The Truth About Outfitter Success Ratios
Just about every time a new hunting client contacts me and asks me about our outfitting business, I am asked the exact same question: “What was your success ratio last year?”
Personally, I find that to be a curious question that has many different answers. Just the definition of “success” is interesting. For example, I went on a guided whitetail deer hunt a couple of years ago with an outfitter in eastern Nebraska. I missed a nice buck on the first day—completely my fault—and because I had an either-sex deer tag, I shot a fat doe during the last ten minutes of my hunt. Was my hunt successful? By the definition of many persons, no. I didn’t kill a buck, which is how most hunters define "success." Does killing a doe count? If you ask an outfitter, damned right! But anybody can kill a whitetail doe, right? I talked to a whitetail hunting guide who whacked five the other day, just to thin them out.
But my trip was undoubtedly a success. I saw a new part of the country, I learned a new style of hunting, I hunted a species I had never hunted before, I was well guided, well fed, well housed, and I made some great new friends. I forgot about all the pressing concerns at home and had a pleasant vacation. Oh, yes, the trip was a success.
Now let’s look at my “success ratio,” as defined by the number of people that we outfitted in 2002 and the number of elk that they killed. We outfitted a total of 53 elk hunters who killed a total of 25 elk, for a success ratio of 47%. Right? Well, not exactly. Of the 53 hunters, six of them actually killed two elk each. 2002 was the first year that Colorado allowed hunters to shoot both a cow and a bull during the same season. If you use the strict definition of “how many hunters killed an elk”, our success ratio was 36%. Is that good? You tell me. The overall statewide success ratio for Colorado elk hunters typically hovers between 20 and 25%, so that’s not bad. But you’re used to hearing outfitters boast of success ratios of 80% and 90%, so I must not be a very good outfitter, according to those numbers.
Well, let's examine those numbers. Many outfitters will tell you they have a high success rate of opportunities, such as "95% of our hunters have opportunities at 5x5 and bigger bulls." Now that's interesting. How do you define "opportunity"? "A reasonable chance to kill an elk" would be a good definition. Let's take my whitetail hunt as a good example. I was posted on the edge of a stand of cedar trees while the rest of the fellows pushed on through. I was startled when an eight-point buck burst from the cover only 40 yards away from me. I shouldered my muzzleloader and fired, and in my haste, I shot over his back. That was a legitimate opportunity, and I can understand my outfitter's frustration if he's asked "what's your success ratio"? By all definitions, I had a legitimate opportunity and should have killed the buck. My failure to connect was not the outfitter's fault. He put me in the right place and gave me a chance and I blew it. So why should my screw-up count against his record in an industry where "success ratio" is the benchmark? That's why so many outfitters offer up the "opportunity" success ratio for hunters to compare.
Under that definition, my success ratio as an outfitter suddenly goes much higher. How about the guy who, despite being warned three times not to leave his rifle in his scabbard while his horse was tied to a tree, continually did so? You guessed it, he missed five shots at a walking bull at 150 yards because his scope got knocked out of alignment. That counts against my success ratio. I would guess that my success ratio rockets to 90% or more when you use the "opportunity" definition.
But how do you really define "opportunity"? Is it a legitimate opportunity when the guide tells a client to shoot at a bull 400 yards away across a canyon? I don't think so. Is it an opportunity when the guide spots a nice bull 40 yards away and the client can't get dismounted from his horse and get his rifle out of the scabbard in time to shoot? Hmmm?maybe. As a guide, I'm continually frustrated by guys who sit there like a bump on a log when game is about to bolt away. I'm not counting, though. Who cares? It's hunting.
Of course, you may talk to hunters who booked with the same outfitter and had wildly different experiences. During Colorado's second rifle season this year, we had to work like the devil to find any elk at all. The weather was warm and sunny, the moon was full at night, and the elk were at very high elevations. They fed all night and bedded down in the dark timber at first light, and it was very difficult hunting. We saw few elk and killed even fewer-four elk out of 16 hunters. Eight days later, during the third rifle season, we had four straight days of snow and the elk flooded out of the high country. Our 13 hunters killed ten elk and missed several more good opportunities.
The other thing you've got to consider is who is hunting. As an outfitter, I know that on quite a few occasions I'm not guiding the most skilled of the hunting fraternity. I'm outfitting people who need help. While some of our hunters are very skilled, quite often I'm taking guys who aren't in the best shape, who aren't the best shots, who don't know the ways of the elk, and who don't know how to pack in on horseback to set up a wilderness camp and go find, shoot, and pack out their own elk. That's exactly why they've hired an outfitter in the first place. My personal success ratio? 18 elk in the last 19 years. If my guides and I go out hunting, we always bring a packhorse with us, because there's going to be meat on the ground.
But the very definition of "success ratio" can be very misleading. Hunters who are shopping their hunts according to the "success ratio" benchmark should be extremely careful. I once interviewed a guide who had quit a well-known Colorado outfitter and was looking for new employment. This particular outfitter (now out of business) continually boasted a very high success ratio-70%, according to their literature. I questioned the guide about this boast, and he explained it to me. "We ran a lot of antelope hunters, and we had leases with ranchers who were begging us to shoot the antelope. If you've ever hunted antelope, you know that they're easy to kill." I knew this to be true. I shot my first three nice bucks in a total of 20 minutes of hunting spread over three seasons. The Colorado statewide success ratio for antelope hunters is 96%. If you figure that some guys don't even go hunting, just about everybody that hunts gets an antelope.
"So our success ratio on antelope was 100%," he continued. "And we also guided a lot of deer hunters. About half of them got a buck, although the outfitter was pushing them to kill anything they could, and they shot forkhorns. So their success rate was about 50%. Now, in that year I worked for that outfitter, I ran their elk hunting camp from the beginning of archery season to the end of the fourth rifle season. It was a total of about ten weeks. The camp was booked solid the entire time with ten hunters a week. We outfitted a total of 102 elk hunters. So how many elk do you suppose we killed?" he asked.
"Well, according to his success ratio, about 70," I replied. "Not even close," he laughed. "Two. We killed two elk that fall out of 102 hunters." As I stood there in disbelief, he explained. "See, if you average the 100% success rate of the 200 antelope hunters with the 50% success rate of the deer hunters, and then add the elk hunters in, the overall success rate on big game was 70% and that's how they came up with those numbers."
Obviously this kind of malarkey doesn't fly over the long term, and that's one of the major reasons why that particular outfitter is now out of business. Now let's examine the "100% GUARANTEED KILL" that you see advertised in the back pages of many hunting magazines. That's an easy one. Any time you see the words "guaranteed kill," you can bet that the game being hunted have been released behind the confines of a high fence.
Some outfitters can legitimately advertise a very high success ratio. A friend of mine once hunted with an outfitter whose clients consistently scored well-on raghorn bulls. His report: "The cabin was a dump, an old shack, really, and it was freezing cold. There must have been 10,000 dead flies on the windowsills, and the place was a pigsty. Twelve hunters shared one bathroom, and the toilet kept backing up. The food was just awful, barely fit to eat. I lost 15 pounds. The staff all smoked cigarettes and swore like a bunch of drunken sailors. Every time someone killed an elk, they just threw it in a pile and waited for two or three days before they skinned them. We hunted the last season, and although we saw a lot of elk, we didn't see any legal bulls because they'd killed them all the previous seasons. They were overbooked. There were no big bulls at all because they had no idea how to manage their herd. The whole experience was depressing." So there you have it-a hunt with an outfitter who has a legitimately high success ratio. Sound like fun? Other outfitters hunt out of old travel trailers or shacks. Some outfitters might drop you off in a camp overlooking a new subdivision or drilling rig. Does your dream hunt include filth and squalor? Remember, aesthetics are important, too.
Outfitters who do a good job, offer quality service, and consistently fill a high percentage of their hunters' tags usually charge a lot of money, and rightfully so. If you investigate private-land fair-chase hunts in New Mexico, for example, where the outfitters consistently put their clients onto huge 6x6 bulls, you'll pay easily two or three times as much as you will for a public-land hunt in Montana or Colorado. So what can you afford?
When you ask an outfitter to define success, there are many variables. To guarantee that a client kills an elk-well, I can't control that. I can't control the deer and the elk. I can't control what the weather will do. I can't make a hunter shoot straight. Heck, I can't even control whether a guy gets out of bed in the morning to go hunt. But the things that I can control, I try to have firmly in hand. I try to ensure that all our clients are treated respectfully and courteously (though I sometimes lose my patience over a three-month hunting season), that our horses are well trained, well fed, and reliable, that our camps are clean, comfortable, and well equipped, that our staff is knowledgeable and skilled, that we observe all game laws, that we take good care of the meat that we pack out, that our operations run smoothly, and that, God willing, we find game.
The rest is hunting, and your definition of success is up to you.
Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native, is the principal owner of OutWest Guides, LLC, in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.