The Professional Hunter’s Ten Commandments


Russ Gould


In a prior article in this magazine (“Seven Ways to Ruin an Otherwise Perfectly Good Safari”), I drew on a real safari experience to show how clients can contribute to a poor hunt experience through their lack of proper preparation and/or their own behavior. In this article, I draw again on a real experience (or two) to show how outfitters and PHs can and do mess up their own nests by letting clients down, sometimes without being conscious of their actions.


Almost all PHs want to send their clients home with good trophies, fond memories and a smile on their faces. While most hunts go well, there are many that don’t, and each year there are a few dismal failures that hurt reputations for years.  There are a host of ways in which an outfitter or PH can ruin a hunt. I have tried to boil these down to ten major “commandments” that if broken will surely result in an unhappy conclusion and probably damage the outfitter’s or PH’s reputation.


  1. Know your client. Let’s begin by discussing the notion of a “client”. Here we are talking about foreigners for the most part, who are willing to pay an enormous amount of money, by local standards, to enjoy sport hunting in an exotic location. But that’s about the only generalization one can make. Clients come in all sizes and shapes, from many different countries and cultures, and each is unique. What is acceptable to a South African client who has hunted the bush all his life, is not acceptable to an American who may only hunt Africa once or twice. South Africans are used to basic camp facilities and understand how things work in Africa. An American is likely to expect better treatment in terms of camp and catering, and will get frustrated more quickly when things are not going well. A South African client may not place a lot of importance on trophy size, whereas an American may be obsessed with horns and tusks. And of course one cannot generalize according to nationality. Yes, many Germans are happy to shoot an old daga boy with horns worn almost to the bosses, while most Americans will not shoot anything less than a 38” bull and may not care if the bosses are a little soft. But clients from the same country come in all sizes and shapes.  A wealthy elderly client who may have hunted all over the world will have a different set of needs and desire a different pace on a hunt than a young buck who has scraped together his money for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. An experienced PH will invest some energy prior to the hunt, while transferring the client to camp, and around the campfire to try to understand what strain of client he has on his hands for the next week or two. How does this client define success? How hard will he hunt? What are his hunting ethics? Would he rather go home empty-handed than return with a “representative of the species”. Some clients are purists, and won’t shoot anything less than an exceptional trophy. Some are shooters, who want to shoot a lot of animals regardless of trophy quality. Many clients are successful “type A” people, who will approach the hunt as they approach life: as a competition to be taken seriously. Others just want to get away and relax, often with the help of liberal amounts of alcohol. Getting up at the crack of dawn is not their idea of a vacation. The first mistake a PH can make, then, is to assume that the current client is just like some other client and proceed accordingly. (Most clients are men and I will refer to the client as “him” for ease of reading, but of course women also hunt and to them I apologize for not using “him/her” in every instance.)


  1. Sell what you can deliver, and deliver what you sell. This is a very common and serious pit to fall into. Under pressure to move quota and fill up the calendar, there is a very large temptation to paint a glowing picture of the area, the camp, and the trophy quality when selling hunts. Some operators deliberately over-sell their quota, betting that some clients will fail to shoot their kudu/buffalo/bushbuck  or whatever. If things work out, fine. But it’s hard to tell someone who has been saving and dreaming of taking a big kudu, over the first night’s dinner that there is no kudu quota remaining because the Russian high roller that was there earlier in the season shot three of them. I have seen it happen. On another occasion, while sitting around the dinner table discussing their wish lists, my group discovered that despite being only the second group of hunters through the area that season, there were only two bushbuck available to the four of us. The other four on quota for the season were being saved for later clients. That a quota existed on this high-fenced property was news to us. We were told that we would have to sort out amongst ourselves who would get to take the two available. On a recent hunt, the PH broke the news to my client that the exportable buffalo wasn’t exportable after all, and furthermore that it was going to be a cow, not a bull. Oh, and the elephant hunt would be conducted at night in a maize field, rather than by day in the Safari area! This same PH thought it was OK to finesse a double client 1x1 arrangement into a 2x1, when the promised second PH was double-booked. In any other business, this would be outright fraud. But somehow, in the hunting game, many outfitters and PHs think it’s OK to “modify” the deliverables without modifying the price. You cannot change the basic structure of the hunt once the client has paid for his ticket, and especially not when he is on the ground thousands of miles from home. Stick to the original plan, or at least allow the client the option of calling the hunt off at your cost (ie full refund of deposit and airfare paid) if you can’t deliver what you sold. Once he is on the ground, your only honorable course of action is to let him name his discount.   Pre-baiting is another tricky matter. If you promise to pre-bait, then make sure you have a leopard on bait when the client gets there. Telling the client that the leopard came the night after he left is cold comfort. Horn shrinkage is another common malady with inexperienced as well as experienced PHs. If it’s barely mature on the hoof, it’s not going to mature on the ground.  Don’t exaggerate, especially if you have established that inches are important to your client. In matters related to hunting, it’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.


  1. Wear the client’s shoes, not your own.  This is a corollary to the first commandment. There are many pressures on the PH in the course of a hunt. His own need to make a living, the need to manage quota over the course of a season, the need to please the local District Council, and the need to preserve a relationship with the outfit that owns the concession, for example. It’s very easy to run the hunt in such a way that these other constituencies are served well, while subordinating your client’s wishes and needs to them.  I have encountered situations where clients were kept away from certain areas in the hunting concession, to preserve the really good trophies for some more important client. Or a mediocre trophy may be taken to run up the tab. An opportunity to take an elephant is skipped in favor of pursuing buffalo because the Council wants buffalo meat for an event of some sort, despite the fact that the client is really keen to take his first elephant and has already taken several buffalo. A half day is lost because the PH decided to curry favor with the District Council by offering his services as a taxi driver, hoping to achieve some sort of favorable future outcome. Never mind that there are only two days left and the client has yet to shoot his buffalo. After all, he is only the client and they always pay. Perhaps, but what he says about you and the hunt depends as much on how you treat him as it does on what he shoots or does not shoot. The client deserves your full and undivided attention for the duration of the hunt. One thing most clients have in common is the expectation that if billed for seven days hunting, the client will actually get seven days of hunting. Not unreasonable and hard to disagree with this basic idea. But the client’s idea of a day’s hunting is often not the same as the PH’s idea. Some clients expect a full day’s hunt for a full day’s pay. You must not assume that he is OK with a four hour siesta after lunch, unless he requests it. Many clients, used to hunting in the USA where the first and last hour of the day are the “golden hours”, expect to be in the field cocked and loaded at first light, not eating breakfast and/or organizing the camp staff. And don’t nibble away the hunting time by keeping your client waiting. You should always be waiting for the client, not the other way round. The client should be the last one on the Cruiser in the morning, not you. You should be up before him, and go to bed after he does. You are on the clock and that clock is burning through cash at a rapid rate, not quite up there with the cost of hiring a lawyer, but almost. Fiddle with your Cruiser while your client is having breakfast, not while he is sitting on the hunting seat waiting to leave camp. This applies from the moment the client gets off the plane. Nothing unsettles a client more than arriving in a foreign country and discovering that nobody is there to greet him. I once received a phone call in the middle of the night, from clients who were stranded at the Windhoek airport. After calling the PH association to organize someone to fetch them, the PH casually showed up an hour late with a lame excuse. Annelise at the Afton Guest House near the Johannesburg airport once had a client left stranded with her for several days by an operator who got his dates messed up.  So no matter how many errands you have to run while you are in town, get yourself to the airport early.


  1. Avoid surprises, and explain them if you can’t. Matters can and do take unexpected turns in Africa. Some of the more egregious surprises I have encountered include other hunters showing up in camp with no explanation offered to the client; a no-show by a hired PH causing a delay in the start of a hunt; a change of camp or PH at the last moment; and extra hotel nights in Harare at the client’s expense prior to starting the hunt. On a recent hunt, on no less than the client’s birthday, we heard shots in the morning while pursuing an elephant bull in the jess. That afternoon, we encountered a local hunter and his two sons hunting “our” area. It turned out that Mr. Local had shot the very same elephant that the client was pursuing, and now these hunters were cruising the roads looking for buffalo. To add insult to injury, the PH decided to call it a day at 4 pm!  When we arrived in camp, four other hunters occupied the only chairs in camp, drinking the few cold beers that would fit in the battery-powered cooler. None of this was explained to the client. The client retired to his tent in a funk, making copious notes in his journal. Lesser surprises include a set of good tracks being abandoned without explanation; a shot being passed up because it was too late in the day, a good enough reason, but not if no explanation is offered to the client; and a suspension of hunting while a wounded animal is being tracked. Don’t make the client read your mind – what is obvious to you may not be obvious to him.



  1. Pay attention to little details, they make a huge difference. Clients are happier the more their idiosyncratic needs are catered to. Some will drink and eat anything, but these are the exceptions. Most have particular dietary preferences. A big one is filtered coffee. Is this so hard to provide? And then there is decaf. Not everyone lives on stimulants. How about soap in the shower? A mosquito net over the bed? Is this asking too much? Cold beer and a cooler that is actually cool and filled with the preferred soft drinks goes a long way toward good feelings and a happy client. A hammock under a shady tree is a treat, when the altenative is a boiling hot tent for an afternoon nap. On a recent bird hunt, we specifically requested standard shotgun loads of 32 grams. We were shooting vintage guns and the old girls must be treated with respect. The PH ignored that request and provided 36 gram “Heavy Loads”. Two of the party suffered cracked stocks and one could not extract his shells without resorting to a cleaning rod.  Needless to say, nobody was thrilled. On the same hunt, different property, the PH decided he had plenty of shotgun ammo and allowed the prior party to use up a good amount of the ammo he had laid in specifically for our party. We ran out of ammo and were unable to do as much wingshooting as we had planned. Remember, clients sit in that Airbus torture chamber for nearly 40 hours because of the fun they anticipate they will have when they get to their hunt destination. So make it fun for them, if you want them to come back.


  1. Keep your cool, even if the client loses his. Of all the advice offered here, this is probably the hardest to follow. Some clients are impossibly difficult. In a tense situation, tempers can flare. If you can’t keep your cool, then this is not the business for you. A shouting match between you and your client is going to ruin the rest of the hunt, as well as your reputation. Keep saying to yourself “the hours and days will pass as surely as the sun rises and sets” and bite your tongue, no matter what. On a recent problematic safari, I made it clear to the operator that my client was not happy, and that he was a participant in a popular internet forum where several people were awaiting his report regarding the hunt. I wanted him to understand that we had to turn the situation around. This had the opposite effect. With an angry tone, told me that if we were not happy, we should pack up and leave, right now! A perfect example of how not to handle an unhappy situation.


  1. Quote the hunt, and charge what you quote. Even if a hunt is successful, nothing annoys a client more than being billed something other than he is expecting to pay. Take the trouble to document, in writing, the cost of the hunt including all extras, before taking the client’s deposit. VAT, transfer fees, government levies, and dip and pack charges should not be a surprise. To hit your client with a surprise on his bill as he gets ready to board his plane home, is as good as showing him the finger as he boards the plane. This will undo all the goodwill you may have built by giving him a good hunt. He will fume all the way home, and his buddies will hear about the money issue and not the hunt. On a recent hunt, the client was offered a PAC elephant in place of the promised exportable buffalo, and furthermore the pricing was such that this would take $4000 off the price of the hunt. A last-evening PAC success saved the hunt, but the bill failed to reflect the savings.  As the accompanying agent, I intervened and straightened things out before the client was confronted with the financial equivalent of a shotgun wedding. The PH may as well have shot himself in the foot.


  1. Keep your client on the right side of the law. I once wounded a Caracal at night, while shooting porcupines on a potato farm. The evening hunt was a side-event to a group bird hunt near Dendron in South Africa. The outfitter had offered some “night varmint hunting”, an option I much  preferred to boozing it up in camp with the other members of the party.  I shot the cat in tall grass with a scoped hand-gun, drew blood, but was unable to find him in the dark. I was a nervous wreck all night, thinking that we had lost him. The following morning, at first light, and with the help of a terrier, we treed the cat after an exciting chase. I finished him just as the sun rose over the trees. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I had recovered a cat that I thought was lost, a trophy that I wanted badly, and this was the crowning moment of my hunt. The chase was exhilarating and the setting, with the sun a red orb in the morning sky, was memorable. Three months later, the taxidermist informed me that Nature Conservation had confiscated my trophy, as there was no permit. The outfitter denied being aware of a new law requiring permits for small cats. Furthermore, I learned that the landowner was not OK with the taking of this species, his permission being specific to crop-raiding bushpig and porcupines. A cat is a crop-farmer’s friend. On a bigger scale, hunting is now being offered in Zimbabwe’s National Parks by unscrupulous outfitters working with rogue Park’s officers, for elephant as well as other species. This is illegal and could result in imprisonment of the hunter, foreign or not.


  1. A safe hunt is better than a successful hunt. A Namibian outfitter was host to two clients, a man and his wife, both bow hunters. After several animals were wounded, the PH decided that the clients should exchange their bows for rifles and attempt to ambush the wounded animals coming to water. The hunters split up, each going to a blind at a separate water hole, the wife being assigned a tracker in lieu of a PH. When a wounded Kudu appeared, the tracker passed a loaded 7mm Magnum rifle to the woman, shooting her in the thigh as he did so. She recovered after a lengthy hospital stay, but was disfigured for life. The operator lost his SCI membership and was sued for a substantial amount of money.  And it’s not only the client’s safety that is important! Clients are often at fault here.  A pet peeve of mine is the so-called “African” carry, i.e. rifle barrel held in the hand, rifle balancing on the shoulder, with muzzle pointing forward. And please don’t tell me that you are in control of the muzzle with this form of carry. I have hours of video that prove otherwise. Hunters who would never dream of carrying a rifle this way at home think it’s the correct way to carry a rifle in Africa….even if the rifle is equipped with a sling! This carry may be fine if you are alone, or walking in front, but I have never been on a hunt where the client hunts alone or walks in front of the rest of the party. There is invariably a tracker in the lead, followed by the PH. In most cases, clients are just copying their PH. So set the example, and have a little talk about safety at the beginning of the hunt. Shotguns are particularly nasty at close range, and a group bird hunt is a by definition an unsafe act. Strict “blue sky” rules (never shoot at a bird unless you can see blue sky around it, and muzzles must always be pointed skyward unless the gun is broken) must be enforced. Any safety “excursions” must be corrected as they occur.  I deal in firearms for a living, and I would estimate that one in fifty used firearms, mostly vintage shotguns, has a defective safety. Don’t rely on the safety, or on an unloaded chamber. Memories are even less reliable than mechanical safeties.


  1. The hunt is not over until it’s over. The hunt may be over for you when the client gets on the plane, but it’s not over for him until he receives his trophies (and any trinkets you promised to include) in good order. An American client that I know is still waiting for his shipment of two exportable bull elephant from Zimbabwe, almost three years after the skins were in the salt.  The hunt was memorable but it’s long forgotten. In its place are some very hard feelings that were vented on a well-known internet bulletin board. Reputations were damaged irreparably, and grievances were aired for thousands and thousands of potential clients to read. Not a good outcome for anyone.


Readers can probably add their own experiences, but these commandments cover 90% of possible transgressions. PHs would do well to read this list before each hunt starts, and to make sure their staffs are on the same page. Those that do will come out ahead in the long run.


Russ Gould is the owner of, an internet-based business dedicated to heavy caliber rifles and big game hunting. He enjoys restoring vintage guns ,and is a licensed importer/dealer specializing in fine sporting long guns, as well as a booking agent interested in representing quality hunting outfitters that share his ethics regarding the proper conduct of a paid safari. He can be contacted at