The anticipation and planning for a fall hunting trip can be as much fun as the actual adventure. But sometimes that eager anticipation is the only good thing about the whole experience — especially when the hunt goes bad. Do-it-yourself hunts in places you’ve have never been can be long on disappointment and short on success. In fact, odds are good you’ll get an exercise in frustration if you go off on your own without careful planning and a measure of good luck.
That’s not to say DIY hunts are not enjoyable and successful. Plenty of them are. I started hunting out west in the 1980s. Most of those DIY hunts were successful and fun — but I also recall a bad one, too.
A DIY Disaster
We were hunting a wilderness area, horseback or walk-in only. We did not have horses, and the terrain was thick timber and steep, deep ravines. The only way to hunt was sitting on a rock looking down into the ravines. Getting a deer or elk out of one of those holes would have been a nightmare. But it wasn’t really a problem since we didn’t see anything. The area did have some great elk and deer habitat. But it was a four- hour horseback ride to those beautiful meadows. At least that’s what two hunters with horses told us.
Added to that was a tent and heater provided by one member of our party. The tent might have been okay for camping in Louisiana, but it couldn’t handle the foot of snow we received on opening day of the hunting season. The heater was a kerosene device which produced enough toxic fumes to blanket the entire mountainside — but no heat. We cut the trip short and I learned some valuable lessons.
Looking back on it, that hunt could have been one of the best if we had hired a local outfitter. A package deal with horses to get us into good hunting country, along with a proper tent and supplies for a wilderness pack-in camp, would have put us in a perfect situation. We probably would not have needed guides and costs of a drop camp would have been affordable, even on game warden pay.
DIY or outfitted hunt?
When planning a hunt (and we will confine our discussion to western deer, elk and pronghorn) considering three things will help in deciding whether to DIY or hire an outfitter: 1) Do you know the area? If this is a return trip or a hunt with friends familiar with the spot, then DIY might work. 2) Do you want to camp, cook and handle chores yourself? If not, then talk to some outfitters. 3) Is this a once-in-a-lifetime hunt? If you waited 20 years to draw that trophy elk or mule deer tag, a local outfitter could improve your odds.
What species is being hunted and whether it will be a private or public land hunt also goes into my outfitter vs. DIY decision. Although my best pronghorn was taken on private land, I have no qualms about hunting them DIY on public ground. Wyoming has an abundance of public land loaded with good pronghorn bucks.
Elk are a different matter. On public land, a herd of elk is usually being chased by a herd of hunters. A lot of elk are taken on public areas, but crowds can take away from the quality of the experience and can push elk into the next county. Elk know where the private land lies and head for it when the guns start shooting. It is safe and quiet, and will hold smart old bulls. So I go with an outfitter with access to private land for elk.
Going with an outfitter has other benefits, too. A good one will know the regulations on things like transporting rifles in vehicles, hunter orange requirements and portable blinds and tree stands — and will make sure his clients comply. He will know the best places in town for processing harvested game and taxidermy services. He can also offer hunting or fishing options should you tag out early in the hunt and have time to kill.
Obviously choosing the best outfitter to meet your needs is most important. Check references thoroughly. If clients have returned to an outfitter on multiple trips or say they look forward to booking the next hunt, chances are services are satisfactory. Consider contacting a local wildlife officer and inquire about outfitters in his area. He likely knows the good and bad.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions when talking to an outfitter before putting down your deposit. What percentage of clients are successful? What are the accommodations and meals? If guides are provided, is it one guide to one hunter or one guide to two or more hunters? If it is private land hunting, is this the same spot he has taken prior successful clients?
Hunting with a good outfitter is like hunting with a good friend. If you choose well, your outfitter will likely be both by the end of the trip.