Picking the right outfitter can make or break your experience.
By Brian Strickland | @backcountry_brian
He appeared like magic…literally. One minute the cluster of bait barrels I was guarding was void of life, and then it was filled with the bruin for which I had traveled nearly 20 hours. Although I had seen over a dozen bears during this five-day Manitoba outfitted hunt with Todd Wohlgemuth, owner of Baldy Mountain Outfitters (www.baldymountainoutfitters.ca), none had jumped my pulse like this one.
Big bears are different than your average bruin, and it was quickly apparent his sixth sense was telling him something wasn’t quite right. As he slowly scanned every direction while inhaling every scent molecule trying to sort it out, I made a move to adjust my camera. In an instant, his blocky head swiveled in my direction and he stared right through me. Our eyes locked as my heart pounded through my chest with each passing second, and when he turned to walk away, I thought my hunt was over. With less than an hour of shooting light left on the last day of the hunt, I knew my 20-hour drive home the following day would certainly feel much longer after this encounter.
However, when he paused in the brush and stared back at the barrels and began to slowly inch his way in their direction, fate must have had other plans. I gripped my bow a little tighter with each passing second, and when he presented a clear broadside shot moments later and I witnessed my arrow fly true, I knew my 20-hour drive home wouldn’t be so bad after all.
When I started big game hunting over 20 years ago, outfitted hunts were generally off the table. I was either too cheap to part with the Benjamins needed for such an adventure, or frankly didn’t have enough of them. Furthermore, because I often prefer a DIY approach, I passed on the outfitted option. Over time those feelings have changed. Although the DIY approach is still my preferred method, using the resources that a quality outfitter offers is often a better approach, especially when it comes to spring black bears.
Why choose an outfitted black bear hunt you might ask? Well, they are often considerably cheaper than many other hunts, plus you get to hunt in the spring of the year when virtually everything else is off-limits. Also, with a baited bear hunt, which tends to offer the highest success rates, having the trap set before you arrive is a huge benefit. I’ve personally waited up to a week for a bait to see much activity on DIY hunts out west.
If you prefer the spot-and-stalk approach, a good outfitter is going to know areas that tend to hold bears during this fickle time of year, as well as the lay of the land and effective ways to spot bears in it. This past spring, I made two trips to Big Sky Country hoping to connect with a do-it-yourself bruin. Not only did I leave there with only memories, I didn’t see a bear until the last day of the first trip, and only a few bears on the second. Needless to say, I’m still on my Montana learning curve and I’m certain an outfitter would have made it much shorter.
That being said, picking the right outfitted bear camp to hole up in for a week this spring is certainly not easy. With hundreds to choose from across the Lower 48, Alaska and Canada, there’s plenty of bad apples mixed in with the good ones. Although I’ve been fairly lucky over the years with only one I would consider to be a little sketchy, we’ve all heard horror stories of others that were complete disasters. But like anything else, most of these negative outcomes could have been avoided if the hunter would have done a little due diligence.
To start with, you have to determine the type of bear you want to hunt and what you’re willing to spend. If you’re looking for an over-sized, color phase bruin, it's hard to beat Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They harbor some of the biggest black bears in North America and there’s plenty of color phase ones in the right areas. These are generally baited-style hunts, are mid to upper range in price and success rates are high. If a spot-and-stalk style hunt for big black colored bears is your desire, you can’t beat British Columbia. These are mid to upper price hunts as well. If saving some greenbacks is more of a concern than size, then the eastern Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec are where to look. You can find these baited-style hunts for $2,000 or less, but don’t expect to see many bears over 200 pounds.
As for U. S. based hunts, Alaska is a top option if you’re looking for size and numbers of bears with both baited and spot-and-stalk options available. These too are mid to upper priced bear hunts, plus the expense of getting to this far-flung destination. However, the fact that you’re in The Last Frontier makes it a great choice in my opinion. Then there’s western destinations to consider. Generally, they are mid-priced hunts with largely baited options in Idaho and Wyoming, or spot-and-stalk in Montana. These locations have lots of mid-sized bears, as well as a few hammers. Some outfitters even offer a pack-in style hunt.
Once you determine what you’re looking for, zeroing in on the right outfitter is the next big step.
For me, that choice is largely summed up in one word…ethics. This has to do with their business, personal and work ethics, and once you find an outfitter that meets all three, keep them on the shortlist. As my buddy and publisher/editor of Bear Hunting Magazine put it, “I want an outfitter I could trust to send my kids on a hunt with.” An honest, hard-working outfitter that plays by the rules regardless of the situation is what you’re looking for, and to ensure you find those requires due diligence.
If an outfitter is honest, he will freely provide numerous references of both recent successful and unsuccessful hunters. Don’t be afraid to reach out to these people. Most will relish sharing their experiences, both good and bad, and give you an honest impression. Besides a reference from a close friend, these outfitter references are the meat and potatoes when it comes to determining an outfitter's ethics. Question both the outfitter and his references, and just don’t ask surface questions like trophy potential, hunter success rates, and how many hunters are hosted in a given hunt and season. Dig deeper. Ask specific questions about the operation, its longevity, guide turnover rates and what to expect overall from a hunt. Although the outfitter can’t control the animals, he can control their professional ethics and those will be exposed if you do some digging.
Don’t just focus on seasoned outfitters either. Although they have built their hard-earned reputation over the years and are generally worth every penny, they had to start somewhere, and so do younger outfitters. A couple of my best outfitted hunts came from guys just starting out. On both occasions, they worked extremely hard to provide an excellent experience.
If you plan to hunt with an outfitter out west, most of these destinations have guide and outfitter associations within the state. Check to see if a particular outfitter has a complaint history and other issues. Although one complaint shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, multiple ones are certainly red flags. You could also call the state wildlife enforcement agency to see if they have been cited with any violations in the past or had their outfitting license revoked or suspended.
Using a booking agency is also a good option and there are many to choose from in today’s market. Although you may pay a little more, they have done a lot of the leg work for you and can explain the ins and outs of a particular hunt in detail. Many agents have even hunted with the outfitters they represent to ensure they offer the experience advertised. However, even with a booking agency it’s still advisable to request and call references, as well as do a little online investigating looking for legitimate complaints.
Also, as tempting as it may be to book a hunt from a sports show, keep your checkbook in your pocket. Although you can often find show specials that will save a few greenbacks, booking on the spot eliminates your ability to do your own research.
Lastly, don’t be swayed by fancy websites and social media posts. Although these resources can be valuable tools, they also can be easily manipulated. It wasn’t too long ago that I noticed one of my images show up on an outfitter’s website that I had never hunted with, and I’m aware of other such scenarios as well. On the flip side, just because an outfitter doesn’t have a quality website or social media presence is not a reason to remove them from the shortlist. Truth is, one of my best outfitted experiences was with a nondescript outfitter that relied on returned customers and referrals. I’ve tried booking with him again and can’t ever land a spot, and that speaks volumes.