Whitetail deer is arguably the most sought-after big game species to hunt in North America. The combination of outdoor television and social media have helped explode the popularity of whitetail deer hunting by showing the best of whitetail deer harvests. Harvesting a mature whitetail is not easy which is why hunters from around the country are booking non-resident whitetail hunts through an outfitter in record numbers.
We all know that social media, websites, and brochures often showcase the highlights of hunting and skip over the reality of the in-between. Before you book your hunt, there are a few questions that you should be asking a potential outfitter. Each outfitter is going to offer unique experiences from lodging, all meals, and fully-guided service, to a basic trespass fee with stand locations, no lodging, meals, or guides.
Fully guided often means that your guide will take you to your stand and tell you what you can or cannot harvest. While other hunts that are semi-guided leave you with the responsibility of knowing what you should or should not be harvesting.
One of the most important questions is how many acres of property does the outfitter have access for you to hunt. This is a great general question but keep in mind, that I hunt with an outfitter every year that only provides access to one or two small farms. Despite how much ground your outfitter has, they have a limited quantity of mature deer, and of those deer, an even more limited amount of mature trophy deer.
Before you book your hunt, inquire about harvest success rates, the typical age of harvested deer, and the size of harvested deer. This will help to establish an expectation of average age, average harvest size, and the frequency of mature trophy harvests on the properties.
Some outfitters have set standards of the harvest to encourage hunters to select bucks that are of the right age and let young bucks grow to reach their potential as part of quality deer management practices. What this means is that you could see a mid-140-inch 2.5-year-old deer with excellent future trophy potential making it a buck that the outfitter does not want you to harvest. With that said, the same size deer that is 4.5 years old would most likely be encouraged to harvest. Oftentimes, outfitters will have a financial penalty that typically starts around $1,000.00 for harvesting underage deer in order to encourage the selective harvest of older deer.
Don’t be afraid to ask for trail camera images from the area that you will be hunting. Your outfitter may be able to show you deer that have been in the area and that you could potentially encounter. It is the outfitter’s job to scout year-round and they should be able to prepare you in advance of your hunt to give you the best opportunities for harvesting a mature buck. With a limited amount of time to hunt, you may not want to hold out for that trophy buck and instead have the goal of harvesting a good representative, mature buck.
Establish up front the style of hunting that you will be doing, for example, hunting over a food plot, on a game trail, or over a decoy. Inquire about the condition of the area crops during your hunt, for example, are they standing or harvested? The outfitter will know how to best capitalize on the deer movement based on food, bedding, and the rut, ask them to explain the hunt so that you feel confident about their strategy while learning in the process.
Ask how many people will be hunting in camp each week, and how many hunters they take each year. This will help to establish how much hunting pressure is on the deer in the area. Finding out the cadence of their booked hunting season matters. A good outfitter will have more than one stand that is ready for you to hunt various wind conditions and not make you feel crowded by other hunters in an area.
Semi-guided hunts sometimes provide a guide that takes you to the stand, and if so, you will want to ask how many guides are running hunters to stand locations. This is important so that you can anticipate how early before and after dark you may be sitting on your stand.
Semi-guided hunts that do not provide drop-off service often utilize OnX Hunt to coordinate hunters and place them into stand locations. Familiarize yourself with OnX Hunt and download area maps while you have service in the event that you do not have coverage in the hunting area. Oftentimes, you will receive a pin to where your stand is located making you responsible to get in and out of the stand using that pin and, possibly trees marked with reflective cat eyes. *(Use code Wild20 at checkout to save 20% on your new OnX Hunt Elite Membership)
There are many people that say, don’t guide the guide, however, the habits of deer change from year to year and sometimes day to day. The key to any outfitted hunt is having mutual respect and good communication. Personally, I book hunts with outfitters that will listen to what I am seeing and experiencing in the field. If I feel that my stand needs to be moved in order to have more in-range shot opportunities based on the deer movement that I am seeing while hunting, I want an outfitter that is going to listen to what I am saying and either accommodate moving stands or let me know why my idea might not be a good one. There have been some hunts where I have moved my stand several days in a row in order to get my stand in the right location for an in-range shot opportunity. The last thing that I want to do is sit and watch deer cross just out of range because my outfitter will not move stands. If the outfitter won’t work for you and with you to be successful, then you might not want to book with them.
When you head to your stand, start your trek feeling cold, having on minimal clothing. You do not want to break a sweat before a long cold sit. Add layers of clothing before you climb into the tree, or in the box blind as needed. Do not walk around your stand location or touch anything that is unnecessary, this will help limit the amount of scent that you distribute throughout your hunting area.
Once you get to the stand, you will want to be prepared with your own gear. Small items like pull ropes and tree hooks are often not supplied due to liability and those kinds of items have a tendency to disappear when hunters leave camp. Be prepared with your own pull rope, tree hook, lifeline, harness, seat cushion, and limb saw.
If you have never climbed into a tree stand, ask your guide to accompany you to the stand and help you get into position. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your stand and comfortably set up before daylight breaks. Personally, I like to have 15-20 minutes to sit quietly in the dark before sunrise allowing me to connect with the woods and things to settle down from my arrival.
Stay alert, and pay attention to not only what you see, but also what you hear. You will want to be ready to stop a cruising buck if necessary as you may only have seconds to judge the age and size of a deer. At this point, you should be prepared to judge deer and knowledgeably harvest.
There is nothing worse than harvesting a buck on the last night of the hunt and having a 6:30am flight the next day and no plan on how the meat and trophy will be cared for. Come up with a plan in advance as every outfitter has a different procedure after the harvest. Do not assume that your outfitter will manage the processing of eatable portions and trophy care, many will offer basic field dressing and nothing more.
With that said, you may want to consider having a processing day on the back end of your trip that will allow you the time to transport eatable portions to the meat processor or give you time to cut and quarter your deer into cooler-sized portions.
Know the rules for interstate travel. CWD is a tremendous concern and many states do not allow the transport of brain matter, meaning that you need to be prepared to remove the cape and skull cap of your deer or take it to an in-state taxidermist.
There is a lot that goes into selecting an outfitter depending on your expectations and the experience that you are looking for. Hopefully, this article has given you some solid insight and is headed you in the right direction for the hunt of a lifetime.