Gerald Almy: Planning and booking a western big game hunt

Gerald Almy

Every Eastern hunter dreams of a trip out West at some point in their lives. But the Western U.S. is a vast region with an incredible variety of game species, terrain, and habitat, and a sometimes confusing system for issuing hunting licenses to non-residents. For setting up a hunt, figuring out what animals to seek, deciding where to go, and then obtaining appropriate licenses and tags, the help of a skilled outfitter can be invaluable.

Can you set up and execute your first Western hunt totally on your own, start to finish? You bet. But there is so much research and planning required, so many logistical challenges, and so many big and little things that can go wrong that many people opt for a guided hunt.

This can either be arranged directly through the guide or with a booking agent. Not only will your chances for harvesting game be many times higher, you’ll also avoid lots of problems and pitfalls that can ruin even the most carefully planned do-it-yourself hunt.

To help you hire the right outfitter in the best location for your needs, let these planning tips be “your guide to choosing a guide.”

Whether or not to hire

First off, when trying to decide whether to hire an outfitter and which one, you should ask yourself lots of questions. In the process, analyze your priorities.

What do you want to get out of your hunt and how important are different goals for you? Is a trophy animal a must or will you be satisfied with taking a representative specimen for that area and species? Is meat to take home highest on your list? Escape from the pressures of everyday life? A getaway with a few friends? The experience of hiking, riding horses, and stalking wild animals in the vast open West?

How important is time. If you have a demanding job and can only get away for a limited period in fall, hiring a guide is definitely the best way to go. If dealing with all of the logistics and planning seem daunting, booking a guide is the clear choice.

In most cases, if you can’t get out and scout the area before the hunting season, it’s also probably best to hire a guide. Game could be abundant in one spot and scarce two miles away. An experienced guide will know those things.

What they offer

Guides offer plenty of services on hunts. And they earn their money, often working 12-18 hour days. They provide lodging, meals, and transportation equipment, be it horses, boats, ATVs, or trucks. They scout the area and keep tabs of the game movements and where the best chances for trophies are.

They often lease the best private lands and manage them to produce an abundance of quality animals. Plus, they offer their years of experience with and knowledge of the species being hunted.

Think about these things ahead of time as you plan your hunt. Once you decide for sure that a guided hunt is best, follow up by choosing which animals you’d most like to hunt. Then select an area or region and start searching for the right outfitter. Do this by contacting guide associations, wildlife departments and tourism groups, and doing research on the internet.

Selecting game to hunt

Available big game species in the West include mountain goat, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, mule deer, whitetails, pronghorn, and black bear. Goat, sheep, and moose are hunted on a fairly limited basis and best reserved for later hunts after you’ve traveled in the region and hunted for other more common species a few times.

Elk, mule deer, whitetails, pronghorn, and black bear are the major species sought by out-of-state hunters. Those are the ones to concentrate on for your first visits to the West. Often you can hunt two, or even possibly three on the same trip in the right areas.

Habitat and terrain

Besides selecting a state, you’ll need to decide what type of western habitat you want to hunt. I’ve enjoyed hunts ranging from sage brush prairies and badlands for mule deer and pronghorn to timberline habitat for elk, goats and bears. Each unique setting offers a part of the special appeal of that particular hunt.

Tip: Goats, sheep, and moose often require many years of license applications to build up “points” that help you qualify for a permit. You may want to start applying now to start this drawn-out process.

Next Week: More tips and strategies for planning your first Western big game hunt