So you've saved your money and your significant other has granted permission to book a hunt. Perhaps it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal, or maybe you're one of the lucky ones that gets to do it every year. Regardless of your circumstance, a daunting decision remains... choosing an outfitter.
You've heard the horror stories and, unfortunately they seem more prevalent than those ending on a positive note. So how do you choose the right outfitter? Truth is, this can be answered on several different levels and much depends on your definition of success. While outfitters across the globe have established a language of their own relating to success ratios and service, sad but true, only a small percentage are worth their salt!
Many years ago, I thought outfitted trips were only for those who lacked the skill to venture into the outdoors on their own. Since then my thinking has changed; so much so in fact that I now take outfitted trips regularly and have since become a veteran guide/outfitter myself! Today, I am a strong supporter of the outfitting industry, recognizing the pragmatic value of hiring a professional guide/outfitter to gain access to prime areas. Outfitted trips not only simplify preparation, but they can put the hunter in some of the best areas.
If you're anything like me, you take pride in being your own guide. Frankly, I think most of us fancy ourselves pioneers when we go out into the wilds and experience a successful hunting trip. Those who enjoy the out-of-doors recognize one fact - it takes hard work. With our busy schedules, rising fuel costs and the myriad of access issues, outfitted trips present a unique opportunity to put you in prime locations by simply booking the time and paying the price.
Well, like anything, there are pros and cons to outfitted trips. For me personally, I spend roughly 100 days afield each year; it's what I do and, because of that, most of my outings are self-guided. That said, I try to book at least two outfitted trips annually. Contrary to my former way of thinking, for the consummate outdoorsman, they are a must, not because they're a sure thing … because they're not. But rather, guided outings literally open an entirely new world of outdoor adventure that most would never have access to if it were not for the professional operator.
If you've never been on a guided trip, I encourage you to do so. And if pride is the issue, let me also say, pride can be quickly overcome when you latch on to a fine caribou or that trophy whitetail of a lifetime! As for cost - it's all relative. With literally thousands of outfitters across North America, you can spend as little or as much as you'd like.
Your chances of booking with a quality outfitter increase a great deal if you follow a few straightforward tips. Following are a few things I've learned over the years.
What to Hunt - once you take the plunge into the world of outfitted adventures, you may be overwhelmed with the options. Narrowing your goal and focusing on one species and one window of time will help. Some trips offer higher odds for success than others; e.g., a waterfowl hunt or spring black bear hunt versus a sheep hunt. Doing a key word search for outfitted hunts on the Internet can be a great place to start. Alternatively, perusing display booths at sportsman's trade shows can also be an excellent starting place. Magazine advertisements, while helpful, don't tell you much, but certainly provide an access point into the scene of outfitted hunting.
Deer taken on professionally outfitted hunt with Venture North Outfitting
Budget - budgets can open or close doors. I find it best to predetermine an amount that's affordable, then research who offers what for that amount of money. Keep in mind that you don't always get what you pay for. Seems unfair I know, but the hunting marketplace is similar to the stock market - consumer demand along with other factors like fuel prices influence costs. Be sure to get clarification about what the outfitter is offering and including in the package price. Just because you may have a limited budget, does not mean you're out of the game. Remember, some outfitters offer the full-meal-deal, while others offer only transportation into the backcountry; still others offer daily excursions charging only for their guiding service. Regardless of your choice, be sure to shop and compare prices and learn what is included for those rates. Make sure you are paying a reasonable going rate. Believe me, like most things in life, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Destination & Timing - determining your destination can be a challenge. With world events the last couple years some hunters are concerned about travel abroad, but travel between Canada and the U.S. is thankfully very safe and straightforward. Be aware of any extraordinary travel requirements for your desired destination, i.e., passports, firearms registration permits, immunizations, etc. Also, be sure to learn about the best time of year to go and the amount of time needed to get there and back. Consider rut periods and available season dates.
Research - web sites again, can be a great source of information. Most professional outfitters have an online presence or are in the process of building one. Not only can the web offer a direct link to the outfitter's on-line brochure, but also to tourism departments. Simply type in key words that describe the species or region you want to hunt and you're off to the races. But beware things may not always be as they appear on the web. Just because an outfitter has a great site, doesn't necessarily mean he's all that and a bag of chips. Chances are pretty good that if the site looks impressive, the outfitter probably has something going for him, but you still need to dig deeper. Alternatively, state or provincial tourism departments are most often an excellent source of information. Most have outfitter listings or directories and may even refer you to those most reputable. More and more common these days are hunting consultants, otherwise known as booking agents. Many have booths at sportsman's shows, but again most can be found on the Internet. The same rules apply to these folks. Some are good and many are bad. Be sure to get references. Remember, they work on commission and approximately 10 - 15 per cent of your hunt fee will go into their pocket. The advantage is that booking agents usually work to promote many different outfitters and as such can typically give you a comprehensive perspective on what a particular outfitter offers.
Black bear taken on professionally outfitted hunt with Venture North Outfitting
Contacting the Outfitter - this is by far the most important step. It is during this initial correspondence that you will gather the most valuable information. Be sure to speak with the owner/operator directly. But remember, if you're calling during their peak season, they may be difficult to reach. Naturally the winter months can be best for most, although it depends entirely on the nature of their business. When you do manage in-person contact, be sure to find out what the price includes and/or excludes; i.e., expediting services, licenses, meals, accommodation, guide-to-hunter ratios, equipment, and so on. Inquire about what kind of equipment they use, e.g., boats, planes, four-wheelers, 4x4 trucks, etc. Find out how small or big their operation is, i.e., how many clients they host in a year. It can be advantageous to ask about their success ratios (kills and opportunity), but I've learned that many will spin and twist statistics to fit their sales pitch. Again, sad but true, many will outright lie about the size and numbers of trophy animals they take. The most reliable information you can get in terms of hunter success is from client references themselves. Find out if the outfitter himself is directly involved with day-to-day operations or whether he deals with just the business end of things. Remember, someone always has to be responsible for quality control! It's also a good idea to ask if they are insured, how long they have been in business, if they have ever had any serious problems with clients and what you should expect if you were to book with them. When you first speak with the outfitter, be sure to find out the best way to correspond in the future. Some prefer that you call direct, others have a support staff person that deals with daily communication. Cell phone numbers are commonplace as is e-mail.
Contact References - ask the outfitter for several names and phone numbers of past and current clients. Ask for those hunters who have been successful in taking game and those who were not. It's very important to note that not every client will go home with a trophy. Despite what many advertise, statistically speaking 100 per cent kills are a near impossibility when dealing with most free ranging species. Most importantly, you want to know that the outfitter and their staff will work hard for you and that they provide the service advertised. References can be the most reliable source of information.
Forward a Deposit - most outfitters require a deposit to hold your booking. Again, this is standard booking policy, but be sure to get a receipt or some form of paper confirmation. It's amazing how many outfitters still operate without a contract. Remember, you are entering into a business arrangement where you are paying a good dollar for a service. The contract protects you and it protects the operator. Your deposit should guarantee your reservation. Some operators will accept less, but standard booking policy is 50 per cent up front, then the balance either a set time prior to or upon arrival. Although some do, few accept the balance upon completion of the hunt. My own booking policy is half up front, then the balance 30 days prior to arrival. The deposit expresses commitment to the agreement and the balance is really just a logistical issue in that I like to have all of our paperwork completed before the hunt.
Travel Arrangements - as a visiting hunter, you will want to find out if the outfitter is able to take care of your travel arrangements or if they require you to do so. Most will say this is up to the hunter, but those who offer a comprehensive service will accommodate travel as well. With my operation for instance, we work closely with a travel agency that will accommodate clients' needs if desired.
Additional Information - quality operators will voluntarily send additional information in one form or another prior to the hunt. This additional information will assist the client in preparing for the hunt. For instance, when clients book with my company, upon receipt of their deposit we send a media kit. The kit includes a letter of confirmation, an items to bring list, background information on what to expect during their hunt, a copy of Alberta's provincial hunting regulations book, a brochure, a business card, and other relevant information such as a Wildlife Identification Number application (WIN card - required to purchase their license prior to their arrival) and a Canadian Firearms Registration form (as required at the border). All of this information helps our guests in preparing for their trip. It further instills confidence in their investment.
Gratuities - Within your budget, it's important to plan for a sensible tip. Like the restaurant business, gratuities are a part of this tourism industry. As such, remember it's a gesture only to be bestowed on those worthy of it. In other words, a tip should only be given if you were pleased with the service. As for amount, 10 per cent of the cost of your hunt is the minimum industry standard. If you were treated poorly, or did not get the service advertised, then don't tip … it's that simple. In fact, in my opinion, if you feel that your experience was really bad, follow up with a letter to the state or province's umbrella outfitting organization with a carbon copy sent to the outfitter. By doing this, it helps keep everyone honest.
Aside from these, prepare thoroughly by shooting plenty and getting in shape, and enjoy your trip!
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.