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Can You Guide Yourself to Western Big Game?

Answer all of these questions honestly, and your dream hunt won't turn into a nightmare.

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This article is reprinted with the permission of Fur-Fish-Game.

Hunting big game in the Rocky Mountain West is a dream of many sportsmen. Some save for years then pay thousands of dollars to hire a guide who handles all the details. Others take the task on themselves, thinking that success can be had much cheaper.

The truth of the matter is big game hunting in the West is expensive whether or not you use a guide, and all the costs are not necessarily counted in dollars. Every time you save a dollar, you probably make a trade-off in time or effort.

Do you have what it takes to hunt elk, deer, pronghorn and other big game on your own? Can you afford to hire a guide, or can you really afford not to? Answer the following questions – honestly — and you should know.

What do you expect to get from the trip?

This is probably the most difficult question to answer honestly; yet it is undoubtedly the most important.

If the experience alone will satisfy you, if filling the tag is a bonus to what otherwise is the trip of a lifetime, a guide may not be necessary. If, on the other hand, you desire a Pope & Young trophy, you may wish to reconsider.

Over the years I’ve hunted with a lot of different people. Brad wanted instant gratification. Terry expected things to be easy. Keith sought bragging rights. Brian enjoyed just being in the mountains. Beyond every other aspect of the trip, the attitudes they brought with them influenced the memories they took home.

Hiring a guide doesn’t guarantee a filled tag, nor does going solo guarantee personal satisfaction. But to make that decision wisely, you must have a clear understanding of what it takes to make the trip a success for you.

How much time can you devote?

Two guys decide one morning to go “hunt” muleys. They crawled out of bed about 8 o’clock, eat breakfast, load the pickup and head out of town. They park on the crest of a ridge where sagebrush gives way to aspen. Two lawn chairs were extracted from the truck and the remainder of the morning is spent in those chairs, looking out over the land for deer. When the two stand up to leave, a massive buck stands up just below the edge of the ridge. At 40 yards, one of the men plugs the trophy of a lifetime.

As they say, the rest is history.

We’ve all heard similar stories. And I suppose it really has happened that way for someone, somewhere, sometime. But don’t count on it.

Do you have the time to plan a hunt in a distant state? Where, specifically, are you going to hunt?

The West is a big place.

The State of Idaho is equal in size to Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and West Virginia — combined.

To equal Wyoming, take the same list and add to it New Jersey and Massachusetts a second time. Colorado? Add Connecticut and Delaware to Wyoming’s list. How about Montana? Colorado’s list plus Tennessee.

Now, within that great expanse of country, try to put a pin in the map where you think you’ll find your trophy.

Finding game takes research. Although there is a huntable pronghorn population in Idaho, the state isn’t known for its pronghorn. Colorado supports the nation’s largest elk herds, and the greatest hunting pressure. Utah offers outstanding moose hunting, but it’s more expensive than it is in Wyoming. Record-book elk roam the Wyoming wilderness areas of the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone Forests, but you can’t hunt there as a non-resident without a guide. No way around it.

Deciding where to hunt takes homework, and that homework takes time.

If you have a limited amount of time for the trip itself, travel also must be subtracted from hunting time. If you’re driving from Illinois to Wyoming, whack two days off both ends of the hunt.

When you arrive, take off another day or two for your body to acclimate to the higher elevation. Granted, you can hunt the day you get to camp, but you will cover half the distance in twice the time. After that first 1,500-foot climb, you may feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest. It all takes time.

Consider, as well, how long it takes to find game once you’re set up in the area you plan to hunt. Antelope are filled with wanderlust and can be difficult to locate. A few years ago I took a pronghorn with a handgun. Though the headgear was only average, I consider this buck among my most rewarding trophies. Knowing it took two weeks to locate and pattern the animal in order to take it on opening day makes it special.

Mule deer migrate. Depending upon where and when you hunt, the bucks may be in the high country, on a lower winter range, or at any point in between. Many serious elk hunters stand by the adage that you haven’ t paid enough dues to deserve a trophy elk until you’ve spent at least five years on their trail.

The reason the most expensive outfitters make the big money is they know how and where to find the trophy animals. But finding any game takes time. Can you afford the time it takes to do this on your own?

Do you have the physical ability?

There is a reason Olympic athletes train in Colorado. Unless you are a 19-year-old Marine fresh out of boot camp, plan on aching after your first day chasing elk… plan on aching a lot.

Before planning a trip to the Rocky Mountains, find a 10-story building closer to home, one with a stairway going to the top floor. Walk the stairs to the top, turn around and come back down. Now do it again 25 more times. By the end you will have traveled the equivalent of a mile in the mountains.

Put on your backpack filled with the things you’ ll need for a couple of days afield. This might include a change of clothes, food, water, cooking utensils, a tent, sleeping bag, rain gear, extra ammunition, a knife and other tools for survival, a first-aid kit, a flashlight with extra batteries, maybe a camera with film, field glasses or a spotting scope. Shoulder your rifle and climb those stairs 26 more times, all ten floors.

Congratulations, you just finished your second mile in elk country.

For remote hunting you have to get off the roads, so, for good measure, climb all 10 flights of stairs at least 26 more times, maybe do it twice.

If you really were in the mountains, now you would need to set up a camp, cut firewood and haul water for cooking and cleanup. Remember, you’re going solo, and it’ s your turn to cook.

After dinner, you do the dishes and hang all the food in a tree (it’s bear country). Finally, you douse the flames and crawl into the sack. But don’t get too comfortable. Around 4 a.m., it is time to get up and do it all again.

Dan and I decided to hunt elk on foot, including packing out the kill. Although it seemed much farther, I was lucky to drop a bull only 3 miles from the truck. It was not an exceptionally large animal. Six hundred pounds dressed, maybe.

We were able to pack it out in three trips.

To gain some appreciation for this, return to that 10-story building with 100 pounds of bricks on a pack frame. Leave it set at the base of the stairs and climb them babies 78 times, up and down. Put the pack on and do it again 78 times, up and down.

You may take a break now, but you are not done. That was just the first load.

A game warden friend was fond of telling novice moose hunters they would be better off taking along a knife and fork and eating the critter where it dropped.

I couldn’t get out of bed for two days after that trip, but it was the best tasting wild game I’ve ever ate. Would I do it different if I had the chance? No. It’s all a matter of what you expect from a trip.

For me, just being able to tell the story is worth the effort.

Can you handle pack horses?

The only practical way to avoid the packing described above is to bring horses, and the expense of buying and keeping pack horses is substantial. Horses for mountain hunting have to be ridden on a regular basis, which means more time. They need to be sure-footed, sturdy animals with a lot of stamina and the will to follow your direction. Add to the expense all the tack necessary to outfit the animals, a trailer and a truck with the guts to pull it in mountain country.

For a hunting party of two, plan on a minimum of three animals: two saddle horses and one to pack gear. Add a fourth to pack out game, unless you want to make extra trips.

Horses can be leased for a season or hired for a single trip. But you don’t know what you’ re getting until you hit the trail with a rented horse. Two particular horses come to mind.

Pringles was a spirited mount but head-shy from improper training. He and I played rodeo five times as we made our way into the backcountry. The first four times, I stayed in the saddle. On the fifth, I went airborne. The fact that we were four hours from the trailhead may be the only thing that kept me from shooting that animal where it stood.

Then there was Spike. A glassy eyed Appaloosa, he could calculate precisely when you were about to pack the last item on his back. At that precise instant, he would blow and scatter every item along 100 yards of trail. Spike pulled this stunt not once, not twice, but three times on a single trip. Horses are smart. If one decides to make your life miserable… it will.

Even if you get good animals, you must feed, water and care for them while you’re hunting. Going horseback can be fun. It can save your legs and lungs. But making the choice to do this without a guide has a price.

If renting horses sounds like more trouble than its worth, well, go back to that 10-story building and think about it some more.

Do you possess appropriate skill?

If you don’t know how to read topographical maps, use a compass and navigate in unfamiliar country, forget it. The reality of the mountains can be summarized in one word: unforgiving. If you get lost, you may not come home.

How about other outdoor skills? Can you differentiate between mule deer tracks, elk tracks and those of cattle, which often graze throughout the National Forests? Can you decipher other sign to determine where game has been, and how recently? Can you identify game animals in the first place?

True stories from the notebooks of Game & Fish personnel I know:

One man from a large metropolitan area hunted Wyoming with a cow elk tag. “It was the easiest hunt I’ve ever been on,” were the man’s sincere if misguided words before learning he had to pay for the Hereford cow he had “harvested”.

“Look at the rack on this deer,” exclaimed another individual before opening his car trunk to reveal a mature billy goat. I must admit, it would have been interesting head gear on a deer.

As much as we may snicker at such stories, it happens often enough that a rancher in one western state goes to the trouble of painting, in bright hunter orange, the letters “C-O-W” on the sides of all his livestock.

Do you know first-aid? The inability to deal with an injury can be life-threatening when you are miles from the nearest road. An example of the bizarre accidents that can, and do, take place in the wild is the story of a hunter who died in 1995. After having shot and gutted a deer, he was dragging the buck down a steep slope when he slipped and fell onto the antlers. A tip penetrated his left leg and apparently severed an artery. He didn’t make it to his truck.

Do you know how to track an animal that has been hit but that didn’t go down? Responsible hunters must know the basics of trailing and recovering animals. Doing so in mountainous terrain is demanding work.

What can you afford in hard cash?

There is no question that guided hunts for western big game are expensive. But going solo is not cheap, either. Let’s compare.

Guided hunts for trophy pronghorn antelope generally cost between $1,000 and $2,500. For this, you can expect either top public land or hunting on a private ranch. For about the same money, you can chase black bears with a high probability of success.

In the $2,500-$4,000 price range, you can get five to seven days of quality trophy whitetail deer hunting during the rut. For the same money, you might also expect about a week of hunting for mule deer on either private or public land with good trophy potential. An elk hunt in this price range will most likely last from five to 10 days and occur in a beautiful backcountry area.

Spend just a bit more, and you may join an exclusive hunt on private land for the best trophy elk, whitetail and mule deer in the West.

At these prices, you should get an experienced and qualified hunting guide. He will set up camp, cook meals, and tend the livestock. Before the season opens, he will scout the area to find game.

If you do shoot something, he will help you recover it, field dress it and in many cases see that it’s processed to your specifications.

Plus, he will bring you back out, and in one piece.

There is a down side to hiring a guide, however, a down side that has nothing to do with money.

The guide is in charge. He decides where you camp, where you hunt, when you eat, sleep and take a break. This is how it should be with a guided hunt. The guide’ s job is to put you in a position where you may shoot an animal, and the sooner he accomplishes this task, the more profitable the trip will be for him.

Also realize there is only so much any guide can do. No one can guarantee an animal every trip, unless, of course, you’re shooting in an enclosure. The guide’ s job is to make success possible, not easy. There is a difference. If he has to be in the saddle 10 hours a day to find elk, so do you. When he climbs 800 feet to close in on a resting herd, you’ll be right beside him. But when it comes time to pull the trigger, you’re on your own.

The biggest complaint from guides about clients (besides the fact that so many show up in no kind of physical condition to hunt the mountains) is that they cannot shoot straight. Solo or otherwise, this will always remain your job.

Now, let’s look at the cost of going it alone. If you don’t already own horses and all that goes with them, you will be money ahead to rent them – no matter how many times you may hunt. Figure about $50 a day, for each animal, plus feed. That price gets them dropped off at one location. If you want the option of moving around, add the cost of a horse trailer — if you can find one for rent during hunting season.

For sleeping alone, you may get by with a $200 pop-up tent. But for comfort, buy a wall tent and a stove, starting at approximately $550. A cold-weather sleeping bag may cost $300, and quality backpacks start at about $150.

If you prefer low-impact camping, a gas cook stove with kitchen accessories starts at about $200. If wood fires are more your style, cut that cost in half. Freeze-dried foods run a little over $20 a day for each person.

Figure on spending $20 for maps and another $40 or $50 in phone bills doing research. Should you decide to hunt private land instead of public, add at least $300 in trespass fees.

Plan on the trip taking two weeks, including travel, as a minimum.

Deciding on whether or not you must hire a guide does, to a degree, depend on your physical condition and your outdoor skills. Meet the minimum requirements, and it becomes more a question of personal preferences and expectations. I have hunted big game in the West for many years now. I’ve never hired a guide, and I have tagged elk, mule deer and antelope.

The costs have nonetheless been substantial… physically, mentally and financially. But I wouldn’t trade any of it, good or bad, for anything. The simple truth of the matter is the mountains humble you, occasionally embarrass you, and always test you. Things go wrong, with or without a guide, and a negative attitude is one thing you simply cannot afford.

In my book, going solo is worth the cost. If you still are excited by the challenge, you’re probably a good candidate. But if it simply sounds like too much, hire a guide and enjoy yourself.