More Bang For Your Buck: Hunt Alaska The Affordable Way
As seen in the Spring 2015 issue of Hunt Alaska magazine!
A few centuries ago, man hunted simply to survive. With the advent of delivery pizza, this lifestyle largely fell by the wayside, but there are those of us who for some reason still prefer to chase our food through forests and over hills before eating it. Perhaps we enjoy the challenge, or perhaps we just have trouble sitting still.
The justification for such pursuits is often that we are filling the freezer, but this math rarely works out when one accounts for the investment in gear, transportation cost, time off work, etc. While our ancestors were able to write off a new stone axe as a business expense, for most of us the reality is that hunting is a recreational past time, no matter how dedicated we are in its pursuit.
With hunting falling in to the recreational category, we can hardly invest all of our resources in true hunter-gatherer fashion, and so we find ourselves trying to follow our passion “on a budget”.
Hunting in Alaska can cause expenses to mount quickly. Harsh conditions and varying terrain demand an impressive amount of gear. 663,000 square miles of land populated by a seemingly endless parade of mountains, lakes, and rivers often requires extensive transportation arrangements. Distance from the “Lower 48” raises food and fuel costs, and for non-residents adds a hefty airfare. Then there are the tag and license fees, the shipping costs for getting the meat and trophy back home, the list goes on and on.
After 21 years of hunting Alaska on a budget, I have learned a few ways to maximize my dollar as well as my success. The following is a compilation of tips that can help you save money without sacrificing your odds of coming home with notches in your tags.
TIME V. MONEY PRINCIPLE
The first thing any modern hunter must recognize is the relationship between time and money. As a budget-minded hunter I hate to admit it, but being a consistently successful hunter requires a significant investment. The two primary forms of currency for this investment are Time, and Money. The more you invest of each, the more likely you are to be successful. The good news for the thrifty is that they have an inverse relationship. If you would like to save on either time or money, you can compensate with the other. If time is of the essence and you would like a successful hunt, get ready to lay down some serious cash. However, if you want to keep that wallet safely tucked in to your pocket you can compensate by spending more time (usually a lot more time) preparing beforehand and in the field.
TIPS FOR NON-RESIDENTS
Tip 1: Be Your Own Guide: As a non-resident considering a hunt in Alaska, the first decision is whether or not to use the services of a professional guide. As this is an article about saving money, I will be focusing on self-guided hunts. While hiring a guide provides many benefits and can be a very good option, it is quite costly. A short deer hunt usually starts around $5,000, with a proper sheep or brown bear hunt topping out between $20,000 and $25,000. A do-it-yourself hunt is very achievable if you are willing to put in the effort to prepare properly.
Tip 2: The “Big Three” Loophole: To hunt Dall Sheep, Mountain Goat, and Brown/Grizzly Bear, the law requires non-residents to use the services of a professional guide. There is a loophole however. If you have a second-degree family member that is 19 years of age or older and an Alaskan resident, they can take the place of a professional guide. This is an excellent option if you are lucky enough to have Alaskan relatives.
Tip 3: Three Starter Hunts: If it is your first hunt in Alaska, I recommend you select a hunt for caribou, deer, or black bear. These species afford higher success rates, can be found in easy-to-access parts of the state, are small enough to dress and pack out relatively easily, and are three of the least expensive to purchase tags for. Hunting in Alaska is different then hunting in the Lower 48, and it can be difficult and even dangerous to jump in with both feet by hunting animals such as moose, sheep, or brown bear on your first attempt.
Tip 4: Three Tags to Always Buy: Black Bear, Deer, and Wolf. These tags make excellent secondary species tags to purchase along with your main quarry tag. At $30, if you are hunting anywhere there is a remote chance of seeing a wolf, buy a wolf tag, it is a no-brainer. Likewise, if you are hunting where deer can be found, spend the $150 for a deer tag. Within their range, deer are usually prolific and the chance of tagging one is often high. Black bear can be found over most of the state and at only $225, it makes for a great additional trophy, as well as giving yourself something to do after dropping your primary species. (consult F&G for current pricing)
TIPS FOR RESIDENTS
Tip 1: Apply for Draw Tags: Draw tag areas typically have higher success rates than general season tickets and permits.
Tip 2: Have a Draw Tag strategy: Put in for areas that are close to home or that are otherwise easy to access to keep your costs down. Only put in for tags that you can realistically use. For example, do not put in for that Nunivak Musk Ox tag unless you are actually ready to fork over the $5,000 it will cost to do that hunt.
Tip 3: Apply for Draw Tags as a Party: Find a good hunting partner and put in for draw tags together using the Party Tag option, in which case both your names are put on the same ticket so that if your ticket is pulled, you both get a tag for that hunt. In this way you will have someone to help prepare for the trip and more importantly, to split the cost with. This is particularly helpful in reducing transportation costs.
Tip 4: Behave Like a Guide: If you want guide-like results, then behave like a guide! As a resident, Alaska is your large, unruly backyard. Do your research to find the best possible areas to hunt, and then get to know them like the back of your hand during the off season. Good hunting guides often know the trophy animals in their area by name because they spend THAT MUCH TIME IN THE FIELD. Talk with pilots, boat captains, Fish and Game biologists, and other hunters to get inside information. Familiarize yourself with the logistics associated with your particular hunting area so that you have a clear picture of what kind of transportation is best, what gear will be needed, and what time of year is best for your area and quarry.
Tip 1: Beware Synthetic/Breathable Rain Gear: While there are some exceptions, it has been my over-all experience that there is little difference in breathability or waterproofness between “off” brand and “name” brand synthetic rain gear in the low to mid price ranges, though you will notice a quality difference between them in areas like fit, zippers, and cuff design. I do NOT notice a significant increase in actual waterproofness until about the $400 mark. As a result my advice for those on a budget who wish to use synthetics is to stick with bargain brands costing $50 or less per garment. Use a waterproofing product such as Nikwax before every hunt, and expect to replace the garment after 1 or 2 seasons of regular use.
Tip 2: Buy Rubber Rain Gear: As far as I am concerned, this is just the ticket for staying dry on a budget in a state where it commonly rains for days or even weeks on end. Rubber rain gear such as the Impertech line by Helly Hansen, or one of it’s many knock-off competitors costs far less than synthetic rain gear, are actually waterproof, and are more resilient, lasting much longer against the Alaskan terrain than synthetics. The Helly Hansen options start around $100 dollars, with the “off”-brands usually coming in between $35 and $50 per garment.
Tip 3: Wear Fleece: The fleece garment has become ubiquitous, and where once good fleece was only available from the likes of The North Face or Marmot, it can can now be found EVERYWHERE. Some of my favorite fleece shirts cost between $5 and $20 and were bought at places such as Wal Mart, Fred Meyers, and Costco. Fleece shirts, jackets, and pants make excellent hunting layers as they are light-weight, warm, quiet, and quick-drying. You do not have to pay hundreds of dollars for the latest soft-shell technology in order to be comfortable and light-weight.
Tip 4: Wear Wool: Wool is still one of the greatest outdoor materials, and while new wool garments often demand a premium price, they age well, and many a great hunting shirt, pant, or sweater can be found on the racks of your local thrift store. Wool is quiet, tough, fire-resistant, odor resistant, and warm even when wet. I favor it for outer-layer pants because it handles wind and brush better than fleece.
Tip 5: Apply for Pro-Deals: Many companies offer discounts, usually of around 40%, to people whose work allows them to be ambassadors of their brand. If your work takes you outdoors AT ALL you may qualify for a pro-deal. All it takes is a well-written letter to the company’s pro-deal department explaining your experience with the product, a description of your profession, and how you can advertise or talk up there product to people in your professional circle. Of course it is important to only select brands that you personally have experience with and feel comfortable putting your name behind as a quality product.
Tip 6: Good Knives Are Not Expensive: There are some types of gear for which the old axiom“you get what you pay for” holds true. Optics are a good example. You should buy the highest quality glass you can afford. I have not found this to be true of knives however. The most expensive hunting knife I own has a custom blade fitted with a hilt of walrus tusk and a handle that is fashioned from the horn of a Mountain Goat, shaped with the greatest of care to fit perfectly in to the palm of my hand. It cost $500. My favorite knife however, and the one I take in to the field on every trip, is a Finn Bear made by Cold Steel that costs $17. It is light, holds an edge very well, has the right shape and balance, and is tough as nails. There are many such knives that are of very high quality and yet reasonably priced.
Tip 1: Hunt Where Others Are Not: It seems obvious, but because of laziness or lack of imagination, so many people fail to follow these guidelines, or they think they need a big boat or a Super Cub to do it. Do your homework and find areas that have access that is blocked by private land and then get permission from the owner, or be willing to hike the extra mile or climb that alder-infested hillside. There are hunting gold mines everywhere if you are willing to look hard enough for them.
Tip 2: Hunt When Others Are Not: I love hunting fox and coyote in October. The moose hunters are long gone, and trailheads that would have had ten trucks with trailers parked in it are now completely empty. I have the hills to myself, and the canines usually haven’t heard predator calls yet that year, and are therefore more likely to respond to them. Bear hunting in some areas is equally good at this time for the same reasons. This same principle can be applied to many species at many different times of the year. It also can be applied to hunting at night. When using only natural light this is legal in Alaska, and the animals are more active and less wary, as they are not used to being hunted at night. Be sure to read up on the regulations regarding night hunting so you fully understand the guidelines, then get out there and be ready for some action!
Tip 3: Hunt the Road System: There are few roads in Alaska, but the ones that are there are long, and take you through some great hunting country. Competition can be steep however, so apply Tips 1 and 2 to help you find the good hunting pockets.
Tip 4: Hunt in Non-Motorized Areas: look for areas that restrict motorized access. The fact is many hunters are just too lazy to stray far from their vehicle, and this means better odds for you, without having to buy expensive ATV’s, planes, or boats.
Tip 5: Hunt With a Partner: Aside from the obvious workload and safety benefits, a partner can help split transportation costs, usually one of the biggest expenses on an Alaskan hunt.
Tip 6: Charter a Beaver or 206 Airplane: If you decide to go airborne, these larger planes can carry multiple hunters, allowing you to split the charter, as opposed to a Super Cub where a separate charter is necessary for each hunter.
Tip 7: Use Mail Routes: Ask charter services about regularly run mail or supply routes to remote villages and camps. It is often possible to get on these flights or to send gear on them at a fraction of the cost of chartering your own separate flight.
Tip 8: Take the Ferry: If you are hunting near a port along the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry is an option you should seriously consider. First and fore-most you are able to take your vehicle on the ferry. This frees you from the bag and weight restrictions associated with planes, as well as the item restrictions, such as butane stove canisters, which are not allowed on most airlines. Once at your destination you now have your own vehicle from which to stage your hunt. On the return trip you can load your meat and trophy in to your vehicle, saving significantly on packaging and shipping costs that would be accrued if you were to fly. Finally the ferry is un-affected by bad weather that so frequently grounds airplanes, so if you HAVE to be back by a certain date, this is a more reliable way of insuring that you make it back on time.
Tip 9: Plan Ahead for Meat/Trophy Transportation: If you do fly by major airline or small charter, be sure to research the cost of shipping your trophy back home. There are usually several options available, often with big price discrepancies between them. If possible bring waxed fish boxes, coolers, or plastic totes with you or mail them ahead of you. I prefer boxes as they can be flattened in to one piece of luggage, or totes as the can be nested one inside the other to the same effect. For commercial flights, remember that you can use AK Air miles to fly to most cities and towns in Alaska! Be sure to become an AK 49 Member with AK Airlines, which allows you 3 free checked bags. Finally, always try to ship as cargo rather than checking extra bags. Northern Air Cargo is often a good option to consider.
This list is far from comprehensive, but I hope that one or two of these little suggestions will help you to get out in the field a little more this year and perhaps even fill that freezer. Happy hunting. 60P