I wrote this a few years back, thought you guys might enjoy a read. Unfortunately the hunt info is all true, and I could add much more...
HUNTS GONE BAD - MAKING THE MOST OUT OF A TOUGH SITUATION
The autumn colors are at their finest as you arrive at the remote elk hunting camp. Anticipation is high as this looks like elk heaven. As soon as your gear is stashed into a comfortable looking log cabin you and your partner are taken over to meet the guides. As you approach a group of weathered looking cowboys you notice one of them has a nasty limp and a rag tied around one of his thighs. As the intros proceed you learn that the fellow with the limp was to be your guide, but he had stabbed himself in the leg - right to the bone - that morning. He had returned from the doctor's office just before you arrived. That night you fall asleep to the sounds of elk bugling. Life is good.
The next morning you learn that the outfitter had neglected to pickup the elk tags as promised. In addition he miss-read the regulations and the area around his camp closed to elk hunting the day we arrived. We could have come earlier but he asked for this time slot! This meant a trip to a far-off town for tags and a change in the hunting plans since we would have to travel some distance to an area that was still open. As for the guide situation, no problem, there are other guides who will fill in. As the days progressed it becomes obvious that the alternate guides did not know the hunting area, they were hopeless around horses and they spent more time bickering and arguing than they did hunting. Unfortunately the dream hunt turns into a nightmare in fairly short order. The remote pack hunt turns into long hikes from a major highway, dodging road hunters and locals who do not like strangers in "their" hunting area. You hike into trails that have lots of fresh tracks and sign, only the tracks are size ten and the "sign" is trees that are still bent over after being run over by ATV's. The "guides" take a wrong turn and one of the pack-horses sinks in a mud-hole until only its neck and backline are still visible. A nearby trapper shows them how to fashion a crude tripod and winch system that finally retrieves the exhausted animal. If the trapper had not come along the horse probably would have disappeared forever. Although they packed every day they averaged less than one or two miles per wreck, usually the delays were caused by the diamond hitches letting go and the packs falling off the horses. This went on all day, every day. The guide claimed he had a certificate in his wallet from his doctor proclaiming him to be relatively sane, but he never showed it to us.
When you finally get into the wilderness, the cabin is unfit for packrats, there is no drinking water and no elk. I recall sitting on a point glassing a huge moutain valley. We spotted a moose several miles away, crossing a creek. The guide suggested we take-off after the moose. We were supposed to be on an elk hunt, although I had also had a moose tag. I suggest since there was less than an hour of light left maybe we should hold off on the moose. Fact was we did not exactly know were our base camp was relative to were we were sitting. He thought that out and said maybe I was right, would have been tough to find the moose. We would have had to get off the mountain we were on, then cross two rivers and several muskegs to get to that moose. This would have taken a full day at least. He was ready to take-off with one hour of light... Even in our ten power binocs the moose was a teeny dot, not sure how many miles away he was but a moose was a moose to this guy.
After going three days without drinking water and putting up with an elk guide who did not know how to blow his elk bugle, you have a discussion with your buddy. 'Maybe we should just get the hell out of here' is the topic and he agrees. As you prepare to return to the main camp one of the guides asks you if you would mind shooting a certain horse that had run-off and was currently standing on the far side of a small lake. The problem was he had a new set of panniers strapped on and the guy wanted his panniers back. You recall the outfitter demanding that this particular horse never have panniers placed on it, so you opt out of the horse shooting request and get back to packing your gear. On the way out the guide gets lost and your buddy has to find the correct trail back to the trail-head. The guide is so incompetent he has to walk all the way out because he is afraid of his horse, who shies sideways each time the idiot tries to mount up. The outfitter switches to plan-B which includes a fly-in moose hunt into the best moose lake in North America, according to his info. Unfortunately when the large floatplane lands there is barely enough water to keep his floats out of the bottom mud. The pilot boots the guides and all their gear out and takes off, swearing he will never return. Fortunately we were to go in on the second flight, which never happened. Although the weather and scenery were perfect, this hunt-from-hell is filed away as a survival experience and we still joke about it.
Fast forward to another memory - this time at a busy airport in northern Canada. You and your buddy are leaving after a great hunt during which you had the memorable experience of being smack in the middle of a huge caribou migration. Over in a corner of the terminal a group of ten angry hunters have a little weasel-faced outfitter circled like a pack of wolves on a moose. They are furious and the anger is increasing as the outfitter plays word-games and refuses to offer any compensation for the past "hunt". He sees an opportunity to get out and quickly leaves the terminal, leaving a bunch of sullen hunters.
You sit beside one of the fellows on the flight back to civilization and he asks how your hunt went. Knowing how he feels you down-play your success. He then tells you a sorry tale of broken promises, inadequate food, drunken guides and a frustrating week without even fresh tracks being found. All of the guys had saved for years for this hunt and needless to say they will not come back.
Another hunt in the arctic, this time also a caribou hunt but not in Canada. As we land the bushpilot says to me, "I don't know why you are at this camp, the caribou are thirty miles from here." In fact we flew over thousands of caribou, back about thirty miles enroute. We land and watch the outfitter meeting with the previous group of clients. I assume they are saying their good-byes and giving tips etc. One problem, there are no smiles, no handshakes, no grins and goodwill. This is an omen. We began hunting areas that we knew did not have any caribou. The food was awful. The camp staff were either burned-out or did not care about their jobs. Our guide was a walking idiot - he suggest my partner and I try to keep him in sight since we were having trouble keeping up in the muskegs. Mid week the outfiter decides to move us to a better location. A couple of planes appear and away we go. One slight problem, they moved the hunters first, then ran out of fuel so the cook and food and guides never got to join us. We saw a few caribou but nothing like the immense herds about thirty miles back which we again flew over on our way out.
My most recent tough-hunt was also in Alaska. This time the outfitter was NOT to blame, we simply got done-in by the weather-gods. We flew into a tiny lake to a small 9'x9' tent pitched right on the shoreline. That night we got over seven inches of rain and winds exceeding 75mph. I never realized how important good gear was until I spent four days in that Cabela's tent. If it had failed we would have been in big trouble. The lake level rose enough to flood over the beaches and sandbars, plus a nasty crick began flowing down the mountain behind us and it threatened to wash us out. The sound of the floatplane was music, sweet music late in the afternoon of the fourth day. SE Alaska can be nasty, very nasty without the added risk of bad guiding. Our guides that trip were tops and they were a big factor in our enjoying a bad situation.
Unfortunately these scenarios are not uncommon - booking a guided hunt is a "buyer-beware " situation of the first order. Like any major purchase, the buyer (hunter) must do his homework or suffer the consequences. Doing your homework does not simply mean looking for the best deal or price. Contacting references is part of the run-up to any hunt so make sure that you have realistic questions to ask. Try to get a feeling for how current and honest the information is that you are obtaining. Do not simply accept the advertising and promises as truthful, find out as much as you can before making a commitment.
In the last couple of years I have met several hunters who had blown five thousand dollars on "guaranteed" Boone and Crockett whitetail hunts in southern Saskatchewan. After disgracefully unprofessional "hunts" some of these fellows where given the opportunity to buy previously taken trophy antlers, so that they had something to take home. I have also flown out of the mountains with hunters who admitted they were ashamed of the way that they killed their "trophies". The guides forced them to shoot under questionable circumstances or they would not have had any shooting at all.
Sometimes a hunt goes bad despite your doing everything right. The god's of the hunt just don't smile on you. I remember a hunt where the particular outfitter was simply living under a hex. Everything he tried to do was doomed to disaster. He was a good outdoorsman, had nice equipment, a great hunting territory - but - he was simply having an awful season. Nothing went right, day after day. We cut our hunt short to give him a bit of a break because he needed some time to sort a few things out. I understand that the rest of the season continued on course, he was jinxed that year and ended up getting hurt badly.
What do you do when your hunt turns sour? My first suggestion is despite any pressure applied by the outfitter or guide, do not break any game laws just to fill your tag. Although high dollar hunts sometimes place a lot of pressure on the hunter to come home with a trophy, failure to take an animal does not mean that the hunt was a bust. This might not be easily explained to your wife or non-hunting friends. There are many rewards to hunting other than meat and trophies so try to return home with some good memories, new friends or even new skills and knowledge.
Conversely, do not pressure the outfitter or guide to try too hard or to break game laws or regulations. Honest outfitters will do everything within reason to ensure that you get an opportunity to harvest a trophy. But - they cannot pull the trigger for you, or climb mountains for you. Hard effort is usually rewarded in the field. If we got an animal on every hunt and with every shot we would lose a lot of the excitement of the sport.
Remember why you booked the hunt. You did not purchase a particular trophy unless you are "hunting" in a fenced game farm. You bought the services of the outfitter to provide you with a recreational experience. No legitimate outfitter guarantees a kill, not for free-roaming wild game. Good outfitters will do everything in their power to make your hunt successful, but we must remember there are things they cannot control. Clients getting ill, unusual weather and atypical movement of the critters are three that come to mind. Approach every hunt for what it really is - an outdoor experience that beats the hell out of being back home at work.
But what if the outfitter is simply pulling off a swindle? While in camp you and your partner(s) should determine if any hunting can be salvaged. You have every right to ask for changes in the game plans if you feel that other hunting techniques might be successful. If there is no chance for harmony you might be wise to cut your losses and get out. Your first logical move in such a situation is to contact the state or provincial game agency. Report any unlawful activities to the appropriate authorities. If laws were not broken but you feel that you did not receive what you had paid for, ask for the name, address and phone number of the state or provincial outfitter's association.
Most outfitter's associations have in-house procedures to deal with complaints and miss-deeds regarding members. Write a simple, concise letter detailing who you were booked with, when, what the hunt was supposed to offer and what problems occurred. Most outfitter's associations have a committee or some form of internal apparatus to mediate complaints. They will obtain both sides of a problem and try to expedite a reasonable resolution. In worst case scenarios the last option is to go to the police so that they can decide if criminal charges should be laid.
How can we ensure that our hunts don't go bad. Probably one of the best things that we as hunters can do is to "look in a mirror" and try to see what the outfitters have to deal with. Ask yourself some simple questions, "Why am I doing this hunt?" "What do I want out of this hunt - how much time, money, sweat and blood is a trophy worth to me?" "What are my hunting partners thinking of ME as a hunting partner? " "What do the guides think of ME as a hunter?" Most people don't get retrospective very often but maybe if we think about these things we will enjoy hunting more.
Kirk Kelso, runs Pusch Ridge Outfitters, a successful operation based in Tuscon, Arizona. He also hunts in New Mexico and Mexico for critters ranging from Coues deer and Desert Big Horns to elk and black bears. Kirk once told me, "The most common reason that a good hunt goes bad from the eyes of the outfitter is because the hunter wasn't truthful with the outfitter about his abilities and physical condition." In other words the prospective hunter was out of shape, knew he was not in good physical condition and did not mention that fact. In many cases the same individual has not practiced with his rifle so field accuracy is not to be relied upon either.
Kirk's job has unique demands that most hunters never consider. He must assess each hunter's enthusiasm, skill, physical condition, experience and shooting ability - to name only a few considerations. Then he must do a balancing act to ensure that he deals fairly with each and every client that comes into camp. This ranges from big-name professional hunters to individuals that have never hunted in their life. He must try to deliver a uniform service to all of his clients. Outfitters wear many hats, one of which is being a glorified baby-sitter.
Brian Hoffart from Baitmasters Hunting Camp in Green Lake, Saskatchewan is another successful outfitter that has some interesting opinions regarding how to get the most out of your hunts. Brian reiterates Kirk's suggestion to tell the truth about the shape you are in. He also needs to know how proficient you are around treestands, ATV's, with your rifle and how long you can sit in a stand or ground-blind. He recalls past problems with hunters second-guessing the guides. Brian suggests that you let the pro's do their thing. They know the local situation better than you do.
One of Brian's "problems" is getting hunters to "wind-down". Many first-time clients are used to rushing out hours before dawn to stake-out a hunting spot. This is a common situation in many heavily hunted states. Since there are so few hunters in the northern area that he hunts Brian does not have to "get there first". Some hunters take a while to realize that fact and they show up for breakfast hours before heading-out time. By the way, one of Brian's most astute tips: "Don't tick-off the cook!"
Hunters should remember that most outfitters want to see their clients succeed almost as much as the hunter does himself. If you do not have that feeling during your hunt then you should look for another outfitter, simple as that. Good guides hunt for trophies, not for tips. I have seen great friendships form after a hunter and guide shared whatever mother-nature threw at them during a hunt. Good hunting trips are almost always learning experiences as they enable us to experience varied cultures, personalities, habitat and wildlife.
How do we keep hunts from going bad? I have been in camps with hunters who enjoyed life so much that I doubt they could have a bad hunt. I have shared camps with hunters who worked extremely hard and came up empty-handed, but they never complained or felt sorry for themselves. I have also experienced the awe that my best hunting partner (my son Glen) and I shared as we watched a family of otters cavorting in a stream - only yards away from where we sat. We did not shoot a moose but it was one of our best trips as we were in true wilderness with great outdoorsmen. Hunting is what we make of it. May the hunting gods always smile on your hunts.