Booking A Guided Hunt Costs More, But Is It Worth It?
In Part 1 of this series, we highlighted the preparation that an aspiring elk hunter should complete in order to have a quality western elk hunting experience. Ultimately, the time will come when a hunter must decide whether they want to do an outfitted hunt or go the “do it yourself” route. In part 2, we will focus on the outfitted hunt.
Countless articles have been written on what to look for in an outfitter. While they are very valuable, I hope to shed some insights and perspectives in a different way. It is important to tailor a hunt that meets your needs, so first let’s examine the various options available on an outfitted hunt.
Hunting Public or Private Land
While cruising through various outfitter websites one cannot help but notice a wide variety of different elk hunts, prices and names that make little sense to the first time elk hunter looking for hunts. The first consideration is to determine if you want a private land hunt or a public land hunt.
“Public land hunts are affordable to a much broader base of people.”
Private land hunts typically offer seclusion from the general public, better quality animals, higher density of animals and easier physical hunts. However, those attributes are expensive. A private land hunt usually cost two to four times more than a public land hunt, with some high-end private hunts exceeding $50,000. There are no guarantees on a free-range private land hunt either. Once the bullets start to fly, the elk may simply move over to a neighboring ranch and stay there.
The public land hunts are where the majority of folks go. Public land hunts are affordable to a much broader base of people. Many offer some excellent hunting as well. It is important to understand that public land in the west is vast. Millions of acres spread out over sparse population densities are not like hunting public land in other parts of the country. In my area for example, if the entire population of Montana decided to hunt in just my permit area, that would be about one person per square mile! It is very possible to hunt public land out west for weeks and never see another person.
Lodging and Guiding
Other types of hunts are broken down by lodging. The two main types are lodge hunting and backcountry camp hunts. Lodge hunts offer comfortable stays, warm beds, showers, phone access and other trappings. They also offer the ability to be more mobile and move to areas if one area is unproductive. However, travel time to hunting areas can be substantial.
Camp hunts offer a more rustic hunt and typically, the ability to get away from most people so the sportsman can hunt less pressured animals. The experience of a quality elk camp is a treasure that one can appreciate for many years after the hunt. Camp hunts do not allow for the same mobility as lodge hunts and the amenities, of course, are rougher. Some camps offer a classic western elk camp with a camp cook and big meals. Others offer a more mobile fluid experience with little amenities at all.
Additional types include variance with the level of guiding. A fully guided hunt means clients are with a guide at all times during the time in the field. These can either be one or two clients per guide. A one-on-one client-to-guide ratio is more expensive than two clients sharing one guide. However, for those wishing to use their elk hunting as an educational tool for the future, one-on-one is preferred.
Most outfits will not partner two hunters together who do not know each other. Trying to match another hunter’s personality, fitness level and stealth is next to impossible, so most outfitters simply avoid this.
Semi-guided hunts are for the hunters who want to hunt at their own pace, but not be left completely without camp support. These are economical hunts geared to individuals with some elk experience and mountain comfort. I do not recommend these for the first time hunter, but it is a viable option with higher success then a DIY hunt.
Lastly, the most economical hunt is the drop camp option. The outfitter packs the clients into the backcountry and drops them off to completely hunt on their own. The outfitter typically packs out what game they put down, but it is the hunter’s responsibility to get the meat to a point where the mules can pick it up. I strongly encourage some elk hunting experience and mountain familiarity for these types of hunts.
Selecting an Outfitter
Once you have decided you want your first elk hunt to be outfitted, that means sitting down and gathering information to aid in the decision making process. After a thorough search of the internet, you have found multiple outfits in the states you have selected to hunt. Now what?
First, evaluate how you came to the list of outfitters. Was it a random google search? A magazine story? TV hunting show? Something you heard online in a forum?
The best source of information on an outfit you obtain is from people you know who personally hunted there. Have you asked friends, family and associates at work if they ever hunted elk with an outfitter? Think of your church, school, sports teams and other organizations or associations and start asking around. I think you would be surprised at the number of folks who can give you first-hand insights on their experience. Word of mouth from a trusted source is the best way to gather information and find an outfitter who might fit what you need.
Check the Reviews
However you arrived at your list, it is time to start zeroing it down. In this modern age, it is getting more and more difficult for marginal operators to conceal shoddy service. A comprehensive search of ratings and reviews of outfits using multiple search engines is in order. If an outfit has positive ratings and reviews, that is an excellent start. It is important also to remember that an outfit that has many positive reviews, but also a few negative ones, is probably still a good operator. Everybody has had an experience with a person you simply cannot make happy and outfitters are no different. I think it is wise to remember that the internet is never the most reliable source of information.
As you are reading the reviews and ratings, make a note of where the person writing the review was from, his or her name and the year that person hunted with the outfit. If an outfit has several years of positive ratings, it indicates a consistence in the level of performance and a well-managed operation. Also, if they have any negative ratings, do they all come from a specific year? If an outfit has positive ratings and a few bad ones that all come from the same year, it may have just been a bad year, which happens in the world of elk hunting for many factors most of which are outside the outfitter’s control.
If bad ratings are on multiple sites, check the names and places you previously noted. You may find the same names popping up and the people are from the same area. This may indicate a party that hunted with the outfitter wasn’t happy, not necessarily a broader indication of multiple unhappy folks over several reviews sites. Also, be aware that unfortunately some unscrupulous outfits may “plant” negative reviews about a superior competitor, so checks on what reporting systems are in place for the ratings website is wise.
Ask the Right Questions
Savvy hunters will conduct their due diligence with regard to ratings and reviews websites. This alone should give you a starting point and perhaps shorten the list. Once you have completed this stage, and matched up the perspective outfitters with your time schedule, state and determined the outfitter has what you are looking for, it is time to call him.
Most folks who call an outfitter have gone through some of the broader details via email. When talking with the outfitter, the most popular question by far is always, “What is your success rate?” This is perhaps one of the worst questions anyone can ask. Elk hunting is a tough hunt, and clients come in all shapes. It is very common for clients to show up unprepared with their equipment, physical fitness and mentality not being up to par. For those folks, the success rate drops dramatically, bringing the entire rate down. Success rates are so weather, hunter, and seasonal dependent, they are not even a realistic indicator for most public land operators.
A more useful question would be asking the outfitter about his or her accommodations. If doing a camp hunt, what are the lodging arrangements? It may seem trivial, but an outfit that puts 10 people in one tent most certainly will only have one wood stove in that tent. Imagine if your gear is soaking wet from the weather, you will be competing for space to dry your gear with other people. A much better camp will put one or two people per tent, affording those folks privacy, undisturbed sleep time and room to dry gear.
Another good question is, “How many people are in camp?” An outfit that packs as many people into camp as possible will strain resources very quickly. If your hunt is lodge-based, how much travel time is necessary to get to the hunting grounds? In the mountain areas, it is not uncommon to spend one to two hours in the rig winding over mountain roads, hooking up chains etc. It is also important to ask about additional cost, such as airport pick up fees, trophy fees, tipping, U.S. Forest Service user fees, access fees and other costs that may not be advertised on the outfit literature or website.
In general, this first call is critical for establishing a rapport with the outfitter and making an initial impression of the outfit. Almost every client that has told me a horror story about an outfit that they used has indicated they should have known based on talking with the outfitter. If you are not completely comfortable with the first call to the outfitter, I strongly suggest you trust your instincts and walk away.
If you are comfortable, I would then ask the outfitter for a reference list or pull one off the website. An outfitter’s reference list is another extremely valuable tool for choosing an outfitter. An appropriate list would include 10 or more references with information on what hunt they did, whether rifle or archery, and their time zone for calls. Again, you want to review the names and states to ensure the references are not all just one or two parties.
“The reference list should also include hunters who were not successful, as well as ones who were.”
The reference list should also include hunters who were not successful, as well as ones who were. For the ones who did kill an animal, ask about quality of the elk and how the outfit handled the meat care. For the ones who were not successful, ask about the quality of their guide, their impression of the outfit and the outfitter. Also ask if they have hunted with other outfits and how do they compare.
A reference of great value to the hunter is the person who hunted with the outfit for the first time last season. That reference was in the same boat as you a year ago, does not have a long history with the outfitter and can give updated information on the hunt last year. Also valuable is the repeat client who has gone back many times and has details the newer reference may not have.
References are not just for checking on the outfitter, but they also serve as information about the area, game and camp life from a hunter’s perspective. After completing your work with the reference list, it is time to call the outfitter back to compare and contrast what you heard from the references.
Hopefully, you have your preferred list pared down to just a few outfitters by now. Only you can evaluate the differences and determine which outfit is best for you. It is worth considering all the pros and cons of each outfit as well as associated expenses such as taxidermy, meat processing, shipping cost, tags and transportation to and from state where you will be hunting.
This article is not meant to be the exclusive authority on outfitted hunts, but another tool in your toolbox. Again there are many articles written on this subject and this one in conjunction with some of the more traditional ones, should help you in your decision making process.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The third part of this 3-part series on planning an elk hunt will focus on the dos and don’ts of planning a do-it-yourself hunt for those who prefer to go it alone.)