Twin Bridges, Montana
For the better part of three decades, Layne Wilcox has guided hunters into the mountains of western Montana in search of elk and mule deer. He got his start right after high school, working for an outfitter in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Nine years ago, he and his wife, Candy, jumped at the chance to buy the outfit he was working for at the time. Today they operate Advantage Backcountry Outfitters in the Beaverhead National Forest.
OL: How do you start an outfitting business?
LW: We got really lucky. In Montana, you have to buy out another outfitter in order to get on Forest Service land, which is where most of the backcountry camps are. We saw the stars align when my boss retired, and we got financing. The toughest thing is being the new guy on the block and lining up customers without any references. But if you can guide a hunter to a good bull, he’ll tell 5 or 10 buddies, and that’s how you get going.
OL: What are your biggest expenses?
LW: Most of it’s paying the cooks and guides, plus caring for and feeding stock. We don’t have winter range here, so we have to feed them winter hay, which is expensive. One year it might be $80 a ton and the next year it’s $180 a ton. But I lease them to another lodge in the summer, and that pays for their feed all winter. I do all my own farrier work and shoeing. If I didn’t, that’s $300 to $400 per head per year, and we’re working with 25 head. In terms of vet costs, you have to worm them several times a year, plus there are the vaccinations. Luckily my wife sells vet supplies, so we get everything at a discount. In a good year, we’ll make $120,000 or so.
OL: How do you remain successful?
LW: We just try to run a top-top-notch camp. We hire cooks who are good at cooking. All our stock is well broke and great to ride. My group of guides is great. They’ve been with me for many years, and they like where I hunt. We have elk there, so they’re able to get their hunters on some critters. One of the toughest things in my business is finding good help.
OL: What do you like most and least about outfitting?
LW: I like guiding people who have never killed an elk, especially young kids. What we offer is a bucket-list hunt for a lot of people. This year, we’ll have two ladies in their 60s. It’s been their dream to go on an elk hunt, so that’ll be a ball.
The biggest frustration is clients whose expectations are out of whack or who show up out of shape. Hunters are getting bigger, and I hate to say it but people just don’t want to work for things anymore. You might find an elk for a guy, but it’s going to be a tough 2-mile hike to get within range, and he decides he doesn’t want to do it. It’s heartbreaking for a guide to finally find an animal and have your hunter tell you that. People just want it easy, and I think that’s because TV shows make it look that way.
OL: Is outfitting a good way to make a living?
LW: It is if you like to work hard. We work a minimum of 18 hours a day during the season. Everyone’s up around 4 a.m., gone from camp by 6, and we don’t get back until 8 at night. Then you eat dinner, take care of the stock, feed them, go to bed, and do it all over again.
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