Picking an Outfitter

By Steve Marshall

Ask any outfitter about the questions prospective hunters ask when making inquiries about a hunt and you’ll find the topic of hunter success rate at or near the top of the list. When you’re finally about to make that long dreamed about hunt out west for elk or to Alaska for sheep and grizzly, you naturally want to do your homework and get the best outfitter you can afford. And it stands to reason that the best outfitters always sport the highest success rates and are the ones to pick for your hunt, right? Well, the answer is usually, but not always. A lot of factors go into determining an outfitters success rate. Some of these factors are within an outfitter’s control and some are not. If you’re going to put a lot of emphasis on success rates in picking an outfitter, you’d better understand what determines them. Depending on what you’re looking for in a hunt, the outfitter simply quoting the highest success rate may or may not be the right one for you.

First of all, be very careful about putting too much emphasis on a single year’s results. In a given year a number of factors can combine to make a mediocre outfitter look great or a great outfitter look poor. For one thing, weather can play a big factor in success rates. Many a mountain hunt has been hurt by a long streak of heavy rains, or worse, low ceilings that obscure visibility with dense fog. Heavy early snow can force guides and their hunters down out of prime game ranges prematurely. On the other hand, the weather can be literally too nice for good hunting. In some areas outfitters depend on high country storms and deep snows to push game down from high elevations, or out of parks or refuge areas to areas where they are accessible. Also success rates on elk plummet in areas that experience unusually hot, dry falls. Under such conditions the elk aren’t very vocal during the rut and don’t range widely. They tend to be active mainly at night; and they spend their daylight hours in thick, black, north slope timber where they are very difficult to approach.

Another factor affecting success rate is the type of hunt booked. Some outfitters offer both general hunts and higher priced trophy hunts. Trophy hunts are usually 10 days or more in length and are usually one guide per hunter affairs. General hunts are normally shorter, 5 to 7 day affairs and have 2 or even 3 hunters per guide. Obviously, longer hunts usually sport higher success rates. Longer hunts give you more time to locate a good trophy. If you miss your first chance, you might still have enough time to find another. Also, a few days bad weather that’s a minor irritation on a long hunt, can be a total disaster on a short one.

Further, the number of hunters per guide can spell the difference between success and failure. While two hunters per guide can be O.K. for some types of hunts, for example antelope or caribou, it can affect success rates on other types of hunts. Take, for instance, a two on one, 7 day pack-in elk trip. Day one is spent packing in. Late in the afternoon of day three, after two days of hunting, your buddy drops a nice bull. Most likely day four will find your guide spending his time skinning, caping, and packing meat. That leaves just two days for the guide to get you onto another elk before you have to pack out. That’s a mighty tough order to fill even if things run smoothly. Throw in a couple of days lost to bad weather, or a blown shot and it becomes an impossibility. When you talk to outfitters about success rates, make sure you know the hunter to guide ratio. It can make a huge difference.

Another big factor to consider when talking success rate is trophy quality. For example, a few years ago my brother-in-law hunted elk in Colorado. Out of a party of 10 hunters, nine took elk. A super 90% success rate! However, the biggest bull taken was a 4×4 with the majority being spikes. While it was an excellent hunt for sport and produced some fine eating, it wouldn’t have been the right hunt for someone intent on getting a wall-hanger for over his fireplace. By and large you can expect success rates to vary inversely with trophy quality, all other things being equal. The higher you set your sights, the tougher it will be to fill your tag. If you’ll be happy with a nice full curl 35 or 36 inch Dall ram, you might reasonably expect a 90% plus success rate with the better outfitters. If you can’t live without a 40 incher, you’d better be prepared to make several trips before you connect !

The final factor that goes into an outfitter’s success rate are the hunters themselves. Almost all outfitters and guides can relate stories about working their fannies off for days to get their hunters into position on nice trophies only to have them blow easy shots at standing game, sometimes repeatedly. It’s amazing how many hunters still show up without having sighted in their rifles properly. Others buy brand new guns, often magnums, for their first big hunt “out west” and aren’t familiar with them. Still others are dead shots on the target range but fall to pieces on live game. Even sadder are the hunters that show up so far out of shape that they don’t even get a chance to blow a shot at game. As good as some guides are, few are capable of carrying their hunters piggy-back through the woods. A hunter who isn’t capable a walking more than a couple hundred yards from a four wheel drive or a horse isn’t likely to boost his outfitter’s success rate.

It should be plain by now that in any one given year a mediocre outfitter might get a lucky break with the weather, book a high number of longer one on one trophy hunts, and get hunters that are in good shape and are dead shots. Such an outfitter will sport excellent success rates for that one year. On the other hand, a top notch outfitter might suffer along with poor hunters and get lousy breaks with the weather and show a lower success rate. One year does not a good or a poor outfitter make. If you’re going to be heavily weighing your choice of outfitters based on past hunter success rates, make sure you look at more than just last year’s record. Of course you should weigh the most recent 3 or 4 years success more strongly than ancient history. Game areas and an outfitter’s guides do change over time. On the other hand, if you can find an outfitter that can legitimately boast of a five or ten year record of consistently high success rates in his area, chances are you’ve found a dandy. Such a record indicates an outfitter that is an extremely good steward of the game populations in his area and also one that is likely to have excellent experienced guides that return year after year.

Indeed there is a better way to ask about your chances of success, a way that is fair to the outfitter. That is, when you talk to the outfitter tell him honestly what kind of physical condition you’re in and what kind of shooting ability you have. Let him know how long a hunt you can afford and whether you want a one hunter on one guide setup or prefer to share a guide with another hunter. Let him know what you’re looking for in terms of trophy quality. Will you settle for a good representative head, or hold out for a 6×6 bull elk or nothing? Then ask your outfitter, assuming an average break with the weather, what he thinks your chances of success would be. You’ve got to square with the outfitter if you expect the outfitter to be honest with you. Of course you’ve still got to do your homework and check out the outfitter’s references from both successful and unsuccessful past clients, ferret out available hunt reports, and establish a comfort level before you hand over your deposit.

O.K., having said all of this, what kind of success rates can you expect on various hunts. Well, probably some of the highest success rates can be found on antelope hunts. Success on 11″ to 13″ antelope generally runs better than 95% on 3 to 5 day hunts. Of course, if you hold out for a 15″ or 16″ buck, your chances will drop depending on where you are hunting. Similarly, mountain lion hunts over dogs sport high success rates in general. Outfitters in good lion country and with good dogs usually have 90% plus success. Mountain goat hunts in prime country would also run well over 90% if hunters were in proper shape. Goat outfitters will tell you, however, that it is not unheard of to have hunters on mixed bag hunts make one climb for goats and then switch to moose or caribou if they are unsuccessful.

Many caribou hunts are high success rate affairs also. Better than 90% success rates and some approaching 100% are common among the top outfitters chasing Alaskan barren ground caribou, central Canadian barren ground caribou, mountain caribou, and Newfoundland’s woodland caribou. High success rates are also common on Quebec Labrador caribou. But a word of caution is in order here. Because they have a two caribou limit, Quebec outfitters often quote success rates in excess of 100%. You’ll see success figures like 1.92 caribou per hunter. Theoretically you could have an outfit sporting a one caribou per hunter ratio derived from half their hunters, who were lucky with the migration timing, shooting 2 bulls each, while the other half their hunters got skunked. A better way to get a handle on this situation is to ask the outfitter what percentage of his hunters failed to take a least one bull caribou. The days of automatic 100% success on Quebec caribou are gone. That having been said however, these hunts can still be one of the better values in big game hunting today if you go into them with your eyes open.

The success rate on sheep varies. Dall and Stone sheep run 80 to 95%, with success on Dalls running a little higher than on Stones. These rates are for average sheep with 35″ to 38″ curls. Rocky Mountain bighorn are a little harder to come by on the average. Success can range from below 30% to 50% in the unlimited permit areas of Montana to 70 to 80% in the better areas of Alberta. For Desert bighorn, the main determinant of success is being lucky enough to draw a tag. Normally those lucky few who draw enjoy good success.

There are a lot of outfitters across the west who consistently run in excess of 90% success on 4×4 mule deer with 20 – 24″ spreads. But if your heart is set on a 30″ plus mulie, you’ll likely end up in old Mexico hunting desert mulies and laying out a lot more money while facing success rates more like 75 to 80%. Similarly, there are lots of places in Texas and elsewhere, where whitetail hunters can find hunting for nice eight point whitetail with 18″ spreads with accompanying 90% success. Again, however, if you’re looking for that monster head that will score above 160 points, you’ll likely find yourself in Alberta or Saskatchewan facing about 70% or less odds.

For Alaskan-Yukon moose and Canadian moose in Newfoundland, success runs 85 – 95% with the top outfitters pushing the higher number. For Canadian moose in British Columbia, 80 to 90% seems to be the norm. For the balance of Canada, success varies widely between specific provinces and outfitters with 30 to 50% not being uncommon in the east. For those lucky enough to draw a Shiras moose tag in the western US., success can run close to 100% in some areas. Success varies on bear also. Top brown bear outfits usually bat better than 90%; but success frequently is lower when it comes to interior grizzly where 50 to 80% is a more normal figure. Black bear success varies also. Some outfitters on Vancouver Island are consistently near 100% as are outfitters in Alaska, and Alberta. Further east into Ontario and Quebec, success varies greatly dependent on bear densities and the level of baiting, but can rival their western counterparts.

Surprising to many, one of the hardest trophies to come by in North America is a good bull elk. In spite of the relative abundance of these animals and the number of top flight outfitters in business, success frequently runs lower than on more exotic species. Success can range from 25-50% on some of the shorter, seven day, two hunters to a guide setups to maybe 90% on some of the better 12 day, one hunter per guide trophy hunts. And if your definition of a trophy bull is limited to a big 6×6 as a minimum, be prepared to accept even lower success rates.

A word of explanation should go along with these “typical” success figures. The numbers apply to free range, fair chase hunts, not fenced “game ranch” hunts. They assume that the hunter is in reasonable physical condition. They also assume that the hunter can shoot well enough to hit game, off-hand, at 80-100 yards; and out to 250 yards with a decent rest. And they are based on the hunter concentrating on a single game animal. Success rates on combination hunts where you’re chasing more than one species generally average somewhat lower than on hunts that concentrate on one species. Also, the figures assume that you’ve booked with some of the better outfitters in some of the better game ranges in North America. By no means can all outfitters in all areas honestly quote such numbers. And you should expect to pay well for those that can.

Remember this though, as you go about setting up your hunt: no one can honestly guarantee you game. If you hunt game under fair chase conditions, you’d better be prepared to come up empty handed on occasion. And when you do, you should still be able to count it as a successful hunt just for the privilege of being able to match your skills with some of America’s great game animals in wild and beautiful country. If you limit your definition of success to always getting game, both you and the sport of hunting would be better off if you took up golf instead.

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