Bear Creek Outfitters
October 14, 2016
Bear Creek Outfitters' headquarters is a little ranch halfway between Darby and Hamilton, Montana. Owner Ken Francisco and his hunting guides take hunters into the nearby Selway/Bitterroot wilderness area. One of his guides, Jim Daine, has worked for Bear Creek Outfitters 16 years.
"I met Ken in 1988 when I went through guide school. In 2000 he took over an outfitting business and renamed it Bear Creek Outfitters. We were friends and he asked me to go to work for him. I've been working for him off and on ever since," says Daine. His jobs with Bear Creek are varied.
During the summer they offer trips into the backcountry. For many years they contracted with the Forest Service in summer to do trail maintenance, clearing out brush and downed trees. "We also do the haying, fencing and other tasks required on the ranch to provide for the stock, as well as guide hunters in the fall," Daine says.
"This year we subcontracted some work for the Stock Farm at Hamilton, Montana for their trail ride program. They have multiple trails on their 13,000 acres, and we take people on rides. Due to the fire on forest land above their property this year, the roads were closed and we couldn't get to our trail heads for a while," he says.
During winter, after the late hunts are over, employees do their own things. Daine builds antler art (lights, chandeliers, etc.) from deer and elk antlers, and this past winter helped build a cabin and some decorative lights for a man in Kentucky.
Bear Creek Outfitters offers 8-day hunts for clients in the fall for elk, deer (mule deer and whitetail), black bear, wolves and mountain lions. They used to offer moose hunts, but moose numbers plummeted after wolves were reintroduced.
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Ken Francisco, owner of Bear Creek Outfitters, grew up in Poulsbo, Washington and originally planned to go to Alaska to start a guide business. "I came over here to the Bar 44 guide school in Hamilton, in May 1991 and went through the five-week class with a friend of mine. When the class was over, the instructor knew we wanted to go to Alaska and told us he could send us up there, but offered us a job working for him—and maybe we could go to Alaska later. By then we'd become familiar with western Montana and the Selway wilderness in Idaho, and decided to stay," says Francisco.
He and his friend ended up teaching the next class. He worked for that outfitter nine years and helped teach classes, and guided for other outfitters in Montana doing some antelope, elk and mule deer hunts.
"I had to get a real job for a short time, then in 1999 I bought the area where we'd had the guide school. We still guide for that outfitter in Montana, but also have the Idaho wilderness area he used to have. We've been doing this for 17 years, with our own outfitting business," he says. Clients can take advantage of many kinds of experiences in the backcountry—hunting, or just riding or fishing trips, custom-designed for what they want to do.
Outfitting and guiding is a tough way to make a living; a person has to be dedicated and really want to do it. "We're not in it for the money. It's a way of life," says Francisco.
In the off-season when he's not taking people on guided trips, he does a lot of truck driving—log trucks, dump trucks, hauling heavy equipment. One winter he did carpenter work, and another winter he and one of the guys who works for him went to Kentucky and put in a 7-mile gas line for one of the people who helps him during hunting season. For a few years he also had an inter-state horse-hauling business.
"When we worked for the fellow in Kentucky we came back with six mules; we took a trailer down there with us and bought more mules for our pack strings," he says. It takes a lot of stock to keep the business running. Right now he has 37 mules and horses, but at one point had as many as 54.
Sometimes he'll sell an exceptionally good horse or mule in order to buy four more young ones to train. Right now he have a bunch of good horses he's using for trail rides on the Stock Farm nearby. This is a private gated community/golf course and Bear Creek Outfitters lined up all their best horses to provide rides.
"We probably have about a dozen horses that are getting into the 15 to 20-year-old range and very dependable, and those are really hard to replace," he says.
Pack trips into the wilderness area are varied, depending on the season and purpose. "We have a system in which we get all the gear together and pre-set the camps. My wife Barb creates a grocery list and gets all the supplies we need, because when you go in there 20 miles you can't run home or to the grocery store for something you forgot! You don't want to miss anything you really need," he says.
They've never hired a cook; the guides all help with the cooking. Barb pre-fixes some of the meals, and all of the guides take a hand in the barbeque cooking. Whichever guide has hunters in a spike camp does the cooking. Most of the hunters also like to pitch in; that's part of the experience.
The hunters spend their first night at the ranch near Darby. "That's when we put their gear together in packs. The next morning we go up the road to the trail head, pack the string and go into the backcountry." How far they go depends on time of year and the hunting season. They have 14 different spike camps in various places, and alternate the use on those, according to where the elk or other game might be.
They guide lion hunts and spring bear hunts, but fall hunts are mainly oriented around elk. The elk hunters can also get a deer tag, bear tag or wolf tag. This doesn't affect the price of their guided hunt; they just have to purchase the additional tags. "We also guide a few deer-only hunts, later in the season," he says.
Conditions can be challenging in some of the later hunts if there's a lot of snow, and this discourages some hunters. "The snow actually makes it better for the hunting. Any time the camping is miserable, the hunting is good! If camping is good, the animals are more dispersed and the hunting is harder," Francisco says.
Every trip has unique situations and some interesting stories. "This is one of the things that inspire us to keep doing it. There's also the accomplishment of getting a hunter his/her animals, and that's a satisfaction similar to doing the hunting yourself. We give them the same kind of experience that we would enjoy," he says.
Many people are good hunters, but it takes a special kind of good hunter to be a good guide because this requires people skills as well as hunting. "You have to do it a certain way, to ensure hunters a good (and hopefully successful) experience. This is the mark of a good guide; even if the hunter doesn't get an animal, he/she is still happy with the trip. Perhaps the hunter wasn't able to shoot it, but did get to see the game. Our best effort is put forth to give them an opportunity to get an animal," explains Francisco.
Most hunters come with a good attitude; they are here for the experience and if they get an animal that's a plus. "We have a lot of success stories, and guys who scraped together enough money to come on a trip, or their boss sends them on a trip as a bonus. It can be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for hunters, so we try hard. We know they are never going to get this kind of opportunity again. We want it to be something they will always remember with pleasure."
He and Barb still get Christmas cards, phone calls and e-mails from people who hunted with them 20 years ago. Lasting friendships are made in this business. The hunters remember it as something special and want to keep in touch.
It can be challenging, however, with financial issues, changing Fish and Game regulations, etc. Sometimes the agency cuts tag numbers or closes a season. "Our hope is to be able to keep doing this long enough to hand it over to children or grandchildren as a permanent heritage. You want them to be able to continue to do it, and not have to see the door close on this way of life.
"If you are not learning something every day, you are probably not doing it right. You need to be flexible and have an open mind about possibilities. If you are looking for the right thing, you are continually learning something and become successful in what you do."
People skills are a must. "You have to be entertaining, informative, but not too overbearing, and always keep an open mind. Others may have a good suggestion. You also learn to adjust to the client's ability. What you'd like to do and what you can do are not always the same." Guides learn to assess the skill/ability level of the hunter and become accommodating.
Physical condition is a common challenge, and a guide learns how to coax and encourage a hunter to put a little more effort into it. "It's a mindset, because most people are stronger/tougher than they think they are," he says. If they really want to do it, they will give it more try.
Most of the hunters come away with a new respect for the backcountry. "We get a lot of return hunters who know what to expect. They are learning something each time and they enjoy the challenge," says Francisco.
"Many of our hunters are self-employed. They can schedule the time off and come do this. Some of them work all year, to make it happen. They may call me a dozen times during the year, psyching themselves up, getting prepared for their big trip."
This is part of the satisfaction, giving these folks an experience they wouldn't have, otherwise. It's a unique service. "We go into Unit 17 in the Selway where there is a relatively long season with not very much hunting pressure. The folks we guide enjoy having a hunt with no other hunters around. They rarely see another hunter."
Anyone interested in more information about Bear Creek Outfitters or photos from previous hunts can check their website: http://www.bearcreekoutfittersonline.com