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I've used guides most of my adult life, but mainly for fishing. Having said that, I know a number of hunting guides, ranging from super qualified to near-incompetent and most everything in between. This article will focus on Wisconsin - -because that's what I'm most familiar with. Each state has its own set of regulations and laws, but I hope that this article will at least give you some food for thought.
In Wisconsin, almost any resident can become a licensed guide by filling out a very simple form. Right now the fee is $40 per year, and "one license fits all." That is if you get a guiding license, you are then supposedly qualified to guide for any type of hunting, fishing or trapping. Heck, I could easily become a licensed guide. Trust me, I'm not someone you'd want to hire! Interestingly, a non-resident can become a licensed guide in Wisconsin, but only for fishing.
Be aware that because someone says they're a "licensed guide" in Wisconsin does not mean they're competent or qualified. Don't forget that. Indeed, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) specifically states that just because someone is a licensed guide, does not mean that the DNR is certifying that they're ". . credible or qualified".
For most folks who want to hunt, they've usually got experienced hunting mentors of any and all types- - relatives, friends, acquaintances, and the like. They probably don't need a guide. They've got sort of a "built in" set of resources to choose from. Others however, don't have that luxury, and want to at least try to ensure that when they go out hunting, they're going to not only have a safe and fun time, but that they're going to be successful. These people hire guides.
People who hire hunting guides in Wisconsin seem to be out-of-staters, or Wisconsinites who haven't a lot of hunting experience, or just don't want to bother with the hassle of doing all the leg-work, haven't the knowledge of a particular area, or possess the needed organizational skills required for success; although my information is solely based on personal conversations with guides I know. Out-of-staters may be in Wisconsin on business. They've heard good things about Wisconsin hunting. They are visiting friends or family, and want to get out in the woods. Many different reasons come into play.
So what do you do to ensure that you're getting someone who's capable?
First off, I'm not talking about those big outfitters with the huge white canvas tents and the at-home stoves and bathroom facilities… and those monster prices that go with all of this. Those outfitters are great… and they're usually out West or in places like Texas and the like. I'm not at all knocking those types of guides. Indeed, I wish I could afford the cost to do something like that, but I can't. And frankly, I don't know of a lot of people who can. So, when I talk about "competent guides," I'm speaking of individuals or small groups, who know what they're doing and are great people to be with.
There are some sources that I would suggest can be explored to find a good hunting guide in Wisconsin. You probably know which general area you're going to want to hunt and for what game you want to bag. If you know a hunter or hunters in that area, or a sporting goods store… even a friend or relative, call 'em up.
Ask them who is considered a good hunting guide in their particular area. Usually, a local sporting goods store will have a "favorite list" of local guides who frequent the store, work with them, and are well known in the area. Get some names. Call 'em up. Look at their website if they have one, and find out how long they've been hunting in that area, and for what. Ask them for some references. And make sure those references don't have their same last name.
You can also search the Web. There are guides galore listed for just about every area in Wisconsin. Or you can go to a major hunting website… like this one, Foremosthunting, which is an excellent source. There are always plenty of guides listed.
Finding a guide who will gel with you personally is important. Does this guide have a good feel for who and what you are, and what you're looking for? You'll know just from talking with them. Do they return your calls promptly? Ask them about their equipment, and whether they have professional liability insurance. Do they have equipment you can use (assuming you don't have your own), or where can you rent it. Make sure that the particular game you want is a specialty of any particular guide.
A great duck hunting guide may know little about deer or bear, for instance. Indeed some groups of guides band together listing their own particular specialty to choose from. In other words do your due diligence. I've found that if someone comes on too strong, and is given to hype and braggadocio, they may "talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk."
You can also of course go to professional associations, or sport shows. You'll get some feel for what's out there, but when it comes to the bottom line, I've found that the best guides are usually those who are referred by locals. I wish I could be more specific, but it's really a bit like shooting in the dark.
As for costs, here is some real world pricing that I know of, from competent, credible Wisconsin guides. Figure about $300 per day (does not include licenses), per person. What that includes varies with the guide or the group of guides that have banded together. You can sign up for one day, or five or nine days - -or some period in between. Deer, bear, whatever. I would probably opt to sign up for five days or more. Hunting isn't some one day affair. Sure, you can get lucky and get a prize buck or a big black bear the first morning out, but that's unusual. And anyway, you want to experience the whole hunting adventure, and in the end that may include some entertainment in the evening and the like.
Guide fees do not generally include accommodations or meals. You can always opt for those, and get a price for some if you wish. Local guides always have their favorite places to put up clients, and work with these places both on price and quality of accommodations. And yes, the guide usually has some monetary arrangement with the accommodation host, but that's OK, because the cost of the room or rooms is generally quite a bit less than an individual would get on their own.
I've found that the best hunting guides will always go the extra step. They help you every inch of the way. Their equipment is clean. Their knowledge is awesome. They're friendly and local. Sometimes they've lived in the area all of their lives. They know where the best pizza is, the best deal on this-or that can be found, and can steer you where you want and need to go.
I could go on for hours, but what it boils down to is you and how you're going to mesh with a particular guide. Try to stay "local" when it comes to finding out about who is good and well thought of, and then talk to them and get your own feel for what they're like and what the can do, and what they won’t do. Be cautious, but in the end hiring a capable Wisconsin hunting guide can be a very good decision for the person who is looking for success, and a fun hunting adventure.