The guide guide
Now’s the time to start planning for a guided hunt. Here’s how to ensure a dream adventure—and avoid disappointment
The old bull bushbuck was clearly past his prime, browsing contentedly just 200 metres from where a younger, evidently stronger bull was tending six cows. The senior citizen was no longer king of his realm, though his swollen neck indicated he still had the desire, if not the strength. My guide, Eldre Hattingh, led me quietly through the thornbush, careful not to expose us to the watchful eyes of the feeding bull or the baboons frequenting the area that would bark an alarm at the first sign of danger.
Eventually, we ran out of cover and I settled into the fork of an acacia tree, some 275 metres from the ancient bull. I had plenty of time to shoot, and in short order I was admiring the animal and posing for photos (above). It was the crowning moment of a 10-day hunt in South Africa, featuring comfortable camps, superb food, and friendly and competent guides and staff. Even if I hadn’t bagged the old bushbuck, the hunt would have been a tremendous success. Fortunately, that’s how many guided hunts go, but it isn’t always the case.
I’ve been on several dozen guided hunts over the past few decades. Most have been excellent, others less so. How can you ensure your guided hunt will result in a rewarding and memorable experience? The difference between a dream hunt and a nightmare is largely in your hands—you need to do your research, be clear and reasonable in your expectations, and head afield with the right attitude.
#1 Know what you want
Before selecting an outfitter, you must determine what you want out of the hunt, starting with deciding what game you will pursue. That may sound pretty obvious, but if hunting moose is your priority, with deer or elk as secondary options, you should select an outfitter that specializes in moose and an area that has healthy moose populations. Even waterfowlers should be crystal clear in their expectations. If you really want to hunt Canada geese, consider outfitters that specialize in Canadas rather than ones that promote putting you under several different species.
Also consider whether you’ll only be satisfied with a record book-class animal, or if you’ll be happy with any representative animal of the species. Most regions hold game of a relatively consistent size, while record book-class animals may be rare or non-existent, making it unlikely to take one. Be clear in your own mind what will satisfy you and remember this old hunting adage: Shoot any animal on the first day that you would willingly take on the last day.
If it is a record-class animal you’re seeking, you must be prepared to go home empty-handed. On the first evening of a guided elk hunt last year, I took an average 5x5 elk, which was pretty representative of the area’s bulls. I could have held out for a slightly larger animal, but it made little sense to pass up the opportunity on the off-chance that something marginally better might appear.
Is taking an animal—any animal—more important to you than the experience itself? Understand that hunting, even guided hunting, is subject to a range of variables that can influence the outcome. The weather may not cooperate. Equipment can break down. And even in the best areas, the success rate may only be 75 per cent, meaning one in four hunters goes home without an animal. Are you comfortable with the possibility that you may wind up in the 25 per cent class? If you’re looking for guarantees, an outfitted hunt may not be right for you.
What kind of hunting style and camp will you be happy with? Do you want a comfortable lodge with all the trimmings or will a small backpacking tent suffice? Are you willing and patient enough to sit on a treestand or in a ground blind for a week, or do you prefer to walk? Are you comfortable riding a horse or flying in a small airplane to remote locations? Are you okay with shooting out of a layout blind when waterfowling? Be upfront about your preferences, or you risk having a miserable time.
#2 Consider your own capabilities
Be honest with yourself—and your potential outfitter—about your fitness level. Some hunts, particularly in mountainous terrain, are physically rigorous. Guides will tell you that one of the most common reasons for an unsuccessful hunt is a client who couldn’t handle the physical demands. There’s little sense in booking a sheep or goat hunt, for example, if you can’t make it up and down the mountain. Be sure you’re capable of undertaking any hunt before you book.
Another common reason for an unsuccessful hunt? The client shoots and misses. Whether you’re a bowhunter, rifle hunter or shotgunner, practise, practise, practise before you go. A lack of proficiency is on you—missing is not the guide’s fault. Once again, honesty is the best policy. If your maximum comfortable range with a bow is 30 metres, or 200 metres with a rifle, discuss this with the outfitter before you book. If a mountain canyon mule deer hunt, where shots are typically at 300-plus metres, isn’t for you, for example, you’ll be much better off selecting a farmland hunt with shorter shooting distances.
#3 Ask many questions
Finding and selecting the right outfitter for your dream hunt takes work, and there are no shortcuts. Potential guides can be found at trade shows, as well as through outfitter associations, booking agents and a simple web search. First impressions will give you a pretty good sense of whether an outfitter is right for you, but once you have a shortlist of candidates, be sure to ask them the following questions before booking:
- How long have you hunted in the area?
- What has your success rate been over the last five years?
- Are you bonded and/or insured?
- Are you licensed by a state, provincial or federal outfitter organization? If the answer is yes, contact the organization to ask whether the outfitter has ever been in any sort of trouble, legal or otherwise.
- Who takes care of acquiring any required hunting licences, firearms permits and travel visas? Travelling internationally with firearms is becoming increasingly challenging, so make sure you’re aware of the regulations for the places you’re heading to.
- What percentage of your clients are repeat customers?
- What are the typical sizes of the animals taken by your clients?
- How many hunters are in camp at any one time, and how many hunters are assigned to each guide?
- How long have your guides worked for you, and who will be guiding me?
- How many actual hunting days will I have?
- What does a typical day of hunting consist of? Be sure the answer reflects the style of hunt you’re looking for.
- What does the hunt cost, and are there any extra fees?
#4 Talk to past clients
When you’re getting ready to fork over thousands of dollars for a hunt, you’d better ask for references and make the time to check them. It’s surprising how many hunters don’t do that, believing the outfitter is truthful about everything. Most are honest, as their livelihood depends on their reputation. There are enough unscrupulous outfitters fishing for your money, however, that it’s foolish not to ask for references.
Good outfitters are more than happy to provide references—there’s no better publicity than satisfied customers. Contact both clients who had successful hunts and those who did not, and ask them the same questions. Inquire about the quantity and quality of game they saw, and ask for details about the lodgings, food, equipment and the overall atmosphere in camp. Also find out about the logistics of getting to the lodge and getting your meat and/or trophy home. Compare the answers against what the outfitter says—consistency is telling.
#5 Have the right attitude
So you’ve finally selected an outfitter, laid out your hard-earned shekels and followed the recommended packing list, right down to the extra socks. What could go wrong? Well, there’s always the potential for travel problems, equipment failure and bad weather, but you really have no control over those things. What you do have, however, is absolute control over the attitude you take to camp. More than anything else, it will largely determine how you, and those you share camp with, will recall the hunt in years to come. Here are some cardinal rules to obey at all times:
- Listen to the guides. They know the area and the local game better than you do—that’s why you’ve hired them. Guides want you to tag out as much as you do, so avoid trying to tell them how to do their job. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and in any case, it’s unproductive to not listen.
- Be communicative. A good guide-client relationship is much like a marriage—it works best when both parties are open and honest.
- Participate in the hunt. Whether it’s putting out decoys, spotting game, building blinds or hauling out downed animals (above), you’ll get much more out of the hunt—and endear yourself to your guide—if you’re willing to pitch in when the opportunity arises.
- Stay friendly and positive at all times. Whether you’re dealing with the cook, the wrangler, other hunters in camp or the guide, remember you’re on vacation and it’s supposed to be fun. Things won’t always go as planned, and that’s when your attitude can make a huge difference. It’s not easy to explain why, but the hunter who stays positive from day one until the very last minute of the hunt generally enjoys more success—and makes lasting new friendships along the way.
Edmonton-based Ken Bailey is Outdoor Canada’s long-time hunting editor.