Across the western United States, there are seemingly endless options for hunters looking for an elk hunting outfitter. I speak with hundreds of hunters each year and as a consumer, I know how daunting this search can be.
How you find the right elk hunting outfitter? Unfortunately there’s no easy answer, because the answer is different for everyone. Not all elk hunters are looking for the same experience. Fortunately there are outfitters out there to fit just about every hunting style and experience that you could possibly want. The key of course, is finding a quality outfit that matches your wishes and expectations.
Here are some tips to get you moving in the right direction to find an elk hunt that will fit your desires and expectations.
Before you do anything – before you search for an outfitter and certainly before you call any outfitters – set your expectations. What are you looking for in an elk hunt?
First, what are you looking for in terms of trophy quality? Do you simply want the experience of hunting elk, and would you be as happy to kill a cow as you would be with a trophy bull? Are you on the other extreme, with an inch-counting obsession that won’t be satisfied by something that doesn’t reach a specific minimum score? Or, do you fall somewhere in between?
Next, what style of hunt are you looking for? What are your expectations of what that elk hunt should look like? Maybe you’ve dreamt your whole life about a remote, wilderness experience, riding horses to a solitary alpine basin. Or maybe you’ve been saving up for a private ranch hunt, where the elk are unpressured and where you can see large groups of animals.
What are your physical abilities? You may desire a physically demanding hunt in steep and spectacular mountain country. Or you may want something where vehicle access can get you close to the animals.
Write it down and give it some thought. What exactly are you looking for in an elk hunt? Set your expectations first.
After your expectations for an elk hunt are clear, decide your timeframe and your budget. Are you looking to go on an elk hunt this year? Or are you willing to wait for several years depending on the possible need for preference points or availability? You may be able to wait several years to draw a tag, or you may be willing to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 on a landowner tag to hunt a premier area this year. Alternatively, you could skip both the cost and the wait, and hunt in an area that offers over-the-counter tags, though you may sacrifice trophy quality. These are all important things to consider.
Next, what is your budget for this hunt? Are you willing to spend $4,500, $6,500, or more? Are you willing to pay for a landowner tag or a steep price to hunt a premier ranch? No matter what direction you go, make sure you choose quality.
As with most products and services, you tend to get what you pay for. I’d be wary of any guided elk hunt that sounds too good to be true. When you consider that an outfitter pays for license dues, permits, leases, insurance, equipment, horses, vehicles, staff, guides, tents or lodging, food, and other overhead, it becomes clear why guided hunts are not cheap. If it sounds cheap, it probably is. When it comes to a guided elk hunt, quality really matters. If you try and skimp on quality, it will become clear the moment you set foot in that outfitter’s camp.
With your expectations, timeframe and budget in mind, it’s time to start searching for the outfitter that best fits the criteria you’ve outlined. In your search, you will likely come up with a list of decent looking options. From there, it is time to make some phone calls.
When comparing a list of outfitters who seem to offer a similar experience and price range, how do you narrow that list based on your outlined expectations, and based on the quality of the outfit? Here are some ideas to put you on the right track:
Try and ask questions that are focused on the quality and experience. Questions like kill percentage are highly dependent on a hunter’s abilities. Asking about opportunity percentage is a better question. But be sure to dig in well beyond that. Ask questions that are specific to the expectations that you outlined. How well will this outfitter meet those desires? Ask questions that dig into the quality of the operation. What is their lodging like? What kind of tents do they use? What kind of meals do they serve? If you are only asking how big the bulls are, and success percentage, you are doing yourself a disservice.
Finally, be sure to call plenty of references. Do your due diligence and speak with past clients. Ask specifically for references who killed elk, and some who didn’t. Because let’s face it – this experience is not just about killing an elk. That’s not why we hunt. If you can’t go home with a tag in your pocket and still feel satisfied, perhaps free-range hunting is not for you. For that reason, it’s very important to speak with references on both sides. The hunter who went home empty handed but still completely happy with the experience, can offer you a great deal of insight.
Unfortunately, there are some outfitters out there who will take any business, regardless of whether it’s the right hunt for a particular hunter. On the other hand, there are many quality outfitters who will refer hunters to friends in the industry, willing to match the hunter with the right hunt.
As a professional outfitter in this industry, my hope is that we see more of the latter. It doesn’t help my business to take a hunter who won’t enjoy their trip with me. But if I can refer that business to other quality outfits, I know that eventually it will pay off for me as well.
This is my challenge to my peers the outfitting industry. We’ve all heard outfitter horror stories, which hurt this industry as a whole. But there are enough good outfitters in this business, that if we work together in an honest and transparent way, we can improve the way things are done.
For the sake of the future of hunting, let’s work together – hunters, guides and outfitters, to make our sport better. Let’s all remember why we love to hunt, and let that passion direct the decisions we make.