North America holds a tremendous variety of big game. The game list is not nearly as extensive as Africa or Asia, but significantly exceeds that of Europe, South America and the South Pacific regions. However, with few exceptions, North America has some of the most specialized hunting on Earth. It’s a big continent with tremendously varied habitat…but there are relatively few areas that hold more than one or two varieties of big game. Even with areas that do, seasons don’t always overlap, permits aren’t always available and the “best times” for different species may not coincide.
THE NORTH AMERICAN MODEL
This is really not much different from anywhere else in the world—you always want to be at the right place and time for the game that’s most important to you—but elsewhere there is much more privatization of wildlife or, in the case of concessions on government lands, enhanced opportunities for visiting sportsmen. In North America, outsiders—whether from neighboring states or the other side of the world—must contend with the North American model of wildlife management.
That concept, generally followed in Canada and Mexico as well as the United States, places wildlife in public stewardship. In all three countries the state or provincial governments play the lead role in wildlife management and regulation of hunting. Wildlife, even on private land, is not the property of the landowner, but of the state and its people. A landowner doesn’t have to allow access for hunting, and can charge for such access, or not, or lease hunting rights to an individual or outfitter…but hunting will be in accordance with state-established seasons, bag limits, shooting hours, legal methods of take and so forth.
This model has proven highly successful. During the course of the 20th Century, many remnant wildlife populations were brought back to plenty, not only on private lands, but also on the immense public lands—Canadians call them “crown lands”—found all over the continent. Compared to our counterparts elsewhere in the world, North American hunters have amazing and exceptional opportunity to hunt on public lands for the modest price of a hunting license. That opportunity has given North America—especially the United States and Canada—the largest hunting community on Earth. Something approaching 20 million North American hunters take to the field every year…and the vast majority rarely hunt outside their home state or province.
In comparison with that huge number, the North American outfitting industry is very small and is also specialized and regionalized. Clearly, outfitting is an important industry in Alaska and western Canada, and also the Rocky Mountain states. Texas is another exception, as is northern Mexico, but in much of North America guided operations are scarce. Much North American hunting is thus an “insider’s game,” with availability depending on where you live. Eastern hunters tend to be whitetail hunters, while western hunters favor elk and mule deer.
IS THE GRASS GREENER?
A guided hunt represents a significant investment not in just money, but also time—it takes time to sort through the options, check references and perform the due diligence that such an investment deserves. Obviously, we should all pursue the game animals that interest us most, but North America is a big continent with lots of wonderful options. In whitetail camps in Texas, Canada and the Midwest, I’m often surprised at how many hunters I encounter who come from whitetail country. They’re in search of better bucks, or perhaps a different experience from their own back yard hunting.
By the same token, I’ve run into hunters from Denver in elk camps in Montana and New Mexico. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re a real whitetail nut or a long-gone elk freak. However, although the grass may seem greener, it’s pretty hard to beat deer or elk hunting on your own turf where you can do your own scouting, take advantage of the seasons and (hopefully) hunt when the time is exactly right. So, while there are many options available, if you’re fortunate to live in elk country, I’d look elsewhere for a first guided hunt—and that principle pretty much applies to anyone who has good hunting for anything close to home: Enjoy the hunting you can do nearby, and save your guided hunt budget for animals or experiences you can’t get close to home!
ANIMAL OR EXPERIENCE?
A byproduct of the North American model of wildlife management is that we field a lot of hunters. We tend to regulate harvests by season lengths and, in some cases, restricting permits. But here’s a simple fact of life: North American hunting is generally less successful than hunting most animals on any of the other continents. There are no guarantees and no sure things, but some North American hunts are a lot more successful than others. It depends on the animal, the area, and the care with which you choose your outfitter…but weather and your luck are also important factors.
Don’t go into any North American guided hunt assuming you’re going to go home with your trophy. If you plan carefully and choose well, the odds are with you, but on our continent there are few certainties. That being the case, I’d suggest concentrating on the experience. North America holds some of the world’s most majestic mountains, and has preserved vast areas of pristine wilderness. For me, the most classic North American experience is a horseback hunt into some of that wild country.
The traditional packstring hunts that Jack O’Connor wrote about are not especially common today. Seasons tend to be shorter, keeping horses is costly and you don’t even want to know about the cost of liability insurance. Also, you may be allergic to horses. That’s not a problem. Today, a lot of great western hunting is done from 4WD. In western Canada and Alaska, backpack hunts are an alternative to horseback if you’re in great shape. If that doesn’t sound good, then some outfitters base off boats for most northern species (probably not sheep). I’m not knocking any of the alternatives, and should hasten to say that horseback hunting isn’t for everyone…but if you’re up for it, the experience is fantastic.
While the number of horse outfits has definitely dwindled, you can find them in all the Rocky Mountain States, with Montana and Wyoming offering the most options. Farther north, British Columbia and Yukon probably stand as the last and greatest bastions of the horse outfitter. Some sheep hunts are conducted by backpack, but traditional horseback hunts are still the norm, especially for larger game and mixed bag hunts. Western Alberta still has its share of horse outfitters, and there are a few in Alaska and the MacKenzie Mountains of Northwest Territories. But as you go farther north, it becomes increasingly difficult to winter horses and trail them in and out, so horse outfits are uncommon in Alaska and the MacKenzies.
Game that can be hunted from horseback really runs the gamut. In Arizona and northern Mexico, Coues deer are typically hunted from horseback. In the Rocky Mountains, game includes elk, mule deer, pronghorn, black bear and the limited permit animals: Shiras moose, sheep, Rocky Mountain goat. Farther north, it depends on the area, but the game could include some combination of elk, moose, mule deer, sheep, goat, caribou, black bear or grizzly bear.
WHY A HORSEBACK HUNT?
As I’ve already conceded, horses aren’t for everyone. Some folks hate them, a few fear them, and not all of us are physically capable of spending long hours in the saddle. But if you can handle it, the packstring hunt into western wilderness is one of the most traditional and most satisfying experiences this continent has to offer.
In these times of busy schedules and ever-shorter hunts, it isn’t like it was in Jack O’Connor’s day when the packstring took you off into the blue and it might take days of hard riding just to reach game country. More often today you’ll ride from a trail head to an established camp…or you might take a float plane or Supercub straight to that camp and hunt on horseback from there. Sometimes you’ll spike out for a few days with a light camp on a packhorse; other times the horse is primarily hunting transportation.
Aside from the pure tradition, it’s an awesome feeling to see wild country from the back of a horse…and it’s also a very practical hunting method. Jack Atcheson, Senior once told me, “True wilderness is characterized by the absence of wildlife.” He wasn’t being negative, just honest. In true wilderness you don’t have croplands or developed water sources, and wildlife tends to be thinly distributed. Provided you’ve done your homework, the game you’re looking for is there…but you may have to cover a lot of ground to find it. Horseback hunting is a bit of a misnomer because you don’t do much actual “hunting” while mounted. More typically you ride from vantage point to vantage point and then do the majority of your hunting with good optics.
The point, however, is that you can cover a lot more ground on horseback than you can on foot! You can also pack out game much more easily. There are tradeoffs. In a typical mountain hunting scenario, you’ll tie up the horses when it starts to get really steep, and then climb on up to find good spots to glass. You don’t know where the hunt will take you from there, but you do know that, sooner or later, you must return to the horses. So if you’re in shape for such madness, a backpack sheep hunt can be a better situation. But the horses do offer flexibility. I did a wonderful backpack sheep hunt in the MacKenzies with Arctic Red River. We saw several spectacular mountain caribou…but if we’d taken one the sheep hunting would have been over for several days. We got a nice ram late in the hunt, too late to go back for caribou. So horses are definitely the better option for multi-species or mixed bag hunts. And, again, just a wonderful way to see great country.
WHAT ABOUT ELK?
If you’re among the great majority and don’t reside in elk country, then an elk hunt is often the first western hunt and the first North American guided hunt. So it was for me in Montana clear back in 1972, hunting with the late John Ward on a hunt set up by Jack Atcheson. I was pretty lucky in that I actually got an elk on that trip! But that was 40 years ago, and there are a lot more elk today than there were back then. During the 1980s and ‘90s elk populations exploded over much of the West, and we’ve enjoyed a long period of elk hunting that’s a whole lot better and more successful than when I was a kid.
Okay, elk hunting is not a slam-dunk deal. Some herds in Idaho and western Wyoming and Montana have been hit hard by wolves, and elk hunting is always somewhat weather-dependent. If it’s possible to catch the bugling season, the experience is even better…but in many areas the prime rutting period is restricted to bowhunters. Even so, the elk is a fairly democratic animal with lots and lots of options. The best private land hunts with guaranteed permits are fairly expensive. Outfitted elk hunts on public land tend to be more economical, although you can pretty much figure that, as prices go down, it’s likely that overall success and average trophy size also goes down.
But there are a lot of elk in today’s elk country, not just more elk but more bulls and more big bulls. All else being equal, a horse outfit is likely to charge more than an outfitter who uses 4WD. In my opinion, the enhanced experience is worth it, but you should shop around and compare. If it’s a first guided hunt, then budget is likely to be an issue. The premium hunts in the best and most famous areas are probably out, but there’s an awful lot of really great elk hunting that is very middle-of-the-road in cost. One thing: When I was a kid it was very common to do a “combination hunt” for elk and mule deer, and in those days a mule deer was pretty likely. Not today. In part because of the elk population explosion mule deer numbers are down in elk country, with the better mule deer hunting now found in the breaks, badlands and plains where elk are few. If the seasons coincide, it’s always nice to have a deer tag—you never know what you might run into—but these days you’re better off concentrating on elk.
In 1973, Dad and I did a moose-goat-caribou hunt in the Cassiars of northern British Columbia. The price was laughable by today’s standards, and it gets worse: I came into camp with a $25 sheep tag in my pocket and, in those pre-quota days, the outfitter let me take a Stone sheep for an extra $500. Things have changed and, even if cost is no object, I couldn’t recommend any sheep hunt for a first North American guided hunt. Ditto for the big bears. The stakes are just too high, the pressure too great, and remember, no matter the cost, this is North America and success is not assured.
However, I still think of that country in northern British Columbia as some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. Since then I’ve done a number of hunts in various parts of British Columbia—Kootenays in the east, the Chilcotin in the west—and I’ve also done a few hunts in Yukon. It’s all wonderful country, wild and scenic and wonderful…and this is a region where the horse outfitter still reigns. Think about a goat hunt, still a fraction the cost of sheep, but a similar experience. Or a true mixed bag hunt, with possibilities for goat, mule deer, moose and maybe elk in southern areas or caribou farther north. It depends on the outfitter, but a lot of those hunts are very affordable, especially when compared against sheep and grizzly. On multi-species hunts, some northern outfitters charge a basic hunt fee and then trophy fees for animals taken, which is certainly a fair system. So, if a guided elk hunt doesn’t appeal to you…or you live in elk country and that’s old hat, go north. I can’t guarantee success, not on this continent—but I can promise some of the best hunting memories of your life.– Craig Boddington