Ask MeatEater: Do It Yourself or Guided? Part One

Ask MeatEater: Do It Yourself or Guided? Part One

At MeatEater, we’re fortunate enough to be able to go on out-of-state hunts every year. On many of those hunts, we’re traveling to places we’ve never been, and in most cases, we’re hunting without a guide. We prefer the challenge and satisfaction that comes with being in a new place and figuring out the animals that live there.

Of course, there are times when even experienced hunters are better off hiring a knowledgeable, experienced guide, and we’re no exceptions. When Steve drew a musk ox tag for Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, he was legally required to hire a local guide. On a mountain lion hunt in Idaho, he enlisted the help of an experienced houndsman to help him find a cat.

We get a lot of questions from folks who ask us whether they should hire a guide or go the DIY route when planning an out-of-state hunt, especially when it comes to mule deer and elk. Any hunter who is asking that question first needs to answer some additional questions, though.

In order to make a decision on whether to book a guided hunt or to tackle it yourself, you need to figure out your priorities and abilities. What are your expectations? Are you after a trophy buck or bull, or just some meat for your family? Are you physically able to do the hunt you’re planning? Can you realistically access the area you’d like to hunt on your own?

Furthermore, how important is the overall experience of a DIY hunt? Is it more important to accomplish things on your own, or would you rather start by learning from an expert? These are just some of the questions that need answering.

There are a lot of other factors to consider before paying for a guided hunt or committing to doing everything. Maybe the additional cost is worth it to avoid the headache of pre-trip planning and scouting, setting up camp, cooking meals, locating animals, packing and butchering meat on your own.

Each option has benefits, and for some hunters, drawbacks. I’ve only been on one guided hunt, and it was an experience that left me conflicted.

Several years back, I convinced my father that if he wanted to kill a bull elk, he needed to book a guided hunt. He had already done a few successful public land, DIY mule deer hunts in Colorado with me. Although he had killed what is still the biggest mule deer buck I’ve ever laid my hands on, he hadn’t managed to kill an elk. At his age, he had reached the point where keeping up with me in the steep, remote elk country I hunted was no longer realistic. Even for me, killing a public land elk is difficult.

Janis Putelis recommended a place he had guided in the past as an ideal location for my father. The hunt took place on a large private ranch with an equally large elk herd. For Colorado, the terrain was fairly mild. The outfitter limited the number of hunters they booked in order to minimize pressure to keep those elk on the ranch. Success rates were very high. As an added bonus, the lodge was very nice and the meals were top notch.

My father insisted he would only book the hunt if I went along. It wasn’t an inexpensive hunt, but he offered to pay for me to come along. I had already killed several bulls on my own and never felt the need to do a guided elk hunt. I agreed simply because I’d get to spend several days hunting with my dad.

Suffice it to say, compared to past hunts when just finding elk was a major challenge, the hunting was easy. The guides were helpful, the terrain wasn’t challenging, the hikes were short and the elk were plentiful. I killed a bull without much effort early in the hunt. On the last day, our guide set up my dad with an easy shot on a bull.

The outfitter did everything right. There isn’t anything bad I can say about the entire hunt. My father was able to get around easily, and the guides knew what they were doing. We saw more elk than many hunters see in a decade of hunting. Eating hot, home-cooked meals and sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed every night made the entire experience that much more enjoyable for my father.

What left me conflicted was that, while it was the ideal hunt for someone like my father, it certainly wasn’t for me. All the luxuries made me feel guilty as hell.

Not once did I come up with a hunt plan for the day, break a sweat, bother checking the wind direction or question the outcome of the hunt. I was happy to put a tag on my bull, but I’d worked much harder for most of the cow elk I’d killed in the past. Spending that time with my father was very special and we both had a great time, but the hunt itself lacked many of the things I enjoy and value most.

I’m certainly not suggesting there’s anything wrong with going on a guided hunt. In fact, I’ll be in Idaho this year for a guided spring bear hunt. I’ve never killed a black bear despite several years of trying in Colorado. I’ve also never hunted big game over hounds, which is the specialty of the well-respected outfitter I’ll be hunting with. It’s an opportunity I couldn’t duplicate on my own: There is no spring bear season in Colorado and hound hunting for bears is illegal here.

Janis, who guided elk hunts for over a decade, elaborates: “I look at a guided hunt as an intimate tutorial on whatever species you’re chasing. Most guides are experts on the animals and the methods they use to hunt. A good guided hunt isn’t cheap, but if you weigh the cost of that one hunt against five to ten years of DIY suffering and learning to gain the same amount of info, I think you come out ahead starting with the guided hunt.”

For instance, if you’re a whitetail hunter who has never stepped foot in the Rocky Mountains, let alone hunted elk, booking a guide for your first elk hunt is a good choice. At very least, you’ll have a better chance of filling your tag and you’ll learn enough to begin planning your own DIY adventure.

Generally speaking, guides greatly increase your chance of success, but hiring one certainly doesn’t ensure you’ll be going home with giant antlers.

“To guarantee a good time on your guided hunt, set your expectations properly,” Janis said. “Nobody guiding a fair-chase hunt can guarantee you a dead animal. There are more bad outfitters and guides than good ones. The best ones are booked up at least one to two years in advance. Do your homework and get references! People get burned by bad outfitters all the time.”

There are also other reasons to consider using an outfitter. If you are interested in hunting a very remote area with difficult access, hiring a guide might be your best and only option to remove any logistical headaches and make for a safer trip.

Ryan Callaghan knows plenty of outdoorsmen that are capable hunters, but need help with access.

“The common misconception is one type of hunter always uses guides and the other is purely DIY,” Ryan said. “The fact of the matter is many outfitters exist purely because hunting certain areas requires a lot of time and resources. I know very competent Idaho hunters who have hired outfitters just to get into the most remote places in the Frank Church Wilderness. Going guided is an option, not a failure.”

What if you finally draw a tag for a bucket list hunt you’ve been dreaming about for years? Even hunters with a lifetime of experience find themselves in the enviable position of drawing a very limited tag should consider that the expense of hiring a guide might be worth it. This is especially true if the hunt takes place in an unfamiliar area hundreds of miles away.

“If you were to draw that sheep or mountain goat tag, you’d be eating into your vacation time and wallet with multi-day trips just to scout,” Ryan said. “If preseason scouting isn’t an option, you’ll be going into your hunt blind. Either way, investing in expert local knowledge saves you time and the money is well worth it if you’re talking about a special hunt you’ll never do again.”

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, booking a guided hunt is often worth every penny and more. However, hiring an outfitter isn’t always the best choice, or even a choice at all. The value of getting it done on your own and saving some money can’t be understated for some hunters. In part two of this series, I’ll take a look at why DIY might be the better option.

Feature image via Captured Creative.