SOWW week is my way of giving back a little to this great country. I have been blessed to do what I love for most of my life. That’s only because of these guys who fought to make sure we all have that kind of freedom. We owe them a huge debt, one that will never be paid. Those guys don’t expect any payment for their service, but if I can offer up even a small piece of thanks, I feel honored that they will come here to hunt and to heal.”
It would seem that sometimes a hunting guide turns out to be a lot more than expected.