On an August morning a few years ago, a phone call woke me up at 4:30 am and through my numb ears I heard, “We made it into town, can you meet up now? Our flight leaves in three hours.”
I was expecting a call, but not quite as suddenly. I had previously agreed to tend the cloaks and skulls of a few out-of-state caribou hunters, but hadn’t heard a word from them since they left. I was ready to meat and salt the cloaks and pack everything to send to their taxidermist, but that wasn’t all I was getting at when I met them.
“Can you have the meat too? We don’t really know what to do with it,” the couple inquired.
Packed in a tarp in the back of the rental car was four bulls’ worth of caribou meat. It was clean and tidy but there was a lot of it. Luckily I had the freezer to keep it cool and a few people who would take it. Still, putting a lad in a curb turnout at 5 a.m.—just an hour before departure—was a risky proposition, and I don’t like to think about what they would have done to the meat if I had. couldn’t take it.
There are many things that a traveling hunter must plan for and consider, and as an Alaskan resident I have experienced a few crises that have been the result of poor planning. Even on my own local and out of state hunting trips I have seen and experienced some of the problems that can arise – and most of them can be easily avoided or treated when they do occur. Here’s what to think about when planning your own out-of-state hunt.
1. Fly with your boots on
I stood staring at the rapidly emptying baggage carousel, which obviously wasn’t carrying my yellow duffel bag. I suppressed the urge to panic because I knew there was nothing I could do. I’d never lost or delayed luggage before, but my luck seemed to run out on this moose hunt in New Mexico. I had packed all the gear and clothing I could possibly need in my checked bag and only had my binoculars in my carry-on.
My bags were eventually taken to camp the following afternoon, but not before I had to borrow a pair of brand new boots and blister both heels on the first morning of the hunt. That wouldn’t normally be a problem – I would just patch them up with leukotape. However, that was also in my checked baggage. Everything went well and it was one hell of a ride but I won’t forget the words of my mate who laughed when I shared my worries with him: “Always fly in with your boots on. Everyone knows that!”
You won’t realistically be able to take all of your hunting gear on the plane in your carry-on or on your person, but bring what you can. It could save you some inconvenience. You certainly don’t want to keep expensive optics or cameras with you.
2. Logistics is your biggest obstacle
Often the hunt is the easy, enjoyable part of a trip. Logistics is the difficult part. When it comes to remote hunts—especially here in Alaska—logistics are everything. Even if you’re on a guided hunt, you still need to know exactly what plans to make for transportation to and from the field. If you’re hunting with a good outfitter, they can usually tell you exactly what to do, but that’s not always the case. Some outfitters will take the reins once you get to camp and just as quickly cut loose when their job is done. You may have to figure out transport and accommodation yourself.
When you go on a DIY hunt, the logistical hassle is even greater. This is true even for an entry-level do-it-yourself trip for caribou. If you’re not driving to your destination, you’ll likely need to find a rental vehicle and possibly other transportation to the scene, which is sometimes easier said than done. If you’re coming to Alaska this fall and haven’t gotten the stuff ready yet, then you’re probably in trouble. Rental car and accommodation shortages can often lead to exorbitant prices and sometimes there is no availability at all. Most air charter services are fully booked at least six months in advance.
3. Plan for your meats, hides and heads
After a successful hunt, the last thing you want to worry about is what to do with your meat, hides, and horns or antlers. The caribou hunters mentioned above had a plan for their trophies (me) but not their meat. It can be difficult to have a foolproof plan for caring for your pet – no plan is truly foolproof – but do your best.
As with many aspects of planning for the traveling hunter, most guides have a plan to deal with excess meat when a hunter cannot bring everything back. Better ask anyway, because in most cases the meat is still your legal responsibility as a hunter. It pays to ask lots of questions and make sure you’re on the same page before you get there.
Despite those fresh blisters, I picked up a beautiful bull moose on my hunt in New Mexico and it was a fantastic trip. Getting my meat home didn’t go so smoothly. The outfitter had set up a professional processor to cut and pack the meat. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was shipping to me. The outfitter never picked up my meat to send to me like we discussed so it stayed at the processor for almost 3 months. I ended up having to drive there and pick it up personally the next time I was in the lower 48. The meat was worth it but what a headache.
When you’re on a DIY hunt, the onus is entirely on you to tend to your meat and trophy until you can get it to the right place. It always pays to research ahead of time and have a plan. Heading west might mean a chest freezer and generator in the back of your truck. When planning a DIY hunt in Alaska, things get more complicated. In addition to field care, there is also the aspect of storage, processing and return home.
If you are hunting with a partner or a group, the clock on your hunt will start ticking as soon as the first person pulls the trigger. In warm weather, that could mean your hunt will be abandoned if someone shoots on the first day. When it’s hot, all hunters in the party must be willing to sacrifice their own hunt to help pack and chill meat. Make sure you also have a plan for processing and shipping meat. Some local processors restrict acceptance during hunting season when they are too busy and finding cold storage for your meat may be difficult or impossible.
Taxidermy is another common decision that a hunter must consider beforehand. If you’re hunting alone, you need to have a plan for your animal before you even shoot it – including training in basic capping and trophy care. If you’re on a guided hunt, your guide should know how to case, skin and care for your trophy, but if he suggests just hiring his local taxidermist, check out his work first. An outfitter’s “preferred” taxidermist may be easy to work with, but there are plenty of shoddy brother-in-law taxidermists out there.
4. Get into your element
Arriving at camp for a long-awaited hunt is often a blur. A trip to the shooting range to check zeros is standard with most good outfitters, but not always. Sometimes you’ll be running at full speed from the moment you arrive at camp. You will be surrounded by new faces and experience a new place. That can be overwhelming. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my stints at hunting camps, both as a guide and as a client, it’s that the hunter is usually out of his element. What I mean by that is that in all the hustle and bustle the hunter doesn’t sit still and shoots from all guns like he might under normal hunting conditions.
I’ve been there myself and seen many others in the same position. It’s even more difficult when everything is in a hurry. If you have the opportunity, go through your gear and get everything ready after you arrive at camp. If you have the time to take some pictures, use it. A few steady shots at the firing range are a snap to confirm your zero after the baggage handlers tossed your rifle case around like a Scottish log. More importantly, this time gives you a minute to settle, shoot, and head into the field with confidence. I’ve had to hunt in situations where I was in a hurry and didn’t really have time to check my zero in camp – and I never felt good about it.
5. Be flexible, be selective and have fun
When I travel to hunt—and help guide traveling hunters—one of my most important observations is that every hunt differs slightly from the traveling hunter’s expectations. When those expectations are rigid, it can lead to a terrible time for everyone involved. Sure we’re out there to get the animal of our dreams, but it’s meant to be fun. A certain flexibility and openness will almost certainly give you a better hunting experience.
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You’re sure to have some challenges when it comes to travel hunting, and in Alaska that often means inclement weather disrupting the hunt or travel. Sometimes the animals just don’t cooperate, or you may find that your hunt wasn’t what you expected. Accept it and do your best to enjoy the experience as it is. The grumpiest hunters I’ve ever met were usually either busy doing things their own way — or upset because the guide couldn’t change the weather or get an animal to stop in front of them. I don’t know what experience they were hoping for, but the one they got wasn’t fun.
Be a little picky and you’ll probably have more fun. You don’t have to be an ultra-selective trophy hunter, but when you go hunting you might not want to shoot the first animal you see on day one. There is certainly a time for photography on the first day, but be aware that you may miss out on some great experiences. A outfitter I worked for told me that many bear hunters chose to go home a day or two after shooting a bear rather than stay and fish or go sightseeing. It’s a shame, because I always have more fun on hunts that last longer.
If you are well prepared but flexible in your plan and expectations, you will be set for an incredible experience. The more you can focus on what lies ahead – knowing you’ve got the rest of the details covered – the better you’ll hunt and the more enjoyable your hunt will be.