by Jim Zumbo - Saturday, June 9, 2018
If I had $5 every time someone asked me to recommend an outfitter, I'd buy a right nice rifle. Fact of the matter, this is probably one of the most-asked questions in the hunting world. Recently I chatted with some hunters who had questions about wilderness elk outfitters. When I mentioned using a hunting consultant, they had no idea what I meant.
To clarify, a hunting consultant is a booking agent. He or she is the middle person between the hunter and the outfitter, answering questions and finding the optimum outfitter based on the hunter’s expectations. The hunter pays no fee to the booking agent as the agent receives a commission from the outfitter. You pay the same for the hunt as if you booked directly with the outfitter. And a booking agent is typically easy to reach while outfitters may be guiding in remote areas and unable to immediately respond to your calls and emails.
A reputable agent has a stable of proven outfitters consistently produce successful hunts. The best agents personally will have spent time with their outfitter clients. They have a close connection with the outfitter and are familiar with his operation and the country in which he operates. Note that I say "reputable" agent. Admittedly, it's tough to physically visit every camp in the outfitter’s operation, especially since many require a horseback trip in the backcountry or a long ride in a bush plane, but consultants with integrity will try to do as many site inspections as possible. I knew a consultant who visited five whitetail outfitters in Saskatchewan over the course of 15 days, spending three days in each camp. He knew who was producing what in the way of quality bucks, and had a firsthand look at the accommodations as well as the hunting strategies—all information that the hunter must know.
This sounds like a great system. The agent does all the work and finds your ideal outfitter. But are there any pitfalls? The short answer: yes, which is why hunters must research the booking agent. Beware of “Phony Frank,” who puts out his shingle telling the world he's a hunting consultant. Frank figures to cash in on the commissions, and go on lots of free hunts with his new outfitter clients. Therein lies the problem. Frank relies on finding outfitters that he sees on outdoor TV shows, in magazine ads or at hunting expos, or he asks people to recommend outfitters they know. Frank then contacts those outfitters and tells them he wants to represent them. Problem is, he has little or no clue as to the outfitter's credentials, his operation, accommodations, guiding area, quality of animals in the region, or other details.
For example, say you want to go on your first elk hunt. You don’t know any outfitters and your friends who hunted elk didn’t have a good experience. You have no idea where to begin so you contact a booking agent. He or she will ask you many questions. What state? How big of an elk are you seeking? Do you want a backcountry horseback hunt or do you prefer using four-wheelers or pickup trucks? Do you want a lodge-based hunt or something more primitive? Do you want to hunt public or private land? What is the level of your physical conditioning? Do you have a disability? These are just a few things he’ll ask. Then he’ll come up with options and do the necessary paperwork, such as obtaining your license.
The seemingly simple task of getting a license can be a profound challenge. In most states, nonresidents can’t just walk into a store and buy a license across the counter. It’s typically a lottery draw or first come, first served. To add to the confusion, most states offer bonus or preference points that help your odds in the draw. A booking agent understands the system and will assist you, if not handle the entire process.
When selecting an outfitter, an important consideration is the quality of the bull you’re seeking. Do you just want to see good numbers of elk and get a representative of the species, or do you want a true trophy that scores 330 or more on the Boone-and-Crockett scale? If you ask an outfitter about the bulls in his area, he may tell you he has big bulls, but the truth may be that none of his clients have taken one in half a dozen years. There are places where there isn’t a 300-class bull on the mountain because of heavy hunting pressure. A good booking agent knows what the outfitter’s area can produce and will be up front with you.
There are other basic considerations. Will you be riding a horse extensively if you book with a particular outfitter? Will you be doing a lot of hiking? If you’re booking a seven-day hunt, does that mean five full days of hunting with the day before and after counted as travel days? Can you handle the physical requirements of a remote mountain hunt?
And what about an international hunting adventure? If you want to hunt out of the country, a booking agent can help to coordinate your travel arrangements. The agent also can advise on the given country’s laws and guidelines regarding imports and exports, whether for transporting your hunting rifle in and out of the country or importing your hunting trophies.
Please note that this article is not a condemnation of booking directly with an outfitter. To be sure, most are individuals with integrity, but when you’re going on a dream hunt and digging deep into your bank account, you don’t want any surprises. A reputable booking agent can make sure your hunt turns out to indeed be a dream instead of a nightmare.
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About the Author: Jim Zumbo is best known as a Western big-game hunter, though he has hunted deer in all 50 states and is an avid turkey, upland game and waterfowl hunter. With two degrees in forestry and wildlife, he has had more than 2,000 articles published in outdoor magazines, written 23 hunting books and conducted numerous hunting seminars nationwide, including for NRA Hunter Services. In addition to serving as a full-time writer/editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 30 years, most of them as hunting editor, he was host of the popular outdoor TV show “Jim Zumbo Outdoors.” A Benefactor member of the NRA, Zumbo has won numerous awards for his writing and remains active with conservation groups, including serving three terms on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s board of directors. For information on his biography, “Zumbo,” released in November 2016, click here.
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