In my almost three decades working as a big game guide, I've learned a successful guided hunt depends a lot on how well the hunter has prepared. A bowhunter who arrives with clear goals and expectations is more likely to be successful than one who doesn't.
It's also important to understand that guided hunts are not a guarantee that you will harvest an animal. No matter how hard you hunt, how experienced you are, or how careful you plan, there will be tough hunts where things just don't work out.
A few years ago, Jim Hens and I experienced the toughest hunt I can remember in 27 years of guiding.
For 14 days we worked our tails off. We climbed thousands of vertical feet after mountain goats, put a stalk on what might well have been a new world-record mountain caribou, and came up short each time. We were charged by a sow grizzly, rode dozens of miles through rough mountain country in all kinds of weather, and Jim never once drew his bow on anything bigger than a ptarmigan. Yet, through it all, Jim kept a positive attitude and left with a smile on his face. We worked hard, became good friends, and had a lot of fun. Sometimes, that's the way hunting goes.
Booking Your Hunt
Successful advertisers go to great lengths to ensure their marketing strategies do not create an expectation that exceeds reality. Outfitters generally are not professional marketers, and tend to showcase their business under ideal conditions. Glossy photographs of pack trains loaded heavy with game, traveling through gorgeous mountain scenery, create an image we cannot ignore. The written word will also create strong images in our minds. For bowhunters booking an exciting guided hunt, this can create problems.
Your job is to find an outfitter who will work hard to help you meet your goals and expectations. Look past the marketing, and do your own research. Get a potential outfitter's client list from the previous two seasons so you can choose whom to call instead of relying on a provided reference list that may only contain satisfied customers.
When talking to past clients, take notes. Find out how experienced the guides are with bowhunters, how well maintained equipment and camps were, and what was the camp atmosphere. It's hard not to enjoy yourself in a camp with a happy, proficient crew. A good indication of a quality operation is one with a low staff turnover, and returning clients. Guides who are treated fairly will return, as will the satisfied clients.
Be Clear About Your Expectations
During the planning stage, make a list of your personal goals and expectations. This list will help you talk to potential outfitters about what you hope to get out of your hunt. Be aware of things like transportation, license, or trophy fees so you can avoid any and all hidden costs.
Also, there is nothing worse than arriving at your final destination without your luggage. On expensive, remote hunt this can be a disaster. Plan to arrive at least a day early so you'll have time to recover any lost items. An extra night in a hotel is cheap insurance.
Things like accommodations and food might seem like minor details, and for some they are, but for others, spending a week or more in a tent is not their idea of fun. Don't assume that you will be staying in a five-star lodge just because it is in the brochure.
Keep a Positive Attitude
A positive attitude is the most important thing a hunter can bring to a hunt. This might sound easy — and is as long as things are going as planned — but once things start going south on an expensive hunt, it can get much harder. Being depressed when the weather turns bad or after a missed opportunity will only take away from your hunt. If you maintain a positive attitude you'll be better prepared to capitalize on the next opportunity.
Steve Keithley, one of the most experienced bowhunters I know, agrees that a positive attitude is an essential ingredient to a successful hunt. "It doesn't matter if you're hunting the high deserts of Mexico for big mule deer or the Rockies for elk, you need to have a continuing positive attitude throughout the hunt," Steve said. "Even when things are not going as you expected, stay positive. Your guide will do everything in his power to provide a successful hunt. If you let yourself get down, it's going to be a long hunt for everyone in camp."
Nothing seems to kill a positive attitude more quickly than the lower game densities common in the western United States and Canada. There are some exceptions, but big game densities will be much lower than those found in the whitetail woods. Bowhunters used to seeing dozens of whitetails on every outing can quickly become discouraged. To better understand game populations, talk with state and provincial DNR personnel so you know what to expect.
Hunting with any weapon is a physical sport; with archery equipment it is doubly so. Most guides agree that on any given hunt, a bowhunter is likely to cover more than twice the ground as a rifle hunter. Stalking within archery range often requires wide detours to keep the wind and cover to your advantage. Bowhunters who get a shot on one out of every three stalks are doing very well.
Hunters the world over realize that hunts for mountain species like sheep and goats will require a lot of physical effort. What many don't expect is just how physical spot-and-stalk hunts for other species can be. Whether you're going after moose in Canada or elk in Colorado, be prepared to cover a lot of ground on foot.
Even horseback hunts can be physically demanding. Bowhunters who book Canadian horseback hunts are always surprised at how much walking they will be asked to do. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canadian guides will almost always ask hunters to dismount and walk up or down steep grades. In the rugged mountains of western Canada, this can mean a lot of walking.
The topography out west can be deceiving as well. Those seemingly flat plains that are found all along the foothills of the Rockies are filled with small gullies, dry creek beds, and impassable canyons. Only once you start hiking through this type of country will you realize just how strenuous it can be. Stalks of four or five hours to close the distance on an animal you have spotted less than a mile away are common. Going into your hunt in the best shape possible will up your odds of success and ensure you'll have more fun as well.
Guides come from all walks of life. Some are very outgoing while others are quiet and reserved. A hunting guide is as close to being a "Jack of all trades" as anyone you will find. A guide might be required to do everything from cooking a three-course meal to fixing an engine or finding lost horses. They work long hours for extended periods of time, and most don't consider what their hourly rate works out to. Bad guides don't last long, and the good ones are the backbone of any outfit.
Hunters hire guides for their experience in the area and with the game they are seeking. Don't think just because your guide is young he lacks experience. Most outfitters will require a new guide with no actual guiding experience to apprentice under a qualified guide for a period of three to five years.
In an average season a guide will spend anywhere from 30 to 90 days in the field, depending on where they are working. Some even follow the seasons and guide almost full time, or work in the woods in other industries in the off-season. Take advantage of this experience; it's what you're paying for.
There is nothing a guide appreciates more than a hunter who is willing to work hard for a chance at an animal. Every day in a hunting camp there are chores that must be done to keep things running smoothly, and the quicker they get done, the more time there will be for hunting. Most guides will not ask for help, and there may be some things they would rather do themselves, so it's important to ask how you can help.
Let the guide do the guiding, but don't be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes a guide might assume you know what to do, when in fact you don't. A good guide will keep the lines of communication open throughout your hunt informing you not only of hunt plans, but also of things he is seeing throughout the day that you might not.
A word of caution: When you're in a camp with two or more guides, don't ask your guide why he doesn't hunt like one of the others. Guides are very independent people who place a high value on the freedom the job provides. Some guides prefer to move a lot, hunting a large area each day, while others are more methodical and spend more time glassing. They will be doing what has proven to work best for them.
No Surprises Please
Should you have any physical limitations, it is very important to let your guide know before you head into the field. Just because you told the outfitter when you booked the hunt doesn't mean the guide knows of your condition.
A few years ago, fellow guide Donn Wilkinson and I had two brothers on a late-season moose hunt. One afternoon I volunteered to help Donn and his hunter track a wounded moose through some very nasty country.
Thick new growth and old deadfalls made walking through that mess almost impossible. When we returned to the boat two hours later, we learned that this fellow had just had major heart surgery not six months before, and was under strict orders to take it easy. Donn and I were both shocked and angry. By not advising us of his condition at the start of the hunt, the hunter put himself in a potentially very dangerous situation.
"How much do most hunters tip?" is one of the most uncomfortable questions you can ask your guide. This question really puts your guide in an awkward position and is not easily answered.
Like the rest of the service industry, a tip of 10 to 15 percent of the hunt cost is pretty standard; however, tips much larger are not uncommon. Use your own judgment — it will be appreciated.
The two mistakes I see most often are failing to use a rangefinder, and rushing the shot. The larger body size of many big game species found out west, coupled with the topography, makes it very hard for a newcomer to judge distance accurately. I tell every hunter not to shoot until the animal is in a position where they are confident in their ability to place an arrow accurately, and to always use their rangefinder.
Hunting big game larger than deer requires a bowhunter to choose his gear wisely. Be sure you understand not only the legal requirements, but also any "camp rules" your outfitter might have. A good cut-on-contact, fixed-blade broadhead, coupled with a well-tuned bow with a draw weight of 55 pounds, will usually be all that's required. Some outfitters refuse to allow expandable broadheads on anything larger than deer, so it's imperative that you know this well in advance.
Stay positive, focused and ready to make the most of your opportunity. Enjoy the entire experience. Your first guided bowhunt will not be your last.
The author is a veteran guide and passionate bowhunter from Tagish, Yukon, Canada.