The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
Note: This is a two-part series on what makes a great hunting partner or partners and the choices you make when it comes to putting together an adventure to remember or in some cases forget. The experiences we share with others and even more so the memories we create, whether it’s in a camp or a blind or maybe even a boat, help shape our perception of what a great time in the outdoors should be.
As I quietly glassed from a small hill, I could tell what my hunting partner Garrett Ham was thinking. Moose hunting had been slow the last three days and my bowhunting friend was eager to fill at least one of his tags before heading home.
As usual I had a rifle with me just in case, and the two big caribou bulls bedded down 1,000 yards in front of us looked inviting. We knew without saying a word what the plan would be. The open tundra wouldn’t allow a bowshot, but the rifle would. If we crawled in as close as possible, he would take the first shot and then hand me the rifle as soon as the second bull stood. The long stalk began.
FINDING THE RIGHT HUNTING partner isn’t something new. Guys and gals have been doing it for years, and when you do find one you usually want to try and keep them around as long as possible. Here in the Arctic I have had several over the years who have brought out all kinds of emotions in me. Some I hated to lose, while others I couldn’t get away from fast enough. So, I have created what I consider to be a checklist to see if you and your partner are compatible when it comes to getting along in the wilds of Alaska or anywhere else, for that matter.
PASSION OR OBSESSION (whichever the case may be)
First and foremost, you need to associate yourself with like-minded people. This will depend greatly on the task ahead and what you truly love to do. Whether it’s hunting hardcore for wild sheep or mountain goats or maybe chasing caribou for days, crossing miles and miles of tundra before taking a break, you will need somebody who cares enough to stay in shape and not bow out when things get really tough. Mountain hunters have to have rigor, and the want to succeed always outweighs the need to just be there. If you find one of these people, then you’ve found somebody special, especially if he or she wants to go along every year.
SHARING THE LOAD
This comes in many forms and is probably one of the biggest when it comes to forming and ultimately ending a hunting partnership. Great hunting partners are just that, and it doesn’t always have to do with the hunting part. For the most part it begins long before the hunt begins.
The planning and preparation of any hunt is a joint effort with equal involvement by all parties. It’s where you decide to hunt, the logistics of how you’re going to get there and, the biggest factor of all, costs.
I’ve seen a lot of hunts go bad due to expenses and how they’re shared. But even worse, I’ve witnessed lifelong relationships ended due to who is paying for what. We’ve all heard these horror stories – how one hunter had to pay more than his share or in the end didn’t get his fair cut when it came to sharing the spoils.
Great hunting partners don’t do this. We are all in it together and each person in camp looks forward to the time spent together and doing their part for the enjoyment and contribution to make the hunt more successful for all.
Speaking of camps, this part of the hunt may sound trivial but it isn’t – for me, it’s one of the biggest factors when it comes to choosing the right person to hunt with. Here in Alaska, most if not all hunting is done from a camp (though in best-case scenarios, maybe a lodge or cabin of some kind). It doesn’t matter whether you fly out and do a DIY camp, where you will be living on the tundra for seven days with nothing but a tent or two, or boat upriver to stay in a rundown shack buried in the spruce trees along the bank for the weekend, how you conduct yourself in camp will tell everyone there what kind of person you are.
I’ve always lived by the motto “take care of camp first.” Whether that is keeping gear organized, gathering wood at every chance or volunteering to do dishes or cook, they all are just as important to the hunt as the hunt itself. I’ve hunted with guys who absolutely love this part. Some never leave camp in order to make sure that all of us are taken care of and are happy. They resemble more of a guide than a fellow hunter and those folks make great hunting partners and ensure those camps are special. In the end, you will go the extra mile for them, even if they don’t want to go in search of caribou or moose.
On the other end of the scale, though, I’ve been in camp with those that won’t lift a finger except to grab the last piece of bacon, or worse, just sit around camp complaining about the weather or mosquitoes, constantly counting the days until they can get back to town. That’s the type that I don’t like to be around, and I would imagine most other hunters don’t either. As a rule of thumb, pick those who not only like to hunt, but enjoy camping just the same.
This type of hunting partner is special and it’s always good to have someone in camp who shares his or her passion when it comes to the latest and greatest. I’m not one of those but consider myself more of a “what has worked for me in the past will usually work this time” kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong: I have the best Cabela’s has to offer, but it’s usually an improvement on something that has already worked once or twice.
I guess I’m more of a system guy. When I first came to Alaska I was a novice – green in color – and had to have the best of everything, thinking it would make me a better hunter. It did, but over the years I’ve come to rely on the same products each year, filling my dry bag with virtually the same gear before any hunt. Still, if you have a hunting partner who has brought something along to test out, it can be pure joy, plus you usually learn a lot too!
Photos are an important part of any hunt. I know they are to me and not just because I’m a writer. Being able to recapture the day or days in the field are big parts of any adventure. The idea of looking at a photo and remembering a particular camp or sight that many will never see is truly special to most of us.
Since memories are all we have in the end anyway, for a lot of hunters this is a big part of why they do what they do. Finding a like-minded hunting partner who likes to take pictures, or in some cases film, is a blessing in disguise. I’ve been very fortunate to have great hunting partners who like to shoot video or take pictures at every given moment. My good friend Lew Pagel is a prime example of this, and so is another close friend, Scott Haugen. These two are exceptional when it comes to capturing the moment – usually when you least expect it. It goes back to everything I’ve mentioned above. Great hunting partners make great hunting adventures. Some of the moments we’ve captured will forever be etched in my mind due to their ongoing passion and obsession.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
We all have friends who have the next great hunt or fishing adventure in mind. They come to you and ask, “What do you think?” It’s ongoing and usually happens as soon as the season is done; it’s always planning, always thinking about what we can do next. How much fun can we have next year? These are the kind of hunting partners I want to be around.
I’m really looking forward to the future and what next few years bring for Eli, my 13 year-old son, and I. Our adventures in Alaska are going to be grand and hopefully I can help him capture some of that same passion and what it takes to be great hunting partner. Hopefully he will share many camps with people who share in the adventure long after I’m gone.
GARRETT AND I CRAWLED through the willow and alder toward the bedded caribou bulls. We’ve been friends for a long time and I thought about all of our adventures togther – Africa for plains game, Arizona for elk and lion, the Alaskan Arctic for moose and caribou. All were special hunts and in all those years we never crossed each other or disagreed on anything. Most times we went home successful, signs of a true hunting relationship and true friends bonding.
As we approached the caribou and we were in range, I handed him the rifle without saying a word. Within seconds both bulls were on the ground and we were happy, to say the least. It wasn’t until we got to them that the true essence of our friendship was tested. A 67-inch bull moose – unbeknownst to us – was standing 100 yards away. Although we both had tags, I handed Garrett the rifle.
Next month, join me for Part II of this series, where I will describe what it takes to create and plan a hunt of a lifetime in the great Alaskan outdoors. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on hunting big game, fishing and surviving in the Alaskan Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to the Alaska Sporting Journal.