Is whitetail outfitting dead in North America? Was it ever as good as we see on popular TV shows, or are those properties outliers in the whitetail world? Is it feasible for the average bowhunter to earmark a few thousand dollars and drop it all on a whitetail bowhunt? And when he or she makes the big investment, what are the reasonable odds of harvesting a Pope and Young-caliber buck?
I've booked hunts across North America over the last 11 years, from Mexico to British Columbia. After my dream Dall sheep/mountain caribou hunt in the Northwest Territories in 2015, I realized my true passion is chasing whitetails with a bow. This resulted in my decision to book only high-quality whitetail hunts in the coming years. Knowing what I now know, how would I research and vet the hordes of outfitters out there?
Many of my peers and clients have been on enough hunts to warrant building trophy rooms to house critters from around the world. Their findings mirror my own: a whitetail hunt is one of the most challenging and risky hunts to book. Throw in the unique conditions surrounding chasing whitetails with the stick and string, and the water gets even muddier.
Outfitting for whitetails is different than for other North American big-game animals. Land ownership patterns (smaller properties) in regions and habitats whitetails call home are completely different than the vast country that critters such as mule deer, antelope and elk roam. It's tough for whitetails to get old and stay home when hunting pressure is high. If you pressure them in their preferred habitats, they have an uncanny ability to become nocturnal.
Further complicating matters are whitetail outfitters who have racked up enormous land lease or ownership expenses and struggle to turn a profit without running high numbers of hunters through camp.
Jay Osting of Bowhunting Safari Consultants said, "There's only one November each year, and a whitetail outfitter must generate most of his revenue in a very short period of time." The pressure to maintain expensive and productive leases results in six or seven guys in camp each week for four to six straight weeks. This is one reason successful whitetail hunts are still property-specific, even in states such as Iowa and Kansas.
Pennsylvania bowhunter Tom Edgington is well on his way to killing all 29 North American big-game species with a bow, and he's no stranger to booking hunts on his own dime.
"There are so many whitetail outfitters to choose from, and so few are really good. It is easy for an outfitter to hang some stands and start booking hunts. Good leases are hard to come by," Edgington said. "The end result is either the outfitter has to charge more or run through a lot of hunters to pay for it. Cheaper leases are cheaper for a reason and require a lot more work to be productive."
What should a quality outfitted whitetail hunt cost? There are always exceptions to the rule, but hunts with outfitters who limit the number of bowhunters often run
between $4,000 and $8,000. If a whitetail outfitter is offering hunts for less than $4,000, I'm ramping up my research on the outfitter.
Hunters who have booked several whitetail hunts learn to identify common pitfalls or red flags. First and foremost, I'm not impressed by photographs on a website — dead or on trail camera. The first time I hunted with an outfitter who didn't even have a website, I quickly realized my research had paid off.
This outfitter was putting more hunters on 170-inch animals than any outfitter in North America. I was satisfied with the 160-inch bruiser I took home, and many guys in camp that year were killing much larger bucks!
An outfitter who doesn't possess a reasonable waiting list should also be viewed as a red flag. Although anything is possible, even cancellation hunts with reputable outfitters should fill up with hunters who are on a waiting list. Many of us need to earmark money each year to afford our dream bowhunt. Why not jump on the waiting list with an outfitter who only accepts seven to nine bookings per year while taking the extra time to save your cash?
After a few days of hunting with one outfitter, I noticed none of his guides, friends or family members had ever killed a buck on his hunting properties. I asked the outfitter's son what types of bucks he had killed while growing up. "You kidding?" he asked. "Dad never lets anyone hunt his concession except paying clients."
An outfitting business is a business, and unless the hunter success rate is 100 percent, owners, guides and family members should not be permitted to kill an animal that otherwise would have been an opportunity for a paying client.
So, is whitetail outfitting dead? Fortunately, I don't believe so, but the industry has changed. A bowhunter must tread carefully as the pitfalls are numerous and well hidden! It's time to demand quality hunts from outfitters but also accept that they need to charge higher rates to maintain quality hunting.
Hunters who expect $2,000 whitetail hunts are perpetuating the problem by supporting outfitters who are forced to run up the number of fannies in stands before you arrive. Do you really want the hunting habits of the guy before you to determine the outcome of your hunt?
If you're not willing to invest $4,500 or more, save your hard-earned cash for a couple more years! Approaching with caution while applying experience from those who have been there before is all part of conducting your research when booking a whitetail bowhunt.