How to choose a great outfitter!
by Kevin C. Paulson
The last several years I had the pleasure of being an outfitter in Idaho and Montana. I spent a majority of my time on the phone and a portion of my time in the field. I have talked with literally thousands of hunters over the last several years and I have answered literally thousands of questions about hunting elk, mule deer, whitetail and spring bear. The following advice comes from all of these hunters and my own quest to find great outfitters and trips to pursue my own dreams of chasing quality trophy animals with first class outfitters and first class people. My definition of a first class outfitter is more about their attitude then anything else, but sometimes, everything else is just as important. The following is a list of ideas and questions that you should be thinking about.
Species/Type of Hunt
My first bit of advice that I offer you will be to choose the species and the type of hunt you are looking for first and foremost. Do you want a whitetail hunt out of a lodge, or a backcountry elk hunt 20 miles from the nearest road? Are you looking for an arctic adventure chasing Musk Oxen or Polar bear in the frozen north or are you looking for a spring bear hunt for that 400lb black bear? Are you looking for a combination hunt for several species? Define what it is that you are looking for and only seek out specifically what it is that you want.
The type of hunt you are looking for and the conditions of that hunt are the first questions you want to ask yourself before you step out into the world to look for an outfitter. Do you want a lodge hunt where you have warm showers or are you willing to stay in a tent in the backcountry with no running water and a stream to bath in? Are you willing to ride a horse? Are you willing to fly in to a remote location? This is your hunt, and you are paying for the opportunity to take a big game trophy in the conditions and the manner in which you desire. Are you willing to deal with bugs, heat, snow, rain and altitude in your quest? Are you looking for a hard hunt or an easy hunt? What is it that you desire for your dream hunt?
Define a Trophy
Define early what you consider a trophy. Are you looking for an average deer or elk? Are you hunting for the meat from the animal or are you looking for that Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young trophy of your dreams? Define early what you would be willing to take on the first several days of your hunt. Define the minimum you are willing to take on the last day of your hunt? If you have the opportunity, take some time and look at various pictures of the animals that you are seeking and define exactly what it is that you are looking for. I personally would define a trophy elk with a rifle as anything over a 300 class Boone & Crockett bull, but with a bow I would be willing to take any good bull and it would be a trophy to me.
Define early what your personal conditioning and be very accepting of exactly where you are personally in your physical fitness? Are you already in shape enough to hunt the species you are looking for? Are you in sheep shape? Do you need to get in shape for your specific hunt? Are you willing to do the work to get in shape for your hunt? Is the hunt out of your range of physical fitness? These are specific questions that only you and your doctor can really answer. These types of questions are sometimes hard to answer yourself and you may want to elicit the advise of others about your physical conditioning. I always recommend that any hunter over the age of 35 take a pre-hunt physical and create a work out regiment early in the year to gear up for a hard back country hunt.
Know exactly what it is that you are willing to spend on a hunt. Be very accepting of exactly what your budget is for the type of hunt you are willing to do. Are you willing to accept a budget hunt where you may save a few dollars and fore go a few amenities, or are you willing to wait until you have the budget to afford the right outfitter and the right hunt for what you are seeking? Be honest with yourself about what you are willing to accept.
Are you willing to put in enough time to do the practice necessary to be successful on your hunt? It always baffles me to see hunters come in to camp who have spent big money to come in to go hunting and have not taken the time to practice with their bows or rifles. The opportunity to take your trophy of a lifetime can sometimes happen in a matter of seconds. The choice for success in the field at the moment of the shot is truly yours. Are you willing to make the time to practice the weapon of your choice to be a great shot? If you are willing to practice, are you willing to practice in all kinds of conditions and all kinds of distances? Are you willing to push yourself in your practice to shoot at distances that are outside of your comfort zone?
Choosing an Outfitter
There are 4 options for you to pick out an outfitter these days.
- Ask a friend who has hunted with an outfitter
- Use the Internet to research outfitters
- Attend your local outdoor shows
- Book with a reputable Booking Agent(We will cover this in a later article)
All four have advantages and disadvantages and the following set of questions and advice should assist you in researching the hunt of a lifetime.
Friends and Family
Friends and family can be a great source of trusted advice about where to go hunting and what to expect from outfitters. These sources know you and who know you; they can give you honest information about where you might be happy hunting. The only disadvantage is that sometimes friends and family will steer you onto an outfitter so that they can get a discount hunt with that outfitter. They could also make a recommendation about where they went five years ago and the conditions in that area have changed dramatically. If a friend of yours recommends an outfitter, by all means check them out, just do your due diligence just like you would if you knew nothing about the outfitter.
The Wild Wild Web
The wild web can be a wonderful resource to search out an outfitter as well. There are some really great resources on the web to find a great outfitter. The advantage is that you can really take your time to do your homework on the outfitter and seek out the trip of your dreams. Most reputable outfitters have a web site and keep it updated on a regular basis. That being said, I know some great outfitters, who in the field I would be willing to follow to the ends of the earth, and yet on the web they look absolutely like a joke. As someone who is here to give you some advice on what to look for, the only answer I can say is always judge a book by its cover and never judge a book by its cover. Always be willing to check out every source you can for each and every outfitter.
In seeking outfitters out on the wild web, I look first for the species and I research everything I can about them. In looking for a moose hunt for the fall of 2008, I have spent several hours looking at research on moose. I then picked a region that I wanted to hunt that was within my budget. I knew I was not ready to hunt Alaska as it was outside my current budget so I chose to look at Newfoundland, Canada. Newfoundland has a herd size of almost 130,000 moose in the region and the outfitters there are within my budget. I looked at pictures of all of the moose that I could find that were taken in 2006. I selected what I would consider a trophy from those pictures. I am personally looking for a moose over 40 inches wide with very wide palms. I am wiling to spend 10 days hunting for this trophy and I wanted the option of taking a caribou or bear if I stumbled upon a nice one. I found a list of all of the outfitters offering trips that were of this caliber and looked them each up on the web. I emailed all of them and asked for a list of 10 references from 2006, a brochure, pricing and a copy of their contracts. Once I get the time to make the calls and check all of the references, I will narrow it down to two or three outfitters and then get on the phone with them and make a choice.
Outdoor shows can be a great place to find outfitters to fill your needs. I have found some wonderful outfitters by cruising the aisles of the various outdoor shows that are out there. Before attending a show, I usually look at the exhibitor list, look the outfitter up on the web and try and get a list of references for that outfitter. I check the references and go with a plan in mind. I am always interested in talking to any outfitter I find at these shows because sometimes personality and attitude play into my decisions on who I choose. I am open to hearing what someone has to say. That being said, there are some caveats to seeking out an outfitter at the various shows that are out there. Some points to remember when talking with outfitters at an outdoor show are:
• Don’t judge an outfitter just by the display of heads in his booth or his pictures. They may or may not be a good representation of what they have to offer.
• Always talk to the outfitter himself and not just the guide who is there at the show.
• Get a feel for the outfitter’s favorite type of hunting and find out if it matches what you are looking for.
• Ask about the experience of his team and the scouting his team does pre-season.
• Ask for a list of references on the spot.
• If this outfitter is offering a show deal that you are interested in, and you want to get in on this deal, ask him for 7 days to check his references and have him put it all in writing.
• ALWAYS check his references!!!!!
• Ask questions, everything you can come up with! If the outfitter is busy, be willing to ask him to make an appointment to spend 20 to 30 minutes with you after the show or have him call you later in the evening.
• Remember that the outfitter wants to talk to as many people as possible so have your list of questions ready and don’t waste his time if you are not interested in truly booking a hunt. Don’t be a tire kicker, unless you are willing to purchase.
• Ask about success rates and opportunity rates for the game you are seeking.
• Ask if there are any trophy fees or hidden fees.
• Ask about trophy preparation and meat care.
• Ask about group rates and/or bringing a friend or cameraperson.
• Be very honest with him about your expectations and your physical limitations and demands for your hunt. Will he work with you or is the outfitter dismissive about your concerns?
• Ask about tipping his staff and what their expectations are for a successful and unsuccessful hunt.
The difference between a successful hunt and an unsuccessful trip often boils down to attitude. Sometimes it is the attitude of the outfitter and the guides that makes or breaks a trip for a client but more often then not, it is the attitude of the client that makes or breaks a trip. Your attitude on every day of your trip can be the extra boost that you need to be successful. Whether you are sitting on a whitetail stand or running up the mountain chasing a bugling elk, it is your happy positive attitude that will help you get there. Remember, you are out there for the adventure, to be in the wild, for the thrill of the hunt. After several years of outfitting I can honestly state that those that came into camp with a positive, can do attitude, always left camp happy and relaxed whether they got game or not. These hunters took tons of pictures, had fun and learned about themselves and the animals they were pursuing. They made friends with the other hunters and the guides. If they were lucky and got a trophy, they smiled even larger then they had all week.
My favorite trip into the wild was with an outfitter in Idaho. For that week we both had such a contagious attitude that we were going to run into the elk of our dreams; we pushed each other to the ends of the territory, covered over 100 miles on horses and on foot in the week. We never saw an elk in all 7 days but I never had more fun. During the week the temperature continued to drop and ultimately snow fell to a total of 27 inches. On the way off the mountain on the final night of the hunt, we were all yelling into the mountains, “It just doesn’t get any better!” and we truly meant it. It was the trip of a lifetime!!!
Tipping is a choice that hunters make to pay for the extra service for that you receive from the guides that help to make your trip successful. Guides from reputable outfitters should be paid very well and should not have to rely upon tips to survive. Tips are an added bonus and certainly are appreciated by the guides, packers and the cooks. A general rule of thumb is that 5- 15 percent of the hunt price is a more then fair rule for hunting with the 15 percent going for truly exceptional service that was above and beyond in every way possible.
Questions to ask the outfitters you are considering.
• What types of hunts do you offer?
• How experienced are the guides?
• How many hunters per guide?
• Will my group be split up?
• Could I be added to another group?
• What is the entire cost of the trip including all license fees, access fees and additional trophy fees?
• What deposit is required?
• What is the cancellation policy?
• Can you provide me with a copy of your contract?
• What methods of payment do you accept?
• Do you provide any references or referrals from other clients? • May I call them?
(If the answer is no here, hang up the phone and do not book
a trip with this outfitter)
• Do you furnish transportation from the airport, or must I?
• What type of transportation is provided?
• How far is the nearest airport?
• What airlines service that airport?
• Will I be need to rent a car?
• Where will I be staying? Lodge, hotel, tent, etc…
• How many guests to a room or tent?
• Can my group share a room or tent?
• What is supplied? Food, sleeping bag, linens, electricity, etc…
• What meals, if any, are provided?
• What is the quality of the food? Sandwiches and chips or grilled steak and steamed veggies?
• How do you handle clients with special dietary needs?
• Is alcohol allowed?
• Are the guides and staff allowed to drink?
• How much travel is involved from the lodge to the hunting area?
• How has the hunting been lately?
• What game have you been seeing?
• What was your largest animal taken last year during archery
and rifle season?
• Have they been active?
• When is the peak of the rut for your area?
• What type of weapons can be used?
• How large of an area will I be hunting?
• What are your success statistics for the type of hunt I am interested in booking?
• Who cares for the game?
• Who will be responsible for butchering?
• Is there a local taxidermist I can call or do I need to make arrangements to bring the game home?
• Who obtains the license?
• Will you be providing me a copy of the game and fish regulations
• Can it be purchased locally?
• How much are the tags and license fees?
• Can ammunition be purchased locally?
• Will I be able to site in my weapon?
• What physical condition must I be in?
• Is this a fully guided hunt?
• What kind of weather must I prepare for?
• What kind of camo is best for your area?
• Do your guides all carry maps and gps units?
• Do you have a satellite phone in each camp?
• Will I have access to the phone if need be for a fee?
• What are your safety regulations?
• Can you provide me a list of your gear recommendations?
• How much gear am I allowed to bring into camp?
This is an ever growing list of questions, please do not hesitate to ask any questions that you feel are necessary to know the answers to assist you in making the right decision in choosing your outfitter.
Questions to ask references about the outfitter you are considering.
• Would you hunt with this outfitter again?
(If the following question is no, do not book with this outfitter)
• What was your hunting trip like with this outfitter?
• Did you get an opportunity for a shot at game?
• If you were picked up at an airport, how was the service? Was the outfitter on time?
• Were you allowed to site in your rifle before the hunt? Did the outfitter have an archery target in camp for daily practice?
• Were the accommodations clean and organized or was the camp run smoothly and efficiently?
• Was the outfitter prepared to put you on game the first morning of your hunt? Did they know the area and where the game was?
• Was the outfitter prompt in picking you up from a hunting site at the end of a morning or evening?
• What was the quality of the food? Was there enough to go around?
• Did you have access to showers and clean toilets?
• What were game populations like?
• What was trophy quality like and did you see quality animals?
• Did trophy quality match your expectations?
• How would you rate the guide’s experience and knowledge of the land you hunted?
• How would you rate the guide’s hunting skills?
• Did the outfitter run a safe operation and did you feel safe? Was there first aid kits readily available? Was there a safety plan in place?
• Did you feel this outfitter ran a law abiding operation? Were all game laws followed?
• What was the success rate while you were in camp?
• If you were the outfitter what one improvement would you make?, what would it be?
• Who specifically was your guide and cook? How long had they been working for the outfitter?
• Do you know the name of another hunter in camp I might call?