Hunters new to Northwest Colorado often opt to use a guide to familiarize themselves with the area's mountainous terrain. But many times that's the beginning of a long-term relationship that brings visitors back to hunt with the same outfitter year after year, said Tom Bowers, owner of Colorado High Lonesome Outfitter and Guides in Yampa, who sees repeat clients as the bulk of his hunting business outfitters these days.
Using an outfitter provides a well-stocked camp and a better chance of finding big game during hunting season.
"If an outfitter's worth his salt, he's going to know where those elk are 99 percent of the time," Bowers said.
Visitors have better odds of finding and killing an elk when they follow the lead of outfitters who are out on the land year-round, scouting the drainages where elk hang out and watching their migration, Bowers said.
"The success rate is a lot higher, and it's a lot safer," Bowers said.
Hunting outfitters are licensed by the state of Colorado and guides must have a minimum of first aid and CPR training for certification. There are a limited number of outfitters who are licensed, bonded and insured to operate on public lands.
"There are a lot of horror stories about people who collect a lot of money from unsuspecting hunters for illegal, illegitimate outfitting," Bowers said. To avoid that kind of situation, he highly recommends checking an outfitter's references, and that includes references from hunters who have had successful and unsuccessful harvests. He also suggested doing a background check to make sure your outfitter is legal and finding out how many years your outfitter has been in operation.
There's no better recommendation for an outfitter than from a client who didn't have a kill, but still had a great time, Bowers said.
Knowing how many people are going to be in your hunting group is important, too. Bowers recommends a ratio of two hunters to one guide. While success rates vary from year to year depending upon the weather, typically a triangulation of three people sets up the best shot, he said.
As far as amenities are concerned, Bowers said a lot of hunters really enjoy the idea of being catered to. That includes packing gear in and out with horses and mules, riding into camp on horseback, warm tents, mattresses to sleep on and in his case, the tent has a wooden floor and a granite countertop for the camp kitchen that he hauls in on a mule.
If hunters harvest an animal, getting the meat out of the backcountry is an important element of the service an outfitter can provide. Bowers said guides will typically help clients skin, quarter and take the meat off the bones -- and if the weather is warm the meat gets hauled out immediately. Game meat can be processed locally and shipped home frozen solid, or taken home to process.
"It's a great life," Bowers said of his career as an outfitter. "It's unbelievable the people you meet from around the country and around the world."
Bowers' outfitting service offers both guided hunts and drop camps for archery and the gun seasons. For the guided hunts, he takes a maximum of four hunters out at a time for a full week in a heated tent with all cooking provided by the guides. The cost is $3,500 per person.
For drop camps, Bowers recommends four to six people as the best size for a group. He is permitted to drop hunters off anywhere in the Routt National Forest, and he checks in on each group that he provisions half way through their week. Bowers charges $1,500 per person for a fully outfitted drop camp.
"It's not necessarily just the harvesting of an animal, it's the complete experience," Bowers said. "It should be an enjoyable, memorable experience." n