Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Outfitter selected, now for planning . . .

We’re exploring new territory as we try to become a client instead of an individual hunter/fisherman. We got a tag through the Wyoming big game license draws so it looks like we’ll be exploring some new hunting country this fall as well as the new role.

The area around Buffalo, Wyoming looks like hilly plains with some badlands-like features here and there. The temperature in October will probably be chilly, but, weather could be warm, snowy, blustery with sleet, or warm enough for shirt sleeves. The wind can be expected at speeds of three to 30 miles per hour – which means wind estimation skills are going to have to be refined and practiced.

We talked and corresponded with several exhibitors at the Dallas Safari Club Convention, including Heaven’s Gate Outfitters who offer pack animal trips into Idaho Mountains. Very positive, helpful and friendly at the convention. Once we began online research, though, we found their response to be, “This is the way it is, figure it out if you want to come.”

One example is their requirement for clients to drive a 4WD vehicle to the trailhead to meet the party. The question asked was, “I don’t have a 4WD – are some available to rent in town?” was answered  “Meet the pack-in party at the trail head, map attached, be sure you have a 4WD.” Eventually we decided to pass due to concerns about the service orientation of the group – if they can’t answer a specific question will they be able to fit my rifle in a scabbard, or get my elk to camp? Dumb, noob questions, I know, but questions nevertheless.  

One outfitter we found by internet search is offering a Montana hunt for guided prices but providing semi-guided service. Semi-guided isn’t bad – many folks prefer semi-guided or
drop-off services. However, his neighbors offer similar trips fully guided, with food provided and prepared for the hunters for the same price. And, unless you read the services list really carefully you’d think the 1X1 or 1 X2 guide/hunter ratios were for a fully guided operation. Caveat emptor!

Grizzly Outfitters was one of three that we found in Buffalo, Wyoming. The owner is a member of the outfitters’ associations for Wyoming and Montana, a hunter, and a rancher.

He talks a good talk – and is just wary enough about a new client to seem like the real deal. He asked informal (or “off the cuff”) penetrating questions trying to determine if I’m likely to shoot cattle, get drunk on the hunt, or scare the hell out of the guides. We could be wrong, but this suggests his staff is likely to be serious and professionally responsible.

He also was clear about when he could answer calls – and he did answer them in a timely manner. BBB and farm/ranch references are positive or absent. He’s adamant about using licensed guides/outfitters rather than a local ranch hand that isn’t busy at the time.

All in all, he seems likely to be pretty much what he says he is, and he demonstrates a solid interest in customer service. His wife even hand-holds the neophyte through Wyoming license drawing applications. So the deposit went in. (Lesson learned from the fishing trip.)

Unfortunately, the WY F&G website quit working in April which prompted me to call the ranch. It seemed to this noob that if the site stopped showing fees and regulations the drawing must be over. Not so, the drawings aren’t done until June. Mrs. Benton was patient with me . . . (Note: my license/tag was drawn.)

Now there’s the matter of a 1200 mile drive each way – and lodging, weather and all the other details. Planning will depend on the dates that Cole and Grizzly Outfitters say are available – it’s mid-July as this post is finished but the physical license and proposed hunting dates aren’t available yet.

This looks like a whole new world – I’m used to going down to the local Target, picking up the license and tags I want, arranging days off, getting the maps and gear together, and getting my shooting skills up to date – and then heading out into the mountains.

Tag drawing and having somebody else put the hunt together is new territory, just as the rolling grassland around Buffalo, Wyoming will be.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fishing in Alaska

Fishing trip booked

We made our first booking in this “get back out” phase of life while at the Dallas Safari Club Convention, but it was for fishing. Unfortunately, I paid the full price in advance and am learning the value of a neighbor’s advice – “don’t finish the payment until you’re sure you’re getting what they told you they’d provide.”

The plan is for five days of salmon fishing with McDougall Lodge in Alaska.

The good: pictures are beautiful, salmon are supposedly prevalent and the lodge pictures show a beautiful “home away from home.” The packing list they provide is detailed and they promise great food.

It sounds like we’ll dress in chest waders (rain? And convenience debarking the boats I imagine, especially for uncoordinated – or clumsy – folks like me). We jump into boats and go out fishing for most of the day. Since three meals a day were mentioned we probably return to the lodge for lunch.

Fishing gear is provided, so there’s an opportunity for the facility to excel – or to fail. It’s a boon to us because we don’t have to try to pack fishing poles, reels and lures.

The bad: the owner spent a fair amount of time repeating how important tips were to the guides; the handouts and advertising reiterate this point as well. The lodge charges a premium for paying by credit card – pay 3% or carry a lot of cash with you. Niggling, guilting and nickel-dime approaches before we even get on the plane is disquieting.

The owner promised several times to get prices for a charter flight from the lodge to a glacier, but -- notice that we owe no more money -- hasn’t gotten around to providing it. Busy, no doubt. But, again, it’s disquieting. Rust Aviation is the firm and they have been more than accommodating. They’re a convenient source for fish-shipping boxes, fishing licenses and such – and they accept payment by credit card.

The troubling: Trip ratings note that “there was a lot of hot-rodding by so-called fishing guides, and not much fish catching.” According to the owner the posts came from a disgruntled (former) employee and have been superseded by praise from recent guests. I can’t seem to find much praise, although there is a nice (anonymous) note from a guest from Salt Lake City. That’s where the lodge owner lives, by the way.

Mosquitos are ubiquitous to Alaska, so we’re collecting repellents of various types and have face nets and gloves. The owner denies black fly problems – I remember that their stings are painful – but my only experience with the bugs was several hundred miles north and east of the lodge. We’ll see.

The lodge offers no alcohol or tobacco; that may be a business or a religious decision. However, combined with the “fines” for using a credit card and repeated “pre-guilting” about tips  . . . well, it may be that the client’s interests are not the top priority. We don’t drink or smoke anyway, so the lack is moot, but it might be suggestive.

Lake Creek Lodge and Riversong are other outfitters in the immediate area that offer similar packages. Both have a bar/liquor store.

We’ll see how it all works out.

We’ll fly to Alaska early and explore the Anchorage area for a couple of days, then catch a float plane ride to the lodge. Internet research suggests that the floatplane operation is well-established and respected.

Our Anchorage hotel has a freezer to hold our fish between when we return to Anchorage and when we depart for home. We wonder how much fish that will actually be.

We’ll tell you more about our experiences with and at McDougall lodge later.

Dallas Safari Club Convention

Dallas Safari Club Convention

The Dallas Safari Club Convention in, where else? – Dallas was too large to cover in great detail if you wanted time to see a little of the city. However, the park with life-sized cowboys and cattle was a quick walk away. It offered a particularly good photo opportunity whenever the sun was either low or high.

The city itself feels safe to an (admittedly suspicious) ex-cop. That may be a result of Texas’ open carry and concealed carry laws; as Jeff Cooper noted, “An armed society is a polite society.”

Convention exhibitors ran the gamut from insurance and travel experts to hunting and fishing guides and firearms manufacturers. The new Rigby (made in London once again) .416 was beautiful – pure, functional beauty and balanced perfectly for my taste. My taste buds couldn’t accommodate the nearly $15K tag, though.

Most of the rifles and shotguns were high-end and functional, with some claiming well under one minute (of angle shot groups) out of the box. Overall, the rifles and shotguns were more elegant and better made but didn’t seem greatly different from “back when.” Very familiar and comfortable.

There’s now a “pull” bolt action; apparently it was popular in Germany and is becoming so here. I haven’t fired one. There are also a number of rifles that allow quick caliber changes, usually just a barrel change but more parts are quick-changeable as needed. I haven’t dealt with them in the field or on the range but they are intriguing. If the balance is the same this could be a good answer to hunting travel. I wonder how the accuracy and ease of changing scopes will be on these rifles. (Doubles have been offered with barrel/caliber changes for a long time. Doubles, however, aren’t cheap.)

The pistols were mostly the “plastic” type, with even a two-barrel job and one that fired from below – something like a repeater Derringer that only used the bottom barrel. There were no opportunities to fire the pieces, but a laser-simulator target setup entertained the audience. When I tried the exercise I found the sights misadjusted and the trigger pull ugly – for me.

There were an unbelievable number of exhibitors, many very forthcoming about their services and products
. The cost in time and dollars was well-spent – and the dinners that featured game dishes as the main course were outstanding. Best of all, the organization does a great deal for kids and for outdoor sports – one of the best conservation organizations (and lowest dollars-to-fundraisers and staff rates) around.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why this is here

After I moved to the West Coast from Montana I lost touch with hunting and fishing. Montana was, and is, awash in opportunities for outdoor activities, but I was repulsed by what passes for hunting and fishing in the Golden State: long drives on crowded roads to stand shoulder to shoulder by a stream or lake bank and dodging 4x4s loaded with rifle-gripping drunks as I walked up a ridgeline. I expected I’d be dodging bullets as well, if game appeared.

Of course there was always guided hunting and fishing; after hunting for over 30 years as a solo hunter (sometimes camping with friends) the idea was foreign. Besides, I was forging a profession, furthering a career – and losing touch with the unpaved, undeveloped, un-landscaped world.

I used photography to document natural beauty while on trips, but composing and recording a beautiful image was far, far removed from joining the ecosystem as a predator living (temporarily) in the same drainage as my prey.

I moved to crowded and developed Orange County (California) but fortunately settled near a relatively-unspoiled park where I gradually renewed my acquaintance with fields, weeds, and critters. My neighbor, it turns out, was a safari and guided hunt expert, with many of both to his credit. The park and the neighbor’s stories rekindled my interest in hunting and fishing.

“It ain’t the same world out there” would describe my initial reaction to dipping my toe into the 21st Century hunting and fishing world. New rifles, pistols, fishing rods, reels, bait, technique . . . optics, rangefinders, fish finders, GPS, wind speed gauges and even an optical/electronic/computer device that could guarantee long range accuracy.

Catching up – and booking a couple of trips to get back in touch with the real natural world has been fun and an ongoing education. This blog is designed to share some of what I’m learning about the new outdoor recreation milieu. I hope you enjoy learning from my mistakes and will personally forge or improve your own outdoor sports life.