By Pat Lefemine, Founder of Bowsite.com
I picked the best period to start bowhunting. I went on my first big game adventure hunt in 1987. It was a Quebec caribou hunt and the cost was $1600 including meals, bush flight, plus meat and trophy care for two caribou. I spent the next 30 years hunting around the world: nine trips to Alaska, fifteen trips to Canada, six trips to Africa and one trip to Australia and Greenland. This does not include countless hunts all over the lower-48. I have hunted brown/grizzlies, mountain goat, elk, moose, african lion, cape buffalo, leopard, cougar, muskox, and many more. I have lived the dream.
For most, I fear that dream is no longer possible.
When I was shopping for a sheep hunt in 2000, it was $5500 for a Bighorn, today that Bighorn hunt is $50,000. When I hunted brown bear, the hunt cost was $6,000, that same hunt is now over $35k. My first goat hunt was $4000 including the bush flight, that same hunt today is $14,000 without the bush flight.
If you have been a longtime Bowsiter, you may have noticed that I'm doing less adventure hunts. The reason for this is simple: I had three kids to put through college over the last 12 years. During that period, the cost of big game adventure hunts skyrocketed and I began to question their value. I would love to bowhunt a sheep, or resume my quest for a brown bear, but at current prices I can literally buy a hunting property for the cost of a 10 day sheep hunt. Think about that?
My concern about hunt pricing isn't about me at fifty seven years old. It's about today's thirty year old hunters who dream about an Alaskan moose or an Alberta Bighorn. While I didn't make the income I do now, when I was 30 (during the '90's) I could afford most adventure hunts . If I was 30 today? I could likely afford a pronghorn, black bear, whitetail, maybe an OTC, low success rate elk hunt. Even when adjusted for inflation, hunt costs have increased five-fold or more. All but a small percentage of hunters are being priced out of the big game market.
So who's to blame for this?
Nobody. It's supply and demand. The supply of adventure hunts is decreasing, while the demand for these hunts are increasing.
But it may be more complicated, especially when you ask the question: why has supply decreased? A conversation I had with one of my former outfitters may provide insight:
Years ago, one of my guides called to inquire about resuming advertising on Bowsite. It had been ten years since our first hunt. My original hunt was $7,500. So I asked him about his current fee? He replied; $30k. Wait, what? He knew his increase was over the top, so he shared his pricing strategy with me:
He used to charge 10k for his hunt. To be profitable, he needed 10 clients a season, which was easy since the demand for the hunt was high. After they booked, he had to arrange travel, feed them, and care for their trophies. He began to wonder if he could instead sell (3) 30k hunts to more wealthy clients? So he gave that a shot. He dropped 7 hunts and was able to sell all 3 slots quickly. He ended that season with a higher profit. He adopted that strategy from that point on. According to this outfitter, booking the higher priced hunts was easier. The middle-income guys (who were struggling to pay 10k) had a lot more questions. Many were over-extending themselves and terrified of eating their tag. The wealthier guys were high-maintenance during the hunt too, but not as much before the hunt.
I should add that he has also dropped all but a couple of hand-picked archery clients. Bowhunting is harder, takes longer, and increases his expenses for food, guides, etc.
Do I blame him for his business strategy? No. It's smart if you can make more and work less. And it appears that more outfitters may be taking this approach.
Inflation isn't helping either. Prices for everything in 2022 have soared, and particularly the things that outfitters need; like fuel, food, and accommodations. Perhaps a bigger problem is finding help. With government handouts, and unreasonable compensation demands, outfitters are having a very difficult time hiring assistant guides, camp men and packers. They have to pay more, and many of them quit soon after they realize how much work is required.
None of this bodes well for hunting. Not only has it skyrocketed the cost of adventure hunts, but it's also driving unprecedented demand for western DIY hunts. Game agencies want in on the action too - with 'revenue generating' lottery and tag fees. Add in point-creep, and crashing draw odds and that's a recipe for rapidly diminishing opportunities for hunters. This is taking a toll on all DIY hunters, but particularly lower-middle income hunters who are being priced out of western hunts.
I'm grateful to have lived through hunting's best years, but I can't help but worry about future hunters. My kids are now out of college, with good jobs, and adequate disposable income. Still, a $10k elk hunt is out of the question for my boys - and almost everyone else in their mid-twenties and early thirties. While this article focused on big game adventure hunts, deer hunting costs are increasing too, with leasing, non-resident tag fees, etc.
I don't have any answer to this. I wish I did. Every year hunt costs go up and I convince myself they have finally topped out. I am wrong every year. Maybe there will be a reversal at some point, but I honestly don't see one in sight, especially if outfitters decrease their available supply of hunts. My advice to hunters who ask about timing has been consistent for the last ten years: if you have dreamed about a particular hunt (and can afford it) do it now.
The author shot this Alaskan bull moose in 1991 when he was 26 years old. The total cost minus taxidermy was less than $2000. In 2022, a guided bowhunt for alaskan moose will likely cost close to $40k all in.
We posed this important topic to the experts: Neil Summers and Jay Osting from Bowhunting Safari Consultants:
How has the Pandemic affected International Outfitters and bowhunt bookings?
Neil: It’s been a tough couple of years for outfitters, hunting agents and clients, beginning with the initial shut down of all International travel in 2020. The travel ban closure ground everything to a halt. Not knowing how long it might last, outfitters felt compelled to make postponements. Outfitters and agents began reworking hunt dates of previously booked clients from 2020 into 2021, 2022 & 2023. In a word it was a nightmare.
What about North American Hunts?
Jay: Certainly the pandemic has effected many traveling hunters the past few years. With the Canadian border openings last August, we still have several hunters waiting their turn to hunt. Hopefully after the 2023 season we will deplete this pandemic phase of clients eagerly waiting to hunt Canada. The hunts in Mexico were impacted one year with restricted flights limiting hunters and therefore postponing hunts to the following year.
Now that the COVID hype is waning and mandates and restrictions are getting lifted, are you seeing a surge in international bookings?
Neil: With Covid no longer raging (let’s hope it stays that way) and vaccine programs in place, most hunting countries are accessible with reasonable Covid protocols. There is no question that there is pent-up demand, however there still is a contingency of hunters who are intent on waiting another year to book their trips.
Every year hunt prices appear to be increasing dramatically. Do you ever foresee a correction, reversal in this trend?
Neil: Unlike the rising costs on many North American species, costs of International hunts have not increased drastically, year after year. The cost of International hunts have been historically higher in the past as compared to North American hunts. Now it seems that pricing is leveling off between North American hunts and those Internationally. I don’t see prices of the International hunts, or North American for that matter, going down.
Jay: For the NA species, the dramatic increase in rates is primarily the species with limited tags like sheep, moose, caribou, grizzly bear, polar bear and muskox. Limited resources to access the area has a huge impact on the rates along with tag reductions in certain areas. Fuel cost will always impact the remote “charter flight hunts” that most would not consider. The lack of charter services over the last couple years have some outfitters struggling to get transportation to and from camp. Over the years, the expense to operate the Northern Canadian areas and most of Alaska was a huge number. Today this number has nearly doubled. On the other hand some of the lower 48 outfitters with little overhead haven’t increase rates much at all the past 2-3 years.
An average Alaskan Moose hunt will likely cost 40k after you consider the Outfitter, License, Travel, Tip and Taxidermy. Are these outfitters experiencing any price resistance at all?
Jay: We are booking Alaska moose hunts in 2024 and a few in 2025. Our outfitters in Alaska made 20-25% increase over the past 2-3 years with no impact on sales. When looking at Alaska or Yukon to hunt moose, generally you’ll have little less in the AK hunt and less trouble getting your trophy home. Minimal travel restrictions have also increase sales in Alaska.
With all the North American hunts in your 2022 catalog, what hunts see the highest demand?
Jay: For many years Moose and Elk seem to be the most desired species. For many reasons; two of the largest animals in North America; archery only dates offered for both; trophy antlers; Over the Counter tags available for elk; high density of moose in Canada with guarantee outfitter tags and arguably some of the best wild game meat. The list continues…
If a bowhunter with a 15k budget, and with no preference in species, was looking for an overseas hunt – what hunt would you suggest?
Neil: Working of a $ 15,000 budget with no specific destination in mind, I would recommend an African Plains game hunt in South Africa or Namibia. These two countries offer the widest variety of species at the most reasonable price. For instance on a 7-day hunt, South Africa promises to provide lots of shot opportunity. In addition to the Daily Rates ($ 2,800) you have to add trophy fees for animals harvested or wounded. It would be reasonable that you would have good chances for Kudu ( $ 3,000), Blue Wildebeest ($ 1,400), Impala ($ 400) and a Warthog ($ 300) for example. Also $ 2,200 to $ 2,500 for roundtrip airfare to Johannesburg and $ 3,125 for the "Dip and Ship" of the trophies back to the USA. Estimated total cost is $ 13,500 to $ 15,000.
A BSC client wants an honest chance at killing a 150” buck on an outfitted hunt – what state do you recommend they apply for a tag? How about an OTC state?
Jay: Our outfitters in Kansas and Iowa continue to produce solid bucks at 150” and above. The point system will restrict some in Iowa, need 4-5 points to draw a tag. For this reason, IA produces giant bucks year after year. The KS hunts are also point restricted, with only 1 point needed to draw most areas. Unit dependent, some might draw back to back years. Certainly a state to consider for trophy animal. A state to consider for OTC tag is Nebraska. Not much state/public land but these are guaranteed tags and in some areas you can harvest mule deer or whitetail.
What do you consider to be the best ‘sleeper’ hunt in North America?
Jay: Everyone has their own opinion on this for all the right reasons. Personally I favor not only the species but more the time frame to hunt. Coues deer. These are guaranteed tags in Mexico and parts of Arizona. Primarily the hunts are offered in January, great weather, easy logistics, hunting from blinds over water, no stress hunting and in MX you can harvest more than 1 animal. There are also other animals to harvest when tags are available.
Neil, you, and I have both lived the dream of experiencing many adventure hunts. Due to price increases, I fear this dream is becoming more unattainable for the next generation. Do you share those concerns?
Neil: "Supply and Demand” rules the roost. There are more and more older hunters with higher disposable income looking for specific International destinations or a "bucket list" to fill. It is going to be tough, in any event for the next generation, as I doubt current prices for hunting services will be going down.
Bowhunting Safari Consultants have been connecting bowhunters with the top bowhunting outfitters for decades. This service is provided at no cost to you. If you are looking for an outfitted bowhunt give Neil or Jay a call at 800-833-9777 or email at [email protected].