By Pete Rogers
For years, you have dreamt of hunting far away places for species you’ve never seen in person. Money is saved and research has begun. Now the real work begins. How do you choose an outfitter for your hunt of a lifetime? What is the process? For the next few minutes, we will dive headlong into these questions to determine how to select an outfitter for your next adventure.
To begin, let me share a few personal stories. Living in South Carolina, our waterfowl hunting is marginal at best. Our skies just don’t hold or attract the number of ducks and geese that are seen in the Central Flyway, or even the Pacific Flyway. A few years ago, I received an invitation to hunt in Arkansas for ducks and geese. The hunt would overlap the tail end of duck season and roll into the conservation season for snow geese, both of which I had longed to do.
As the planning began, I telephoned the outfitter/guide for details. I even asked for and received a list of references and checked his credentials. Everything seemed to check out, and it looked like a great trip. I asked a fellow outdoor writer to tag along for the hunt.
When we arrived, everything seemed normal enough. The first morning into the hunt, we were taken to public land to hunt ducks, which is illegal in Arkansas. The guide lost his dog, and we spent three hours looking for him. Not a shot was fired.
That afternoon, a similar event occurred when we were taken to a flooded rice field, only to be confronted by the owner of the field and told to leave because we didn’t have permission to hunt there. The guide didn’t have food to feed us, and we were told to go to town and get something if we wanted to eat. To make matters worse, he didn’t have any decoys for the goose hunt. He called around and found some he could borrow for the opening day of the conservation season. As that day rolled around, we met at 3:30 am to help set up the decoys and put up our layout blinds. As dawn broke, his electronic call stopped working ten minutes into the process. The battery died, and he didn’t have a replacement. Then he just went into his layout blind and went to sleep.
This was the worst hunt with an outfitter I have ever personally experienced. There is more to it, but I will spare you the gory details of the rest of the trip. My buddy and I packed up and drove, nonstop, fourteen hours to get home.
The other story I want to share is the complete opposite experience. Given the chance to bid on a hunt at Blackwater Hunting Services in Ulmer, SC at a fund raising event, a fellow outdoor writer and I jumped at the opportunity. We bought the hunt for three days of whitetail deer hunting at Blackwater. Neither of us had ever been to Blackwater Hunting Services before, so we were not too sure what we were getting, but we felt it was worth the chance. Upon arrival, the owner and outfitter, Terry Heirs, personally greets each guest at his place. He treats everyone as family, and he is sincere about it. His number one goal is for you to enjoy your time in the field and hunting. Heirs provides excellent accommodations, and the food is legendary southern cuisine.
The guides at Blackwater are friendly and courteous. We were catered to like no other place I’ve been. We were driven to our stand locations, left for a specific time and promptly picked up. I had several opportunities to fill my tag at Blackwater, but chose to pass up some of the smaller bucks in hopes of a trophy. Even though it didn’t happen for me on that trip, the experience was so great that I have been back several times.
As you can see from these two stories, it can be a crap shoot to find a good outfitter. However, in the first story, I learned from the one key mistake I made and that has prevented me from repeating the same experience. More on that in a bit. With these two experiences in our minds, how does one go about finding a good outfitter for the next hunt?
Determine your Species and Location
Select your species and location. Some states have very specific guidelines and regulations for outfitters and guides. If you are hunting in the west, the outfitter must be registered with the state. Check the state registry and get referrals from there. If there have been complaints against an outfitter, they should be recorded with the state. Get the list of registered licensed outfitters in the area you are wanting to hunt.
Make sure they specialize in the species you are after. This may seem obvious, but a lot of deer guides also guide for antelope. Their specialty is deer, but antelope is extra money for them. If you are on an antelope hunt, find an outfitter whose specialty is antelope. If you are paying top dollar, get an outfitter than is a top dollar outfitter.
Now that you have determined a list of outfitters to consider, forget email, call them. It is a lot harder for someone to fudge the truth over a phone call than through an email. Ask very specific questions. For example, I am in the process of selecting an outfitter for an antelope hunt in Wyoming. If I get drawn this year or next or whenever, I want to know with whom I will be hunting. When I call them I ask specific questions. For example, “What is a typical day like?” Here are some great follow up questions:
- Will I hunt from daylight until dark?
- Will I be in a blind over a water hole?
- Can I spot and stalk?
- What kind of food is served?
- Do you accommodate special dietary needs?
- What are the lodging accommodations?
- Will I have a private room, or is it bunkhouse style?
- Is there laundry service available?
- Can I get a list of references from hunters who filled their tags and some who did not?”
Notice, none of these questions deal with the type of animals, trophy quality or anything else. We all want the chance to kill trophy animals, but experience teaches me that the hunt is ruined more with the peripherals than with the quality of the animals. If there are quality animals, but the accommodations are terrible, the food is horrible and the guide a total jerk, it diminishes the hunting experience. Conversely, if the outfitter is pleasant, the sheets are clean, and the food excellent, the hunt is all the better.
After you get the answers to these questions, it is time to evaluate if you want to move forward. I know some who only like staying in bunkhouse style lodging, preferring the camaraderie of fellow hunters to sleeping in a room alone. Personally, the snoring is something I cannot deal with and will not use an outfitter with bunkhouse lodging. Even if it cost a bit more, my rest is worth the expense for long days afield.
Hire A Booking Agency
If interviewing potential guides is something you just do not feel comfortable with doing, there are a host of companies out there that are booking agents for outfitters. Use their services. Some charge a small fee, but most get their fees directly from the outfitters.
Attend Trade Shows
Trade shows are another excellent manner to get a good outfitter. Most reputable outfitters spend a good amount of time and money attending the top tier trade shows to promote their business and book hunts. This is often the time to get the best deals as well. Some of the top shows in your area will book hunts. However, if you are looking for a trip in far away places, be prepared to travel to a distant trade show. Safari Club International, Dallas Safari Club, and Great American Outdoor Show are perhaps the best of the best for finding excellent outfitters.
Oh, the one big mistake I made in Arkansas? I didn’t follow up with the references. I should have called them all and asked them very specific questions. Now, I make it a priority to call the hunters who did not fill their tags. These are the hunters I want to talk with. Why did they not fill their tag? Was it the country, the guides, the weather? What were the contributing factors? And most importantly, “Would you book with this same outfitter again?” The answer to this question is the one that will determine if the guide is in the running for my money. If they answer a resounding yes, then I know this is a good outfitter. If it’s a no, I want to understand why they wouldn’t go back.
If you are looking at spending five to ten thousand dollars on a hunt of a lifetime, take the time to research it well. Meet and greet the outfitter. Call them, ask questions and do everything in your power to ensure your hunt is everything you want it to be.