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What to Look for in a Guided Whitetail Hunt
February 14, 2018

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As you grow and mature as a deer hunter, it's only natural to want to expand your opportunities and travel out of state in pursuit of whitetails. Do-it-yourself adventures can be fun and personally rewarding, but they also require an investment of time that most hunters can't afford. For many, the most practical option is to book a hunt through an outfitter.

There are literally thousands of outfitters in North America that specialize in guided hunts for whitetails, but how do you know which one to choose? Here are a few things to consider before you plunk down that deposit.

First, don't expect it to be any easier in another state than it is around home. Regardless of what we watch on television or read in magazines, there aren't 160-inch deer behind every sapling in the Midwest. When you see a video or photo of a record book whitetail from another state, keep in mind that the successful hunter probably put in countless hours of scouting and hunting in order to tag that animal.

Don't confuse reality with possibility. Although it's possible to kill a 160-inch deer on a guided hunt, it's not realistic to expect that kind of success. Often, outfitters that consistently kill a handful of 160-inchers every year have huge territories and lots of clients hunting throughout the duration of the season. If there are big bucks in the area, chances are one of those clients will encounter it and even have an opportunity, but there's an even better chance that it won't be you. More often than not, on a guided hunt, you'll be looking for an "average" buck for that area, typically one that meets the outfitter's minimum requirements but don't worry, it's still okay to dream big!

Second, guides are human. They can't control the weather, and they certainly can't guarantee you'll shoot a world class whitetail. However, it's certainly good to ask them questions.

How many acres do you have and how many hunts do you book per year are two questions that go hand in hand. This will give you a good feel for whether or not the area could be over hunted. I've always felt more comfortable booking with smaller outfitters because they're more personable and treat you like you're more than just a number. That's not to say that there aren't some very good, huge outfitters that operate solid businesses, but you have to research those even more to find the ones that are most reputable.

Nobody wants to pay to hunt an area that is obviously over hunted, though. The results can be smaller bucks, but also more pressured bucks. If you're booking a late season hunt, there's a very good chance that most of the good bucks will be killed before you even get there. That's especially true for any gun seasons or late muzzleloader seasons. Always be sure to ask the outfitter if they have stands set aside for late season where you'll still have a reasonable chance of success.

Third, when you show up for the hunt, ask even more questions about the stand you'll be hunting and why the outfitter believes that location will provide you the best opportunity. Ask to see trail camera photos of bucks in the area. No matter where they're located, I can guarantee any reputable outfitter is constantly running trail cameras on their properties to keep track of bucks. If they can't show you what's in the area, that's a major red flag.

One trick that an outfitter recently shared with me is to ask for daylight trail camera photos of bucks. An outfitter that shows you nothing but night time pictures of bucks isn't doing his job and finding that deer's core area. All night time pictures can also mean that deer aren't bedding on that property. Either way, the most successful outfitters will post daylight shots of bucks on their websites and social media pages and should have a few to show you upon arrival.

Fourth, success rate should not be confused with opportunity rate. Many outfitters nowadays tell you their opportunity rates rather than their success rates. Their reasoning is simple. It's not their fault that the hunter made a bad shot or missed a buck. Or, as one Kansas outfitter suggested, it's not his fault that a hunter passed up a 150-inch buck because he was holding out for a 180-inch buck, so he feels like he should get credit for putting the hunter onto a good buck. Along those same lines, some outfitters will count it as an opportunity if the hunter has a buck within range.

Beware of outfitters who over-sell their operations. Examining their kill rate is still the most realistic approach because, let's be honest, you can't predict everything that could go wrong on a hunt. You're dealing with wildlife and Mother Nature, after all, and anything can happen. Sometimes hunters miss for reasons that aren't necessarily their fault. Maybe the outfitter's stand placement was off, or maybe shooting lanes hadn't been trimmed properly to allow for clear shots. Granted, some hunters just flat out miss, but more often than not, the little things play just as big of a role in success as they do failure.

Finally, always ask for references. Chances are, the outfitter will give you references for hunters who were successful, but if possible, also request contact info for hunters who didn't fill their tag. I've been unsuccessful on hunts but would still recommend the outfitters to other hunters. Likewise, I've had successful hunts with outfitters that I wouldn't recommend on those hunts, it just so happened that luck was on my side.

When talking to references, ask questions about stand locations as well as quality and positioning of those stands. Most importantly, ask if what they experienced on their hunt was what they expected prior to the hunt. Did the outfitter present his operation honestly? If hunters were surveyed on the topic, I'd estimate that the majority are dissatisfied with a place because it wasn't what they expected it to be, or it wasn't what the outfitter made it out to be.

Guided hunts aren't cheap. If you only get one week per year to hunt, and you choose a guided hunt, you want to know that you spent your money with a quality outfitter. Finding a good outfitter means a lot more than looking at a website and ogling over their photo gallery. It means making the necessary phone calls and not being afraid to ask questions. That's the only way to boost your chances of success, while making sure that, even if you don't pull the trigger on a world class whitetail, you'll still have a pleasurable experience.

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