As winter sets in, hunting seasons shift from outside to in. It’s show season, time to hunt for the latest in equipment and sage advice from the experts. This is also time when many folks book a guided hunt.

Depending on the type and location of hunt you book, it could represent a sizeable investment, perhaps even the hunt of a lifetime. You owe it to yourself, and your outfitter, to do your due diligence to ensure you know what you’re getting, and getting what you’re paying for. Otherwise, your dream trip could turn into a nightmare.

One of the first things you’ll want to ask about is success rate. This is a figure many outfitters use to sell a hunt, and is usually expressed as some percentage of success relative to the number of hunters. It sounds pretty straightforward, but can be quite misleading.

For example, most caribou hunts allow hunters to take two caribou of either sex. An outfitter might claim his hunters had 100 percent success last year. That could mean every hunter shot two bulls (most hunters don’t spend $6,000 to $10,000 intending to shoot cows). It could mean every hunter shot two caribou. It could mean every hunter shot at least one caribou. Or, it could mean the total number of caribou shot was equal to the total number of hunters. Some may have shot two each, while others shot none.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a clarification.

REMAIN REALISTIC

Ask the right questions, listen carefully to the answers and avoid the “optimism filter” — hearing the good news and ignoring the bad. Several years ago I booked a Saskatchewan hunt at a sportsman’s show. When asked about the quality of deer available, the outfitter replied that the average buck taken was probably around 140 inches.

I immediately had visions of going up there and shooting a couple bucks that size (the limit was two back then). What I failed to consider was that this was an average. Some hunters were taking 150- and 160-class bucks, while others were shooting substantially smaller deer, or nothing at all. The outfitter was honest. I misled myself.

You also need to put things into perspective, which may require a little homework. In Maine, a 15 percent success rate on a deer hunt is exceptional. In states like Iowa, Illinois and Kansas, that might be acceptable (albeit a bit low) for a bow hunt. You’d expect rates for gun hunters in those states to be much higher, but shouldn’t necessarily be surprised if they’re not. You just need to ask more questions.

Midwestern hunters tend to be more discriminating. While the Maine hunter may see one buck in a week of hunting (if he’s among the lucky 15 percent), an Illinois hunter may see multiple bucks every day. asking the outfitter, you may learn his hunters have 100 percent shot opportunities, but pass up smaller bucks hoping for something bigger.

Also consider geography. Most Maine hunters wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a 130-inch whitetail, while most Midwesterners would not only hesitate, but probably pass on the shot. A 120-inch whitetail is small for south Texas, but average or above for west Texas.

Another thing you need to be absolutely clear on is exactly what you are getting for your money. Like “success rate,” the term “guided” can have multiple meanings.

A fully guided turkey hunt usually means each hunter has one guide who is present at all times. On deer hunts, it is quite common for two hunters to share a guide who merely brings them to and from their stand, and assists with game recovery. A guided hunt on Anticosti Island includes one guide per four hunters. Typically you are given a map and dropped off to hunt on our own, with instructions on when and where you’ll be picked up.

Both of these are alternately referred to as guided or semi-guided hunts. The latter term may also apply to a drop-camp scenario where your guide brings you and your gear to a location, then leaves you to fend for yourself for the duration of the hunt.

You should also be absolutely clear about what amenities are included. I once booked a turkey hunt in South Carolina where our “full-service cooking facilities” consisted of a microwave oven, a broken toaster and a one-burner hot plate, and some paper plates and plastic utensils that were covered in mouse droppings. “Complete bedding” consisted of a box spring. No mattress, blankets and or pillows.

American plan means they cook for you, European plan means you’re in charge of your own meals.

GET REFERENCES, AND CHECK THEM

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is ask for references. Any reputable outfitter should be willing and able to provide you with names and contact information for several clients who have hunted with them recently.

The next most important thing you can do is to use the references (surprisingly, lots of folks ask for references, then never bother to contact them.) If possible, get local references. They can provide a more familiar perspective. Try to get references from both successful and unsuccessful hunters. I’d put more credence in a recommendation from someone who took no game, but still had an enjoyable hunt, than from a successful hunter.

Finally, remember there are no guarantees in hunting. There are far too many uncontrollable variables. Besides, that’s part of the appeal, and the challenge. You should also remember that in order to be a successful hunt, it need not always end with a kill.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine Guide and a certified wildlife biologist who provides consultation to private landowners interested in improving wildlife habitat. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]