by David Hart
Guided hunts aren’t cheap. Aside from the cost of the license and travel expenses, you can count on spending upwards of $4,000 or more for an elk hunt.
A whitetail hunt can cost even more, and a duck hunt can set you back $300 or $400 per day.
Finding an outfitter worthy of that price tag can be as difficult as drawing a coveted big game tag. For every reputable outfitter, it seems like there’s a crook waiting to prey on gullible or uneducated hunters. Thankfully, narrowing down your search just takes a little effort.
Research Before You Book
First, do your homework. The Internet is always a good starting point. Not only is it a good place to find reputable outfitters, it’s an even better place to learn about the bad ones. Disgruntled hunters are eager to share their bad experiences on hunting forums like GON Outdoor News.
Take this comment regarding a Mexico sheep outfitter: “This is just one example of why to steer clear of this poaching, trespassing bottom feeder.”
Or this one for a Kansas deer hunt: “The ‘lodge’ was a converted garage, filthy, and we left to stay in a motel for the duration of the hunt.”
One bad review does not mean the outfitter is a crook, says Steve Jones, owner of New Mexico-based Backcountry Hunts and a full-time outfitter for 30 years. Some hunters blame the outfitter or guide for an unsuccessful hunt, when the blame falls squarely on their shoulders.
“There are two sides to every story. I’ve had a few hunters that I would never allow back in my camp, but they would probably blame their bad experience on me,” says Jones. “However, if you find a bunch of bad reviews for a single outfitter, then that’s probably a good sign you should avoid him.”
He recommends contacting the state outfitters and guides’ association if there is one. That step certainly can’t tell you everything, but it’s a good start. Many states require outfitters to have a license and proof of insurance, and an outfitters association will keep track of any game violations committed by the outfitter.
“The best way to find a reputable outfitter is by talking to people who have already hunted with him. About 90 percent of my business is repeat clients and friends of people who have hunted with me. They already know what kind of operation I run, so they know what they are getting into,” he says.
While Jones will offer references if asked, he agrees they aren’t necessarily the best source of information. Some outfitters will provide the names of every client from past seasons, even those who did not fill their tags, but many won’t. Nor will they provide the names of hunters who were visibly unhappy.
An unhappy client isn’t always the outfitter’s fault, of course. He can’t control the weather or deer activity or the duck flights or the elk migration. He can’t aim your gun and pull the trigger, either. Don’t blame him if you don’t fill your tag, at least not if he worked hard to put you in front of game. It’s up to you to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
“Sometimes I’ll have hunters whose gun isn’t sighted, or they aren’t prepared for the conditions,” says Jones.
What To Ask
You not only need the right gun, boots and equipment to be prepared, you need to know what you are getting into before you send a deposit. Ask lots of questions. For instance, how will the hunt be conducted? Some guides spend the day driving across the land, stopping occasionally to scan the horizon for game. That’s often the best way to hunt antelope or other game in wide-open country, but it’s no way to bow hunt for whitetails.
Is the land public or private?
“Public land can be really good if it’s difficult to access or if the number of tags are limited,” says Jones, “but if it’s the same land a bunch of other people are hunting, it may not turn out so good.”
Private land is typically better for whitetail deer, upland birds, waterfowl and other game, but only if hunting pressure is kept low or if the outfitter has a large land base to hunt. Some outfitters will cram as many hunters as they can into the season, even if it means overhunting the property. They’ll also overfill their lodge, if they have a lodge, so ask about the accommodations as well as the number of hunters who will be in camp.
Asking lots of questions will also offer a little insight into the outfitter himself. Do you like the answers? Does he seem truthful or is he dancing around the tougher questions? When all else fails, trust your instincts. If the guy on the other end of the phone seems evasive or otherwise shady, there’s a good chance he is. Remember, it’s your money.
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