A “Good” Guide Means Many Things to Many People
By Craig Boddington
Not all of us employ guides. Around the world, most hunters are do-it-yourself hunters, and there is a segment of the American hunting population that takes great pride in DIY.
It’s especially satisfying to do your own thing, from planning and hunting, all the way to recovery and game care. The problem is, if your hunter’s horn calls you to distant horizons to hunt new, unfamiliar species, then guides and outfitters become essential.
Cross international boundaries, or even some state and provincial lines, and we are often required to hire licensed guides and outfitters. It is neither bad nor good, it’s just the way it is. Some of my most memorable hunts have been DIY, but there’s no shame in finding and hiring good help. It’s not a new concept. Daniel Boone relied on local expertise when penetrating beyond the Cumberland Gap. Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis hired William Cody as his guide on his sojourn into Nebraska in 1871. Africa’s greatest and most widely traveled early hunter, Frederick Selous, hired the best guides he could find when he hunted in North America and Asia Minor.
I won’t pick on Alaska, but our 49th State offers two good examples for this discussion. In Alaska, nonresidents are required to engage licensed guides for brown/grizzly bears as well as sheep and goats for safety purposes. Nonresidents can hunt black bear, caribou, moose and deer unguided. I’ve hunted them all DIY but not all successfully.
I have friends who have taken ginormous Alaskan moose unguided, an incredible accomplishment and a massive undertaking. With Alaska’s stringent game laws, serious logistics are involved to recover a moose. All said and done, a DIY Alaska moose hunt isn’t much less costly than a guided hunt, which offers greater chance for success with simplified logistics.
In much of our hunting world, we have little choice. We need guides. The trick is to find and hire good ones who will enhance our chances for success, and contribute to the memories which, ultimately, are our greatest takeaways. I have my ideas, but please note: Determining what makes a great guide isn’t the same for everyone.
THE GUIDE’S LAW
Looking back to my youth, I still remember the 12 points of the Scout Law, despite being a half-century removed from my scouting days. A scout (or guide) is: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Many of these same tenets apply to hunting guides.
Often our hunts are done on a handshake agreement. Trustworthiness is thus paramount. A guide must also be loyal to the paying hunter and to the staff that enable the operation. Helpful, friendly, courteous and kind require no explanation. A guide must be obedient to all game laws, but not necessarily to you; you’ve hired the guide for expertise, so you best pay attention. Suggestions are okay, but the guide must run the show.
Cheerful seems obvious but maybe not. We are all going to mess up. We pass game we shouldn’t pass, we’re too slow to shoot or, too fast, and we miss shots. One of the hardest things a guide can do is shrug it off with a smile and keep hunting. Guides must be thrifty with the hunting dollars you’ve invested and, almost more importantly, the hunting time you have available.
Brave? You won’t know until it happens, but courage in the crunch is expected. I heard about a PH who ran when a buffalo charged and badly gored his client. The client survived, but the PH was never seen again. In contrast, veteran Zimbabwe PH Owain Lewis threw himself in the path of a buffalo that his client had wounded and was killed. Bravery and loyalty work both ways.
Not all hunts result in the taking of game. Game movement and weather conspire to keep things interesting. The best any guide or outfitter can do is provide an area that has the game we seek, and a camp that is reasonably well-supplied and clean. For years, I was stumped by the question, “What was your worst hunt?” A moose hunt in northern BC provided the answer. It was too warm. We saw few moose. This happens. But the camp was filthy. No basic sanitation. It was an embarrassment. Reasonable cleanliness is attainable and essential.
Lastly, I’ve hunted with folks of all faiths. It makes no difference to me, I have my beliefs, just don’t cram yours down my throat. I expect respect — reverence — to the land and its wildlife.
TWO MORE LITTLE THINGS
If all guides could follow the “Guide’s Law,” we’d be in good hands. However, it is hard to know if a guide possesses all of these qualities while you’re listening to a sales pitch on a convention floor.
If we’re smart, we call references, ask hard questions and use these attributes to evaluate them. Yet, it occurs to me there are at least two more qualities that should be considered.
First is competence. Does the guide/outfitter know how to find and hunt the game we seek, and keep things safe?
Experience counts, but is hard earned, and luck and effort are always major factors on any hunt. Given a choice between a youthful, inexperienced guide with high enthusiasm or a highly experienced, but burned-out veteran guide, I’ll take the young enthusiastic guide, but it’s a tough call to make.
Perhaps the most important quality in a guide is patience, but patience is a hard quality to determine until, like courage, stuff hits the fan. I have served as a guide in various places and find huge satisfaction in putting a hunter onto a fine animal, but I must be honest, I lack the patience to do it all the time.
The worst thing a guide (or companion) can do is to be set up on an animal, get impatient and hiss, “Shoot! Dammit, shoot! What is wrong with you? Shoot now!”
Understand, guides are hunters, too. We all get excited in the presence of game, but the guide’s function is to decelerate the moment and instill confidence, not create panic. Like a good doctor they must possess “bedside manner,” and help their patients through the shot. I avoid guides and PHs who are known for getting excited and rushing their clients into a shot.
Unavoidably, we develop hero worship for early guides who engineered success, especially our first African PHs. Maybe they’re really that good. Maybe we don’t have enough experience to judge. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve hunted with dozens of guides around the world. Most got the job done fine, but some were better than others.
So, okay, I have a short list of the best folks I’ve ever hunted with. This is a completely unfair and biased list because there are thousands of great guides I don’t know. So, my “best of best” list doesn’t mean anything to you.
When you’re happy, you’re happy. Competence should be a given in comparing one guide to another, but patience is a big deal. Although inherent to competence, trophy judgment is almost another category, because it’s such a rare skill.
It’s natural to mix up guides and outfitters, but they are not the same, and it’s important to understand that. A guide is the person who accompanies you and personally conducts your hunt. The outfitter typically owns, leases or controls the hunting area, and provides the majority of the logistical support: camps, equipment, supplies and local transportation.
The outfitter is the nuts-and-bolts guy. Also, he or she is business guy. He typically handles the books (and bookings), arranges the schedule and assigns guides.
Depending largely on the size and complexity of the operation, the outfitter may also guide, but just as likely might not. Running a business is hardly the same skill set as guiding. The outfitter is probably better-known than his guides, so when booking a hunt, you may expect or prefer to hunt with him personally. Remember always to ask, “Who will be guiding me?”
Regardless of reputation, if the outfitter does some of the guiding, hunting with him isn’t necessarily the best option. Two guys who easily make my “best of the best” list are Dave Leonard of Mountain Monarchs of Alaska and Mark Haldane of Zambeze Delta Safaris. Both make it fun, and I enjoy hunting with them.
However, both are busy running their outfits and do some of the flying. If either assigns himself to guide a hunt, you can expect he’ll have some logistical or managerial duties. However, like all good outfitters, both hire skilled, competent guides whose mission is to devote full attention to their clients’ hunts.
The late Jack Atcheson Sr., a great hunter and booking agent, offered some great advice. When planning a hunt, he suggested the most important aspect was selecting the best area to hunt.
Figure out the best area for the game you desire, then learn who hunts there. After area, Jack often said the guide came next. So, when considering a hunt and checking references, always ask who their guides are and make notes. It doesn’t take long to come up with guides you should ask for.
We often refer to our guide as a “PH” or Professional Hunter. This usually works in Africa. In most jurisdictions, a hunting guide must be a licensed PH, but the training and testing requirements for the license vary from country to country, so PH licenses aren’t equal.
Zimbabwe has the highest standard followed by Namibia. Elsewhere in the world, standards vary. Some U.S. states, and some countries, require little to declare oneself a hunting guide or “PH.”
These days it has become fashionable for guys like me in the outdoor media to declare ourselves Professional Hunters. In the context that we make our living from hunting, it’s not inaccurate. It offends me to be called a Professional Hunter.
I am not a licensed PH anywhere, and I reserve that title for folks who have earned it. When shopping for a hunt, never hesitate to ask what qualifications or licenses a prospective guide, PH, or outfitter carries. Those who have them will proudly produce a proper license.
Alaska has possibly the world’s most complex guide licensing system. An Alaskan Assistant Guide license is easy but can only be used under the supervision of a Registered Guide, a much more difficult license to obtain. Then there’s the Alaskan Master Guide, which takes years to obtain as well as several references.
As everywhere else, “Outfitter” is more about the business and the area, not so much the actual hunting. Alaska then adds another term: a transporter, who can transport hunters into game country, but is legally barred from involvement in the actual hunt.
NOT A LEVEL FIELD
Guide qualifications aren’t equal nor are hunting conditions or effort required. This is not a socio-political statement, just a fact: In Africa, to a lesser extent Asia, often in Europe, and sometimes in South America, the guide (or PH, if you prefer), usually has plenty of help. That help applies to the camp, the kitchen, in the field and in recovering game.
In some African situations, with experienced trackers, the PH doesn’t have to do much more than drive, make final trophy judgment and orchestrate the shot.
North America and South Pacific are different. Not so much with hunts from permanent lodges or ranch headquarters, but in the American wilderness or the Outback. There, a guide conducts the hunting, but may also serve as packer, horse wrangler, mechanic, chief cook and bottle-washer.
This doesn’t take away from (or add to) anyone’s abilities or reputation, but it’s not the same. Hunting is also not the same. The typical North American hunt is
for one animal, sometimes with a bonus extra. Some specialized safaris are for just one animal, but, with Africa’s species diversity, it is more common to hunt a half-dozen species or more.
Can you imagine, working out of a small tent in freezing rain, with or without packhorses, how a North American guide could properly deal with a large game animal or two each day?
The thing is, Africa doesn’t have bears, moose or sheep. Hunt where you want, for what you want, but judge each situation — and the folks who made things happen — based on the conditions that exist. Even Africa is not created equal. It’s unrealistic to compare a plains game safari from a five-star lodge to a hunt for bongo or giant eland in Central Africa.
Come to think of it, it’s inappropriate to compare any hunt with another halfway across the globe. We can compare guides and PHs, provided we frame that in the context of what, in their local situation, they must do to make things happen.
It is not fair to base this on game taken. Every situation is different, depends on how picky we were, and how good a job we did in taking advantage of opportunities.
BEST OF THE BEST
I was lucky. My first African PH, and almost first guide, was the late Willem van Dyk, a Kenya PH with the tough East African Professional Hunters Association licensing behind him. As we all do, I put him on a pedestal.
But 45 years later, he has held up well, and is still a PH I compare all others to. Willem had awesome Wakamba trackers who were experts in finding game, but I was young and inexperienced.
Willem was patient, even when I began the safari with an embarrassing string of misses. His cool, calm direction pulled me out of my funk and led us to overall success.
In 1984, I had the privilege to hunt with Geoff Broom. Also calm, competent and patient. Geoff had a twinkle in his eye and always made it fun. I wish I’d hunted with him more, but I’m proud that I was able to help him with his autobiography, “Life on Safari.”
A few years later, I met Dirk de Bod in Namibia. Same deal: Calm, cool, patient and perhaps the best judge of trophy quality I’ve seen. Also, he was the very best at coaching new hunters, who have included my wife Donna and daughter Brittany.
Later I was fortunate to hunt with Mark Haldane in Mozambique. Like the others he was calm, cool and patient. Are you seeing a pattern? Finally, Guav Johnson rounds out my list. I haven’t hunted with Guav in his native Zimbabwe. Instead, I’ve hunted with him in Cameroon, where everything is difficult. Like the others he is calm, cool and patient when dealing with tough conditions.
These guys are among my top African PHs (who I’ve hunted with). It is not a fair list, as there are many great ones who I haven’t hunted with enough.
The list grows, and won’t be finished until I go to the rocking chair. Tanzanian PH/outfitter Michel Mantheakis is the best “cat-man” I’ve ever known. And Johan Calitz is the best elephant hunter I’ve been with. Zimbabwe PH Andrew Dawson is always thinking. Jamy Traut (who apprenticed under Dirk de Bod) would be on the list. Both Frederick and Scot Burchell are awesome young PHs, as is Carl van Zyl.
Outside of Africa, it gets more difficult because the situations differ so widely. In Asia, without question, Kaan Karakaya of Shikar Safaris is both an excellent outfitter and guide.
In Tajikistan’s Pamirs, Attobek, who regrettably passed away this past fall, would be on the list. In unfairness to all, I’ve hunted with all of these guys multiple times, except Nepal’s Mahesh Busnyat who is too good to leave out.
In Europe, I’ve hunted with many excellent guides, but one of the best is Alvaro Villegas of Hunt Europe. I think of him for his hunting ability and his calm demeanor.
South America is a very unique and also contains many excellent guides and outfitters. Of course, Marcelo Sodiro of South American Adventure Safaris should be on anyone’s list. In Australia, the late Bob Penfold and Greg Pennicott are excellent. In New Zealand hunting tahr and chamois on foot, Chris Bilkey proved himself to be the best mountain hunter I’ve ever hunted with (but it’s unfair to compare his situation to Asia or North America).
Now we come to North America, possibly the world’s toughest hunting. There are so many great guides and different situations that it makes compiling a list difficult. I’ve mentioned Dave Leonard, but I must also mention his young protégé, Jordan Wallace. Guiding both Donna and me on multiple occasions, Jordan is always calm, patient and decisive.
I’ll finish with veteran BC guide/outfitter Ron Fleming of Love Brothers and Lee. Calm and patient, he’s seen it all. Dave Leonard is a great cowboy poet and can recite Robert Service all night, but nobody tells stories like Ron Fleming.
This story originally appeared in the March/April edition of SAFARI Magazine.
Col. Craig Boddington is an author, hunter and longtime SCI member. He is Past President of the Los Angeles Chapter, a decorated Marine and C.J. McElroy Award winner.