By far the most popular big game species to hunt in the United States is whitetail deer. The large variety of other species means that choosing an outfitter must be based on the goals you have for your hunt. Whether you are searching for massive mule deer in Arizona, a hog to hunt in Texas, or you are up for the challenge of bagging a black bear in Montana, you need to source the perfect outfitter. Most hunters never stray too far from their home area, and most never have the opportunity to enjoy an out-of-state hunt. If you have decided to change these statistics for yourself, there is plenty to know about the outfitter you are going to hire.
The Basic FactsIn return for the money you pay them, an outfitter will provide you with lodging, food, and guide services to the best game locations. Certain outfitters offer various other rewards, such as free accessories like knives or apparel with your package, but that is all dependent on the company you choose. One thing you must understand is that, unless an animal is penned or tethered (which is by no means hunting), there is never any guarantee. Regardless of how good your guide is, certain factors beyond their control may end up with you not getting what you came for. Weather is one such factor. Certain areas are prone to extreme and dangerous weather conditions like tornados or snow storms. No reputable guide will take you out if the conditions are unsafe; even if that means you go home with nothing. Most outfitters are honest people who truly enjoy what they do. They will work hard to ensure you enjoy your time with them, and they will do everything in their power to see you have a successful hunt. Success is also defined in different ways. You can have the most enjoyable hunt of your life and yet never fill your tag. Many hunters come back with wonderful stories, even though they didn’t see hide nor hair of that monster buck. For the same reason, you may fill your tag yet have the worst experience of your life. Besides taking down some game, the real aim of a hunting trip is to make memories that are going to last a lifetime.
What Do You Want Exactly?Before you can find the most experienced outfitter, you must know what you will be hunting for. If you intend to bag a massive buck, do not expect wonderful results if you choose an outfitter specializing in the black bear. Once the species is narrowed down, there are other considerations. Are you looking to retire to a comfortable lodge at the end of the day? Is a tent camp more your style? Are you physically in the shape needed for the hunt? Will you be comfortable with backpacking to get to where the game is? Could you ride a horse to get to less accessible areas? Does the thought of using a 4 x 4 set your heart racing? Knowledgeable outfitters will ask clients questions about their health and fitness levels before booking them on a hunt expected to be very physically challenging. You may have other limitations the guide needs to know to provide you with the best experience. Budget is another consideration when shopping around for the perfect outfitter. There are those who offer reasonable prices that can work within almost any budget, and, at the other end of the spectrum, are the "super guides"—the ones who offer those once-in-a-lifetime trips. Keep researching until you find an outfitter who gives you a workable balance between your hunting goals and your checkbook.
The Importance of LocationOne of the goals in deciding on an outfitter is finding one with the proper mix of facilities, equipment, and experience to ensure your hunt is successful and enjoyable. What you must remember is you can pick the world's most revered outfitter, but, if the game you are after is scarce or practically non-existent in the area you are looking to hunt, you are wasting your time and money. Once you know for sure the species of game you will be going after, it is time to do some research into the specific locations where that type of game is at its best. Big game record books or websites are a good source of information on which areas historically have the biggest game. Other potential information sources include outdoor and hunting magazines, hunting shows on television, searching the internet, and talking with other hunters who are familiar with the game you are looking for. After several locations have caught your interest, you can start to narrow down the search for the perfect outfitter local to the area and with the credentials you want.
Take Advantage of Sports and Trade ShowsBesides the advantage of being able to wander around and discover all the newest products and technologies on the market, sports and trade shows are where all the major outfitters hang out. They do a large percentage of their season bookings at these events, so this is the perfect opportunity for you to do a little sleuthing and ask some questions of your own. Most states hold shows like these at least twice per year—usually during the summer and winter months. The benefit is being able to visit the outfitter's booth, get information on their pricing, browse through their pictures, and talk with them face-to-face. The internet is wonderful, but confirming the information within web pages can be downright impossible. You will get a much better sense of the outfitter and their attitudes by speaking with them directly. You may find they are just not your cup of venison broth, which is fine—but it is much better to realize that now than after you have shelled out plenty of money and arrived at their camp.
Do They Have Connections?Plenty of ways to find outfitters exist, but one of the very best ways in by word of mouth—a direct reference from someone you know well and trust. Not every great outfitter goes to the shows every time they roll around, so there is the possibility that if you are only relying on this method, you may miss your best chance. You will still be able to talk to the ones you are considering by email or over the phone. Whichever way you are meeting your list of candidates, do not be afraid to ask some tough questions.
Important Questions to Ask Potential OutfittersDoes your potential outfitter have legal, full access to the areas you will be hunting for your game type? If the hunt will take you to a country or state other than their normal place of residence, do they have the needed legal authority and specific local knowledge? Each state has their own requirements when it comes to licensing and other permits that an outfitter must hold. Some require a training program, while others license you if you pass the test. This is the single most important question to ask your outfitter, even if you may find it embarrassing. Licensing goes right along with being bonded and insured. These are of the utmost importance, as well. You do not want to pay them for your hunt six months in advance only to find out that their "camp" does not even exist. Insurance is important as well. What happens if you receive injuries, perhaps severe in nature, while under their care? These terms need to be spelled out before contracts are signed and funds are transferred. Once this information has been given to you, ask for proof and check into their claims. It is always better to be safe now than sorry later. The following is a list of questions you will also need to ask before deciding which outfitter is right for your goals:
- Are you a member of the local outfitter or guide association? If none exists in the area, are they a member of the IPHA (International Professional Hunters Association)? How about membership and support of groups like the Wild Sheep Foundation, the Whitetail Society, Whitetails Unlimited, or the Quality Deer Management Association, among others?
- How many years of outfitter experience do you have? How many years of experience do your guides have, on average?
- What is the guide-to-hunter ratio?
- Is the land private or public? Do you have exclusive hunting rights, and how many acres are there?
- How do sleeping arrangements work? Are linens provided?
- Do you provide meals?
- What is the availability of tags and licenses? What is the cost?
- Which airport is closest to your location? Do you have a shuttle service?
- On average, what will be the temperature and weather conditions during the time I would like to book my hunt?
- Will hunting be at a higher altitude where acclimatization is required?
- What is your policy on wounded animals?
- Are you able to share recent trail camera or shed photos?
- Will I be hunting spot and stalk, or will I have the use of box blinds or tree stands?
- Do you have a policy on minimum score requirements? Are there any additional trophy fees or hidden costs?
- What is your success rate on shots taken? Over what average distance?
- Is there a designated area for me to skin and process my kills?
- Are there certain days you would suggest coming to hunt? Why?
- Will I be able to add extra days to my hunt if I decide I would like to remain longer?
- How much is the deposit? What is your policy on cancellations and refunds?
- Will you provide a list of references from people who have been both successful and unsuccessful?
- Why should I hire you? What makes you different from every other outfitter eager for my business?
Checking ReferencesChecking the references the outfitter gives you is essential. You can ask them a bunch of questions about their experiences while on the hunt and find out what they liked and did not like. When speaking to references who were unable to get any game, find out why. Was it due to a lack of visible game, or were there no opportunities for them to take a shot? Ask if they would return to the same outfitter again. Make sure to call several of the references on the list to get a good average of the opinions and comments people are giving you.
Should You Use an Agent?Professional booking agents for outfitters and guides spend thousands of hours per year doing the research that keeps them on top of their game. Some of the things they do include:
- Looking for good trips to recommend to clients.
- Inspecting all aspects of each trip.
- Reviewing any leads or tips from friends and clients.
- Talking with outfitters to determine the scope of their abilities and speaking with the references they provide, as well as doing research to determine if there have been any bad reports or violations of any type.
- Nailing down trip details with regards to hidden costs, travel, licenses, and other fees.
- Reading trade magazines and visiting sports shows.