Is an unguided hunt for you and your group?
Only hunters with extensive hunting experience should consider booking most unguided hunts. A guided hunt or a semi-guided hunt is usually a better deal in the long run.
But many of our customers have taken fine trophy animals without incurring the expense of a full-service, fully guided hunt.
Do-it-yourselfers with the proper equipment and transportation can usually do well on Shiras moose and pronghorn antelope hunts even if they don't have experience hunting those animals.
Self-guided hunters with good equipment and experience can do well on whitetail deer, especially during the rut.
We don't recommend do-it-yourself elk or mule deer hunting unless you have a lot of experience with those species at the time of year and in the general area where you'll be hunting. Even then, intimate knowledge of the specific ranch or mountain you're hunting can be critical to success.
Paul Martinez, left, and Rich LaRocco of Hunts.Net pose with a 6x6 bull they found on opening morning in an easy-to-draw permit area in New Mexico. Their four-man party killed two six points in three days while most groups in the area did not see a single bull. The reason? Extensive hunting experience, pre-season scouting and superior game spotting skills.
To do well on unguided whitetail deer hunts, you should expect to do some pre-season scouting for the best placement of tree stands or box blinds. Rattling can also be effective. Realistically you can't do any of that if you live several hundred miles from the hunting area, and that's when a semi-guided hunt is a wise choice. A couple of our Kansas outfitters, for example, offer a less-expensive hunt from stands that they have place before the hunting season.
Keep in mind that some ranches -- perhaps most -- allow no scouting before the season. In other cases, pre-season scouting must be done well in advance of the first hunting season on the property.
Unguided hunters should consider paying for a map packet or scouting service. Weather can be a big factor in Western hunts because it affects animal behavior greatly and because it can swing so wildly in the Rockies.
Most elk seasons are in October or November after the rut, and most mule deer seasons are in October before the rut. If the weather is hot and dry then, as is often the case in the West, animals hold tight in heavy cover and are difficult to find. This is particularly true of mature bulls and bucks. In such a circumstance, organized drives often are productive and glassing can be an exercise in frustration.
Animals also move in response to weather conditions and other factors. Elk are particularly known for moving great distances, sometimes for no discernible reason, meaning there could be few or no elk on the ranch you're hunting or even the mountain range you're hunting.
Sometimes elk or deer move or become very cover-oriented due to hunting pressure (even very limited hunting pressure), vehicles, ranching activities, hot or wet or snowy weather, or unusual forage conditions. For example, in a particular New Mexico unit one year there was a record amount of rain before the season, causing the elk to leave some of their traditional haunts and move into terrain that normally didn't have adequate water and feed.
Brad Lewis, who used to work for us, with a great mule deer he took on a do-it-yourself hunt. Brad already had killed a monstrous mule deer and had exceptional hunting skills.
The point is that any number of factors beyond your control -- or beyond the control of your outfitter, rancher or hunting club -- can cause the hunting to be more difficult than expected. This is easy to understand while you're sitting at home, planning your next hunt, but it's harder to accept when you've just returned from a frustrating hunting trip, during which you weren't able to find game.
There's a risk of not finding an animal you want to take every time you go hunting, and that's true whether you're paying for ranch access or for a landowner permit or a guided hunt or just for a hunting license valid on public land. Guided hunts typically yield a higher success than unguided hunts for a variety of reasons.
Some unguided hunters always seem to do better than others. They might have a more positive attitude and are willing to hunt until the last minute of the last day, no matter how difficult the hunting, while others give up quickly if they don't see enough animals right away. They might adjust better to unusual conditions or situations. They might be better equipped and have the right gear to find or reach game. They might be willing to hike into more remote areas.
When you book an unguided hunt, please realize that your success will probably depend mostly on yourself and your actions, but also your success might be controlled by factors entirely beyond your control or the control of your hunt provider.
Sadly it is our experience that the most hunters overrate their hunting skill and capabilities. They might consistently outhunt their peers in the woods back home, but it's more difficult than most hunters realize to get a big muley or bull elk in our sights when they're almost entirely nocturnal and seldom leave the safety of dense timber or brush.
You're usually far better off with a local guide, either one who knows the area well or one who has a great deal of experience in hunting the animal you seek. That's one reason we strongly recommend at least a semi-guided hunt over a self-guided hunt. Sometimes an outfitter or rancher will allow you to minimize costs by providing your own four-wheel-drive vehicle, tent or trailer and food and will you to share a guide among three or four hunters.
If you're thinking of leasing a ranch, the cost of a local guide, split among the members of your hunting party, is nominal when compared with your other expenses. Even if you don't need his help in finding game, he can help patrol the property to keep any trespassers out, keep you stocked with firewood, prepare meals and pack game. We have yet to book a group on a semi-guided trip who wished they didn't have a guide or camp helper.