One of the biggest decisions a hunter can make is whether to go it alone, or hire a guide or outfitter. (These terms are used more or less interchangeably these days; don’t assume that someone who calls himself an “outfitter” is necessarily going to provide all of your equipment.) This is almost the same decision as whether to hunt public or private land, as the days of easy access to private land are sadly gone for most of us. So, the choice basically boils down to:
- self-guided hunting on public land
- professionally-guided hunting on private land
There are advantages to either approach. Advantages of self-guided, public hunts include:
- cost. Access to public land is generally free.
- flexibility. If you decide halfway through a hunt to quit early, or you decide that you want to extend your hunt an extra day or two, you have the freedom to alter your plans without worrying about whether a guide can accommodate your change.
- satisfaction. For many, hunting is an expression of independence and self-sufficiency, and the hunt is more rewarding when one is left to his own wits, with no help from a professional.
Advantages of a guided hunt on private land include:
- higher chance of success. Using a guide will almost certainly give you a much better chance at a successful hunt. A good guide will provide access to private land (or even specific knowledge of some public land), knowledge of the behavioral patterns of the local game animals, and a better overall feel for the hunt you’re on. You’re much, much less likely to go home empty-handed.
- convenience. While different guides offer different levels of service, you can expect them to take you into and out of the hunting area, help you with handling any harvested game, and field-dressing your animal. A big advantage of this last service is sheer time; unless you’re an experienced hunter, it will take you awhile to field-dress an animal, while your guide can do it in a fraction of the time.
- the learning experience. A good guide is someone who can teach you a lot, from stalking animals to recognizing tracks to finding terrain favorable to the hunt. There’s only so much you can learn online (though I’m doing my best!).
There’s no definitive answer to this question; it’s a personal decision and one that a hunter will revisit before any hunt. What it really boils down to, though, is what you value more: challenge vs. success. If you’re happy with the idea that you may well come home without even seeing an animal, and you don’t feel you need the niceties that a guide can provide, you may welcome the idea of going it alone. If, on the other hand, you have limited time and really want to put some meat in the freezer (or a trophy on the wall), then a guided hunt is probably for you.
I do recommend, however, that beginners lacking a mentor to take them into the field strongly consider getting a guide. I’d like to see your first few hunts as successful as possible. After all, it’s a decision that you can revisit once you have a few hunts under your belt.