There is much confusion involved with booking a guided hunt in Alaska, especially for first time hunter to this State. These questions are designed to help clarify this procedure and help give you information for planning your hunt. Alaska is 1/5th the size of the entire lower 48 States, and there is a huge variety in the terrain, game, weather, hunting pressure, etc. There is no one answer that solves all problems for all of the country. Still, it is a good guide to use, and we will keep updating it as more things come to mind.
1) How do I pick an Outfitter for my Alaskan Hunt?
First of all you should establish the legitimacy of your Outfitter. Believe it or not, there are guys operating who are not licensed or conducting their hunts where they should. This is best done by going to the State of Alaska’s web page and doing a search under the Department of Occupational Licensing at http://commerce.alaska.gov/occ/OccSearch/main.cfm. Here you can enter the name of your potential outfitter to see if he is indeed licensed and registered to hunt in the area you are planning to hunt. Usually, you do not know the particulars of where you will be hunting, so this is hard to verify. It will also tell you when the license was first issued and if there are any current investigations involving this Outfitter. The first date of issue is important because it shows you how long they have been in business. This is not always accurate as some licenses were issued quite some time ago, but they haven’t been very active. Most of the established Outfitters I know are in the business because they love it, but there are those who see it as a way to make a fast buck. They won’t stay in business for very long, but they will leave a trail of disappointment for the time they are operating. Remember, you are responsible for any hunting violations that you may commit as well as your Outfitter, whether or not you knew that they were violations. It is your weapons and trophies that will be confiscated should your Outfitter decide to do things illegally and involve you.
Once you have established that he is legitimate, then you should investigate ethics. This is best done by contacting the references. Any Outfitter worth his salt should have many of these. Unfortunately, even the bad guys can get one or two good references. Ask to speak to clients who were unsuccessful and find out from them why they didn’t harvest their trophy. Some of these “Outfitters” will tell you exactly what you want to hear in order to get your deposit, and it is easy to fall into that trap. If you see him displaying a picture of a large trophy, ask who the hunter was and if you can talk to him. I know guys who will use pictures of their hunting buddies and other’s clients when they are not taking any trophies of their own. Calling references must be a difficult thing, because even as much as I preach this, only about 30% of my clients contact my references. Remember, hunters love to talk about hunting, and they will be glad to give you their insight. They can give you the hunter’s perspective which can be different from that of the Outfitter. You can also become far better prepared for your hunt by doing this. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and compare the answers to that of the other references on similar hunts.
2) How will I know which animal to shoot because the Alaskan Wilderness is full of game?
This is usually the biggest misconception of most first time hunters to this State. We have all seen the National Geographic films of the Brown Bears at McNeil River and the Rams in Denali National Park. Many hunters believe that this is how it is everywhere in the State. It would be similar to equate wild elk hunting with hunting in Yellowstone National Park. Alaska has large populations of game animals, but an even larger amount of land in which to hide them. Game densities in Alaska are among the lowest anywhere. One only needs to see this State in the wintertime to realize why. There is a very limited amount of winter range that can support most of the game populations. Furthermore, much of the country is very brushy and provides excellent cover for the few animals that reside in any given area. There are pockets of habitat which contain fairly high densities of game, and it is your Outfitter’s job to know where these are and how to successfully hunt them. Be realistic in your expectations. Not everyone is going home with a 10 foot brown bear or a 40 inch dall sheep. Years ago, I had a hunter exclaim that he was going to pass on the first 5 or 6 ten foot brown bears, ”unless we see a real nice one”. This was his first time hunting in Alaska and he had been watching too much National Geographic. Furthermore, it was in the spring and the bears are not concentrated on salmon streams at that time.
3) What kind of physical condition should I attain before my hunt?
You should get in the very best shape possible. If there is any single factor that you can control that will help to determine the outcome of your hunt, this is it. This is another one of my soapbox topics, but every year I am amazed at how many clients neglect this. Granted, with the day to day routines and schedules, it is often hard to find the time to regularly exercise, but you will regret this decision when you arrive for your hunt. It could very well mean the difference between being able to look over several trophies to determine the best one, and possibly get into Boone and Crockett, or shooting the first one you see to simply end the misery that your hunt has turned into. Obviously different species require different levels of physical condition, but you should do the best you can to get into the best shape that is reasonable for you. We have missed some good opportunities at some very nice bears because a client couldn’t close the distance quickly enough and the bears beat us to the brush line. As I think back on all of the hunts I have been privileged to be on, the ones most memorable are the ones that required the greatest effort. You truly get out of it what you put into it, and that is why I don’t understand high fence hunting, but that is another topic. Nothing compares to the exhilaration of working hard for your trophy and having everything come together.
4) What kind of gear should I bring?
Of course this varies greatly with the species of game hunted, the time of year and the area of the State. Raingear is the one universal piece of equipment that is required everywhere. I do most of my hunting around Cordova and we get an average of 180 inches of rain each year. We have had Septembers that have put 50 inches on the ground in that month alone. Show up with nothing but Gor-Tex, and you will be wet. I have tried every piece of breathable “100% waterproof” gear there is and will tell you they all leak after a couple of days of steady rain. This is not to say don’t bring it because I wear it every day. I also carry a vinyl raincoat and wading pants to put over my Gor-Tex when it is pouring. This doubling up of the raingear seems to work very well. Many hunts are dry or just drizzling lightly, and the gor-tex is great for that. Cabela’s makes a set of lightweight packable raingear that practically fits in the palm of your hand. It is ideal to leave in your pack for the downpours. The other universal is to leave your cotton at home. It is a hypothermia trap and will kill you under the wrong circumstances. It soaks up water like a sponge and will sap the heat out of your body not to mention how heavy it becomes. Today’s modern synthetic fibers are incredible. They insulate far better and repel water and odor. You can wring out polarfleece and it will still keep you warm. Try that with cotton. The same is true for socks. Cotton socks will give you a blister in a minute, and frostbite in about the same time. Stick with the wool and polyester blends. A heavy wool cap will also make your hunt so much more comfortable. Sometimes it is hard for a client coming from Florida or Texas to imagine being cold on their hunt, so it is easy to skimp on the clothing. Bring plenty and in lots of layers. You can always take it off when you are sweating climbing up a ridge, but you will be ever so thankful to have it to put on when you stop and the wind is sucking the heat out of your wet body like a vacuum. When you are cold nothing matters except getting warm, and it is hard to sit and glass all day under those circumstances. Your boots should be rugged, waterproof and well broken in. On many of our hunts we live in chest waders. I prefer the newer dry plus or gor-tex waders to neoprene. They do not fit as tightly and are far lighter. You can always layer under them with fleece sweats. Get the stocking foot style with a good wading shoe, but no felt soles. The felt soles are great for fly fishing your favorite stream, but are like roller skates on any type of slope. Many areas only require hip boots, but always get the ankle fits. They will allow you to walk twice as far. Gloves are also important. Avoid the ones with the sewn in liners as the liners will stick to your fingers when you remove the gloves and they are a pain to try to get back on. We use either leather or the tough commercial fishing rubber gloves for hiking. You are constantly grabbing onto brush to help climb and Devils Club and Salmonberry have a lot of thorns. Temperatures are usually not that cold usually in the high 30’s to low 50’s, but remember more people die of hypothermia at 40 degrees than at 20 degrees below zero.
Notice how I haven’t even mentioned all the special little gadgets that everyone seems to bring? That is because they are extremely secondary to your clothing. Being dry and comfortable and in good shape is far more important than having every little gadget in the Cabela’s catalog. I think some hunters believe that buying enough gadgets will overcome the fact that they didn’t get into shape. You should have a good waterproof pair of binoculars and spend as much time using them as possible. Your guide should have a rangefinder, spotting scope and shooting sticks. Try to avoid the bi-pods that stay attached to your rifle. They will hang up on every piece of brush you crawl under. For backpack hunts, you should have a way to attach your rifle to your pack. The packs with built in sleeves work the best. The hook with the plastic block and Velcro strap to hold your stock is worthless in my opinion. You are better off just tying it with nylon twine. Your guide should have a camera, but it always a good idea to double up and bring a small one yourself. Of course, you should always have a sharp knife, but keep it small and manageable. Very few charging bears are killed with bowie knives these days, and you have to pack it wherever you go. Make sure you have a lighter and good flashlight. The newer LED headlamps are excellent because they are lightweight and allow you to walk out of the woods in the dark without tying up your hands. We provide all of the camping equipment including cots, pads, stoves, and lanterns, food and cooking equipment, but you will be required to bring your own sleeping bag. Stay away from down bags as they are no good when they get wet. Remember, on goat hunts and on some bear hunts, you will be carrying it on your back. Make sure it is plenty warm, but don’t bring one that is too big.
Your rifle is also another very important consideration. Bring the biggest that you can shoot WELL. This is very important as a brown bear will go a lot further and do more damage shot in the guts with a .375 than one shot in the lungs with a .30-06. I see many guys go out and get a big caliber rifle, especially for their bear hunt, but they kick a lot more and guys are reluctant to shoot them. You must be very proficient with whatever gun you bring. This is the second most important factor that you can control (other than being in good shape) that will determine the outcome of your hunt. It is truly heartbreaking when a client goes through the effort to stalk his trophy and everything comes together for the shot and he misses. There is not always the opportunity for a second shot, so it makes for a very somber hunter afterward. Practice, practice, practice!!! Don’t just shoot off a rest from a bench, shoot standing, sitting, kneeling, and prone. Practice with shooting sticks and without. Keep your rifle (without the shells) next to your television or desk, and everyday pick it up and practice aiming at various spots around the room. Practice working the bolt or whatever action it may have. This may sound redundant, but it is amazing how little most hunters actually handle their rifles. This is apparent when they can’t find the animal in the scope, or they can only make a good shot from one position. Bring a stainless steel rifle with a composite stock if at all possible. They are far more forgiving than the blued ones with wood stocks. Sight in dead on at 100 yards. That way on close shots you simply hold right where you want the bullet to go instead of thinking about how low you should hold. These are the quick shots at running bears or whatever. On longer shots, you usually have the time to determine the range, discuss trajectory, and how much you should hold over. Use premium grade bullets and make sure you practice with what you are hunting with. If I had any last words of wisdom concerning gear, it is this. Sell all of your little gadgets like the GPS that doubles as an alarm clock and shaver, and buy a membership to a health club and 5 extra boxes of shells. Use both of these last two items before your hunt, and everything will work out great.
5) What if I have a disagreement with my Outfitter or Guide?
You are the one paying the bill, but you also hired a guide for a reason. Give him the chance to do his job. Now I realize that there are Guides out there who do not even have the qualifications to work at McDonalds, and if this is what you get, I feel for you. I physically participate in every hunt, but I also hire assistant guides when I have more than 1 client for a particular time slot. Most of the time we hunt out of the same base camp using separate spike camps. My guides all start working for me as packers and do not guide until I feel that they can guide with the same high standards I have set for myself. I know many young guys who get into guiding for an ego trip or to put something unique on their resume. They usually have little hunting experience and are full of attitude. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being a guide, and it should not be taken lightly. Assuming you do have a competent guide, but are in disagreement with him, you should bring it up early before either of you has the chance to develop a lot of resentment over it. Remember, your guide is probably doing the best he can and may be thinking of things that you are not even aware of. Weather, the safety of the client, weather, game movements, other hunters, weather, the physical condition of the client, weather, etc are all things that we must consider. For instance, it is very counterproductive to walk up and down salmon streams hoping to bump into a bear. First of all the big bears that we are hoping to get did not get big by being stupid and charging people. If they have this attitude, they are usually killed at a young age. The real trophies may be over 15 years old, and these bears will run into another drainage if they so much as cross our scent trail. While hunting them, we find a vantage point on a hill or slope, or I climb up high in a tree where I can see over the brush lines. This allows us to spot and evaluate a bear to decide if he is worth trying to get. Sometimes hunters get bored with this and think we should start covering country. I have had egotistical clients who after 3 days of hunting want to call the shots and decide where and how we are supposed to hunt. These types of guys think so highly of themselves that they place their innate knowledge over my years of experience in the exact country we are occupying at the time. Do I sound a little perturbed? I should because no one likes to be told that what they are doing is wrong. I have heard clients say that certain Outfitters will keep them out in the field no matter what just, so they think they are getting their money’s worth. First of all, success for you is success for me. We want you to harvest a trophy probably almost as badly as you do. Secondly, if you can tag out early, there is less pressure on us. Not to say that you must leave the field after you kill your game, but then things get more relaxed as we look for black bears or catch salmon. If your hunt is getting toward the end and things aren’t working out, don’t give up. I can’t tell you the number of hunts we have had that have turned around in the 11th hour. Remember, you have just as much chance on the last day as the first, and oftentimes more because you have gained a lot of knowledge in the previous days. Don’t give up, and also remember that not all hunts are successful. Appreciate the fact that you are where you are and appreciate everything about it. Killing an animal should not be the measure of success for a hunt.
6) What is the rule about tipping my guide?
Let me say that tips are always appreciated but never expected. Some clients can buy a $10,000 hunt like they are buying dinner, and others must save for years. Do what you can afford and what you feel is adequate for the service you received. Guides like the 10% of the cost of the hunt rule, but they are also happy with an additional day’s wages. Remember to tip the packers and others in camp. They work just as hard and should be thought of. At the same time, these people should not be rewarded for lousy service or attitudes.
7) What is the wounded loss policy?
Our policy on wounding loss is that a client will be allowed to hit and wound only one animal of each species while he is on his hunt. This is already State Law for Brown Bears in Southeast Alaska and for Mountain Goats in the registration hunt units. Ethically, it is the right thing to do and puts the responsibility of good shooting skills back on the client. We do all we can to get as close to the trophy as possible, use range finders and shooting sticks and are ready to provide follow up shots in most instances. A hunter should be intimately acquainted with his rifle or bow and know where it is shooting at all ranges. We always try to ensure adequate opportunity to check the zero on the rifles before going into the field. Most of our shots especially on Brown Bears are at 150 yards or less so we encourage a hunter to sight dead on at 100 yards. You should know how your gun is shooting at 200 and 300 yards also in case a long range follow up shot is required. Actually shoot your rifle with the same ammunition that you will be hunting with at these ranges to see your actual trajectory. Don’t just rely on the trajectory charts printed on the ammo box or in reloading manuals as experience has shown me that all guns shoot differently. One of my favorite things to do while sighting in at the range is to sprint back from the target to the bench. Then try shooting offhand, kneeling and sitting to see how tight your groups are. This simulates actual hunting conditions such as topping a ridge and seeing your trophy billy goat bedded at 100 yards or jumping a brown bear after wading a fast moving stream. Archers should know how their bows and arrows will perform under wet conditions, as few of us go out and target practice in the rain.
In conclusion, you should always be prepared to roll with the punches. Your hunt will probably not be anything like you have thought in your mind, especially if you have never been to Alaska. Be prepared for weather delays and always bring along a good thick book. It keeps your mind from dwelling on when the airplane will get there. Your Outfitter should have plan A, plan B, and plan C all figured out, so again let him do his job. Most importantly, your hunt will mostly be what you make of it. If the success depends entirely on killing a B&C trophy, you will be disappointed most of the time. Remember how fortunate you are to even be setting foot in this magnificent country called Alaska.