By Kyle M. Meintzer, CFP®
This Bowsite Feature is designed to help you get a better handle on the many ways you can someday head for the high and far away mountains in search of a ram. In this article, I’ll discuss everything from the hard costs of a sheep hunt to the many ways you can cut those costs, as well as how to finance that hunt of your dreams. I’ll deal primarily with guided hunts but for you guys and gals who prefer to go self-guided, pretty much everything you’ll need to know will be included here. You’ll just need to omit the outfitter and guide costs.
As with anything else in your life that requires advanced planning and money, so does sheep hunting. Protecting your family financially, funding your kid’s education, and investing for a secure and enjoyable retirement obviously take priority over your hunting interests.
As a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner and passionate life-long hunter, I’ve worked with hunting clients for over forty years to help them balance all of these things in their lives, while including funding for the hunts of their dreams.
Hopefully the following information will help you reach and achieve all of your goals and dreams as well.
The first question most beginning sheep hunters ask is, “How much does a sheep hunt cost?” That may sound like a simple, one-part question, but it’s really not.
If you draw a sheep tag in the Lower 48 states and go self-guided, your costs are going to be very similar to what a self-guided elk hunt would run. The only difference would be that sheep tags are considerably more expensive than elk tags. For non-residents, as of 2016, sheep tags range from $1,200 in Nevada to $2,266 in Wyoming. Then there’s the outlier, New Mexico, which hits you for $3,188.
If you draw a tag and choose to go guided, figure on another $6,500 - $10,000, plus travel and tips. In my experience, hiring an outfitter for a Desert Bighorn Sheep hunt in the USA is going to cost less than hiring one for a Rocky Mountain BHS hunt.
If you’re looking down the road a few years before you plan to do a hunt, remember to factor in inflation. The historic rate of inflation has been 3%, but that number can vary widely from year to year. Then, if you’re looking at Canada, keep an eye on the exchange rates. For years, the Canadian dollar was worth about $.70-$.75 vs. the US dollar. Then it rose to be pretty much the same as the US dollar before falling back to $.75 as I write this today. Obviously, those kinds of swings can make a big difference in the price of a hunt.
Unfortunately, drawing a tag in the Lower 48 likely means years of applying, building points, and waiting. (More on that later.)
The good news is that anyone can simply buy a sheep hunt in Alaska and Canada and go sheep hunting whenever it fits their schedule and budget.
Moving out of the Lower 48 for the moment, let’s start with Dall sheep, as they are the most abundant sheep and as a result, the least expensive sheep to hunt.
Prices for most Dall sheep hunts range from $15,000 - $25,000. As with the rest of the sheep hunts discussed below, the difference is mainly the quality of the rams you’re likely to find, the number of days of the hunt, as well as the quality of the outfitter.
For a Stone sheep hunt, plan on seeing prices from the low $30,000s to the mid $40,000s.
A Rocky Mountain bighorn hunt in Canada will normally run from the mid $20,000s to the mid $30,000s, while Desert bighorn hunts in Mexico will go from the low-to-mid $40,000s all the way to the upper $70,000s. There are some excellent and very reputable outfitters in Mexico, but beware! There are also a few disreputable ones and numerous high-fence operations. Do your due diligence!
If you are wanting to go after a California BHS, plan on handing the outfitter a check for $50,000 - $60,000! OUCH!
Additionally, the cost of the outfitter isn’t the only cost you’ll incur. Other costs will include travel, air charters to the hunting camp (usually, but not always), GST in Canada (5% in the western provinces), along with licenses, tips, etc., and hopefully, taxidermy!
Expense Checklist for a Sheep Hunt
That said, again, do your research! There’s always an exception to the rule. You might find a great hunt at the lower end of this price range, while the opposite might be true at the higher end. Request references for ALL of the outfitter’s hunters for the past 4-5 years at a minimum. If they say they don’t have them, or try to tell you those hunters don’t want to be on the list, beware! If you had a great or a lousy experience with an outfitter, would you not want to share that with other hunters?
Then call as many of the references as you need to before you know enough to hire the outfitter or walk away. Also be careful when talking with references. The best and most physically fit hunters are going to be the ones with the highest success rates. When you talk with an unsuccessful reference, as delicately as you can, try to determine his or her physical condition. If that hunter weighs 300 pounds and/or is not in good physical condition, it’s extremely unlikely they would have been successful regardless of the outfitter they’d chosen.
Given all this, a bit of good advice from someone with significant sheep hunting experience and who is also a qualified financial professional might be worth considering.
More Affordable Sheep Hunts
Face it, unless you get lucky and draw a tag in the Lower 48, all sheep hunts are expensive. Yet, there are ways to go sheep hunting at a reduced cost. Here are a few:
Buy a sheep hunt at a fundraising auction. The Wild Sheep Foundation’s studies show that on average, sheep hunts sell at auction for 75% – 80% of the retail asking price. Those numbers are consistent with what I’ve seen at the auctions of the dozens of the banquets of WSF’s chapters and affiliates I’ve attended over the past 10-15 years. So not only can you save some serious dollars by buying a hunt at one of these auctions, you’re also helping wild sheep conservation, as the selling organizations will receive a portion of the selling price. In addition, some auction venues frequently get less than 75% – 80% of retail for the hunts they auction. Generally, the fewer people at the auction, the lower the sale price will likely be. But remember: Do your research before you go to the auction! Not all sheep hunts are created equal and while most auctioned sheep hunts are good hunts, not all are.
Every year, there are some amazing values for good sheep hunts which come available in the months or even weeks before the hunt starts. These may be available directly through the outfitter or they may be offered by a booking agent who works with the outfitter. Either way, I’ve seen savings of up to 50% on quality sheep hunts. For those, you’ll need to act quickly. I’ve seen some of these hunts sold within two hours after they came available!
The good hunts usually sell out fast, so put yourself in a position to learn about these opportunities as soon as they become available.
The best way I know of is to get to know some outfitters and booking agents, and for them to get to know you. If you’ve hunted moose, goats, elk or whatever with a sheep outfitter, or used a booking agent who works with sheep outfitters, let them know you’d be interested in a cancellation sheep hunt when they have one become available.
Then, keep reminding them! Outfitters remember people they’ve met with or talked with in the recent past.
Even if you can’t take the hunt, if you can suggest a friend or two who might be interested, they’ll appreciate the heck out of it.
I helped an outfitter a couple of times that way. Then one day in the summer of 2008, he called me to offer me first crack at a Stone sheep hunt. The price was $9,000 plus a $10,000 kill fee, which was a screaming deal! He called me first because of my efforts to help him in the past.
I rarely buy many tickets for hunt raffles for two reasons: I don’t like the odds, and; the dollar value of the total tickets sold is normally considerably more than the value of the hunt itself. That alone makes it an unwise financial decision. If the selling organization is a great conservation organization, I might buy a few tickets because I know that while it’s unlikely I’ll win the hunt, at least my money is going to conservation. If the raffle is run by a private company or a pseudo-conservation organization that does little if anything for wildlife, regardless of what they claim, my money stays in my pocket.
Yes, I personally know several people who’ve won nice hunts in raffles, but for me, unless the sponsoring organization is also an unquestionably great conservation organization, I’m not going to play.
Drawing a sheep tag in the Lower 48 is much like investing for retirement. It’s highly unlikely you’ll draw a tag or save enough money for retirement unless you’ve been at it for quite a while. Yet if you’re persistent and regularly ‘make your deposits,’ at some future date, you might well draw a sheep tag or three along your way to a comfortable retirement.
I personally know several people who’ve drawn multiple sheep tags over the years. These include:
- Rich from CA, who twice drew a Desert BHS tag in Nevada, who drew an Oregon tag the first year non-residents could apply, then drew a Montana Unit 680 tag, considered by most to be the best sheep tag in the world.
- Mike from NV, who, as a non-resident, drew a Desert BHS tag in Arizona, then a Rocky BHS tag in AZ not long afterwards, also as a non-resident. In the past four years, he’s drawn a California BHS tag in NV and a Desert BHS tag in NV in the best unit in the state.
- Brenton from CO. After eighteen or so years of applying pretty much everywhere every year and drawing nothing, in the next three-four years, drew a ewe tag in Montana and a Desert BHS tag in New Mexico in the same year, followed by a Mt. Goat and a Rocky BHS tag in CO, also in the same year. Two years later he drew a Desert BHS tag in CO!
- Jerry from MN drew THREE tags in the same year a few years ago - Rocky BHS tags in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. He was first alternate on one of those tags and the guy who had the tag dropped out!
- Lou from Missouri. Lou’s drawn FIVE tags over the years! Two years ago, Lou wrote a great article for Wild Sheep, the quarterly magazine of the Wild Sheep Foundation, entitled “Sheep Hunting on a Budget.” See this link to read it on the WSF website: http://www.wildsheepfoundation.org/SHOAB.pdf
Just as you can’t comfortably retire if you haven’t made your deposits into your retirement plan, you aren’t likely to draw a sheep tag unless you also have made your deposits.
Do your research! Just because some magazine says what the best units to apply for are doesn’t mean those are the best units for YOU to apply for, because their criteria for the ‘best’ units may not be the same as yours. Likewise, be very careful about ignoring a unit just because it looks to have a low success rate. Ask WHY it has a low success rate. Is it because it has a very low population, or is it perhaps something else?
When we apply in a state for 15-20 years and finally get to the point where we might actually draw a tag, the last thing we want is to end up with is Tag Soup. I totally get that and I’m no different than any of you in that regard.
This year, I was planning to put in for a Point Only in Wyoming when I decided to dig a little deeper. There was a unit that looked promising, but which had less than stellar success rates. So I made a few phone calls and when I talked to the wildlife biologist for the area, he had nothing but good things to say about both the quantity and the quality of the sheep in the unit I was asking about. As for the lower success rates, what he said was just what I suspected. The unit is brutally physical as well as being at a very high altitude. So a lot of people can’t cut it, hence the lower success rates.
I then talked to the main sheep outfitter in that unit and he sent me 15 years of references. Over those 15 years, he’d guided seventeen non-residents and sixteen (94%) were successful. During those same fifteen years, he’d also guided twelve residents, but just eight of them (67%) were successful.
That didn’t surprise me in the least. In my experience, there are a lot of casual resident deer and elk hunters in all of the sheep states who simply apply for a sheep tag because it just happens to be on the application form. Then they draw and have absolutely no clue what they’re in for. So they come both physically and mentally unprepared and end up with an un-punched tag.
As a result of my research, I applied for the unit and expect to draw the tag!
Don’t Blow It!
Sheep hunts are either expensive or seemingly take forever to draw. Given that, Don’t Blow It!
- Get in the best physical shape of your life! See the ‘Sheep Shape’ Bowsite Feature here: http://www.bowsite.com/bowsite/features/articles/sheepshapeseminar
- Get the best gear and the best optics you can afford.
- Be your choice of weapon a bow or a rifle, practice, practice, practice! When I was preparing for my Dalls sheep hunt back in 2000, part of my shooting practice was to climb up on the roof of our split-level home where I could shoot at a very sharp angle to a McKenzie target at the bottom of a steep slope in our backyard.
- Backpack into a remote area with a 50 pound pack for a day or two.
- Hike trails or at least hilly roads several times while wearing a 30-50 pound pack.
- Mentally prepare for what you’re likely to encounter and especially for that which you are not likely to encounter.
- Attend The Sheep Show®! You’ll never have a better opportunity to meet sheep outfitters and sheep hunters who will go out of their way to share their knowledge with you and to welcome you to the amazing world of sheep hunting!
Please contact me via email @ [email protected] or visit my website if you’d like more personal information or advice. I love to hunt sheep and I love to help and encourage others who want to do the same!