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Hunter success: What it means and how to maximize it

Our goal at Hunts.Net is to provide you with information that you can use to decide which hunting trip offers the best chance of helping you achieve your hunting goals.

One bit of information that we often provide is hunter success rate. So what does hunter success mean? And how can you maximize your chances of being a successful hunter?

Unless otherwise stated, hunter success refers to the kill rate. This can be expressed as a percentage, such as 75 percent, or the specifics might be provided, such as seven hunters last year killed six bucks.

Where possible we often list the specifics for several recent years to give you an idea of what the hunt typically produces. Sometimes we will give an average hunter success rate over a long period, such as when an outfitter has been in operation for many years. Most hunters would agree that such a long-term success rate is more meaningful than just the past year's success rate.

In most cases hunter success rates are supplied by hunt providers — outfitters, ranchers, guides, bush pilots, packers and ranchers. We won't work with any hunt provider who gives us information that we know to be false, but we admittedly cannot verify the accuracy of most hunt providers' statistics. Naturally, the longer we work with an outfit the more our confidence in his trustworthiness grows.

Few outfitters keep detailed records over many years. Sometimes a hunt provider will give us a percentage as an estimate, say, 90 percent. When we ask more detailed questions, we often find that the outfitter has never had an unsuccessful hunter or perhaps one or two in many years, and he is just trying to make sure prospective clients know that he cannot guarantee a kill.

Over the past 25 years we have learned that most outfitters genuinely care about their customers and do their best to send them home happy. Those who don't seldom last long as their poor reputation spreads.

The more experienced outfitters often undersell their hunts in order to discourage hunters with unrealistic expectations to book with them. This is particularly true of outfitters who offer top-notch trophy hunting. They don't want hunters who will be upset if they don't kill a trophy-class animal. True trophies are extraordinary, which is what makes them trophies. In other words, not everybody gets one, or they wouldn't be trophies.

If you must kill an animal to be happy, book with a high-fenced game farm. Since the animals can't leave your "hunting" area, your chances of killing one can be 100 percent on some of these preserves, even if you have only an hour to spare.

One of our customers was doing some work on the lodge at a high-fenced hunting operation when a wealthy customer landed his own jet on the outfit's air strip, changed into his hunting clothes, killed a giant bull elk within an hour, and peeled off $60,000 in hundred dollar bills to pay for his "trophy" before climbing into his jet and returning home the same day.

The only high-fenced hunts that we consistently book are some of our bison hunts and plains game hunts in South Africa and Namibia. The vast majority, probably 95 percent or more, of these hunts take place behind game-proof fences. Our main bison hunt is conducted on a 60,000-acre ranch, and most of the African hunts take place on huge acreages where hunters swear the animals are totally wild.

High-fenced ranches in Texas offer hunts that many of our clients find enjoyable, especially for whitetails and some of the wilder acting exotics, such as axis deer, nilgai and aoudads. We find that most of our customers still prefer hunting free-roaming animals in Texas, and there are enough quality fair-chase hunts in the Lone Star State that out hunters seldom find it necessary to book with a high-fenced ranch.

Never forget that wild, free-roaming animals are unpredictable, which means that you can never be sure where and when they will be. Even if you book a hunt that has never disappointed a single client for years, that's no guarantee that things will work out perfectly for you.

One year we booked four hunters on an Alaskan moose hunt that had produced a 100 percent hunter success rate since the registered guide began taking clients. Unfortunately, a record heat wave hit northern Alaska during the 10 days they were hunting, and moose simply did not move during the day, when temperatures hovered around 80 degrees. Fortunately, they all shot caribou, and so they didn't go home empty-handed, but they were still disappointed to be the first hunters in 15 years not to fill their moose tags.

We shy away from booking some hunts because the price of the hunt is a small fortune, and yet a hunter still might go home with nothing but memories. One year there were so many forest fires in the Far North that Stone sheep hunters in the Yukon and northern British Columbia could not see long distances for the widespread smoke. Very few hunters were lucky enough even to catch a glimpse of a sheep.

Many of the better hunts are booked full a year or more in advance. Yet a severe winter or drought could kill thousands of animals in a large area, which could drastically reduce hunter success. You still can enjoy an excellent hunt in such an area, but less-then-ideal hunting conditions, such as unseasonable heat or too much wind, combined with lower-then-normal animal numbers, can make for some tough hunting.

Sometimes too much snow or too little snow can make hunting extremely difficult. One year there was so much snow in Utah that elk migrated right through the ranches where they normally winter to lowlands below. The next year conditions switched completely, and the snowfall was the least on record since pioneers arrived in 1847, allowing elk to move to higher elevations where they normally are found only during summer and fall.

Hunting on private land normally increases your chances of scoring. Our rule of thumb is that hunter success at least doubles when you hunt private property instead of bordering public land. But if your tag or your outfitter are restricted to a ranch, most animals could leave the property where you are hunting, and then you're out of luck. This is less likely to happen on the bigger ranches. That is one reason the best private land hunts cost more than average.

Most outfitters with private hunting leases do not control all activities on the property. Western ranchers, for example, retain the right to graze their land and to move livestock when and where they want to do so. Under some weather conditions, a rancher might elect to move his cattle or sheep off or onto a ranch at a time that is less than ideal.

Experienced outfitters sometimes decline to give exact success rate data because they know they are based on the past and not on the future, which nobody can predict. They also realize that the hunter's attitude and abilities can hamper his chances of taking the animal he wants.

Hunters who arrive in great physical condition with a positive attitude and with the ability to make a shot under field conditions stand the best chance of filling their tags.

If you show up in poor shape or with a poor attitude, your guide will probably adjust his hunting plans to accommodate you. Perhaps he will decide against having you hike to the best vantage point because he fears you won't enjoy the physical exertion or will complain about the effort.

A common complaint of guides is that their hunters don't give them the flexibility of conducting the hunt how they see fit. We have seen many instances of hunters arguing with guides, refusing to take their advice, overriding their judgment and nixing their plans.

This seems to happen most often when the hunter has very little experience of hunting a certain animal and zero experience of hunting a particular area. Somehow such a hunter sometimes thinks he is more expert than the guide or outfitter.

If a hunter insists on hunting a particular way or complaining about doing things the way the guide thinks is best, the guide is very likely to accede to the client's wishes. No guide wants to live with a client who complains if the guide's plans don't work out perfectly.

One of the best trophy mule deer guides in the West told of the time he had a father and son who refused to hunt where he had seen several huge bucks because they kept seeing small bucks and many does in a low-elevation part of the ranch through which they had to travel to get to the high country. The guide told them he had seen only one big buck in that area in eight years and the small bucks and big bucks on the ranch usually lived in two separate areas.

The hunters insisted on hunting the low country, so the guide told them several stories of big bucks that he had produced in the higher, rougher portion of the property, trying to persaude them to make the extra effort to hunt the high country.

At the end of their first day the clients went to the outfitter, complained that the guide was bragging about big bucks he had helped previous clients kill, and asked if the camp cook could guide them. The experienced guide went home, and the hunters ended up killing a pair of forkhorns. Whose fault was that?

When most hunters book a hunt with a stated success rate, they fail to consider that they might be one of the unsuccessful hunters. A hunt that has produced an average success rate of 90 percent over 20 years means that as many as one in 10 hunters did not fill their tags. If conditions are less than ideal, or if you show up in bad shape or with a bad attitude, you very well could end up being part of the 10 percent.

There are many things you can do to improve your chances of scoring.

On any Western hunt, for example, you should bring your own quality binoculars and help your guide look for game. Even though the guide might be better at seeing animals than you are, two people can see more than one person. Don't do what we have witnessed too many times and sit there doing nothing while the guide is glassing for game.

You also can maximize your chances by hunting to the end of the scheduled hunt. We have lost count of the number of times a hunter has scored during the last five minutes of shooting night on the last day of the hunt. And yet we have heard of hunters who quit early so many times that it no longer surprises us.

It seems that many hunters expect to see the trophy of their dreams in the first two days, or they think that further efforts are fruitless.

We once had three unguided archery elk hunters call us on a Sunday evening to tell us there weren't any elk on a 10,000-acre ranch that opened to hunting on Saturday. What amazed us was that they were calling from Pennsylvania, more than 2,000 miles from the ranch. Never mind that this ranch is the most lightly hunted property in an entire game management unit that consistently produces many big bulls every year.

Perhaps they thought elk were stupid and would stand in the open during broad daylight as they drove around the property for the 90 minutes it took for them to determine there were no elk on the ranch.

An outfitter in Wyoming once told us his hunter success rate was about 50 percent. He said about 50 percent of his hunters were average, meaning they were in average physical condition and had average shooting skills. Usually about half of those hunters scored. Another 25 percent of his clients usually killed an elk every year. They hunted hard, were in excellent shape, allowing them to cover far more territory than a hunter in average shape, and they were excellent shots, so their hunter success rate was close to 100 percent. The remaining 25 percent of his hunters, he said, had virtually no chance of killing an elk because they were "too old, too fat or couldn't shoot."

There is probably more truth in his statement that one might guess. Hunters who have difficulty seeing, hiking or shooting under hunting conditions also tend to have difficulty filling their tags on hunts that are of average difficulty. Such hunters should book easier hunts (those that consistently produce a high success rate), or they should make efforts to take themself out of the bottom 25 percent.

In any discussion of hunter success rate, the whole reason for hunting can be lost. Many of us hunt for the enjoyment of the entire experience, and we are determined to enjoy that experience regardless of whether we fill our tags. We believe that too many hunters today focus on the size of the animal they take home and on whether they are "successful." A well-balanced hunter does not have to tie his tag on a trophy animal to look back on the whole hunting experience with fond memories.