December 02, 2021
By Chuck Adams
As many readers know, I prefer do-it-yourself bowhunts, unless a guide is legally required. But guides are mandatory in most places in Canada, for some species in Alaska, and on federal lands for nonresidents in states like Wyoming. Given a choice, I would rather hunt with buddies on a non-client basis.
But when a guide is necessary, I prefer someone I’ve known for a long time and who might be a personal pal as well. I do not like to gamble on an unknown guide when I do not have to.
As an example, consider my good friend Duane Nelson. We met 36 years ago in a hunting camp for Dall sheep and mountain caribou. Duane guided me to both species, and big ones at that. He was skillful and delightful to be around. We’ve been hunting together ever since — for more sheep and caribou at first, then moose, and lately for mule deer in Alberta, Canada. As with most great guides, Duane makes the outdoor experience fun by being a pleasant companion as well as a professional hunter.
Muley bucks I’ve taken with Duane are among my best ever — like a massive-racked 5x6 I bagged with him during a recent October hunt. That deer was not only large…he had a nifty and rare third antler on the left side that made him extra-special.
Duane put me in a productive area, helped me to spot that buck, gave suggestions on how to stalk, and then hung back to let me do my thing. In less than 48 hours, I dropped the deer with one arrow through both lungs. Duane was just as thrilled as I was.
Guides can offer valuable services aside from helping you get close to an animal. They can orient you to terrain, arrange access to private land, or give you the inside scoop on which hunting tactics are likely to work in an area you’ve never visited before.
Zeroing-in on an excellent guide like Duane Nelson and a dozen others I periodically hunt with is not as difficult as you might think. A little knowledge and a lot of common sense can go a long way toward making a sensible selection.
Local word of mouth is one place to start. Ask a nearby taxidermist or sporting goods dealer about reputable guides in your area. If you have your heart set on an out-of-state species like black bear, pronghorn, mule deer, elk, moose, or caribou, contact a few hunt-booking agents for outfitter suggestions. Booking agents advertise on the Internet, on TV, and in outdoor magazines like Bowhunter. They make their living by finding the best guides and weeding out the rest.
One excellent place to meet guides is at consumer hunting and outdoors shows in hunting states like Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, or North Carolina. Shows offer the advantage of one-on-one contact with an outfitter as he talks to people at his booth. By gathering brochures and talking to outfitters at these events, you’ll develop some good leads on guides for all types of big game.
It is always risky to accept the short, sweet reference list that every outfitter offers. Instead, it’s best to insist on names and phone numbers of all clients an outfitter has hosted the past year or two. Every guide is eager to tell you about people who had a great time or lucked into a giant animal. But what you want is a list of all the outfitter’s clients for a more balanced view of how he rates.
An outfitter who won’t provide a complete list of clients often has something to hide, or is not motivated enough to earn my business. I immediately scratch that guy off my list and move on. Go-getter guides are best because they’ll work harder to help you tag your animal.
When you talk to an outfitter in person or over the phone, use your instincts to size him up. An abrupt or rude outfitter will almost certainly be less friendly once he gets your money. It’s best to hire a guy who spends time and cheerfully answers your questions.
Don’t believe everything you are told. As in any business, the outfitting game has a few BS artists. If a guide tells you about the giant record-book buck his client shot last year, check it out. If Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young has no record of the critter, there might be cause for suspicion. If he tells you that all his hunters bagged animals last year, get a complete client list and check with most of those folks. The outfitter might be telling the truth, and then again, you might discover a different set of facts. Research is important in booking a quality guided bowhunt.
Past clients are key to all my decisions about a new guide. Spend some time and money texting and phoning, and ask specific questions. How were the accommodations? Were vehicles, treestands or ground blinds, and other equipment topnotch? Were personnel expert and friendly? Did the outfitter abide by all hunting laws?
I will not hunt with a guide who does not already understand bowhunting. Preferably, he’s a bowhunter himself. I do not wish to waste one minute of my time as an on-the-job trainer. Some big-time outfitters take clients during rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader, and archery seasons. They do not always match bowhunters with experienced archery guides. If the hunting camp you select has several guides and clients each week, make sure to find out from past clients which individual guides did the best job. Some are always better than others.
It is wise to get details from your outfitter in writing before every guided bowhunt. If you want a particular guide to take you out, insist that the outfitter commit to this in a signed letter. “Musical guides” in hunting camp the night before you go out can be a nightmare, because the one you end up with might be the newest recruit with the least archery hunting expertise.
I followed the foregoing advice before I booked my one and only Alaska brown bear bowhunt years ago. The guide I finally chose was Brent Jones with AAA Alaskan Outfitters, and the hunt went incredibly well. Brent was a bowhunter himself, and had a reputation for working hard for his clients. After more than two weeks of hiking and glassing, we spotted a giant bear, and I made a successful stalk with Brent well behind me with a big backup rifle. That brownie is one of my best-ever archery animals, and I made a friend for life in the process. It does not get better than that.
In my experience, most professional outfitters live up to their billing. Many outfitters actually guide hunters themselves, and like my friends Duane Nelson and Brent Jones, they take great pride in doing the job right. But you must shop for a guide the way you’d shop for a car. There are always great, good, and less-than-good options from which to choose, and there will always be a few lemons in the mix. If you carefully match your hunting needs to a guide who can fulfill them, you are sure to have a pleasant and memorable experience!
Plan Tactics With Your Guide
Communication between client and guide is one key to a pleasant and successful hunt. It is wise to discuss strategies on the phone before you ever reach camp. This helps to avoid confusion and frustration later. Don’t take anything for granted, especially if you have not hunted with the same individual before. At the very least, plan a face-to-face chat with your guide the day before you enter the field.
Do you want to stay ahead with your guide behind, so you can stalk or still-hunt solo? Or would you prefer the guide to stay at arm’s length and directly call the shots? If you have options like stand versus hike, or call versus silence, you need to set the ground rules ahead of time.
Miscues in the field can happen between guide and hunter, even with a chat beforehand. As the one paying the tab, it is your responsibility to set the basic agenda ahead of time. Then you can have a great time with the professional you have hired. — Chuck Adams Big Game Hunting Tip, sponsored by Hoyt Archery