Finding the Hunt of a Lifetime
July 14, 2016
I hear it too often: "Gee, I wish I could do that." Realistically, there are some hunts I could once afford but certainly can't today, whether or not I got them done "back then." There are others I have never been able to afford and never will.
Here's another unfortunate reality: It doesn't matter who you are or what you do; long-distance hunts aren't free. I understand that I am often criticized, if not condemned, because I'm fortunate to have done a lot of hunting that many have not been able to do. To some extent, it's a matter of business, lifestyle and priorities. Writing about this stuff is what I do.
Even so, I've worked multiple jobs for the last 35 years to support my hunting habit, and my ranch vehicle now has 251,000 miles on the odometer, so I offer no apologies.
Instead of grousing about what you can't do, how about dreaming of what you can do? There are some really awesome adventure hunts out there that are surprisingly affordable. You may need to save your pennies for a while and cut back here and there, but that's what guys like me have done all our lives. It's up to you to decide if the adventure of a lifetime is worth it.
Do-It-Yourself In Alaska
Costs for guided hunts in both Canada and Alaska have escalated dramatically. I can't help that, but keep in mind that Alaska is part of the United States. We own and have access to some 600,000 square miles of Alaskan wilderness. Access is not unrestricted; some lands, such as parks and monuments, are not hunted.
Primarily for safety reasons, nonresidents must be guided for sheep, goats and brown/grizzly bears. However, do-it-yourself hunting is legal for black bears, caribou, moose and Sitka blacktail deer. Here's the wonderful thing about Alaska: It doesn't matter so much exactly what you're hunting; the adventure comes from being in the Alaskan wilderness, some of the wildest country on earth.
While the access is free, much of the actual hunting is not. The problem is that Alaska has few roads, so an awful lot of that enticing wilderness is reachable only by chartered bush plane. Most small towns have air taxi services, so arranging drop-off and pickup isn't difficult, but this is a major cost in much Alaskan hunting.
An option is that a lot of black bear and Sitka deer hunting can be done by boat, both along the long coastline of southeast Alaska and on the offshore islands. Some registered guides use boats as floating camps, but there are also boats for hire — "transporters," in Alaskan terms — who will get you to a good area but cannot participate in the hunt.
In the interior, another option is to float a river between a drop-off and pickup point, which is a bold adventure but, on average, more productive than picking one spot to pitch camp.
Make no mistake; a do-it-yourself Alaskan adventure isn't for everyone. It takes a lot of planning, good equipment and plenty of outdoor savvy. You must have a plan not only for getting into and out of the hunting area and sustaining yourself while there but also a plan for packing your game to the pickup point.
Due to the sheer size of the animal, do-it-yourself moose hunting is extremely challenging. Caribou, black bears and deer are easier to handle. Just make sure you have an equally adventurous buddy. This is not something you should consider doing alone, and costs are reduced when shared.
Plains Game In Africa
The supposed high cost of African hunting is a myth. Some African hunting is expensive, but much of it is not. A seven- to 10-day plains-game safari in southern Africa is probably the greatest bargain in the hunting world.
When I started hunting in Africa back in the '70s, this category of safari almost didn't exist. Today, the shorter plains-game hunt accounts for the majority of all safaris on the African continent.
OK, so it costs a bit more to hunt buffalo and more still for cats and elephants. The plains-game safari is still Africa, and you can always take a few extra days to tour national parks and see the big stuff.
Pick a couple of the major antelope that you really want, maybe greater kudu and gemsbok, and then pick two or three common animals from a long list: impala, hartebeest, warthog, wildebeest, zebra, etc. In a week, you should take four or five good animals, in 10 days possibly twice that.
The total cost won't be much different from a do-it-yourself Alaskan hunt or a good Texas whitetail hunt. With some planning and saving, this is a bucket-list adventure that really is possible and available for most working Americans, and it's an adventure that is enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life.
The primary destinations for such safaris are Namibia and South Africa. You will love it, and so will your significant other, whether or not that person is a hunter. Just one caution: Africa is addictive, so it may not turn out to be a "once in a lifetime" splurge.
Ibex In Asia
Rule of thumb: Worldwide, most sheep hunts are expensive. Worldwide, many goat hunts are not. Why this should be eludes me. Goats often live in tougher, rougher country than sheep and always offer a challenge. Some goats have modest horns, but the various races of ibex are just plain spectacular, and they often must be hunted in some of the most remote mountains on the planet.
Back in the 1920s, when Kermit Roosevelt wrote "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," the long-horned ibex of the Tien Shan Mountains were considered superior trophies to the argali sheep with which they shared their range.
Today, for whatever reason, sheep are valued more highly and priced accordingly. In the high mountains of Central Asia, you can hunt ibex in the same mountains where Marco Polo sheep are hunted, with the same outfitters, from the same camps, at a small fraction of the cost.
On today's market, think guided mule deer hunt prices in exchange for a spectacular adventure on the roof of the world. The longest-horned ibex is probably the mid-Asian variety, currently hunted in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Hunts are readily available and reasonably priced, and, provided you do your homework and choose a good outfitter, success is very likely.
The ibex with the second-longest horns is probably the Siberian or Altai version, hunted in Mongolia. This is also an inexpensive hunt, not only in actual dollars but in view of the spectacular adventure.
Two things: First, an ibex hunt in Asia is a genuine expedition. You must be in shape for both the altitude and for serious climbing, and you'd better bring an adventurous attitude. Although considerably less expensive, these hunts are generally much more difficult than ibex hunting in Europe.
Second, choose your outfitter with care, and check a lot of references. With a good outfit, success is routine, but not all Asian outfitters are good.
Permit Draws In the West
There's a lot of great public-land hunting in the American West, and virtually all species can be hunted on a do-it-yourself basis. However, the best overall experience is most likely to come in limited-entry areas that require drawing a permit. Here it depends on what floats your boat.
There are great areas for mule deer, elk and pronghorns that are very hard to draw, and permits for limited resources such as sheep, goats and Shiras moose are always hard to draw. Over the years, I've gotten to do a lot of mule deer, elk and pronghorn hunting, so I don't concentrate on these drawings at all, but I've put in for various sheep tags for 35 years.
For you younger readers, I can't emphasize how important it is to get in the drawings that interest you and stay in them. Thanks to bonus-point and preference-point systems, the longer you apply, the better your odds, so it's a matter of staying in for the long haul. If you don't draw, you get your money back, so while it takes some up-front investment, actual costs are almost nothing.
When you draw the tag, though, it's worth every penny, and you need to be prepared to drop everything and use that tag to its fullest. When you draw a "good" tag, you are in for a really special experience. You can do the research and hunt on your own, or you can hire a guide. Armed with a "scarce" tag, guide fees are reasonable. I've done it both ways, and I've never wasted a "great" tag.
In 35 years, I've drawn three sheep tags, two Shiras moose tags and one Rocky Mountain goat tag. That probably puts me ahead of the game, but these have all been some of my most memorable North American hunts, so I am still in various drawings every year, and I hope I last long enough to draw a couple more times. When (not if) you draw, a great adventure awaits — at a solid bargain.