Each year thousands of people enter a lottery to hunt elk in northern Michigan, but only 200 people win tags.
To ensure success, most hunters hire a guide. Increasingly, elk guides are breaking hunting laws, so hunters are guaranteed a shot. Some guides are now worried the rule breakers are damaging the sport’s reputation.
At the elk park in Gaylord, guide Preston Casselman watches elk chew cud and relax.
“Your cows and spike bulls, smaller bulls, kind of laid off here, segregated from everyone else there,” he says. “They’re, I think, happy to be away from the herd bulls for a little while.”
Lately watching elk hasn’t been so serene. Casselman says other guides, in pursuit of hunting large bulls, are breaking the rules.
The majority of hunters who win an elk tag hire a guide to take them through the woods. But Casselman says some guides are trespassing and cheating.
“The animals may be onto a small 10, 15 acre piece of property where they should be safe because nobody has permission to go but the [guides drive their cars, pushing the animals] onto an area where they can get hunted,” he says.
Casselman adds that some guides are also not making sure their hunters shoot elk ethically. He’s seen men firing multiple times at a herd, which can lead to more than one elk being shot. Injuring elk and not killing them is seen as a hunting sin.
Another long-time guide, Vern Bishop, sees that happen a lot.
“This one time I see them shoot with the headlights and wounded a calf elk. Never reported it. That calf was going with his front, right shoulder … flopping away, trying to keep up.”
While guides don’t have control over how well their hunters can shoot, Casselman says they can make sure their hunters are careful. He says he tells his hunters to put their safety on immediately after taking a shot.
The Michigan DNR says elk hunting violations were above average this year.
DNR Sergeant Mark DePew says baiting elk, which is illegal, has gone up from the rare few reports to about 10 cases.
“Basically it comes down to cheating,” he says. “If the other hunter is not doing it and the bad hunter is using bait, [the bad] hunter is going to be the one that’s going to see the animals.”
This winter, a high profile local elk guide made headlines for baiting elk. Kevin Johnson, who hosts the outdoors program Big Boys Adventures TV, was charged with luring elk with bait onto a hunting property.
Because he was caught before hunting, officers were able to pin the crime on him. But DePew says cases against guides are rare. If the crime happens during a hunt, the penalty falls on the hunter.
“If a guide put out 100 pounds of corn and the hunter is hunting over that and he or she didn’t even know that, ignorance is not an excuse for that violation,” he says. “They would be held accountable for that.”
DePew doesn’t agree that guides should escape punishment, but says right now his hands are tied.
“As far as in the law, holding a guide accountable, that’s one of our obstacles to overcome,” he says.
Over the years, the number of guides has swelled. The DNR gives hunters a list of guides. When it started there were just a few names, but last year, the DNR’s list grew to more than 50 names.
With more people, Casselman says, comes more competition.
“Just trying to get a little edge over the next guy,” he says. “I mean we all pride ourselves on our success. So you know that being said if you aren’t putting animals on the ground for people you know you’re not successful, in most guides’ eyes.”
Ending the trip with a happy hunter usually means more business for the guide.
“I would bet that over three quarters of the calls that I get from clients came from word of mouth,” Casselman says. “Joe Blow hunted with me over five, 10 years ago and was tickled.”
With enough hunters, guiding can be lucrative. Each one can take up to 15 hunters a season. And guides charge anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to two grand per hunter.
DNR officers say legislators are considering adding regulations for guides. But Casselman says he thinks guides will just continue to push the law until they’re held responsible.
“As a legitimate guide in Michigan if nobody polices us it looks bad,” he says. “The small handful of people that are bad make everybody look bad.”
DePew says the DNR won’t give hunters a list of guides anymore. And he’ll tell hunters to ask a lot questions before they pick their guide.