By Michael Deming
Whether you have waited years to draw that premium limited entry tag or have just now decided to do a guided trip, you are left with a daunting task of figuring out who to hunt with. If you have never booked a guided trip and don’t have a good circle of influence of who does, it won’t take you long to realize that there are a lot of outfitters out there willing to take your money. Some good and a whole bunch that are bad. Some that are downright criminals and should be behind bars. The real question is, “How do you know who is good” and “How do I decide which one is right for me”?
Most people today will start with a web search on the specific area or species they have a tag for or want to pursue. This will usually identify a significant list of possible candidates to book with. You might even find some positive remarks on the web, but more than likely, you will find the negative remarks. Do you drop someone off of your list because there was a customer which wasn’t happy with the service they were provided? My personal experience says, “No”. However, you do want to find out the story behind the complaint if you figure out this is the outfitter you are seriously considering. If there are complaints everywhere, look elsewhere for sure. A few big buck or bull photos on the outfitters website is usually all it takes for most viable customers to start really looking at someone. Who doesn’t want to harvest one of the biggest animals of their life? After all, you have waited a lifetime for this tag or saved for years and you want the biggest thing available. The problem with this philosophy is that if you don’t harvest an animal which is worthy of the cover of a magazine, you aren’t likely to be happy when it is all over. You might just be that person posting your complaint on the internet for that next possible hunter to see. This all plays into the pitfalls of picking the right outfitter.
If you want to pick the right outfitter and truly have the time of your life, you have to know the right questions to ask. Some questions should be the same for all people, but the majority of questions you should be asking the outfitter should be specific to just you and your situation. Before you can ask those questions, you need to know what you want and what will make for a great trip, regardless of the outcome. Remember, you are hunting and when you book a trip, you aren’t purchasing an animal. You are booking a trip with a professional hunter, who knows the land, knows the habits of the animals on this land, has the gear to make you comfortable and has done their homework to give you the best opportunity possible. When you go into a hunt and you know this, you will enjoy the experience. I’ve been guided and I’ve been the guide and nobody wants you to be more successful than the guide himself. His or her reputation is on the line to get you what you want.
Before you start shopping for an outfitter, know what you want out of the experience, even if you aren’t successful. Be honest with yourself and who you are prior to shopping for that outfitter and you will make shopping for the right outfitter so much easier. If you enjoy coming back to the lodge at the end of the day, taking a hot shower and enjoying the camaraderie of the other hunters, then forget about that hard-core backcountry hunt regardless of how hard someone tries to sell you. This doesn’t mean that you can’t harvest a world class animal, but it does limit the number of places you hunt. If food and lodging mean nothing to you and you have saved every penny for twenty years to kill a giant mule deer, then know that about yourself too. Do you like to see a lot of game on your trips or are you okay with seeing only one animal during the hunt, especially if he is the one? Knowing yourself as a person and what you want out of the trip is the key to getting the most out of your trip.
Once you know about yourself, then you can start shopping for outfitters. When you do, you always want to make sure that an outfitter is licensed to do business. Sounds simple, but every year numerous people send deposits to people who don’t pass this first test. That money is gone for good and you are still responsible to the state for hunting with a licensed outfitter. Talking to the states’ licensing board is a good way to see what sort of standing an outfitter has, as well as any complaints they may have against them. Someone with numerous complaints year after year should be avoided. Most people want to know the success rate of an outfitter. I won’t discount that this is a question I like to know as well. However, it has little emphasis on my booking a trip, unless I know the clients. Without knowing the past clients physical abilities, as well as their ability to shoot, doesn’t give me solid facts about how good this outfitter or his guides produce. If they run in the 90% or better, chances are they are booking the right clients for their situation and have pretty good guides.
Most outfitters are happy to provide you with a reference list of past customers. They aren’t likely to put someone on that list that didn’t have a good time. So, it will be a bit biased. People on that list which have visited the operation multiple times and go back regardless of success are a good resource. These reference lists are a good place for me to ask the questions which validate if this is the right outfitter for my own personal trip of a lifetime. Are the things that are truly important to you about the experience what they experienced while they were there? Does it match what the outfitter told you about the operation? When you get that, you are likely on the right track to have a great experience.
To summarize, make sure you are honest with yourself about the type of experience you want, regardless of success. Be honest with the outfitter about what you want and tell him or her about your physical capabilities, as well as your shooting abilities. Make sure you are hunting in an area which grows the caliber of animals you want to harvest. When it all comes together, you are on your way to that trip of a lifetime.