It all began in the second half of the XIX century, when steam-powered ships and railroads made it possible for hunters to explore areas far beyond their home state or province. Affluent sportsmen and women from London, New York, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and other power nodes of the world, could reach places as remote as Siberia, India and Africa. A trip to Scotland after grouse and red stag, or a hunt in the American West for elk, wild sheep, and bison, once an incredibly rare experience which deserved to be immortalized in a book, became a matter of routine.
However, these “globetrotters” were perfectly aware of the fact that, no matter how good your shooting and hunting skills are, you can’t go very far without knowledge of the terrain. They would hire local hunters, trappers, and loggers, often of the indigenous peoples (read more about those days here) – at first, only to take the visitor to a game-rich spot and find the way back. But it soon became evident that local knowledge of the game and its habits was also essential for success. Names and details of the best guides were shared across country clubs and smoking rooms. In the more popular places that saw many city hunters, whole industries of guiding and outfitting developed. Guides and outfitters united in trade associations, such as GOABC, APHA, NLO, and and some provinces and states passed laws that prohibited non-resident hunters from hunting without a licensed guide or outfitter.
What does a guide do?
There are two main responsibilities of a hunting guide. One is, literally, to guide the hunter through terrain unfamiliar to him or her, show good places to hunt, where to break camp, find firewood and water, etc. The other is to help with the actual process of the hunt. Here, the guide is a mentor and a trainer, who tells the hunter where to go and what to do. A guide should be expert at every hunting skill – calling, positioning a blind or tree stand, setting decoys, etc. all while keeping his client safe.
Guides don’t usually shoot, and sometimes don’t even carry a weapon (except for protection in a country where you can meet a grizzly or another dangerous animal). In North America, it is not legal for a guide to shoot at an animal for which the hunter has the tag. In other locations guides not only can, but sometimes even feel obliged to put a few bullets in if it’s obvious the client only wounded the animal. This will spoil the experience for many hunters, so the question of who does and doesn’t do what in this situation is best to discuss and clarify with the guide ahead of the hunt.
A guide may also be responsible for many other things, including travel to the hunting destination, lodging and catering, entertainment and maintaining group cohesion and good mood, especially during backcountry wilderness trips. But this is not a given; on the one hand, sometimes this may be handled by a special person, on the other hand, many guided hunts do not imply staying overnight and meals. But in any case, the main goal of a guide is to make sure the hunter has a good experience.
Guide, outfitter, gamekeeper, PH – what’s the difference?
An outfitter is the person who provides you with everything necessary for the hunt: the lodge or camp, tents and food, licenses and tags, horses, boats, and vehicles, dogs and decoys, and access to land. (The particular list of what is included may differ.) The guide is the person who actually takes you out hunting. The outfitter is a business owner, the guide is an employee, although it could be one and the same person. In fact in North America the standard career ladder in the industry is to begin as a packer, then guide, gain reputation among the hunters, and many use this reputation to start their own outfitting business. Other guides are happy letting the outfitter run the “operations” side of things and just do the guiding. The outfitter often becomes more the strategist organizing logistics, transportation, stock and supplies plus handling bookings and any problems that may arise. Many outfitters dream of the less complicated days when they were themselves out guiding and enjoying nature without the stress of running and coordinating day to day operations.
With the gamekeeper, guide, and PH, the difference is a bit more subtle. A gamekeeper is an employee hired by a landowner in a civilized area, where successful hunting depends on intensive wildlife management. It is the wildlife management (including protection from poachers, feeding, etc.) which is the main responsibility of a “keeper”, and while they also guide the clients and are typically excellent at that, what is most important to them is the interests of their preserve and their employer. The relationship between a client and a gamekeeper stems back to Feudal traditions: the hunter is a knight, the keeper is a henchman.
By contrast, the concept of the PH comes from Africa, a continent beset by many pitfalls from dangerous game and excessive heat to venomous snakes and insects, where a hunter fresh from Europe or America may be as helpless as a newborn baby. It is the safety of the hunter which is the PH’s main concern and raison d’être, followed by management of a numerous and sophisticated team. It is said that you should think of an African PH as the captain of the ship on which you’re a passenger.
While both gamekeeper and PH are typically full-time jobs, a hunting guide is usually a part-time job for a local hunter who wants to combine his passion with a chance to earn extra cash. In a similar way, most North American outfitters double as farmers, offer fishing, hiking or camping trips, run hotels, etc. On a guided hunt in North America, the hunter and the guide are most often more equal. The guide and hunter are paired up and in the field where often the hunter is welcome to help with tasks and chores and sometimes, in the case of processing and packing animals, an absolute necessity. . Be prepared to pull your part but let the guide do the guiding.
But in many instances the difference is only in a name. In remote areas of Asia and Russia the employee with a title of a “gamekeeper” (“eger”) will have the responsibilities of a North American hunting guide, and in the remote wilderness of Alaska or some parts of the West the guide’s duties may equal those of an African PH. And from a hunter’s perspective, adopting the egalitarian attitude nowadays is what works best on all hunts from Austria to Zimbabwe.
“Self-guided” and “semi-guided” hunts
As discussed above, the duties of the guide include two aspects: to guide across the terrain, and to help with hunting. Many hunters, even non-residents, are or feel themselves experienced enough not to need the second part. Indeed, as they say, “two hunters make four times more noise than one”, and for a good hunter the presence of a guide is often not just unnecessary, but counterproductive. In addition, many hunters don’t feel they can claim a full title to the trophy if it was harvested with the help of a guide. While this point is arguable, one thing that can’t be denied is the growing demand for self-guided and semi-guided hunts.
A “self-guided hunt” can be defined as an outfitted hunt where a hunter uses the services of an outfitter (in contrast to a “DIY hunt”), but is not assisted in the actual process of the hunt. The epitome of such hunts is a drop camp. Here the outfitter provides you with the means of reaching a destination in the wilderness, such as a string of pack horses or mules, or all-terrain vehicles, tents and camping equipment. Once there, you’re on your own to hunt as you please. An important part of the deal are the landowners preference tags, or outfitter allocation tags, that are available in some states and provinces. In fact, often a “self-guided hunt” means only that you pay the money for access to a bit of private land or a concession. Many hunters, who are certain in their own ability and/or can save some cash, feel it’s a good deal.
There’s a lot of middle ground between a do-it-yourself hunt, where you’re responsible for everything from obtaining licenses and tags to carrying out the meat and other parts of the trophy, and a fully guided hunts, where you get the outfitter’s assistance at every step of the journey. A “semi-guided hunt” can mean many things. It can mean that the guide or outfitter provides baits, food plots, tree stands or blinds, but you will hunt the plots or stands on your own. It could mean the presence of a competent person in camp, who will tell you roughly “there’s a meadow out there, they feed there in the morning” or some such, and may lend a hand in the packing process if it’s necessary (prepare to tip generously in such an event).
Is a guided hunt for you?
Sometimes you don’t have a choice between a guided and a non-guided hunt. This can happen in states and provinces that require a non-resident hunter to be accompanied by a registered outfitter or guide by law. It can also happen for hunts that imply the use of valuable equipment or animals, for example, hunting mountain lions with hounds, or waterfowl hunts. Nobody will just give you a pack of hounds and let you loose, this is simply too risky. A hundred decoys and half a dozen calls are useless if you don’t know where and how to set them and how to blow them.
But sometimes you can choose between a guided and a non-guided hunt. To make the right choice in this situation, it’s important to realize the pros and cons of guided hunts.
The main advantages of guided hunts are:
– Saving of time and effort
A good hunt requires a lot of preparation. Scouting, learning about the habits of the game, etc., is an exciting process that has its own value, and improves your chances and quality of experience whether you go for a guided or a DIY hunt. But while for a DIY hunt it is essential, if you choose a guided hunt you can skip this part and spend the saved time on your business or family. Advice of your guide may greatly simplify choosing and shopping for the right gear as well.
– Higher chances of success
Statistics show that on the whole, with a guide your chances of harvesting the buck or bull of your dreams grow exponentially. See, for example, the story of the last “Super 4 Tag” drawn in Idaho (in 2019). The tag gives one hunter a chance to harvest an elk, a pronghorn, a mule deer, and a moose in any open hunting unit in the state. Getting each of the first three took the successful winner, an experienced local hunter, anywhere from a couple of weeks to nearly a full season of dedicated hunting. The moose, the only animal for which he sought the help of a guide, was “in the salt” on Day 1.
– Opportunity to learn from professionals
This is especially important for those who are only learning to hunt, whether to hunt in general or to hunt a particular animal in a particular environment. This depends on your attitude, but a guided hunt can be a perfect mentored hunt, where you learn by listening to the guide’s advice, by watching his or her moves, and by doing it yourself under his or her supervision. Even the best of hunters can learn a new trick or two from a good guide.
The main disadvantage of a guided hunt, as compared to a DIY hunt, is a higher price. However, if you consider every aspect of the hunt, the difference in price becomes an open question. Does an unsuccessful hunt have the same value as a successful one? If, statistically, hunters on DIY trips are only ⅓ as likely to notch their tags as those who book guided hunts, shouldn’t you really compare the price of a guided hunt to three times the cost of a DIY hunt? Add the value of the time spent in preparation, money wasted on badly chosen gear, having to buy things you could’ve borrowed from your guide, and you may find that a guided hunt could actually save you money.
How to choose a guided hunt
Everyone heard of guided hunts that went wrong. Usually, these tales are a classic case of survivor error. When a guided hunt goes as planned, everyone takes it for granted. When a DIY hunt goes to hell, how many hunters are honest and brave enough to tell you about their own rookie errors? But a hunter who has a problem during a guided hunt is likely to march about town telling everyone who would listen about the experience. Statistically, your chances of having a bad guided hunt are slim.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate this point. Alexander Egorov, the 2020 Weatherby Award winner, often uses rifles rented from the outfitters, simply because he doesn’t always have the time for Russian red tape gun laws. One of his favorite tales is a puma hunt in Argentina when the only rifle available could hardly stay within a 1-foot circle at 100 yards. When a puma came to the bait, he estimated where the body was, and tried for the heart/lung area. It turned out that he guessed wrong, but the rifle threw the bullet way to the side, and by a fluke of fate hit the cat in the neck, killing it instantly. On another occasion, the outfitter forgot to pack ammo for the .300 WM, so Mr. Egorov had to use a .243. This cost him a chance on a potentially record ram, as he didn’t risk a 350 yard shot with a .243. Did these stories put him off rented rifles? No. Why? “Because on the rest of the approximately 200 hunts where I used a rented rifle things went as planned”. They just didn’t make such great stories!
There are a lot of online resources these days to help you choose the best outfitter and guide for you. BookYourHunt.com, for example, has an outfitter rating system, and customer reviews that are added by actual hunters (read hear how it works). Another highly useful resource is the Big Game Logic guide list that comes with guide ratings for selected states, provinces and species. A careful study of these resources will do wonders to ensure you’ll get the experience you expect.
To make sure your guided hunt lives up to your expectations, remember one word: “Communication”. Guides and outfitters are professionals and typically good practical psychologists, who know how to deliver a great hunting experience and to avoid pitfalls that can ruin their experiencwe. But they don’t have a second sight, and the more you know about each other and the hunt that lies ahead, the smoother it is likely to go.
In addition to getting the general information about the environment, probable weather, how your hunt is likely to proceed, what are the recommended gear and weapons, two important questions to ask are “Who is going to be my guide?” and “Will I share the camp with other hunters?” If you book early, you may be able to secure the services of the outfitter’s first-choice guide (although it’s important to remember that guides are people, too, and people may run into unforeseen circumstances that could prevent them from being the guide on your hunt). And if you can get in touch with the other hunters in camp, you may have a chance to save a bit of trouble or cash, e.g. by sharing a rental car.
If you book your hunt on BookYourHunt.com, it’s a really good idea to have all your conversations in the BookYourHunt.com chat. It is a perfectly safe environment, and we designed it so that nobody can break into it and read or adjust your messages (not even us, unless you specifically request it). But in the very rare (actually, nearly nonexistent) case of misunderstanding, we can retrieve the chats, which we consider the final and incontrovertible evidence of what your arrangement with the outfitter was.
Many hunters would prefer a DIY hunt to a guided hunt, because it’s cheaper, and because to them it’s more satisfying to know that you owe the trophy to your effort only. But this choice is not always possible, and in any case there are many advantages with a guided hunt. Many hunters who swore they’d “never take a guided hunt!” are quickly won over to not only seeing the benefits a guided hunt may offer, they actually find they enjoy it immensely. You will be more likely to come back with a trophy, learn a few new tactics and tricks, and may form a lasting friendship. Check out a huge selection of guided hunts on BookYourHunt.com