There are thousands of guides and outfitters to choose from, but which ones are the best, which ones can you afford and which ones can you trust. By “trust” I mean trust not only with your money but with your life and your reputation as a hunter. Living in Northern California I have heard many stories of guides who were lacking in experience, flipping drift boats in the Sacramento River and losing their clients and their gear. I have also heard stories of hunters who showed up expecting to hunt animals in a legal environment only to learn after the fact that the guide had been baiting turkeys or pigs. I say “after the fact” because they were approached by a game warden after the hunt. This was a big story in the Redding area a few years ago but fortunately I do not believe this to be common.
Just so we are clear ahead of time. Guides make their living through their guide service. Some do it full time others do it seasonally. For either one, a bad online review could destroy their business and for that reason I will not give any guide a bad review by name. I may allude to the area or service he provides but will not call him out by name. My trip with him may have been a fluke and all his other clients may have been super pleased with his business. And besides that guides have good days and bad days just like me and you. That day there may have been no pigs on the ranch or maybe we just didn’t get any ducks to come in. Well that’s why it's called hunting and not grocery shopping. Sometimes a guide can bust his back all day for a client and when it comes down to the end of the day the only shot on a deer or pig comes along and the client misses, but blames it on the guide.
Fishing trips are notorious for good day bad day trips. A client comes up to fish on a Monday and just can’t go wrong, the fish are biting on everything he throws in the water, he has a wonderful time and goes home happy. The next day the same guy could show up and fish the exact same spots at the same time with the same flies and eat the same sandwich at the same spot and not even get one single fish to bite. It's just the way things go. Guided hunting and fishing trips are a gamble. It's a risk you take but it doesn’t hurt for you to research your hunting choices and look for good honest reviews to stack the odds in your favor.
If I go hunting with a guide whether or not I am paying for it or it was provided I will be honest with you and tell you how the hunting trip or fishing trip went. I will be honest and tell you the cost of the trip, the lodging and food costs and how to save money. I will tell you if the hunt was physically challenging or if anyone could do it. I will be honest about the amount of animals we saw the success ratio and I will tell you how to contact the guide and the best times of the year to go. If by chance the hunting or fishing trip is a disaster I will tell you that too. If the guide overcharged me or took advantage of me I will state that as well. Why because the guide needs to know as well. I will try to provide you with as much information as I can to help you have a good time and please remember it never costs you anything to read by blog so it's free information, what can it hurt.
Research is your friend.
The more you can do the better. I wish I had done some research on a guide before I wasted my time a few years back. It was in January towards a particularly bad waterfowl season during one of the drought years. We decided to attend the Sportsman’s Expo in Sacramento, a friend of mine and his wife started talking to a guide from the Klamath Falls Oregon area. It was actually the guide’s wife behind the booth at the show, they began gabbing and I didn’t think much of it but they were talking about a waterfowl hunt. A few weeks later my friend’s wife approached me and said she had set up a hunt for her husband for his birthday. It was a late season goose hunt, cost was $500.00 bucks a person for a two day goose hunt. Apparently the guide’s wife told her it was the best time of the year to hunt geese. It was the late season with liberal bag limits on Snow Geese and Specks and the geese would be on the return migration and the skies would be filled with geese and to take plenty of shells. We would be doing most of hunt out of a boat so it would be a physically easy hunt for anyone. This was especially enticing to me because I had just spent a full duck season in California standing in the refuges in knee deep to waist deep water and slogging a mile out and back with gun decoy bag and gear so the thought of sitting in a duck boat and being driving to the guides hot spot sat very well with me. So I thought to myself that this would be the perfect hunt to close out a tough year “I’m in!” Well zero research was done on the guide and the guy is actually very well known in the area as it turned out so I could have learned many things just doing some checks online and reading a few reviews, well I didn’t do any research and it came back to bite me.
About two weeks later we loaded up the travel trailer and headed north loaded down with shotgun shells, and several empty ice chests we were in the mood to slay some geese. We arrived at the KOA in Klamath Falls and called the guide and left a message that we had arrived. We waiting on the phone call most the evening we finally went to bed. The guide called late that night and told us some obscure intersection to meet him at east of town at about 4:00 AM. We traveled out there and arrived at the intersection to find another hunter from Washington State just as eager as were but also wondering why we were there. Within a few minutes the guide showed up. He was driving a large pick up and towing a big duck boat loaded with about 6 or 8 bags of goose decoys, “Woohoo” I thought now were going hunting. “Follow me” he says and off we go, and go and go. After about a 20 minute drive we stop and he opens a gate and we drive into what was later learned to be a public area. We followed him through the gate and traveled over this hill the road mostly disappeared into this dry pasture. He tells us to park the vehicles there and walk behind his vehicle to the area we were going to set up. We walked about a quarter mile to the edge of a lake. Then he tells us we need to set up the decoys so he tells us where he wants them and we start setting up.
Now I don’t mind setting up decoys. I actually kind of enjoy it. But the guy wouldn’t explain anything to us and was extremely short with his answers. After the guide and the three of us set up the decoys along the edge of the lake and out into the water the guide says okay go get your gear. I was confused about the set up and asked him, how we were hunting it. And he said we would be standing in the tules off the edge of the shore. I began to get irritated and I asked “how deep is it out there”. My friend he is only about 5’5” on a good day and I just don’t like standing all day in tules. He said “about waist deep”. Mind you this guy is well over 6 foot tall. So now we walk all the way back to the vehicle, I’m getting somewhat irritated and my friend he is steamed by now. The guy from Washington State he is also getting a little upset because he thought he paid for a two day 1 on 1 guided goose hunt in a boat and we thought we had paid for a 2 day 2 on 1 guided goose hunt out of a boat without any other hunters with us. I usually try to make the best of a bad situation and so we all just hung in there. As shoot time approached we all waded out into the tules about 20 minutes before shooting light. No marsh seats or as we call them out west tule seats or tule stools. You just had to stand there in water belt buckle high my friend had to stop about three quarters of the way there and squeeze himself into a small patch of tules because it was just getting too deep for him.
We all spread out, all four hunters. I say four hunters because the guide was actually hunting too. Well come daylight the shooting started, at least that’s what I would like to say. Altogether 3 birds were shot, the only three that came over all morning. One by the guide, one by the guy from Washington and one by me, even though the guide said the guy from Washington shot the bird but he said he didn’t shoot. Come about 9:30 or so the sun was out the birds were flying and the guide was ready to leave, yes the guide was ready to leave even though the birds were up and moving and after only about maybe 2.5 to 3 hours of hunting. We all figured we were loading up to go set up in a different place. We all left following him and he ended up pulling into a small gas station restaurant type place and parking out front. We were all ready for him to give us the game plan for the rest of the morning or when to meet up for the evening hunt. Instead he told us to meet him at the same intersection in the morning. I even asked him why we weren’t going out that afternoon and he wouldn’t say anything about it just said it would be better the next day. Depressed we went back into town.
While in Klamath Falls we went to a couple of sporting good type places, gun shops and Wal-Mart. We asked around about our guide and learned that we should have researched him before hand. We could not find any positive reports on him. Even the lady working the sporting good counter told us about several people who had bad experiences with him.
The next day we met the guide at the same intersection. We drove to an agricultural area and had to walk about a half mile behind his truck and boat trailer. We noticed that the decoy bags were rearranged from the day before. As we began to set up next to this river along the edge of the field in the dark you could hear the geese in the river flying out. I have been hunting waterfowl for years and I know you don’t run birds off when you’re setting up because they won’t come back till dark. Then the guy from Washington State tells me that the guide admitted that he had another group hunting this same spot the evening before (same day we hunted the lake and on the day we had paid for) and they had done real well. This really began to irritate me, the guide double dipping on clients is somewhat common like when he double dipped by adding our hunt with Mr. Washington State without our knowledge but now he was taking hunters out on the evening we had thought we paid for but he told us it wouldn't be any good so not only was he double-double dipping he lied to us the day before.
Well we ended up having to not only set up all the decoys we also ended up having to pull grass from the edge of the river bank to camouflage the four layout blinds while he drove the truck and boat back to the parking area. Come day break a few geese came over high, then later some came in low. Every time the geese came in low he would start blowing on his speck call and the geese would flair off. It was just terrible then Washington State guy starts shooting some high birds, high but still in range. Guide starts yelling at him to stop shooting they’re too high. We finally all got fed up with his calling and told him to stop. Then it really gets bad. Somebody dropped a speck that sailed about 150 yards across the river. I clear fall and easy retrieve for any seasoned bird dog. The guide sends his dog and he crosses the creek and picks up the bird. Turns around and looks at the guide. The dog then begins to rip and tear this bird apart and eats the breast off the bird before the guide can get to him. The dog eventually comes back with the bird and this is the part that just did it for me. If you have ever had hunting dogs this occasionally happens. Sometimes it's an untrained dog or a young dog. But this was a frustrated dog that was not only frustrated but untrained. He had not made a clean retrieve all day now he was acting up. The guide instead of calming down apologizing for the dog and then reinforcing his training he made a bad thing worse and beat the dog and actually held the dog down and bit him on the ear. That’s when the hunt ended for me. As a person who just loves dogs and knows what to do when a dog messes up it just made me furious. The hunt was basically over for the morning and apparently for the day after about 3 maybe 4 hours. A total of about 5 and half birds (minus one breast) after we loaded up we tried to talk to the guide and find out what was going on and where we would hunt that afternoon but before we could he actually loaded up his truck and just drove off leaving us and Mr. Washington State on the private property scratching our heads. No afternoon hunt no “thank you for the business,” nothing at all just gone.
The point I am trying to make by telling this long story is this a little Research would have saved me a lot of money and a lot of anger and disappointment. We spent just the two of us $1000.00 to hunt geese for two days and with the addition of Mr. Washington State adding his $500 for two days it was $1500.00 for 3 people for 3 days, that’s $250.00 a day for one person. That is a good deal, if the birds are flying, the guide is doing his job and setting up and calling properly and he is providing a service above and beyond you just walking out, setting up your own birds on public land. The kicker to me was the promise of hunting out of a boat and then the hunt changing from one guided and two hunters (2 on 1) being changed to 3 X 1 with the third hunter being a stranger to the other 2 hunters. There were other small things that also happened on this hunt that are too trivial to list but it did add to the dissatisfaction. Again my point being, all I had to do was read a review on yelp or ask him a few questions before committing to the hunt.
On the other hand my wife and daughter bought me a pig hunt for my birthday with a guide out of Willows California. We didn’t get a pig and as a matter of fact we didn’t even see a pig but I have written a very nice review on him because although we didn’t even see a hog he went above and beyond when it came to effort, affordability, appreciation of the client and professionalism.
Questions to ask your guide before committing to your hunt
The questions I have may differ from yours, everyone is different. But make a list of questions before you even call a guide to help you determine who you want to hunt with and where. Most of these questions are generalized and deal with a waterfowl hunt or deer hunt but they can also pertain to a fishing trip as well. If you start asking your guide questions and he sounds anything but happy to answer it would be a big red flag, just go down your list to some other guide who is willing to answer your questions and appreciates your business.
What are your rates? Is that based on a day 8 to 10 hours or just a morning hunt?
How long is the hunt? Is it a morning only or morning and afternoon/evening?
How much work are you and your fellow hunters expected to do prior to the hunt and when the hunt is over? Setting up decoys in a field is somewhat expected. Brushing up blinds and carrying bags of decoys to the field and doing the manual labor for the guide is not expected.
If you reserve a hunt and you are unable to attend is the deposit refundable or are you allowed to reschedule?
If you have a disabled hunter with you how accommodating are they? For example, if you’re hunting with an elder and it's a duck hunt, can the elder make the walk to and from the blind? Is the elder able to get out of the blind when it's over? Is there a port a potty nearby or at the least a large bush?
I'm not a smoker but if you smoke you better ask if you can smoke in the blind? Most guides don’t allow smoking in their blinds because the blind material soaks up all the smoke and it stinks like a wet ashtray.
Can you bring your own food? Always bring you own food and sneak it to the blind anyway. Some guides consider saltine crackers and sardines' lunch.
Can you bring your own dog? Most guides will not allow you to bring your own dog. Even if it's a proven hunter. They usually have their own dog and two strange dogs around a duck blind is a recipe for a dog fight.
Always ask what their success rate is. Especially if it's a pig hunt. Many guides will state that they have a 100% success rate. Find out what their meaning of success is. It often changes from 100% success to 100% opportunity. Meaning the client could have shot an animal but either chose not to, because it was too small, too far or was not a safe or ethical shot or the client just plain missed. If the guide says that it's a 100% for sure that you will actually shoot a pig find out if he gives refunds if you don’t. I am always skeptical of guides who say they have a 100% success rate on any animal, hunting usually just isn’t that good anywhere unless there is an over abundance of animals or there is food or bait somewhere close by.
Find out what your job is or what you do while in the blind? This goes for waterfowl and turkeys or any kind of blind hunting. I know of waterfowl guide who takes clients out to his blinds, they walk out in the dark. They get in the blinds and cover up. Close the blind flaps. In other words they are inside the blind sitting mostly in the dark. They can’t look around or spot birds. They sit down in there until the guide tells them to stand up and shoot. As soon at the birds are collected they sit back down in the blind and wait. I would not like that kind of a hunt. I like to be more involved and do my own calling and look for birds.
If your fly fishing ask if they furnish the gear. If they do that is a big bonus. You can leave your gear at home and enjoy using a top quality rod and other gear.
Trophy Fees will bite you in the rear. Some guides offer some low prices to get you there. With a Trophy Fee attached should you kill a big hog or big buck. Find out what a trophy hog is first. Some guides consider a trophy hog anything with 2 inch long tusks (teeth) or longer a trophy and that is commonly considered a trophy but shooting a pig with 2 ½ inch long teeth is very common. Sows and boars both can sport 2 inch teeth very easy so I would say 3 inches would be an actual trophy pig. Most guides in California consider a 4 point buck (4 x 4 western count) a trophy blacktail or mule deer. This is a big misconception. I have shot 4 pt bucks both mule and blacktail that don’t come close to being a big buck so when they add trophy fees ask what a trophy is in their opinion not yours.
Cleaning and Pack-out fees are also common. The guide may have a cheap hunt but an extra charge for cleaning the animal. Some guides include pack-out in the price but if the terrain is rough they may have to call in a couple of teenage boys to pack out your kill sometimes its included sometimes its extra in either case remember them when you tip.
If you’re staying overnight and hunting the next day check into lodging before asking the guide what it costs to stay there or stay on site. Usually, you can grab a motel room and eat a sensible meal in town a lot cheaper than staying at his “lodge” or having his wife make you dinner.
Tips, would you Tip a waitress if the food was bad, but the service was excellent? Sure, you would. Same for a guide if they bust their butts for you remember it when Tip Time comes. Even if you don't get an animal if the guide did his job you should Tip. Except when the guide tells you its a 100% success rate for sure your gonna get a pig or deer or whatever and you don't see one or get a shot! Why? Well would you tip a waitress if she never brought you the food you paid for? The exception to this is Fishing Trips, the fish are there you just didn't catch any, that's not the guides fault, but maybe it is, thats kind of up to you. I would tip, unless i feel like it was a total rip off.
PLEASE REMEMBER TO TELL YOUR GUIDE THAT YOU HEARD ABOUT THEM OR THEIR REVIEW THROUGH MY SITE, NORCALHUNTER.COM
April 24, 2023
I have recently edited this article and removed the reviews of the guides that were on here because they have either changed owners or are no longer what I wish to recommend.