Outdoor Life Online Editor

Plenty of hunters believe that an outfitted Western big-game hunt is unaffordable. Depending on the species and the quality of game you’re hunting, the accommodations and the reputation of your outfitter, a hunt could easily cost more than $10,000. Even a lower priced mule deer hunt will run from $2,500 to $3,500, while an outfitted elk hunt can set you back at least $4,000 to $5,000.

There’s another option that won’t break your bank account. Some outfitters offer drop-camps that put you into game country at a nominal cost. Typically you’ll be transported by horseback and dropped off to hunt on your own-hence the name.

At face value this seems like a great deal. After all, for around $1,000 or so, you and your pals will be deposited smack in the middle of dynamite elk country, you’ll all get your elk and you’ll go home whistling with enough money left over to buy gifts for your loved ones.

That, unfortunately, is the best-case scenario. Some drop-camp hunters don’t get their game because they’re physically not up to hunting the West or are simply inept at hunting alone. That’s understandable, and even acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is being dropped into a camp with little or no game. That’s outright fraud on the part of the outfitter, and it happens far too often. Here’s why.

An outfitter typically runs two classes of camps-a full-service operation, in which he provides horses, guides and accommodations, and a drop-camp operation. Many don’t bother with the latter because drop-camps are too much trouble and don’t provide a significant income return.

Because of that, some unscrupulous outfitters will establish camps that are easy to get to but in a place devoid of game. Another reason you might not be located in a prime area is because outfitters will logically try to protect their higher-paying hunters from competition, meaning you. If the drop-camps are located too close to prime country, the hunters in those camps could compete with the other clients. Furthermore, hunters who are willing to hunt on their own are typically more woods savvy and might come back in later years to the same area on their own, offering more competition to the outfitter.

[pagebreak] Avoiding Rip-offs
So how do you determine whether the outfitter is on the level? Checking references is a must, but it might not give you a complete or accurate picture. Naturally, the outfitter will give you the names of hunters who went home happy. A hunter who stumbles onto an animal in an area where there are very few might become the go-to reference for that outfitter, even though 20 other hunters never saw an animal.

Of course, it’s possible that in some elk country, animals are present but tough to find. That’s acceptable. But you shouldn’t be placed where there’s little expectation of scoring. Big-game migrations are geared to weather, and weather isn’t predictable. If you’re in a migration area and the weather is balmy and dry, your chances of seeing an elk or deer could be zero.

Asking the outfitter where the drop-camp is located so you can check it out before you book isn’t a good idea if it’s on public land. The outfitter probably won’t want to tell you, because he might think you’re sweet-talking him out of information that you’ll use on your own. Instead, ask the outfitter general questions, such as the location of major drainages and peaks, without trying to pin him down to a specific spot. Ask him what elevations you’ll be hunting and what the terrain and vegetation are like. This will help you put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Once you have this basic information, you’ll need to dig more in order to make an educated guess about the quality of the operation. You can do this by calling the game department of the state you’ll be hunting. Ask to speak to a big-game biologist who is familiar with the region where the outfitter operates. GGive the biologist the dates of your hunt and the area of the camp, and you should be able to make a pretty quick assessment of what the outfitter has told you. If the information matches up fairly well, you’re probably dealing with someone who’s on the up-and-up. If the information is at odds with what you were told, you should probably book with someone else.

Other Amenities
Drop-camps vary in terms of accommodations and equipment. It’s mandatory that they have a weatherproof shelter, whether it’s a tent, a cabin or even an RV. There must be a heat source, whether it’s a woodstove or another type of heater, and a stove to cook on. There should be cots to sleep on. Firewood should be available, as well as an ax; you might have to split wood yourself. In most camps there will be cooking utensils, a lantern and kitchen accessories, such as paper towels, dish-washing soap and other essentials. Be sure you get all the details from the outfitter before you go in. A broken mantle for your lantern or a busted ax could be disastrous.

The more planning you do, the more successful your hunt will be. You don’t want any surprises when you’re stuck in the backcountry and it’s a long, long hike to a trailhead.

For information on Jim Zumbo’s books, visit www.jimzumbo.com.

Must-Ask Questions
What you should find out from a game biologist about your hunt

1. What is the status of the herds in the area? Are numbers healthy?

2. What can you reasonably expect to see during your hunt? Learn about the trophy potential of the area where you’ll be dropped off.

3. Where will the animals typically be concentrated that time of year? Find out elevations and the game’s preferred habitats for bedding and feeding.

4. When is the rut? How will weather patterns affect the game?

5. How much pressure does the area usually receive from hunters? High-pressure areas require different tactics, if you choose to hunt them at all.

6. Whom else should you talk to about the game in this area?