Ask for references and call them. Then, ask for names and contact info of other hunters who were in camp and call them too. The outfitter will likely supply you only with happy hunters who might be the exceptions.
Be sure you and the outfitter are on the same page regarding availability of animals, as well as the chances of seeing a trophy – if that’s what you’re after. Be sure he understands what you’re looking for.
Ask him the general area where you’ll be hunting, then do your research. For example, perhaps the animals he hunts migrate long distances and are available only when heavy snows push them out of higher elevations. He might be hunting winter range where animals won’t arrive until you’re gone because of a mild fall.
Don’t ask him what his past hunter success rate is. That’s too variable. Hunters may miss or wound animals, some can’t physically get to the prime hunt areas, and some simply can’t see animals being pointed out by a guide. Ask him what his hunting opportunities are. How many animals were shot at and not recovered, or passed up because they didn’t meet the expectations of the hunter? How may bulls can you expect to see?
Check with the state wildlife agency to confirm that the outfitter is properly licensed. (License requirements vary widely in each state)
Never, ever, agree to a deal “under the table.” If an outfitter asks for cash up front and asks you to be mum about it, that’s a sure sign to just walk away.
Be aware that party hunting is illegal in every western state. That means only you can shoot the animal you’re licensed for—not the guide, outfitter or another hunter.
Be absolutely sure you’re aware of the physical requirements of the hunt. If you suffer from any disability or medical condition, even a minor one, you could wind up with a serious problem. Ask the outfitter how much hiking and horseback riding you can expect. The more homework you do, the happier you’ll be.
Jim Zumbo has been an RMEF life member since 1985, written for Bugle for 25 years and chased elk for twice that long.