Picking the right deer hunting outfitter requires asking the right questions before you book a trip.(Photo by Scott Haugen)
Finding the right deer hunting outfitter can take some work. Here are the questions to ask of potential outfitters, and yourself.
I hunted nearly 30 years on my own before going on my first guided deer hunt. I went on that guided hunt, 15 years ago, because I was hosting a TV show and we were filming the hunt.
Since then, as part of TV, I've been on numerous guided hunts around the world, and throughout the West.
As we were filming these hunts for TV, I had a vested interest in who we hunted with. This is because I was putting my name behind these hunts, promoting them as places people could go and expect to have a good time and find success.
Most outfitters I've hunted with were great. Some pulled the wool over my eyes, and we left camp and destroyed what tape we shot. Others were questionable, ran legal operations, but still weren't someone I'd promote.
Over the years I've learned what questions hunters need to ask to ensure they're getting exactly what they want in a guided deer hunt. I've also learned what hunters need know about themselves.
IT STARTS WITH YOU
A nationwide poll revealed 80 percent of hunters in the United States are overweight. If you want to go on a trophy deer hunt in rugged country, the odds are already against you filling a tag.
Every season in deer camps throughout the West, I witness that many hunters simply can't cover ground. Unfortunately, the guide and outfitter are often blamed for not getting the hunter on a trophy deer, when, in reality, the hunt was doomed from the start.
The second most limiting factor I see is effective shooting range.
If you can't shoot 200 or 300 yards with confidence, then let the outfitter know this on your first phone call. I see all too often that hunters are showing up in camp with a maximum shooting range of 100 yards.
This, along with being out of shape, greatly reduces where you can hunt deer throughout the West.
Be realistic with what you want. Sure, everyone wants a 30-inch mule deer, but you could hunt a lifetime and not find that caliber of buck.
If you want a world-class buck, communicate that to the outfitter. If you want a representative buck, convey that. If you want to hang out in a fun camp and come home with meat for the table, regardless of antler size, make sure the outfitter knows it.
By knowing exactly what you want, what you can physically do and what your comfortable shooting range is, you're on the way to finding the right outfitter.
Make sure you know what your hunting camp will be like when looking to book a guided deer hunt. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
ASK, DON'T ASSUME
When researching an outfitter, develop a list of questions. Ask them all the things you want to know, and tell them about you.
Inquire about success rates based on shot opportunity, not filled tags. There are a lot of hunters who miss shots.
Ask about what's most important for you. Personally, I could care less how nice a camp is or what the food is like.
My priority is usually to hunt where big deer are found, and I don't care if I'm out all day and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Other hunters may want tidy camps, a nice lunch and fluffed pillows, which is fine. Just be sure to communicate those preferences.
Ask about meals, showers, flush toilets, cell phone coverage, bedding, sleeping arrangements and other such details.
There are camps where you'll share a room or tent with fellow hunters, others where you have a room, including a bathroom, to yourself. Let the outfitter know of any dietary restrictions or medical conditions you may have.
Make sure you're clear on what happens once your tag is filled. If you tag out on day one, can you stay around camp for the rest of the time? And how will your meat and cape be taken care of?
Will the outfitter deliver the meat to a shipper, or are you on your own to get the meat home? If it's up to you, know how to do this, either by putting it in coolers and driving or flying home, or taking it to a nearby processor for care and shipping.
Inquire about tips. I'm instantly leery of an outfitter who demands a set percent of the total hunt cost being tipped.
I was recently in a camp where a sign was in place that directed people to pay 30 percent of the hunt costs in tips. It was one of the worst camps I'd been in. Guides overslept, cooks often missed meals, beds were never made and what was said was going to happen, rarely did. All of the hunters in camp were reluctant to tip 10 percent, let alone 30 percent.
Often the value of tipping comes down to personal experience. But know that guides, cooks and camp staff heavily rely on tips as part of their earnings. Regardless, tips should be earned, not expected.
Based on the time of year you'll be hunting, ask about clothes and boots. Most outfitters supply a complete gear list, which can be specialized for their region.
Make sure whatever gear you bring is broken in and is in proper working order. The hunt is not the place to field test boots, rain gear and shooting sticks; you should know how everything performs prior to the hunt.
Ask how your hunting area will be accessed and how you'll hunt. Will you be riding horses, driving your own quad or riding in a side-by-side with a guide? Will you be expected to drive your own truck, or ride with a guide? If riding horses, will they be towing a pack string of mules? Ask how the horses handle, especially if you've not ridden a horse much.
Find out if you'll be covering ground by spotting and stalking animals, or sitting on a stand, waiting for animals to move. Will hunting from tree stands be an option? If so, how high are they, how far are typical shots, and can they support a large hunter, if that's the case?
Finally, ask for a list of references you can call and personally chat with. I don't trust any online references, good or bad.
I was in a camp one time where a hunter missed a mule deer, crippled a bear, missed a big elk, then crippled a spike elk that the guide had to track over a mile and finish off because the hunter couldn't cover ground.
After the hunt, the reports this hunter posted on social media and forums were appalling, slamming the outfitter and camp for a lack of game.
I've seen competing operations make negative posts about others, and people on the "inside" posting glowing reports about their own camps.
If you see reports, ask to speak with these people on the phone, and follow up in a conversation with the outfitter.
Booking services are another option. I recently started my own small booking service, with the intent being to provide fellow hunters quality hunts based on my personal experiences.
Booking services often hand-pick outfitters they can trust, people they'll stand behind. If a booking service has one bad experience, they'll usually weed out that outfitter, as it's their reputation, too. Know that it doesn't cost more money to book through a booking service, as the outfitter pays them directly for these services.
When searching for a guided deer hunt, or any guided hunt, ask questions. You're investing a lot of time and money into this adventure, and there's no such thing as a dumb question. A good outfitter will want to make the most of your experience and do all they can to have you back.