For many of us, our bucket list of dream hunts includes destinations from around North America — the high mountains of Alaska or the Yukon, the wilderness of Montana, the great forests of Newfoundland or the rimrock canyons of Arizona. Perhaps you’ve even got your sights set on more exotic locales and long to chase Cape buffalo in the floodplains of Mozambique or ibex in the Himalayas. Regardless of which of these pursuits is most attractive to you chances are you’ll need to hire a guide, outfitter, or PH to help you through the process. Hiring a professional for a guided hunt may seem like a great expense, but understand that you are paying for is the use of their equipment and their assistance and expertise.
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In many cases, it would take you a lifetime to learn as much about a particular species in one hunting area as your guide already knows, and if they’re on the ground they’re probably already scouting game and have an idea where to hunt when you arrive. Unless you plan on spending days, weeks, or even months in an area learning the terrain and the game you won’t be able to accomplish what a good guide will help you do in a few days. The good news is technology has made it easier than ever to find a guide who concentrates on the areas and species you’re most interested in hunting, to read articles from hunters who have had similar experiences and to check references before booking.
Most guided hunts provide a lifetime of memories, but those memories aren’t always good ones. I’ve heard the horror stories from guides who suffered with unreasonable and unprepared clients and clients who have been duped into hunting with incompetent or lazy guides. Before you pay a booking deposit and start planning for that once-in-a-lifetime hunt, consider these six common problems that can derail a guided hunt.
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This is critical. Before you book any hunt with any guide or outfitter be certain to check references. A slick website or a well-decorated booth at a hunting convention don’t always mean you’re speaking with a competent hunting professional. There are instances where guides have intentionally swiped images of great trophies from social media to make clients think that every hunter kills a 360″ bull or a 10′ bear. A few phone calls aren’t enough, though —you need to contact the professional association of hunters in the guide’s state/province/country (if there is one) and at least 10 previous hunters who have experience with the guide during recent years. Why recent clients? Because outfits change, hunting areas change, and the quality of the experience you could expect in 1990 might not be what you’re getting today. Also, learn to ask the right questions of previous hunters — what was camp like? How was the food? Were they hunting wild game or were their fences? What were the accommodations? Did you hunt with the company owner or freelance hired help? Were you asked to take shots with which you were not comfortable? Does the guide respect the game and, if so, how did they demonstrate that respect? That last question is my favorite — I can survive in a remote camp eating mediocre food and never being completely dry or clean (that’s part of the experience, I believe) but if the guide doesn’t respect the game — and game laws — I don’t care to hunt with them.
You need to be very clear about the conditions and the style of hunting before you pay any money or set foot in camp. Most guides are going to do everything within their power to put you on a trophy animal, but unless you’re hunting behind high fences in small enclosures that’s not always going to be the case. Understand not all areas produce 350″ elk or 200″ mule deer and unless you are planning to shoot an animal in some type of enclosure there’s a reasonable chance — maybe even a high chance — you won’t come home with a trophy at all. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re plunking down hard-earned cash for a highly anticipated hunting experience. But, after all, that’s all your guide can promise when hunting wild game — an experience. They can’t control the weather, they can’t control the animals, they can’t single-handedly put out a large forest fire, and they can’t anticipate weird government rule changes in foreign countries. Again, you need to outline how those events will affect your hunt and how you’ll be refunded (if at all) if the hunt is a complete bust. Your guide will do their best, but there’s a chance of failure or you won’t get the caliber of animal you’d like. Learn to live with that or spend your money on a new motorcycle or boat instead of a guided hunt. You’ll be happier.
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This is the second most common complaint I hear from guides. Some hunter’s book tough hunts without ever stopping to realistically evaluate whether they are in the type of physical condition required to succeed. With the exception of the really tough mountain hunts — elk, sheep, goats, lions with hounds, some deer, and a few others — you don’t have to be in fantastic shape to pursue game. But you can’t be a complete couch potato, either. This is where asking the right questions becomes key. Hunting exotic aoudad and non-native chukar partridge may not universally be considered tough hunts, but I’ve done both and can assure you that they will test your mettle. Let your guide know exactly what type of condition you are in (and the altitude where you live) ahead of time so they can plan accordingly, and set some time aside for physical training. Climb stairs, walk with a pack on your back, hit the weight room, work on your core and improve flexibility (which can help prevent a hunt-ending muscle strain). Losing just a few pounds can make a major difference.
This is the primary complaint I hear from guides. They work hard, get their clients into position for an easy shot, and suddenly bullets are flying and nothing is hitting hair. We live in an age of inflated accuracy claims, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t meet someone who regularly shot half-MOA groups at 800 yards. But all that big talk doesn’t put meat in the freezer. Trust me, if you’re paying thousands of dollars for a hunt buying a few extra boxes of cartridges is money well spent. Check multiple loads to see which one shoots best, stay vigilant to be certain your scope mounts stay tight, double-check your rifle’s zero on the ground before you hunt, and — most importantly —don’t tell your guide you can shoot little tiny groups consistently at a quarter mile unless you have actually done so!
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Second-Guessing Your Guide
Some client hunters confuse their role in the field. They hired a guide with many positive references to help them find game and then the client suddenly decides they are the experts. Never mind said client lives in the Upper Midwest and hunts whitetails from a tree stand — their knowledge of moose hunting in the muskeg of Alaska far bests that of their master guide — and after just three days of hunting! In all seriousness, unless your guide is unethical or unsafe they’re probably doing their best to help you find game even If their methods may seem strange to you. You may want to take a peek over the next ridge because you’re certain there’s a big buck hiding there. You may not like the way they use a grunt call, the way they carry their pack, the way they smell (you probably don’t exactly smell like peaches and roses yourself) or even the way they look. Failure to land on a big trophy frequently prompts bad clients to look for someone to blame — and that person is usually their guide. The key to a successful guide-client relationship is to develop into a team. You have your job, your guide has theirs, and if you work together your odds of success will be higher. To quote Alaskan guide Lance Kronberger of Freelance Outdoor Adventures, clients “only have a couple of important jobs on the hunt…show up in the best shape possible, shoot straight, and have a positive attitude.”
Not Having All the Facts
Don’t be so focused on the hunt that you completely forget about all the incidental stuff that you’ll have to deal with along the way. You’ll need to arrange flights, obtain gun permits, CITES permits (for some species) and perhaps visas, arrange for shipping of your trophies and coordinate with a broker to get through US customs if you’re bringing international trophies into the United States. You need to discuss all of this with your guide, and you may want to use an outside party to facilitate things. Coordinating travel plans with a professional like Lori Ginn of Travel Express (www.travelexpressagency.com) and hiring a shipping partner like Coppersmith Global Logistics (www.coppersmith.com) makes life much easier and the added cost more than makes up for the headaches.
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Not knowing what to expect before the hunt from accommodations to taxes to dipping and packing fees to shipping costs can create quite a burden if you’re unprepared and wait until the last minute. I personally witnessed, on my first safari, a client hunter throwing the most inglorious temper tantrum in camp when he was confronted with the fact that he would have to pay for dipping and packing of trophies and shipment of the trophies home. The hunter hadn’t budgeted accordingly and had already exceeded his budget on the safari (and it didn’t help that I mentioned to him later that he should probably give a tip —which I’m sure he did not). That hunter felt duped, as though somehow the safari company had intentionally hidden costs from him. But I booked with the same agency and there were no hidden costs as far as I know. That hunter simply failed to read the fine print and felt as though he was cheated. He wasn’t cheated, in fact, but the experience of his first African hunt won’t be one he enjoyed as much as he could have if he had done his homework.