Lessons on picking Alaska guides from someone left for a week in the wild by ‘an unscrupulous pilot.’
QUESTIONS TO ASK, THINGS TO CONSIDER
By Tom Reale
Even if you’ve got friends or relatives living in Alaska, and even if they’re avid hunters and/or fisherpersons, nobody knows everything there is to know about all the guides, transporters, flight services, etc., in the state. So unless you’ve got an “in” with a local, you’re probably going to have to look around for info.
One of the better ways to do this is to go to a sportsman’s show. Lots of Alaska companies and individuals make a point of attending these shows to drum up business, and it’s a good way for you to have a face-to-face meet-up with someone instead of conducting your business by email or phone.
That said, we don’t want to destroy any illusions you might have about your fellow man, but not everyone in this business is destined for sainthood.
While out-and-out fraud is rare, there are people whose business and people skills leave something to be desired. As someone who was once left in the Wrangell Mountains for an extra week by an unscrupulous pilot, I’ve learned the hard way to check out operators ahead of time, and to pay attention to warning signs.
One of the most valuable tools you have at your disposal when interviewing prospective businesses is your gut. If the other person is at all evasive about giving direct and informative answers, seems defensive when you ask hard questions, or just gives off a bad vibe for you, walk away. Chances are that there’s someone else operating in the area you’re interested in who you can talk to. Ask around, do your homework, and trust your instincts.
START BY ASKING basic questions:
How long have you been in business?
What’s your background in this field?
Where do you live in the off-season – are you full-time Alaska resident or a seasonal operator?
Find out about all the costs associated with your trip. Can you save money by shipping gear to your location ahead of time to cut down on airline fees?
In the case of remote lodges, does the fee quoted include transportation to the location from the nearest airport or ferry terminal?
For guided hunting and fishing trips, are there fees for processing your fish and game?
What will it cost to ship meat and fish home?
If you’re looking at a multi-species trip, what are the peak seasons for the fish or game you’ll be after?
If you’re planning on something like a deer and ducks combo, or a cast-and-blast hunting and fishing trip, quite often the peak seasons for both species won’t coincide perfectly. You’ll have to decide which is more important to you, and take the chance of getting skunked on your secondary target.
Actually, you’re taking a chance of getting skunked no matter what you’re going after, but that goes without saying.
Ask about the normal weather conditions for the time you’re considering, and also about available daylight. Daylight hours become a real issue the farther north you go and the later in the season you’re looking at.
THEN THERE’S figuring out how many days you’ll actually be hunting or fishing during the trip, says Larry Carroll of Kodiak Adventures Lodge.
“A six-day, six-night trip is not six days of hunting,” he points out. “Most of the time by the time you get to the lodge/camp you will not be able to hunt the first day and sometimes not much on the last day. Ask!”
John Rodriguez of J&J Charters on Prince of Wales Island suggests that you find out the schedule for getting to and from your final destination and work backwards from there when making your ferry and airplane reservations. If you find out you have to spend an extra day’s food and lodging in a port city, it can add considerably to your costs.
FIND OUT HOW MANY people will be in camp when you’re there, and if you’ll be sharing accommodations with people not in your party. This isn’t always a bad thing, but you should know the arrangements before you get there.
Ask if there are other lodges or camps in the area, how close they are, and how many people they usually have in camp.
Ask about facilities for cleaning and butchering your stuff, and ask about freezer space.
Do they have shipping boxes on hand, or do you have to supply coolers or boxes.
Ask about references. It’s best if they’ll give you contact info for people to communicate with – a rave review by “Jim S. of Seattle” on a Web site is worthless.
There’s always the chance that they’ll just hook you up with a buddy who will give a good recommendation, but that’s where your gut instincts will work for you again.
AND FINALLY, ASK about deposits and cancellation and refund policies. Get that in writing before you turn over your hard-earned dough.
The recent economic downturn has hit many operators hard, and that can turn out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you might be able to bargain a bit when it gets down to the bottom line, and an outfit that’s running at less than full capacity might be willing to deal.
On the other hand, if a company has had to reduce staff and maintenance costs, it could mean that the stellar reviews you get from last year might not still be applicable.
If you perform due diligence on your trip, check as many info sources as possible, and trust your instincts, you’ll probably have a great trip.
Keep your expectations reasonable, your sense of humor in place, and have fun!
You may be able to meet potential Alaska fishing lodge hosts and hunting camp guides during the upcoming sportsman’s show season around the Northwest. Here are this season’s dates:
Jan. 11-15: Portland Boat Show, Expo Center, Portland; otshows.com
Jan. 20-22: Great Rockies Sport Show, Metra Park, Billings; greatrockiesshow.com
Jan. 20-22: Tri-Cities Sportsmen Show, TRAC Center, Pasco; shuylerproductions.com
Jan. 25-29: Washington Sportsmen’s Show, Western Washington Fairgrounds, Puyallup; otshows.com
Jan. 27-29: Great Rockies Sport Show, Kalispell, Flathead County Fairgrounds; greatrockiesshow.com
Jan. 27-Feb. 5: Seattle Boat Show, CenturyLink Field Event Center/South Lake Union, Seattle; seattleboatshow.com
Jan. 28-Feb. 4: Spokane National Boat Show, Spokane County Fair & Expo Center, Spokane; spokaneboatshow.com
Feb. 3-5: Eugene Boat & Sportsmen’s Show, Lane County Fairgrounds, Eugene; exposureshows.com
Feb. 3-5: Great Rockies Sport Show, Montana ExpoPark, Great Falls; greatrockiesshow.com
Feb. 8-12: Pacific Northwest Sportsmen’s Show, Expo Center, Portland; otshows.com