I just opened the electronic copy of my April 2010 Hunting Report and was shocked and disappointed to find quotes improperly attributed to me. As we have discussed over the phone, the statements in the report are your paraphrasing of what I told you and are not exact quotes. More importantly, those statements are inaccurate in a number of places and contradict what I stated to you. Also, the report loosely paraphrases statements that I made to you regarding the Cabela's TAGS booking service -- statements which I expressly told you were made "off the record" and should not be published. I do not have any differences with Cabela's at this point.
Because I am uncomfortable with how my statement of my experience to you has been paraphrased and then improperly treated as a verbatim quote in the Hunting Report, I feel it may be best for you to have a written statement of my feelings about my hunt with Hunt Alaska in 2009. Please ask that your subscribers completely disregard what was written in the April 2010 issue and instead look to this writing.
First, I'll tell about my own experience, and then I'll mention the experiences of other hunters. I shot a 62.5" moose with Hunt Alaska in the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge in September of 2009. I am happy with the trophy that I took, and I believe my guide, Shawn, was an excellent guide and a hard worker, and had a good sense of humor. I saw some very nice things on my hunt, such as wolves chasing a moose through the woods. KNWR is a beautiful area. However, I have some significant negative feelings about the hunt I experienced.
For the first two days of my hunt, Shawn and I did not have a boat that worked. Our primary boat had a broken ignition system, and the backup boat, with a jet drive, had its own engine problems. Shawn worked on the boat at night after the first day in camp, but it was clear within minutes of starting out on the second day that the boat was still broken and would not work for our purposes. When Shawn was lacking for an answer on what to do next, I stated my anger over the situation and my disappointment that Virgil hadn't planned for such a contingency and seemed indifferent to it. I asked Shawn if he had a personal boat we could use, and he said he did. I then strongly suggested that we limp back downriver to town to get the boat. We did that, and then we drove Shawn's personal boat back to the camp. This took the better part of a day. Day three was the first day of my ten day hunt on which my guide and I had a boat with which to access the various hunting areas in the vast KNWR. Shawn and I hunted together for three days, and on the third day, I shot my moose. It marched toward us in response to Shawn's grunts, rocking its antlers from side to side, and I shot it at 23 paces. It ran about 20 yards and dropped. I have a video of this that Shawn took with his personal camera and Virgil's daughter, Shelbie, later sent to me. I am happy to have this video, and I let Shawn and Shelbie know this. In addition to the moose that I shot, I saw one other shooter moose during the hunt. We saw it on the bank of the river, from the boat, on the first evening that we had a working boat. Because shooting a moose under such circumstances felt like road hunting to me, and because Shawn stated that we could probably do better, I passed on that moose, a 60 incher. I have no regrets about passing on that moose. I'm not sure if it was as big, bigger, or smaller than the moose that I ultimately shot, but I am glad that the moose I shot was shot back in the woods, in response to calls, after a few days of hard hunting. During my hunt, we also saw three or four moose in the fifty inch range, all of which were deemed too small by Shawn. I think Virgil's statement about the average size moose taken in the Koyukuk may be misleading, because it may include subsistence bulls taken by locals -- bulls which have to have one antler palm sawed in half. However, I haven't seen the statistics, and I only know what was told to me by Cabela's and by my guide -- that 60 inches is a reasonable expectation for the area, with a decent chance of something much bigger.
It may be best to number my specific complaints about my own experience:
1) Virgil was not in our camp, which was the one with the limited draw hunters. Instead, he hunted with a separate group that hadn't drawn the special tag. I believe that his in-camp supervision would have resulted in a better-run camp. When Shawn and I didn't have a boat that worked, I was surprised that Virgil did not call me using satellite phones to let me know what he planned to do about the situation. It's possible that he didn't even know of the problem, but that lack of knowledge would be troubling on its own. I believe that someone who runs a hunting operation and has access to his camp via satellite phones should make sure things are running right -- especially if he's not going to be in camp.
2) It is unacceptable that we did not have a working boat for the first two days of hunting. For the price I paid, I expect to have equipment that works, or at least have a backup plan for the inevitable failure of old equipment. If the backup boat breaks down, there should be a backup plan for that. I don't know what would have happened had I not suggested that we limp back to town and get Shawn's boat.
3) While there generally were good raw materials for cooking food in the camps, the cook was completely inexperienced and seemed indifferent to whether the food was good or the hunters were happy. When we came in for lunch, he was typically in bed, and we had to fend for ourselves. When I once politely asked him for a bowl, he essentially told me to find it for myself and then walked off to his tent. He was interested in going to a friend's bachelor party back in Huslia and clearly did not want to be in the camp. Tom Heller was correct in stating that there weren't enough utensils. When I left camp early, the cook was on the boat, and the hunters and guides were left to cook for themselves.
4) Tom Heller's report of the guides going into their tents at night was accurate. I assume they were either sleeping or drinking in the tents -- it certainly wasn't an atmosphere of camaraderie. Because of this, the bad situation with the cook and the food, and the situation with another hunter not having a physically able guide (discussed below), the camp had a dark atmosphere and what I might describe as a siege mentality.
I also have a significant complaint about what I saw of another hunter's experience. Only three (not two, as was misquoted in the report) of the four hunters in the camp had competent, able guides to hunt with. One hunter's guide no-showed, and the replacement was an old man who was, by his own admission, diabetic, nearly blind, and nearly deaf. He had trouble walking and did not seem familiar with the area. Talking to this guide's hunter each night was depressing. He was an avid hunter with realistic expectations, but he had been dealt a very bad hand. In fact, when I shot my moose, I did it in part to cut my losses and leave the unhappy camp and in part to allow Shawn to replace the old man as the other hunter's guide. Notably, this hunter had enjoyed a very successful hunt for caribou with Hunt Alaska in a previous year. However, this did not keep him from stating anger and disappointment at the circumstances of his moose hunt. After I left, that hunter was able to hunt with Shawn but did not take a moose.
The fourth hunter was a bow hunter. He had a guide who I believe is a very good guide, but he did not see what anyone in camp considered to be a shooter moose at any range -- much less bow range. 2009 was a hot year, and the rut was late to come. I'm sure that this had something to do with the low number of moose seen, as compared to previous years in the same camp. Obviously, this factor was not within anyone's control.
When I got back to town, Virgil's wife and the employees at Virgil's meat processing plant were very kind and helpful to me. They helped me get out of town on an earlier flight, which was much appreciated. As noted above, after I got home, Virgil's daughter, Shelbie, was kind enough to make sure I received a disc containing the video of my moose kill.
In summary, my experience with Hunt Alaska was by no means entirely negative, but it was tainted by the poor atmosphere in camp, Virgil's lack of direct involvement in managing the camp, and the fact that one of the four hunters had not gotten the hunt that he paid for. I'm sure that others have had great hunts with Hunt Alaska, and I'm sure that others will have great hunts with Hunt Alaska. However, I could not in good faith recommend the outfit to others, based on my own experience in 2009. I certainly would not spend my time and money on another hunt with Hunt Alaska.
In a final note, I would like to point out that after I returned from the hunt, I spoke with Virgil on the phone. We had a civil conversation, but he largely disagreed with my views on the hunt and was generally defensive. He did tell me that his family was dealing with a personal tragedy at the time of the hunt, and I am certainly understanding of how such things can affect the operation of a business. I do not wish Virgil or his family ill, but I do hope that the negative reports made by Tom Heller and me will lead Hunt Alaska to make sure the missteps of 2009 are not repeated.