Throughout that time, I've learned there are certain things every skilled guide should – and should not – do to prepare for their client's hunt.
Quality guides take their jobs seriously. I’ve been a professional big-game hunting guide for over 25 years. Throughout that time, I’ve learned there are certain things every skilled guide should – and should not – do to prepare for their client’s hunt. The following are a professional guide’s off-season rituals.
Most hunts require planning and preparation, which means investing time, money and energy. This is why many hunters hire a guide to facilitate the hunt and, at least in part, why they make a deposit on that hunt.
When a business arrangement is in place and a client contracts the services of a professional outfitter and guide, preparing for the hunt becomes that much more meaningful. If your guide prepares properly, your odds of closing a tag go up – it’s that simple.
For many guides, preseason preparations begin in January and continue throughout winter, spring and summer. Even so, there are no guarantees in hunting free-range animals. It’s up to you to make the shot.
Many guides scour the woods looking for shed antlers during the winter and spring months to determine which bucks made it through the previous hunting season and at least part of the winter. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Many guides spend days, even weeks, scouring their hunting grounds for shed antlers. If we successfully find sheds, we can learn which bucks survived the previous hunting season. We can also gauge heard health by monitoring when antlers drop. In fact, over the past 30 years I’ve documented when antlers fall off and the conditions of the year. Here’s what I’ve learned:
To shed hunt effectively, guides literally walk every trail, search every bed, and scour every inch of the winter feeding, transition and bedding areas in search of lost bone. Locating bigger antlers always gives guides a sense of confidence; there’s a good chance that buck will make it through the winter.
Unfortunately, it’s also common to find winter kills while shed hunting. Some deer succumb to harsh winter conditions, but most are due to predation.
Most guides take predator control very seriously. It’s an important part of their game management program at Alberta Hunting Adventures. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
With predator populations growing in most jurisdictions across North America, guides and outfitters are more actively managing their wolf, coyote and cougar populations, in particular. In fact, one of the most common questions prospective clients ask when inquiring about deer hunts relates to how we manage our coyote numbers.
Throughout the winter months, many guides make it their personal mission to hunt, and even trap, predatory wildlife species that kill and otherwise harm their deer herds. Not only do we play an active role ourselves, but we also offer commercial predator hunts to help keep coyote populations in check.
Where allowed, guides and outfitters spend spring working the ground and planting nutrient-rich crops like clover. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
In states and provinces where baiting or planting food plots is allowed by law, guides and outfitters spend spring working the ground and planting nutrient-rich crops. These are not only good for the deer but also enhance antler growth.
Again, where they’re allowed, many place artificial mineral licks to encourage deer to frequent areas close to stand and blind locations. As soon as fall arrives, many begin baiting with either commercial mineral mixes, apples, alfalfa or cereal grains several weeks ahead of your scheduled hunt to condition deer to return to the area you’ll be hunting. This can be especially labor-intensive since deer can consume high volumes, especially as the weather turns cold and snow covers the ground.
Placing and checking trail cameras is common practice for most guides. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Game managers play an active role in monitoring and nurturing their herds in Europe, and many professional guides and outfitters do the same here in North America. Almost every guide employs high-tech trail cameras to monitor deer movement. While some run cameras year-round, most place and check cameras regularly starting in July. This allows them to get a good idea of what deer are in the area, the buck-to-doe ratios, and whether certain bucks routinely travel given corridors.
Depending on the ground you’ll be hunting, your guide will understand the relevance of trail camera images. Some will eagerly share these but others will not – and for good reason. Understanding deer movement is a science. In some areas, bucks live in a small territory all year long. In others, they winter near the best food source, migrate and spend their summer in a different area, and then travel great distances to breed during the rut. In my outfitting territory, we’ve actually seen mature bucks during the rut that we know live up to five miles away during the summer months. As a visiting hunter, this can be confusing.
As the late pre-rut gets underway, guides check rubs and service scrapes to see what class of bucks are working the area. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Some hunters will insist on seeing trail-camera images and hunting those areas, even though the images were captured in the late summer or early season. Sometimes this works, but the key is to trust your guide and understand that big bucks rarely do the same thing twice, and they commonly shift to different areas throughout the season. Despite the photos, let the guide make the decisions and place you in the location with the highest odds for a shot opportunity.
In preparing for rut hunts, quality guides check scrape lines to determine which are boundary scrapes, which are secondary scrapes and which are primary scrapes. If your guide knows what they’re doing, they’ll try to locate primary scrapes. Many will service them regularly with doe estrus or dominant buck scent. The goal is to hold resident bucks in the area – which increases your odds for success – by capturing their attention, and priming them to routinely visit and service these scrapes themselves.
In the end, a good guide and outfitter learns what the deer do in their area and hunts their guests accordingly.
Guides will set tree stands and camouflage blinds weeks before deer hunters arrive to hunt. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Some outfitters place permanent box or tower blinds during the summer months. Depending on the size and weight of the blinds, this can be a significant undertaking. Most guides, however, place portable ladder stands and pop-up blinds just a few weeks before hunting season begins.
Your guide will consider prevailing winds and thermals for morning, evening and all-day sits. They’ll evaluate access routes to minimize the chances of deer detecting you while you get in and out of stand and blind locations. In some situations, they’ll clear debris from trails to minimize snapping branches or tripping hazards as you move in and out of the areas under the cover of low-light conditions.
Deer trails can be difficult to decipher in heavily wooded areas, but as soon as the leaves turn and begin to drop, the most traveled trails immediately become visible. Guides walk these trails interpreting movement between bedding and feeding areas, looking for rubs and scrapes, and generally evaluating the best ambush locations. By this time, your guide should have a firm grasp on the age-class structure, buck-to-doe ratios, and at least somewhat of an understanding of the percentage of older bucks in the area. Their job is to interpret this information, put the pieces together, and select the right trees for stands and the best ambush locations for ground blinds.
In some situations, placing stands and blinds involves clearing brush for shooting lanes. Good guides recognize the need to be minimalists, cause as little disturbance to the area as possible, and provide decent shooting lanes for their clients. Likewise, blinds most often need to be brushed to camouflage them. Knowledgeable guides will almost always place blinds at least a week or even several weeks before you arrive. This gives game ample time to relax and get used to the blind being there.
Minimal impact with maximum results is your guide’s end goal.
When guides capture trail-camera images like this early velvet buck before the season, they pay close attention and mark the area as a potential stand or blind site. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Most importantly, quality guides recognize the importance of leaving the area alone as your hunt approaches. Big bucks in particular are hyper-sensitive to human intrusion, so the last thing your guide wants to do is leave human scent in the area. Most will avoid the area for at least a week or two prior to your arrival, letting the deer settle into natural movement patterns undisturbed and enhancing your chances for a successful hunt.