PLANNING TO HUNT IN ALASKA? AN EXPERT SHARES
MUST-ASK QUESTIONS BEFORE YOU HIRE AN OUTFITTER
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
Next to putting on a dry pair of socks after a long day on the tundra, there is nothing better than the beginning of a hunt – nothing.
The anticipation of what is to come and what can happen is almost as good as Christmas. You have all the gear you need, your bow is dead on and you’ve researched and found the perfect spot.
Somewhere out there is the animal of your dreams, and with a little luck you’re destined to meet it.
As most hunters know, there are basically two types of hunts that a person can participate in: Either you pay and go guided, or you do it yourself and go unguided. Even though each offers a different path, it doesn’t really matter which you choose; it’s still hunting and the quality of any hunt is what you put into it.
I have been asked many times, “Which is better, being guided or doing it yourself?” That is easy to answer for some of us, but for others it might not be. I have been lucky enough to take most of my animals with bow and rifle on do-it-yourself-type hunts, but there have been times that I wished I had a guide with me.
There is a great deal of satisfaction in doing it yourself, especially when all your efforts combined with a little luck come together, resulting in that monster of your dreams. Believe me, there is nothing more satisfying in the hunting world. Some hunters prefer it this way, and for others it is the only option.
Guided hunts can also provide that same satisfaction. A hunter still has to be out there trudging up and down mountains or crossing rivers, trying to find what they’re looking for. The anticipation is the same and the physical effort isn’t any different.
The big difference, however, is that these hunts are conducted by an outfitter or a safari company and you’ll have a guide. You basically are paying them for their service and all the prep work has been done for you. They’ve scouted for you, hung stands, placed blinds and hopefully know exactly what the animals are doing long before you get there.
In addition, but not always, they will provide food and accommodations. You basically are paying for their expertise, land access and the use of their equipment.
NOT ALL GUIDED hunts are created equal, however. You are relying on the guide’s credentials, and the more research you do about an outfitter, the better off you will be.
One of the best guided hunts that I’ve ever been on was for mountain lion in Arizona. The guide was world renowned for getting hunters their lion and had a 100-per-cent success rate, a pretty rare feat these days. I was a bit wary of perfect record, so I called the references he provided, and, sure enough, all were successful. I actually racked up quite a phone bill and eventually got tired of calling people.
But most outfitters are not 100 percent on kills; if they tell you they are, I would be immediately suspect of their operation. Bottom line: get references, both successful and not successful, and make the calls.
Many hunters who are new to the guided game (and even some of us old timers) may not know exactly what to ask about or do when it comes to researching an outfit. There are many factors that go into any hunt and the success of that hunt depends greatly on the question-and-answer session. Remember that it’s your responsibility to get as many details as possible before mailing the cashier’s check. It can and will be the difference between a great time and a disaster.
First and foremost you need to remember that it’s still hunting, and if it’s fair chase, you might connect or you might not. Factors such as weather and/or the time of the rut, for example, can come into play and prevent a hunter from connecting; it’s all part of the game. Most first-timers to the guided game sometimes forget that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have expectations.
Before even looking at potential outfitters, hunters should create a list of priorities – those things that you expect and want from the experience. I usually make a checklist long before I get on the phone; that way I will know what exactly to ask and can also make a few notes.
A few years ago I decided that I wanted to hunt mountain goats, the last animal on my Alaska list and also the toughest. It was something I could do on my own if only I had goats in my area, but I do not, so a guided hunt was in order.
Unlike choosing the right broadhead or rifle for a particular hunt, the species a hunter plans to pursue will greatly influence whether you decide to go guided or try it yourself. For me, this is the biggest factor. Goat hunting is not for the meek and is considered by many the toughest hunt in North America. Choosing the right outfit – and even more so, the right guide – is critical.
Choosing the right outfit doesn’t only apply to goats. Most all species here in Alaska can and will be outfitted. Whether it’s caribou, moose or brown bear, there are outfits that will set you up for adventure.
AFTER DECIDING ON the species and the area you want to hunt, you will then need to choose a few prospective outfitters. This can be a challenge in itself.
Personally, I talk to hunters who have hunted the specific animal before, read magazines, look at record books or go to some of the trade shows. I also subscribe to the Hunting Report (huntingreport.com), an online database that lists the good, the bad and the ugly of the hunting world.
This usually will narrow it down to a few specific outfits that have good reputations. I then contact these outfits and ask the questions that I have prepared. Creating a list of questions before getting on the phone is a must; this way you won’t forget what is important and you can take a few notes. My goat questions could be used for most hunts, but here is what to consider with the following queries:
1. Do you have references? Most good outfits do and hunters need to be sure and get the contacts for both successful and unsuccessful hunters who have hunted with them. If they do not want to provide this information, then immediately strike them off your list.
2. How many years’ experience do you have as an outfitter, and what is the experience level of your guides? Experience is a plus, but don’t count out young or up-and-coming guides and outfitters. Many of the new outfits are trying to make their mark and will work extra hard to make your hunt as successful as possible.
3. What are game numbers like? If you want to hunt an animal and be successful, you have to travel to where they are. Knowing what the area holds gives you a better perspective of what you might and might not see.
4. How many hunters do you take a year? I personally stay away from areas that are hunted hard. Due to the sheer size of Alaska, six goat hunters a year versus six bear hunters per week at a bear camp are quite a bit different, but the bottom line is you don’t want to spend your hard-earned cash on a place that has been depleted.
5. What do you charge for a goat hunt? Are the tags and license included? Is there a trophy fee? This is the ultimate question for many. Most hunters are always trying to find a good deal –I know I am–but sometimes cheaper hunts have a catch and it usually involves extracurricular things, such as accommodations, meals, etc. This is where research and phone calls will come into play.
Ask the questions specifically relating to the finer details of the hunt. Most tags and license will need to be taken care of by the hunter. I have seen very few hunts where these were included. Trophy fees are fees attached to the cost only after you have killed an animal. Make sure you ask this question.
6. Do I need to draw a tag or is it over the counter? Most resident bowhunters can buy tags over the counter, however if you’re a nonresident, you will usually have to apply. Most outfitters who are worth their salt will help the hunter with this information, and most will help you apply.
7. What are the accommodations like? I have experienced all kinds of situations – everything from bivouac to wall tents and five-star lodges with seven-course meals. All were great, but if you are looking for a specific type of setup, again, you will need to ask. Some hunters like to rough it, while others do not.
8. What is the guide to hunter ratio? Hunts are usually conducted 1-by-1 or 2-by-1. One-by-one means that there will be you, the hunter, and one guide. Two-by-one means that one guide will serve two hunters. I have done it both ways and can say that either option is great. In some cases, if you choose to go 2-by-1, the outfitter will give you a substantial price break. I personally like the 1-by-1 situations, only because I want the guide focused totally on me and getting the job done. Call me selfish, but if I’m specifically hunting a particular species, I don’t want it any other way.
9. What is the actual success rate on shot opportunities? Most hunters get too tied up in percentage kill, and good outfitters won’t tell you anyway; they can’t. What they will tell you is the number of shot opportunities their hunters had last year or over the years. Killing something is up to the bowhunter and his ability to do so. If a guide gets you into position to make the shot on a bull or buck, then that is about all you can ask for.
10. What are the physical requirements of the hunt? This is probably one of the most overlooked and underrated questions on the list. Some hunts are easy, and others are not. Bowhunting from a blind is quite a bit different than hunting thousands of feet above sea level. Mountain hunts are physically and mentally tough, and if you’re not in shape, any good outfitter will tell you to stay home. It doesn’t mean you have to stay home. The earlier you get this information, the sooner you can start the training regimen you need to be successful.
11. How will we be hunting? Most species-specific hunts will dictate the hunting style. Hunting goats will be climb-and-stalk hunting, while bowhunting deer will be from a stand, blind or, in some cases, spot and stalk. I’ve had some hunts where I was able to choose. This is especially great if something isn’t working and you want to try something new.
12. What if I have to cancel the hunt for whatever reason? Most outfitters have a general policy when it comes to canceling a hunt. Most hunts are booked by sending a deposit, which usually runs 50 percent of the total cost. If you have to cancel, you will usually lose that deposit, or in some cases outfitters will let you re-book entirely, but not always. Some require you to find a replacement to fill that spot and re-book you the following year. Hunters need to remember that outfitters and guides make their living guiding hunters and these policies are necessary in order for them to survive.
13. Can I add extra days to the hunt? Some hunts can be extended for whatever reason. The biggest reason is that the hunter hasn’t connected or found the right animal yet. If the outfitter agrees and you have the time to stay, you should, but remember that it will cost extra.
14. Do you have a wounded animal policy? Most outfitters do. Usually, if you draw blood, then that is your animal and your hunt is done. It’s our responsibility to make quick ethical shots each and every time; if we don’t, then it’s our fault and the opportunity is gone. Again, if you do pull a shot and wound an animal, top outfitters will do everything possible to find it.
15. How are you different from other outfitters? I have heard all kinds of answers, but the most common is, “We will give you 100 percent during your hunt and do everything possible to make it successful.” That is about all you can ask for.
THESE QUESTIONS ARE the “biggies,” but there are many more that are just as important – like making travel arrangements. What type of clothes and gear you will need should also be asked about. Asking these questions and getting prepared for the hunt are all part of the fun.
Going on a guided hunt is a great experience, and in some cases can create lifelong friendships with outfitters and guides. Many hunters will return year after year because of the way they were treated and the sheer joy they had with the experience.
If your plans include a guided hunt, be sure to follow the rules and do your homework. Success is just as much your responsibility as it is your outfitter’s.
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting in Alaska, Africa and throughout North America. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.