Now that the ornaments have been stashed and the last of the champagne consumed, those fortunate to find a guided hunt under the tree are turning their sights to the run of sport shows and events that take place from January to May in search of the perfect outfitter. Sport shows like Sheep Show, Safari Club International or the Great American Outdoor Show are ideal for vetting multiple outfitters in one place. You can compare prices, look at lodge or trophy photos, and speak to an outfitter face-to-face. You can also test out equipment, purchase new gear, and talk shop with like-minded attendees from around the world. However, it is easy to become distracted by the bright lights and show specials of a sport show. Outfitters are at these shows to woo clients and secure bookings. It is imperative you keep your wits about you to avoid being sweet-talked into the wrong hunt.
Recently, I took part in a cull hunt in South Africa. It was my first hunt and I learned the hard way that finding the right outfitter is paramount. Our outfitter organized a hunt for us in the Bushveld in Limpopo Province, where he claimed to have more than two decades of field experience. However, it was not long into the trip before it became obvious to even a newbie like me that our outfitter was sub-optimal (I’m being polite), and that his deficiencies (more politeness) contributed to nearly all of the issues – which were numerous and at times, even dangerous – that arose during our hunt. Well before the end of the trip, I started to compile this list of questions that I think everyone should ask a prospective outfitter to ensure not only a successful hunt, but also a safe one.
- Are you licensed/a member of a professional hunting association?
Most states or provinces have professional hunting (or outfitter) associations and membership is often mandatory. If the outfitter is not licensed or a member of such an association, why not? If you don’t like the answer, run.
- How long have you been hunting in this area? How long ago did you hunt here?
A lot can happen in a year (i.e., drought, disease, predation). If the outfitter has been hunting in an area for some time and has done so recently, he will know it well and what species you might see, types of vegetation you’ll encounter, proper attire for the conditions, etc. Additionally, an outfitter well-acquainted with an area will be familiar and have relationships with multiple properties in the area, providing him with options should a client want a particular species or animals are difficult to spot on a particular property.
- Have you hunted on this specific property before?
Every property – private or public – has its quirks. If an outfitter is familiar with a property, he will know its quirks well, whether it is an eccentric ranch owner, thorny vegetation, or rules about hunting in a blind.
- Who will guide me?
Depending on the size of your group, the outfitter may not be able to go out into the field with everyone in your party at once without the group becoming unwieldy. If you learn the outfitter employs guides, be sure to ask about how they were trained and what experience they have hunting/guiding in the area and on the property where you will be hunting.
- What equipment/supplies do your guides take into the field with clients?
Do the guides have binoculars? Satellite phones? Water? Proper shoes? The equipment and supplies an outfitter provides his guides can tell you a lot about how much he has invested to ensure clients have a successful hunt, how well he takes care of his people, and how seriously he takes your safety and well being in the field.
- What hunting methods do you use? (Or what hunting methods are allowed on this property?)
Will you be sitting in a blind? Driving around in vehicles? Hiking around the Bushveld for hours on end? Depending on your physical condition, views on hunting, etc., you may not be comfortable with (or interested in) the methods the outfitter employs.
- What is your success rate? What if we don’t spot any animals?
An outfitter should be able to give you his success rate for an area, a property, various species, etc. Of course, keep in mind there are no guarantees in hunting, so if the outfitter offers one, consider it a red flag.
- What are your policies if an animal is wounded?
Despite best efforts to take an animal down on the first shot, an animal may be wounded during the hunt. Some Outfitters will send out guides to search for the animal so the client can continue to hunt. Others will shut the hunt down completely until the animal is found and dispatched.
- What are the accommodations like? What amenities are offered? (i.e. hot water, laundry, three squares, butchery services.)
Ask for photos of the property, but do not rely on them – anyone can take pretty pictures. Google the property for images, ratings, etc. – in this day of selfies, it’s highly likely a recent client will have posted pictures somewhere. You can also verify any claims about the property by checking references. You will also want to ask about the amenities offered, and what, if any, additional costs there are for amenities like laundry, salt licks for the animals, etc. to avoid any surprises at check out.
- What is your protocol should I become ill or injured?
Where is the nearest medical facility? How will you get there? An outfitter should be able to tell you the location of the nearest hospital or clinic and what his protocol is for handling injury or illness in the field. Some outfitters take the extra step of including medical advisory and field rescue services – such as those offered by Global Rescue – as part of their packages.
- Do you have recent client references I can contact?
The key word is “recent”. Ask to speak to 2-3 clients the Outfitter has hunted with during the last 12-18 months. If an Outfitter can only provide you with dated client references, find out why. A lack of more recent satisfied/happy clients is a red flag. You should also ask what percentage of their bookings are repeat business.
- What is your cancellation and refund policy?
Things happen – for reasons beyond your control; you may have to cancel your hunt. Before placing a deposit, you should know upfront what, if any, portion of your deposit/fees will be refunded if you have to cancel.
By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list of questions you should ask when vetting an outfitter. Other hunters will probably have their own list of questions that should be asked, based on their experiences. Rather, this list is meant to help jump-start your vetting process. In all likelihood, once you start asking questions, you will come up with a few more of your own. The point is to ask questions – lots of questions. You will be glad you did.
One last thought… The underlying premise of all of these questions is that you know what you want to get out of your hunt. Before asking an outfitter any questions, you should ask yourself what it is you are looking for from your experience. If you know what you want and stay true to your vision of an ideal hunt when speaking to outfitters, you’re more likely to get what you desire.
What questions do you ask when vetting an Outfitter? Share your questions in the comments, below, or tweet them to me @kathoneil27. I’m sure others would love to learn from your experiences!