Five days of sleeping on the ground and endless bushwhacking through swamps or over ridges, in all kinds of weather and bugs, with a rifle slung over your shoulder can turn out to be the hunt of a lifetime, deer or no deer. Then there are those other hunts of a lifetime when the incredible quality of the chase is surpassed by the comforts of where you lay your head.
Historically speaking, five-star hunting lodges aren’t unheard of. But high-end hunting operations seem to be on the rise. To distinguish themselves in a growing market, lodges and outfitters are creating one-of-a-kind, life-changing hunts by combining great game, unique locations and top-notch accommodations.
“These sorts of high-end efforts aren’t something that you can just call ‘deluxe hunting,’” says Micael Lundmark, managing director of Klocka Fjällgård Lodge, in Jämtland, Sweden. “It’s about having a specific deluxe experience. Fine wining-and-dining can be found all over the world. For the hunter, you have to offer a unique cultural experience that involves good game.”
The recently redesigned Klocka Fjällgård Lodge combines the austere beauty of an old Lutheran church and the sexiness of 21st century Euro design. Guests have the staff’s full attention because parties never overlap, and you’ll have numerous chances for “Älg”—moose. So far, Klocka Fjällgård has mostly attracted corporate hunting groups (individual Swedes have ample hunting opportunities on their own), so it’s ripe for discovery. American moose hunters will enjoy an immersion course in all things Swedish: the wilderness, language, hospitality, food, style and, of course, making the shot.
The “specific deluxe experience,” as Lundmark describes it, is the true catchphrase these days. That experience gets very specific and very deluxe on the Rovos Rail wingshooting hunt. The Rovos party travels by private train from Zambia to South Africa for three days of shooting at wild francolin, guinea fowl, spurfowl and sandgrouse in the bush. Imagine the Orient Express; only, your shotgun sits besides your dinner jacket. Non-shooting spouses may want to tag along—this is a romantic holiday as much as a real hunt, with days of demanding shooting followed by nightly champagne in the dining car.
Another reason for the rise of deluxe private hunting destinations is a decreased appeal of American public hunting lands. In many states, game officials manage millions of acres and a large quantity of game; but accessible, pristine land without a glut of hunters is increasingly difficult to find.
“In the U.S., hunters have become tired of a number of things—not seeing much quality game on public lands, running into too many other hunters, and state lottery systems for hunting permits,” says Jay Cassell, a deputy editor at Field & Stream magazine. “High-end lodges are especially appealing because they manage the game on the property they control. They can limit the number of animals taken, and set rules that allow younger animals the chance to mature.”
One such operation is Three Forks Ranch, in northwest Colorado north of Steamboat Springs. Across roughly 50,000 acres of huntable private land, a careful management plan for elk and mule deer virtually ensures sightings of bulls and bucks with major racks. Ranch rules allow rifles and bows throughout the entire elk season, start to finish, giving the serious hunter an excellent chance of taking a trophy animal. And since elk hunting is often rough going, massages are available at the ranch’s spa to work out those post-hunt knots and bumps.
“People are putting an ever-increasing value on their spare time and the quality of the experiences they seek during that free time,” says Dave Perkins, Vice Chairman of Orvis Inc., which endorses a number of superlative lodges across North America. “Hunters want to be assured they have the best experience possible, and are willing to pay for it.” Perkins points to the three key ingredients: Lodges must have a great staff; the field must have attractive, well-managed natural habitat; and the accommodations must allow for uninterrupted, private space.
What’s good for the hunter can also be good for the game. For wild birds, an effective management program accounts for proper cover and food sources, while also sometimes leaving some areas unhunted so fowl can take refuge. Mexico’s fertile Tamaulipas region provides a winter range for wild quail, whitewing doves and mourning doves, and the American-operated Rancho Caracol has access there to hundreds of carefully tended acres of classic ranching landscapes. The visiting wingshooter can enjoy a cycle that resembles life in some other, grander age: an early rise for a morning of smart English pointers and winging quail, lunch at the ranch, a siesta, a swim, then an afternoon of more quail, or doves; cocktails on the veranda and a great meal end the day. Get up the next day and do it again.
Habitat management is key at Deer Creek Lodge, in Sebree, Kentucky, where hunters have access to terrifically fertile Ohio River bottomland for the big whitetail bucks and turkey. There’s also a carefully developed and managed waterfowl refuge of backwaters and coves, islands and flooded timber. Wingshooters can tire themselves—and run through boxes of shot shells—in the unlimited pheasant and quail hunts that can see upwards of 18 coveys each day. Much like Three Forks Lodge in Colorado, Deer Creek is effectively an all-hunting mini-state within a very pro-hunting state. In Alaska, habitat is left to Mother Nature—allowing outfitters to focus on the accommodations. Far out on Lake Iliamna, in southwestern Alaska, the Rainbow Bay Resort sits in the middle of some serious territory that’s a second home to bear and moose hunters. It’s also a destination known for offering some serious comfort after demanding hours in the bush.
“Most hunters will tell you that they are more interested in the quality of the game here than they are interested in the resort,” says Rainbow Bay Resort owner and operator, Jerry Pippen, who built the lodge in 1984. “But, when it comes right down to it, they come here because of the quality of accommodations.”
After pursuing brown bear and moose along the coast—rugged hunting, to say the least—hunters return to the lodge for fresh salmon dinners in big private rooms. Inland hunters may find themselves even more grateful for the fine dining since grizzly hunts often require several days of camping in the bush, and often in snow.
Be aware that these types of hunts typically require a year’s advance planning—sometimes more, depending on the outfitter. Don’t hesitate to contact hunters who have already visited these destinations; and be sure to ask about transporting meat and trophies back home. Most lodges will assign a guide to each hunter or pair of hunters, and will also fill you in on firearms regulations, which require advance paperwork for foreign travel. As ever, obey both guides and dogs.