Outfitter overcomes adversity after fire and, now, pandemic
LEN HOWELLS has been working as an outfitter in northwest Montana for more than 30 years. He built a business bringing hunters to his neck of the woods for big-game hunting and local trout fishing. Howells guided about 50-plus hunters a year, that is, until March 2015. That’s the month and year that his hard work went up in flames.
Howells and his family are off the grid, and they use kerosene and propane for lighting. A kerosene lamp toppled over and set ablaze his home, guide quarters and lots of gear. Two kids — his son and a friend of the family — were burned. Thankfully, they’ve recovered 100 percent. But the fire was a massive setback for the family and business. He had to cancel all spring bear and summer trips since then. That’s five years of getting back on his feet and rebuilding everything. And now he’s dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, just like everyone else.
“With the loss of income, it was tough,” said Howells, who guides on public land in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and surrounding areas, bringing in spring bear hunters and anglers to the east fork of the Fisher River and Kootenai River. “This is the first year since 2015 that we’ve been able to take these clients.”
Howells has been a mountain man his whole life. He started trapping under the tutelage of Pete “Trapper Pete” Starrup back in the 1970s. Trapper legend Bud Moore was also a big influence. Howells helped the Montana Trappers Association for years and became a director.
In the 1980s, he was named both trapper of the year and conservationist of the year, and played a key role in developing and teaching trapper education programs. Through the years, he and his partner, Wanda, raised two children, and homeschooled them at their remote, backcountry ranch.
He rolled with the punches when the bottom dropped out of the trapping market in 1987. That’s when he got into guiding and outfitting.
“I didn’t start with money behind me,” he said. “I started from scratch as a trapper and then as a guide for an outfitter in the area. Let me give a heartfelt thanks to Fred and Jerry Hooks, who trusted me, with nothing down, with all the equipment I needed to get started outfitting.”
In 1989, he met people at the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. At the time, Jean Johnson was the executive director and she helped Howells into the organization and get his business up and running. Eventually Howells became director of Region 1 and continued in that leadership position for nine years. During that time, he ramped up his business, and started guiding and outfitting hunters for moose, mule deer, whitetails, bear and elk, and setting anglers onto cutthroats, ’bows and brookies on the Fisher and Kootenai rivers.
Until the year of the fire.
Maybe it was that backwoods resourcefulness and resiliency that has helped him endure the adversity and start all over again.
“I never had a doubt for a moment that I would not rebuild it all,” said the bearded guide. “Before the fire, I was thinking of cutting back a little. Maybe start trapping again, hunt for myself. But now I’m back at it full time, and things are starting to look up.”
Now, Howells is on target for a strong year with good bookings for the summer and fall. And even with COVID taking its toll, he has bookings for 2021 and even out to 2022.
The economy will run strong again, and that means more potential clients, he said. In fact, clients were starting to book longer hunts.
“Rather than five-day hunts, people want seven-day, and longer, trips into the Cabinet Wilderness Area again,” he said.
Silver Bow had to build a new client facility, guides quarters, purchase new gear for drop camps and a new horse trailer. The fire took many guns, reloading equipment and archery tackle (22 bows were lost in the blaze, for example). His own house was damaged, and is still under construction, but he’s hoping by the time this publication comes out, it’ll be done and everything will be getting back to normal.
After more than 32 years guiding and outfitting, Howells said his main lesson learned about the business is to have good insurance. It’s been a huge help rebuilding what was lost, he said. And when it comes to clients, his advice is: always be 100% up front with customers. “Never exaggerate. So many guys omit things or make things up about what they can offer. Be careful how you describe your facility and area to people. For example, no matter how hard you try to explain the country to a client who has never been here, it’s nearly impossible for them to comprehend. This part of Montana is like no other,” he said.
“The way the animals act and interact with their habitat, the terrain and the heavy timber is very different from, say, Colorado or anywhere else in the West.”
People can choose a backcountry drop camp, and if they do, they’re often surprised how rugged the area is and how difficult it is to hunt.
“Be explicit about what they are getting into and be honest with them,” said Howells.
He also said a great piece of advice Jean Johnson gave him years ago was, if you cannot take criticism and unfair complaints from some customers, then this profession isn’t for you.
“No matter how hard you try, there will be some who you cannot satisfy. And if you cannot face that, you’re in the wrong business. First time I had a complaint, it literally made me sick.”
Howells has had a few hunters who were not totally satisfied with their experiences and posted complaints.
“Weather and Lady Luck make it impossible to guarantee a kill on a fair-chase hunt,” Howells wrote on his web site. “But we do guarantee a quality hunt in an excellent trophy area with very low off-road hunting pressure. Our years of experience guiding hunts in this area of Montana ensures clients the highest possible success rate on their Montana hunting trip.”
Howells and the guides of Silver Bow Outfitters offer guided hunting trips for elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, black bear, big horn sheep, mountain goat, moose and mountain lion.
One of the outstanding features of the Cabinet Mountains is that elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, moose and bear are all known to use the same habitat. That makes for a unique hunt opportunity.
Silver Bow accesses about 565 sections, or about 362,000 acres, of public land. Howells said his career hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it.
“I feel blessed to be here, doing what I enjoy, showing and teaching others what I love so much.” GFJ
Check out Howells and Silver Bow Outfitters at guidefitter.com/LenHowells