On a cougar hunt my mule went rodeo in a boulder field. Jagged boulders were all around. I held on. She bucked and bounced for much longer than the eight seconds a rodeo star has to keep his saddle. When the mule finally quit the buckin’ bronco act I was somehow still in the saddle and we were both alive. From up the trail I heard the outfitter chuckle and say, “That mule has always been touchy.” And that’s one of the fonder memories I have from that hunt.
Another time I had an outfitter in New Mexico jerk his truck and horse trailer to the side of the road and ask me to get behind the wheel fast before a cop could turn around. This outfitter had recently lost his license for driving while intoxicated. I’ve hunted with outfitters who were bullies, who got lost in the woods and a few who just didn’t show up. But I’ve never had anything happen to me that compares to what happened to Karen Lutto, president of Hunter Outdoor Communications.
“We were dropped off to elk hunt. There weren’t any elk on the small parcel of land,” says Lutto. “Mid-morning, when we were leaving, we saw several people coming toward us. They looked angry. I called our outfitter. He screamed, ‘Run away. Hide.’”
So yes, the horror stories are real. Every year hunters hire outfitters and find themselves in situations far from what they paid for. When they seek reimbursement, they often get nowhere. Claims are subjective and, even when the hunter was clearly taken, outfitters can fade away and simply open again later under a new name.
Protecting yourself means following these four rules.
A good website filled with photos of the caliber of game you’re after and photos of the type of accommodations you want are good signs; an outfitter with a long list of references, of clients speaking highly of the service, are great, but these are indicators, not conclusive answers. Ryan Bland, owner of Non-Typical Outfitters in Illinois, says, “I know of a few whitetail outfitters who have paid people to be their references.”
Bland advises that people call the outfitter. “Call with a list of questions ready. Be respectful, but have them explain exactly what they offer. We don’t have an outfitter association in Illinois for people to call. If you want to hunt in a state that has an outfitter association, call them. Though outfitters must be licensed here in Illinois, all that means is they paid the state some money. Find out how many years they’ve been in operation. Call the meat processor they use. Phone local taxidermists. Call the local game warden. Being diligent will save you a lot of time and money.”
Greg Ray, with NRA Outdoors (the NRA’s official booking agency for hunters), says, “Even when you do all that, things can still go wrong. I had a Texas outfitter who was one of my go-to outfitters for years. I hunted there. I sent a lot of clients there. Suddenly people were complaining. I drove there to see what was going on. The place was a mess. I didn’t even recognize any of the guides. Turned out the outfitter was in a nasty divorce and the service had fallen apart.”
Consider Using a Booking Agency
NRA Outdoors was started to give NRA members a quality service that vets outfitters for you. Ray says, “We visit all of them, take photos and interview them. It isn’t easy to become an NRA Outdoors’ represented outfitter. Several outfitters call me every week asking to get in.”
NRA Outdoors is careful for good reason. “I’ve had a lot of new clients come to me over the years who’d had bad experiences with someone else,” says Ray. “One new client told me he went on an elk hunt in Colorado. When they were coming off the leased ranch they found the gate padlocked. The ranch owner came by and said, ‘I’m not letting you out until you pay the lease fee.’ The outfitter hadn’t paid the rancher. The rancher finally let them go, but their hunt was over. They had to file a lawsuit to try to get back the money they’d paid.”
These are the types of problems a quality booking agency can help you avoid.
Linda Powell, director of media relations for O.F. Mossberg & Sons, says, “I’ve booked and taken clients on over 300 hunts. Of those, only about five went bad. I’ve managed that by using quality booking services, such as Jack Atcheson & Sons, and by networking. References are great, but they’re even better when you know a person who has been there.”
Look for the Fine Print
Ray says another new client told him they’d booked a mule deer hunt. It was a tent hunt, but the private land was quality. “When they showed, they found that a fire had burned the forest down. The outfitter set up his tents there anyway and took them hunting. There weren’t any deer. There was just black soot on everything.” That outfitter technically did everything he said he would, but he didn’t refund them their money because of the natural disaster.
Other outfitters will do the right thing. Ray says one of his outfitters in British Columbia just refunded tens of thousands of dollars after more than 20 inches of rain made it impossible to get back to the lodge. The hunters were still out their plane tickets, but that outfitter took an even bigger hit.
Ray says, “Outfitters can’t control the weather, so when you do book you are taking a risk. Some hunters don’t accept this. We always mediate any problems to resolve them.”
Get What You Pay For
NRA Outdoors uses a detailed checklist to define the accommodations, the average trophy size, the guide-to-client ratio, what the food is like and much more. The service works with outfitters to create detailed gear lists and other needs. When a client calls, NRA Outdoors will help him find his dream hunt by narrowing the search according to his wishes to pair him with the right outfitter and experience. “We can only do this because we visit the outfitters and have seen the terrain and more,” says Ray. “We know firsthand who is best able to accommodate, for example, spouses or young hunters.”
“The worst experience I’ve had,” says Kevin Howard, president of Howard Communications, “was a Texas outfitter who wouldn’t go out with me after dark to recover an animal. He said to wait. But it was 70 degrees that night and I wanted the meat. I went anyway and got my deer. There are many great outfitters out there, but you do have to be diligent. An EHD outbreak could have decimated their deer over the summer. You just never know.”
Bland has seen a sharp decline in bad outfitters in the Midwest since the downturn in 2008. “Famed Pike County, Illinois, for example,” says Bland, “went from like 140 outfitters to about 40. Most of the guys who dropped out were the un-established types you really can’t trust.”
Going to outdoor shows, such as the NRA’s Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, Pa., can help you meet outfitters to get a first-person idea of their character. But don’t be fooled by a booth full of giant sheds, big mounts and impressive hero-shots. Investigate their claims to see if they are for real and that what they offer is what you want.