‘Rat Camp’

Posted on May 16th in Feature Story

Diamond A Guides, owned and operated by Justin and Nikki Aamodt, has seen steady growth in the last 10 years

A raised platform provides stability, safety and a vantage point for those hunting sage rats with Diamond A Guides. (Photo by RANDY PARKS)

By Randy Parks
Burns Times-Herald

What began as a bit of a joke between friends has since turned into a steady business, as well as an economic boost to the county.

Justin Aamodt said 10 years ago, he was visiting with a friend about damage done to irrigation equipment by people out shooting sage rats. “He had 21 bullet holes in his irrigation pipes from hunters and I told him maybe I should start doing guided rat hunts. We laughed about that,” Aamodt said.

A decade later, that moment of levity has turned into Diamond A Guides, owned and operated by Aamodt and his wife, Nikki.

“Rat Camp”
Starting out in a single-wide trailer on Quincy Road, the Aamodts began advertising their “sage rat tours.”
The first year they had 28 shooting days and that increased to 49 by the second year. “I thought if we could get to 100, we’d be doing all right,” Justin said.

He explained that “shooting days” are figured by the number of hunters each day. For instance, if there are five hunters that shoot for five days, that equates to 25 shooting days.

By early May of this year, the Aamodts had 825 shooting days on the books and Nikki anticipated that number growing to close to 1,000 by season’s end.

After five years of customer growth, the Aamodts worked out an agreement with Crystal Crane Hot Springs to use some of their facilities. A greenhouse was transformed into a kitchen and dining hall and wall tents were set up for those needing lodging. It wasn’t long before the site earned the name of “Rat Camp.” “You have deer camp and elk camp, well, this is Rat Camp,” Nikki said. She added that the folks at Crystal Crane Hot Springs have been ideal to work with.

For both comfort and safety, Justin constructed raised shooting platforms and fixed them to trailers. The platforms are transported to fields each day for the shoots and brought back in each night.

One key to their success has been working with landowners in the area. The Aamodts lease the land, which means the hunters are escorted to a specific field (no knocking on doors for permission) and have a safe place to shoot. “We have exclusive rights to be in the field, so anyone else would be trespassing,” Justin said. “And all the shooters are facing out in the platform, which is a real safety factor because you don’t have hunters walking around and possibly shooting in the direction of another hunter.”

The hunts start around the first part of April and usually end Memorial Day. “It kind of depends on the height of the alfalfa,” Justin said,

While there may be others that offer rat hunts, they’d be hard-pressed to match the amenities offered by Diamond A Guides.

Once reservations are made, Nikki makes sure to confirm the reservations before the guests arrive.

Available accommodations include a three-bedroom ranch house, cabins, RV hook-ups, wall tents (with wood floors, cots and heat) and even a tee-pee.

Guests can enjoy three home-cooked meals a day, complete with hors-d’oeuvres and desserts. When the shooters return from the afternoon hunt, they find buckets of ice, as well as lemon and lime slices in their lodging for refreshments.

“It really is all about customer service. And we have the ‘five-pound rule’ here. Nobody leaves until they’ve gained five pounds!” Nikki laughed.

People from all over the world come to hunt in Harney County because it’s an unparalleled experience. “The only thing that compares is shooting doves in Argentina,” Justin said. “They get more shooting at live animals here than any where else.”

As evidence of a positive experience, Diamond A Guides has a 92 percent return rate.

The Aamodts are no strangers to being guides or to being customer-service oriented.

Justin attended guide school in Montana in 1990 and then learned about the importance of customer service when he worked for Les Schwab.

Nikki’s father is the founder of Mah-Hah Outfitters in Fossil and “learned the ropes” while helping him. “We take care of everything we can control — good food, cleanliness, friendly atmosphere,” Nikki said. “There are things we can’t control, like the weather, but we do our best at that, too, like letting people who are coming know the weather forecasts.”

The Aamodts admit there is something unexpected that seems to pop up every year, but they take it in stride and keep moving forward.

The effects on the county’s economy is a step in the right direction.

The landowners not only get paid for leasing their land, they also don’t have to worry about expenses for damage to property. Another benefit is having less damage done to the alfalfa crop. “The sage rats are actually Belding’s ground squirrels and, according to Oregon State University, each squirrel can eat more than 14 pounds of alfalfa in three months’ time,” Justin said. “In a 200-acre field, there can be close to 10,000 squirrels. So you do the math, and that’s a lot of alfalfa.”

John Opie, whose dad, Don, leases land to the Aamodts, said having the hunters on their land is a big benefit. “Getting the rats killed is probably the best benefit, and they bring in some guys that don’t miss,” Opie said. “There’s a tremendous amount of destruction from the sage rats. What they don’t eat, they cover up with dirt or they destroy roots.”

Opie added that his family used to let anyone shoot, but dealing with the Aamodts works a lot better. “Dad gets a little bit of money for the lease, we can tell others not to trespass and we know who we’re dealing with. It’s nice to know if anything does happen, they’ll take care of it.”

Diamond A Guides also counts on local businesses for their supplies. “We do a lot of business with Thriftway, B&B Sporting Goods, Parr Lumber and Big R,” Nikki said.

There’s also money spent by guests at gas stations, restaurants, stores, shops and, for those who fly in, the airport.

“Landowners will get about $30,000 this year and the total amount coming in from the whole community’s support and businesses will be around $500,000. That’s just for an eight-week period,” Justin noted.

In addition, Diamond A Guides employs three people in the kitchen and five guides.

The business
With a bit of pride, Justin noted that they have never had any personal injury accidents in the 10 years they have been in business.

The Aamodts have also worked closely with Oregon State Police game wardens to ensure that all requirements are met. “They know what we’re doing and we work closely with them,” Justin said.

On days of inclement weather, guests may experience a trip to the Round Barn Visitor Center or to the Malheur Cave. “They may bring folks in on the rainy days and I appreciate that,” Dick Jenkins, owner of the visitor center said. “It’s not so much if we sell anything or not, but it’s a chance to explain the heritage and the way of life in Harney County.”

Diamond A Guides also offers coyote hunts and will be offering deer and elk hunts this fall.

“We started this to maybe make some extra money in the spring and it grew into something that’s good for the whole community,” Justin said.

“I think having people come back year after year says a lot,” Nikki said. “Paying attention to the details and giving people what they want is our customer service.”

3 Responses to “‘Rat Camp’”

  1. Joseph Sunderland Says:

    I have had the opportunity to spend time in camp as well as in the field with Nikki and Justin. Having Justin as my archery elk guide more than once, he has an amazing ability to bring in the animals and then leave his clients with a memorable experience. I have had meat on the pole as well as tag soup, that’s hunting! Then there is the dining experience, which was noted in the article. If you go home hungry, that is going to be your fault, Nikki is a fine cook and I highly recommend her bacon cabbage and onion dish. I am looking forward to another fine elk season this fall.

  2. Ron Howard Says:

    I have known Justin and Nikki for five years, I always enjoy hunting with them, you wont find a better guide than Justin anywhere and Nikki’s cooking is incredible. What a great article about two great people and how they are helping those in there local community. Ron Howard

  3. Paulina Ratbuster Dave Says:

    You can call it sour grapes, I will call it greed….but..All due respect to the free market and to someone making a living running a small business, I take serious issue with the assertion that locking up all the ranch land around Crane for “guides” and “leases” is helping the economy. Long before people started leasing land to shoot ground squirrels thousands of people came over to Harney County to shoot them, gaining permission by knocking on doors. We bought groceries, gas, diesel, you name it, locally, and always ate several meals there in Crane. Multiply on average what we spent by the number of people who used to come and DIDN’T pay a guide fee, as opposed to what the local economy sees now from a smaller number of hunters paying for access, and the benefit to the economy isn’t near as much as when more people came. I respect the property owner’s right to keep things simple—it would also have been simple by keeping people away from your irrigation pipes in the first place—but let’s call this what it is: its a way to make money. Sorry, myself and the others in our group cannot afford to do this anymore. Neither can hundreds if not thousands of other hunters. Pretty sad, I have grade school kids that won’t be able to do this over there. Nevertheless we have found our own alternatives and other places to varmint hunt—in places and with people that won’t cut their neighbors throat by charging to shoot a ground squirrel–or whatever else it is that we might be hunting. Its your property, you want to make money, your choice. Its my money, and I can spend it elsewhere, and its not in Southeast Oregon. Good luck to you.

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