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Choosing a Big Game Guide
When it comes to sighting in on a trophy animal, or just improving your chances for a successful Alaska hunt, a professional hunting guide can be a tremendous asset. But finding a good big game hunting guide can be a daunting task, and hunters are sometimes unclear about a guide's actual responsibilities. Understanding a few key issues can make finding the right guide much easier. This article offers ideas for finding guides, a little background on how guiding works in Alaska, some important questions to ask when choosing a guide, and a list of resources for learning more.
First, it is important to be aware that a licensed registered guide must accompany hunters who are not Alaska residents when hunting brown/grizzly bears, Dall sheep or mountain goats - or nonresidents must hunt with close relatives within the second-degree of kindred who are Alaska residents. (Check the Alaska Hunting Regulations for definitions of "resident," "nonresident," and complete list of who qualifies as "second-degree of kindred.")
In Alaska all big game hunting guides must possess a professional license. The Division of Occupational Licensing regulates guides through the Big Game Guide and Transporter program, and also investigates complaints and violations. Although the Occupational Licensing staff can't recommend a particular guide or say if complaints have been filed against a guide, they can verify that the guide's license is in good standing and that no action has been taken against the license.
Perhaps the most reliable way to locate a big game hunting guide is to ask friends or acquaintances about their Alaska hunting experiences, and any recommendations. If you these resources aren't available to you Cindy Roccodero, the licensing examiner with the Division of Occupational Licensing, suggests "The first thing is to identify which species of big game you want to hunt and where you want to hunt. This will assist you in finding a guide who is licensed and registered to guide there." A good source for this information is the ads in the back of hunting and outdoor magazines. An internet search or a look at commercial directories can also provide names of potential guides. Outdoor shows and conventions offer an excellent opportunity to meet guides in person - often guides attend these events in the winter and have booths and promotional materials.
It's not too hard to find names and contacts - the trick is finding a good match. Asking a prospective guide the right questions will help.
What to Ask
"When looking for a guide, it's always wise to ask for references," Roccodero said. A guide should be willing to provide a list of clients who can attest to their experience with that guide. Keep in mind that newly licensed guides do not have a client base. A look at the Occupational Licensing database will tell you when a guide became licensed.
Robert Fithian of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association said references from the previous season should be able to provide you with the highlights and lowlights of their experience with the guide.
Fithian suggests a few good questions: How many years has he been operating from the same location he plans on hosting you, and what has been his success over those years. How many clients were in the same camp before, during, and after the recommended hunt dates the previous year? How many is he booking for the period you are interested in? How many of last year's clients were successful in their hunt? How many were unsuccessful? Are they on his reference list?
"What's your success rate?" is a question that clients often ask a potential guide, and that's not a simple question. Two factors that profoundly influence hunting success have nothing to do with the guide - the hunter's physical fitness and marksmanship. One guide said he's had clients arrive in Alaska so out of shape they simply could not hike and navigate the terrain. He added that clients are sometimes not only poor marksmen, they also overestimate their abilities. Be honest with yourself and the guide regarding your abilities in the field.
Be sure to ask your potential host how physically demanding his hunts are. Ask how far you will have to walk daily and in what kind of terrain? It's a good idea to start a conditioning program before the hunt.
Understand that a guide cannot please every hunter, said Fithian. People's desires and abilities vary tremendously. Remember that a successful hunt does not always include the harvest of an animal. There are many factors that contribute to having a successful hunt, and they should not be limited just to harvest. The quality of the experience, animals seen but not harvested, camaraderie in the field, new friendships gained and a greater reverence for conservation are just a few of those factors.
This is why we use the term hunting and not killing, he said.
Another important issue is to identify the aesthetic of the hunt. One registered big game guide said clients often assume that all of Alaska is remote wilderness and they expect their trip will be a "wilderness experience."
"There are more guides now than there's ever been in the history of the territory," he said. "I share some areas with nine other guides. Some parts of the state it's worse. Guides do not have exclusive use of the areas."
That may not be important to some hunters, he said. "Some people just want to collect an animal, and they don't care about seeing other people. Others want a wilderness experience."
Roccodero suggests you ask who will actually lead the hunt. Guides often hire assistants or other registered guides to actually lead the hunt, and it's possible for a client to never see the guide initially contacted. That's something to check out in advance.
A hunter needs to understand what clothes and gear to bring, and what will be provided. Alaska can be cold, but more importantly, it can be cold and very wet. Underestimating this can be uncomfortable and dangerous.
A guide can help a client understand what licenses and tags are going to be required. Transportation can be complicated, and getting from Chicago to a remote tent camp on the Unalakleet River or to a boat off Kuiu Island involves some expense and logistics. Talk with the guide about this in advance.
There is a distinction between a guide and a transporter. Self guided and drop off hunts often involve the services of a licensed transporter to provide transportation to the hunting area. Fithian noted that it is important to understand that a licensed transporter can only provide transportation services. A transporter may not provide ATVs, boats, pack animals, fuel, camping, hunting, game processing equipment, bear bait or stations, or any hunting services such as glassing, guiding, packing or cleaning of game.
It's good for a hunter to discuss what they hope to take home from Alaska. A caribou hunter from Louisiana may not be interested in bringing all the meat from an Alaska hunt back home - or that hunter may plan to, and underestimate the expense and logistics involved. Meat can be given away, and a guide can help with that. If a skinned hide, ready for the taxidermist, is a hunter's goal, let the guide know.
A guide's knowledge, experience and equipment do not come cheaply. Some guides cater to a very high-end clientele and charge accordingly. Guides also appreciate that some clients have saved for years to make the trip of a lifetime, and may be on a budget - all the more reason to understand exactly what is and is not included in the price.
Although figures vary from guide to guide, expect to spend $8,000 - $20,000 for a brown/grizzly bear hunt, $2,500 - $6,000 for a black bear hunt, $4,000 - $6,000 for a sheep hunt and $3,000 - $6,000 for a goat hunt. Moose and caribou are often part of a mixed bag hunt and prices vary considerably.
The Alaska Professional Hunters Association can provide a list of 150 master and registered hunting guides, (907) 522-3221, box 91932, Anchorage, AK, 99509-1932, www.hafbo.com/menu1/scsorg/alaspha1.html.
A list of registered guides can also be obtained by contacting the Division of Occupational Licensing (907) 465-2453. To receive a list of all currently licensed Big Game Master Guides, Registered Guides, and Transporters via US mail, submit a $5 check or money order, payable to the State of Alaska to: Division of Occupational Licensing, Big Game Guide & Transporter, Licensing Section, P.O. Box 110806, Juneau, AK 99811-0806. This list is also available on the web at http://www.dced.state.ak.us/occ/pgui.htm. Once on the website, click on the "Occupational Licensing Search" and then click "Begin Search." Finally, if you type "GUI" (the code for guides) in the space next to "Board" will see the list of licensed guides and transporters. If you click on the guide's license number you will see when they were first issued a license, (which can give a sense for how long they have been guiding), which areas they are registered for, and their address.
Alaska hunting regulations, hunting license, tags, and drawing permit, are available from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation at www.wildlife.alaska.gov
The statutes and regulations for Big Game Guide and Transporters are available online and through Occupational Licensing and spells out the registered guide's responsibilities under state law.
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1255 W. 8th Street
Juneau, AK 99811-5526