Is a guided hunt all that it’s cracked up to be, or should you go the DIY angle?
The ice-cold November mist and biting winds sucked the warmth from my body as I watched two well-traveled deer trails along a dry creek bed. The morning had been slow, but a commotion abruptly signaled the approach of a hot doe followed by a mature but broken-racked buck. Both passed by my stand.
Suddenly, a larger buck flew onto the scene. I mouth-grunted to stop him at 27 yards, and my arrow zipped perfectly through his ribs. He didn’t make it very far, and I was thrilled to get moving and warm up while admiring my trophy.
That hunt was my first guided hunt. I’m definitely a DIY, public-land kind of guy, but after doing a small handful of guided hunts over the years, I can offer you perspectives on both DIY and guided hunts. When we conclude, you’ll be better educated in deciding which route is best for your next out-of-state whitetail hunt.
The Pros Of Guided Hunts
Going with an outfitter when hunting a new state or region within a state has definite advantages. A reputable outfitter/guide knows the ground inside and out and has scouted, hung stands and set blinds for specific winds in order to capitalize on deer movement. There’s a lot of value in that.
Another benefit is that you can pack minimal gear. Leave your blind, stands and climbing sticks at home unless you’ve booked a self-guided or semi-guided hunt on private land where you’ll have some latitude to create your own setups. Meals are typically provided, too, so you usually don’t have to pack a cooler with a week’s worth of food. Someone else does the food prep and cooking so that you can focus on hunting during the day and relaxing in the evenings.
Additionally, private land can be well-managed for big bucks. Your guide should know what types of bucks are roaming the properties they manage. They’ve picked up sheds, used trail cameras and done observation glassing. A good guide can put you in places where you’ll likely encounter mature bucks. When hunting on prime real estate with an outfitter, you could potentially encounter the buck of a lifetime.
I feel conflicted over this one, but many hunters love the benefit of letting the guide field-dress their deer. In fact, most guides won’t let you get your hands bloody. Just sit back and watch.
The Cons of Guided Hunts
Before I did my first few guided hunts, I misconceived that they were easy. They should be, right? I mean, guided whitetail hunts run from $1,500 on the very low end to more than $5,000. But, that doesn’t make them easy hunts or guarantee success in all cases.
Most outfitters run tight ships. “Don’t guide the guide,” they say. Your guide chooses which stands or blinds to put you and other clients in. Booking a fully guided hunt is basically surrendering the hunting decisions to the guide or outfitter. Personally, I’m not the best at allowing someone else’s decisions to depict my success or failure, but if you’re not the best at making hunting decisions, you’ll probably mark this a pro rather than a con.
I’m not a know-it-all, but I’m very independent and self-sufficient as a hunter. Many times I’ve questioned stand placement on guided hunts. I’ve also been placed in stands where the wind was marginal to poor based on where I was told deer would approach from. I’ve occasionally made gentle suggestions, and sometimes they’re considered, but for the most part, I’ve had to roll with the punches.
Many outfitters bait near stands (where legal). I’ve taken only a couple of bucks over bait, but I largely prefer to hunt without it. If you don’t want to hunt over bait, make sure that the outfitter can accommodate you and provide non-baited spots to hunt.
Next, I’ve experienced very cheap food quality in most instances. I’ve hunted with outfitters who provide outstanding meals, but I’ve also been served food that left me wishing I’d brought my own food. Outfitted hunts are expensive, and healthy, great-tasting meals should be standard, although they evidently aren’t.
Lodging accommodations also can vary. I’ve had mostly OK to excellent experiences, but I’ve endured poor accommodations, too. Also, bunk situations are sometimes the norm, and that can mean rowdy folks coming to bed late and keeping you up with their snoring, coughing and banging around. I’ve experienced this, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
Another downside is that your $1,500-5,000 or more usually gets you three to seven days of hunting, and that’s a small window of time in which to succeed. You’re at the mercy of where your guide places you and the weather conditions, including being rained out or ending a hunt early due to lightning.
Finally, as if your several-thousand-dollar hunt isn’t expensive enough, tack on travel costs, guide and cook gratuities, and your deer tag. It’s been said that outfitted hunts are for rich people, and if you calculate all expenses involved, you’re certainly up against a steep bill just to have a place to eat, sleep and hunt.
Time to Decide
If the cons I’ve outlined here haven’t scared you away from a guided hunt, start prospecting for your next outfitted hunt now. ALWAYS check references. Make sure that the outfitter supplies a list of both successful and unsuccessful clients for you to chat with. This will help you understand what you’re getting yourself into.
Contrarily, perhaps the cons I outlined have opened your eyes to some realities you hadn’t previously considered, and now you want nothing to do with a guided hunt. Never fear. You can always do a public-land hunt. Yes, public-land hunting is tough. Yes, there is pressure. Yes, buck quality rarely matches that of private land. But, you’ll have the freedom to call your own shots, and the hunt will be way more affordable.
To close, there are merits to both guided and unguided hunts. You ultimately must decide what’s right for you based on your skills, goals, the experience you hope to have, and the time you have available to hunt. Consider those points along with the pros and cons I outlined above, and I’m sure your heart will tell you which angle is best for your next out-of-state whitetail hunt.
Self-Guided Hunts On Private Land
If public-land hunting isn’t your thing but you don’t have the money to go on a big outfitted hunt, consider some more affordable options for hunting on private land.
Some outfitters lease/own/manage private land that is devoted strictly to self-guided hunts. Of course, what happens on these parcels the week before your hunt is anyone’s guess, but that’s also true on fully guided hunts. Regardless, private landownership mitigates a lot of pressure compared to public land.
On a semi- or self-guided hunt, the outfitter will (or should) supply maps and give you some pointers, but then you usually get turned loose to make your own choices as to when and where you hunt. If the ground is managed properly, it can deliver the same quality of bucks as a fully guided hunt, but at a substantially reduced fee and with the satisfaction that comes with making your own decisions.
And then there’s Land Trust. It works like Airbnb but for hunting access to private lands. Across many states are opportunities to hunt deer, turkeys and other big game on private land by hopping onto landtrust.com and perusing the properties available. Most outfitters want you to book one to two years in advance, but you can usually find last-minute openings on Land Trust to hunt private properties.