BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) -- Guided hunting trips long have been an industry in Montana, and as more hunters take up archery hunting, outfitters are increasingly trying to lure those hunters, extend their guiding season and earn more money.
''We're realizing there's a whole new opportunity out there,'' said Laurie Wisner, who operates Buffalo Horn Outfitters south of Big Sky with her husband Mitch Wisner. ''There's become a greater interest in people wanting to archery hunt.''
That interest is paying off for a lot of area guides. Laurie Wisner estimates bowhunting will make up 20 percent of her total revenue this year. And she believes in coming years that number could rise even higher.
Buffalo Horn Outfitters already has two weeks booked next year with archery clients, which might generate 35 percent of its business in 2002.
''I eventually think that will be our mainstay, versus rifle hunting,'' she said. ''It's just such a different hunting experience that people are interested in.''
The bowhunting season usually runs from Sept. 1 to mid-October, when elk are in the rut, or breeding, a time when gun hunters aren't allowed in the field.
''That's why an outfitter gets into it -- to expand your season,'' said Ken Sinay, a guide with Wilderness Connections, a Gardiner outfitting company that takes very few bowhunters.
Although Sinay said he doesn't guide archery hunters, he has seen a lot of local outfitters trying to attract those clients.
''It has gotten tremendously more popular,'' he said.
Bowhunting grew rapidly in the early 1990s, said Tim Pool, executive director of the National Bowhunter Education Foundation. Although that growth has slowed in recent years, the number of bowhunters continues to rise, which means more potential clients for guides.
Not every guide is qualified to guide archery hunts because it requires a unique set of skills. Those that are qualified tend to be bowhunters themselves, since archery season is their best chance to hunt; their rifle season is consumed by guiding.
Bowhunting requires a hunter to get close -- usually within 30 yards -- which means a person's scent must be considered. The most important skill, however, is the ability to call elk, with either a bugle call or cow-in-heat call, within archery range.
Once a guide has the hunting skills, it's a natural next step to sell it as a service.
''It really takes an outfitter who is trying to exploit that particular segment of the market'' to attract bowhunters, Sinay said.
The Wisners bought Buffalo Horn five years ago, and have always offered bowhunts. But these days, the Wisners actively solicit bowhunters.
Buffalo Horn charges less for archery hunts -- $3,000 a week instead of $3,500 for a rifle hunt. The overhead for Buffalo Horn is the same, but Laurie Wisner said they dropped the price to entice bowhunters.
The company also undertook a whole new approach to marketing by plugging the bowhunting experience at trade shows, where potential clients are teeming, and negotiating advertising in select markets in exchange for trips.
The Wisners recently struck a deal with the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, which has helped them attract scores of hunters from that state. In exchange for an elk hunt donated to the WBA, the company gets free advertising in WBA's newsletter. That gives Buffalo Horn excellent access to more than 10,000 potential clients.
The Midwest is a lucrative market for outfitters, because the region is rife with dedicated deer bowhunters. Many of those sportsmen and women dream of a Rocky Mountain elk bowhunt.
''You hate to not tap in on that potential,'' Laurie Wisner said.
The ad has already generated 10 bookings for next season.
''That's $30,000 we picked up from donating a hunt,'' she said. ''It's an opportunity that we may have never had.''
But while some outfitters can raise more revenue by guiding archery hunts, the amount of money the profession can earn is limited, said Kelly Flynn, president-elect of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
That's because the state aims to keep the total number of outfitter-sponsored nonresident elk/deer combination tags to 5,500 by raising the price following years when more are sold. The limit on licenses in turn limits the total revenue available to outfitters.
''Individually, an outfitter may be able to make some gains,'' by adding bowhunting to a client's options, Flynn said. ''But it really doesn't add anything to the group, unless that person can find a way to appeal to resident hunters.''
Flynn supports the cap on outfitter-sponsored licenses, as hunting management in Montana is a constant balancing act between keeping areas from getting overcrowded while allowing outfitters a chance to make money.
In contrast to companies that aggressively market to bowhunters, Justin O'Hair, who owns Chimney Rock Outfitters south of Livingston, is trying to build his archery clientele slowly. He added archery hunts five years ago after guiding for more than a decade.
Although he doesn't market intensively to bowhunters, he has found attracting them difficult at times.
''A lot of them kind of want to do it on their own,'' he said. ''They don't want to pay for an outfitter.''
Bowhunts now make up about 20 percent of Chimney Rock's business, O'Hair said. He would like that to grow to about 30 percent in coming years.
''I'm just pretty much going by word of mouth,'' O'Hair said of his advertising.
Yet, while guided archery hunts for elk are really taking off, not every outfitter is jumping on the bowhunting bandwagon.
Isabel Noble, who runs Lion Creek Outfitters in Kalispell with her husband Cecil Noble, said despite rising interest in guided bowhunts, her company doesn't promote the trips.
''There is definitely more of a demand for archery hunts than in the past,'' she said. ''But we don't even try to market to that niche.''
In sharp contrast to southwest Montana, the Bob Marshall Wilderness of western Montana, where Lion Creek Outfitters guides, is extremely rough terrain without large elk herds. The archery season is usually dry up there, Isabel Noble said, and stalking elk on crisp, crackling ground is nearly impossible.
Lion Creek Outfitters does offer a combination hunt, in which clients bring both their bow and rifle, to give a better chance of success. Isabel Noble said, like a lot of outfitters, Lion Creek attends trade shows and hears from bowhunters who want a guide.
''We're having more and more come up to the booth and ask specifically about archery hunts,'' she said.
On the Net:
Travel Montana hunting guide information: http://www.travel.state.mt.us/tripplanner/planningassistance/hunt.ht m
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