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Know the West

Want a trophy buck? Ditch the camo and get a guide

Study looks at successful types of big game hunters


With hunting seasons opening around the Western U.S. and Canada, two researchers from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, have some advice for sportsmen looking to bag a trophy elk or deer this fall: Quit the workout, ditch the camo and pony up for a guide.

A study of successful hunters, published this August in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE, found that “only the presence of guides increased the odds of killing larger prey.” Age, personal fitness and the use of camouflage apparel made little difference in taking down a trophy.

The study examined roughly 4,300 online photos of men from western Canadian outdoors forums and outfitter websites, using evident physical characteristics – such as graying hair and paunchy bellies – to determine relative age and fitness. The methods limited the information the researchers could collect, but also guarded against hunters’ habits of exaggeration when it comes to talking up exploits.

“A photograph can’t lie,” says Rosie Child, an undergraduate student who coauthored the paper with her adviser, Chris Darimont, who studies conservation.

A hunter in Montana. Photo by Flickr user Lance Fisher.

Though the study only addresses big-game trophy hunters, it does suggest that while humans have staked themselves atop the food chain as “super-predators,” we’re not using typical adaptations of other species, such as fitness, strength, or stealth, to successfully hunt prey. And while other animals may guard knowledge of bountiful hunting grounds as a specialized advantage among individuals, in the case of humans and paid guides, there’s a strong (read: financial) incentive to share information with others. North American hunters “have overcome many of the physical, but not knowledge-based, challenges of hunting,” according to the authors.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is the futility of camouflage – at least for big game. “Even though 80 percent of the hunters that we found were wearing camouflage clothing, they weren’t any more likely to be posing with a trophy animal than those without camouflage clothing,” Child says. “It didn’t make a difference, and being physically fit didn’t increase a hunter’s chance of getting a trophy animal (either).”

Even though the study suggests that outfitter expertise is the best way to bag game, a quick look at guide numbers in Western states and at gear sales at key retailers suggests that many people don’t quite realize this.

In Wyoming, the number of licensed hunting outfitters dipped to its lowest mark in 25 years in 2013 (332 compared with a high of 382 outfitters in 1991 and 1992), but that fluctuation isn’t far from the average and may reflect post-recession impacts on trips for out-of-state hunters. Success rates for client deer hunters have hovered around 70 percent or greater, based on figures from the state Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides.

Montana has about 300 active hunting guides, many of whom are aging and “looking for an exit and retirement strategy,” as overall hunting numbers decline, says Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. For those guides that remain, high-end, trophy hunting trips are the most in demand. “I think people have less time, and perhaps less skills and less interest, I suppose, and they’re willing to spend more money for a high-quality experience,” Minard says.

Meanwhile, rapidly expanding big-box outdoors retailers, including Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and Sportsman’s Warehouse, all heavily market camo – and its benefits – for trophy hunters and other big-game seekers. If the clothing isn’t working in the field, it’s certainly not affecting their sales. Nebraska-based Cabela’s, known for its in-store mountains seeded with taxidermied wildlife, generates about $3 billion in annual revenue and operates 59 stores, with plans for steady growth of 13 to 15 new openings per year. Bass Pro Shops, headquartered in Missouri, is also aggressively expanding, building 20 new stores by 2015; an increase in locations by more than a third. The recent opening of a Cabela’s megastore in north Denver was also credited with boosting local sales taxes and attracting other retailers to a new shopping area.

Cabela’s even offers its own exclusive, temperature-activated ColorPhase camo clothing, which can morph from brown to green to help hunters stay cloaked on sunny or cloudy days, in spring or fall. That may look and sound cool, but it won’t provide an edge for hunters, at least according to Child and Darimont. So sportsmen may want to hold off on buying that $80 insulated hoodie – and instead offer their guide an extra-fat tip.

Joshua Zaffos is a contributing editor at High Country News.