The Big Gamers
Five of the world’s toughest guides share their gnarliest tales
Getting to hunt and fish for a living may be a dream job, but as these five guides can attest, that doesn’t make it easy. Between the bear attacks, brutal fights with monster fish, and treacherous country—not to mention the occasional stubborn client—you don’t make it in this line of work unless you’re damn tough.
Guide: Tom Walker
Big-Game Gig: South Florida alligator and boar guide, survivor
For Walker, every hunt is its own adventure, but last fall he experienced his most dangerous night on the job ever:
The wounded gator was under the boat, his head afloat and right next to us. My buddy Andy turned on his light and said, “Don’t move.” A second alligator, a 12-footer, was a few yards from the boat. Andy then slowly turned to face me. “S ‑ ‑ t, seriously, don’t move.” I could see the hole in the first alligator’s neck from the .243. I eased the big treble hook into the water and set into him hard. That was a mistake. I forgot that I’d tightened the drag down on the reel, and the boat flipped. Suddenly we were treading in black swamp water, a mile from the bank, with gators all around us.
We shouldn’t have gone after a big gator like that in a canoe, but my client was a cool 14-year-old kid, and I really wanted to retrieve the gator for him. It was early last fall, and we were hunting with nuisance tags, so we could use a rifle during the day, and the most exciting way to hunt them is by calling them in with a predator call.
Just before dark this big bull—a 10-footer—swam in for a look. The kid’s shot looked good, but an alligator’s kill zone is right behind his eyes and the size of a baseball. The gator went down, then came up thrashing on the surface 80 yards out from the bank. I knew it was hurt, and I thought I could get it with my surf rod and snatch hook. In a big boat, it would’ve been easy. But all we had handy was a canoe, so we threw a couple of surf rods and a bang stick into it and went after him.
Andy was paddling. The gator would come up a long cast away, but I couldn’t hook him. I got hung on some vegetation and tightened my drag all the way down to pull the hook free. Forgetting to loosen the drag is what nearly killed us.
It got dark. We’d chased the gator a mile deep into the swamp, and finally he just went down, so we eased out an anchor and shut off our flashlights. After a few minutes, Andy turned his light back on and there was the giant 12-footer a few yards away, and we were sitting on top of the wounded one.
Soon as I hooked him, we went in and I lost the rod. We didn’t know where the wounded gator went, and we couldn’t see the 12-footer, but we knew he was close. We were in 30 feet of water, right in the channel, and I couldn’t get the canoe flipped back over. Andy was kicking and screaming, and I knew it was just a matter of time before a gator took one of us down.
There’s dense vegetation on both sides of this channel, but it’s just a floating mat—15 feet deep underneath. We found some dead stalks that we could stand on for a few seconds before they gave way. Andy was pulling clumps of them together so that I could stand and try to flip the canoe. It was the only way to get any leverage—and it wasn’t working too well. We floundered around for an hour before finally, I got hold of the canoe well enough to flip it. I held on to it while Andy climbed in, and then he leaned over as I climbed in the other side. We’d lost our paddles, our lights, the rods, the bang stick—everything.
We paddled back to shore with our hands, and it was really tough going. Only after we crawled onto the bank did we realize that we’d never picked up the anchor. After that ordeal, it was kind of a relief to laugh. —As told to W.B.
➞ To hunt with Walker, visit huntinghogsinflorida.com
Guide: Mike Weinhofer
Big-Game Gig: Florida-based shark captain, sight-fishing expert, catch-and-release advocate
Shark fishing is all about the strike and the bite. It’s incredible to see one go from zero to 30 mph to chomp on something I feed it. Sharks are pure grace.
My first trip sight-fishing on the flats is when I got hooked on sharks. It was so different from the deepwater shark fishing I grew up doing in New Jersey. Here, I could actually see hundreds of sharks swimming around the boat, searching for the scent of chum.
You don’t realize how dangerous this can be until something bad happens. I was out fishing with a friend, and we had a thresher shark up at the back of the boat. I was trying to take the hook out of its mouth when it hinged its tail over its head at 70 mph and whacked the gunnel so hard that it cracked. That’s how they kill—striking prey with their tail. It made me think, That could’ve been my head.
I was with a guy who was fighting a 60-pound spinner shark in the flats. On its first jump, it went 10 feet out of the water and landed in the boat. It destroyed everything it hit, snapping two rods and kicking a cooler off the deck. It happened so fast that we both kind of stood there for a minute like morons wondering why everything was getting thrashed before I was able to throw the shark back.
We release almost all of the sharks we catch. I allow clients to kill one mako per trip if they request it, but I’m not in the business of filling coolers.
Six years ago, I was out with a couple on the Gulf when the husband hooked a 300-pound bull shark. After battling it for an hour, he was getting tired. Suddenly, he tip-wrapped the rod with the 60-pound braid and it snatched him right off the boat, throwing him into the water with about five other sharks. There was an honest terror in his eyes. His wife kept screaming, “They’re gonna eat you! Get outta there!” It was chaos. He finally came around the back of the boat and climbed in. He was shaken up, but he was even more impressed by how strong the fish was.
Guiding is like show-and-tell for me. I try to show clients the beauty and power of the shark. I want to give them that one-on-one, man-against-fish fight. —As told to H.R.
➞ To chase sharks with Weinhofer, visit finandfield.com/weinhofer
Guide: Phil Shoemaker
Big-Game Gig: Alaskan outfitter, bush pilot, wildlife biologist, gun writer, genuine badass
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been charged. But 95 percent are false charges, broken off before the bear gets to you. They’re sizing you up. The state guidelines say not to make eye contact because it’s a dominance thing and might threaten them. Well, a confrontation with a bear is always a dominance thing. You want to be the one who dominates. I’ll take a step toward them, throw rocks, talk at them. Look, they’re predators. They’re looking for signs of weakness.
For the most part, bears want to avoid you if they can. The dangerous ones are rare but serious—a dominant male, a sow with cubs, a starving bear that’s after anything it can find. And, of course, a wounded bear, which is the most dangerous. But if you think about it, that animal doesn’t have a lot of options if it can’t get away from you. It’ll head into the thick stuff, circle back, and ambush you. But it’s not aggression so much as self-preservation.
I remember liking the feel of Alaska when I landed here one evening on my way to Vietnam in 1969. I decided right then that I wanted to come back, and I did, 11 years later. I answered a newspaper ad for a packer at a sheep hunting camp in the Talkeetna Mountains. Three days into the first hunt, one of the guides sprained his ankle, drove to Anchorage, and was promptly arrested for murder. So I was promoted. I’ve been guiding here ever since.
A grizzly is as smart as any dog, maybe smarter. We had an electric fence around the meat shed to keep them out. It worked on the smaller bears. Then I watched this big old boar come in and get shocked on the nose. He sat down and looked at the fence. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Then, with one swipe of his paw, he smashed down the whole wire fence and made off with the meat.
I had a client who wounded a grizzly that we tracked into the thick willows. The bear circled behind us, and charged from a direction I wasn’t expecting, roaring the whole way. At 4 or 5 feet, I tried to shoot him in the head but hit between his shoulder and neck. I remember the startled look on his face, but the shot had no effect whatsoever. The bear then attacked a 6-inch-wide willow right next to me before I could rack the bolt again. I can only think of that as displacement behavior, that rather than attacking me he was showing what he was capable of. He had every reason to tear me apart but didn’t. I racked another round in and shot, as did my client, and we found him piled up 50 yards away.
Everybody’s got this fear of bears, so they romanticize that and think we’re staring down death every day. Yes, it’s part of the job, but it’s really a minute portion. For us, the big thing is getting along with clients. You get people who don’t know how to load their own rifle. I had a guy who didn’t know what his rifle’s magazine was for, and thought he had a single-shot gun.
The absolute worst hunters are the ones who are in it for their ego. For some, killing a big bear is just a badge to show off. Some don’t even like hunting. I had a woman come up with her boyfriend. Told us she hated hunting, was a vegan, but that she “kinda liked killing things.” That’s not my idea of a hunter, and she wasn’t easy to live with, but she was a paying client and that’s the job. She was a fitness buff, very competitive, and insisted on walking out ahead. Wore these bright yellow outfits. You do your best.
Some hunters surprise you. I had this older guy, little overweight, out of shape. We were floating a river and I told him not to grab a tree to slow the boat, but he did anyway. Dislocated his shoulder. His buddy put the arm in a sling. But the guy didn’t want to fly out. He walked 2 miles from the main camp and shot a trophy bear one-handed. Then he wanted to go bird hunting. He fell again and this time broke the ball joint in his shoulder. He still wouldn’t leave. Said he didn’t want to ruin it for anybody else. Didn’t look tough, but I’ll tell you what.
Some hunters find that they can’t shoot a bear. One was a bowhunter, a big boy, city cop. He was absolutely terrified of bears. I got him within 20 yards of grizzlies three days straight. He’d draw, let the bear see him, and then march straight at the animal at full draw. Third time, he was 5 yards from one and he still didn’t shoot. He told me, “I thought I could shoot one, but I can’t.” But he sure knew how to bluff, because all those bears took off. He called later to tell me he’d been in a shootout a week after he got home and had been calm the whole time. There’s no telling what’s going on in some people.
I almost stepped on a grizzly a year ago. I was fishing, walking a path, and he was asleep in the bushes on the bank. I was about to step on his paw when he woke up. He took a step toward me. We were at arm’s length. Then he just slowly turned sideways—the big ones will sometimes do that as a display, just to show who you’re messing with—and then he went away. I carry a .44 pistol with hard-cast bullets that will go through a bear’s head. But I doubt I could have shot that one in time if things had gone bad.
The most important thing I’ve learned flying in Alaska is, always leave yourself an out. The close call I remember best was when I had two bowhunters up the valley. The weather turned bad, and one of them wanted to return to main camp. After two days of 50- to 80-mph gusts, the wind finally lay down a bit. So I loaded him up and took off. As soon as I cleared the nearest high ridges, I realized my mistake. The winds were howling in excess of 70 mph. When I got over main camp, it was fogged in. I tried to fly to a larger landing area along Becharof Lake. But the lake was boiling with whitecaps. I considered flying over to the Shelikof Strait to land on a beach, but a look at the Pacific changed my mind. I was running out of options. Making one last check of camp, I could just make out the approach end of the runway. I told the client to be ready to jump out as soon as we touched down because the plane would probably fly away on its own in those winds.
I got lucky. Everyone in camp had heard my approach and was out to help. I made a landing that would have made a helicopter pilot jealous, right between the aircraft tie-downs. The client jumped; everybody at camp grabbed the wings and threw the tie-down ropes over the plane. I was too busy to be really scared. Adrenaline has that great ability to keep you focused on the task at hand. —As told to B.H.
➞ To hunt with Shoemaker, visit grizzlyskinsofalaska.com
Guide: Bret Overturf
Big-Game Gig: Alaskan hunting guide, taxidermist, and Wyoming bighorn guru
On my first sheep hunt, 23 years ago, I shot a good-size bighorn in Wyoming. While packing the animal out, I stopped to rest on a ledge, but the loose, volcanic rock crumbled beneath me. I only fell 5 feet, but I landed on a rock and my tibia popped just above my ankle.
My leg was a lightning rod of pain—but I hadn’t yet gotten over the rush of killing my first bighorn. I splinted the leg, found a walking stick, and carried the sheep down the rocky, ultra-steep terrain. After each step, with my good foot, I’d smooth out a level spot for my bad one. But my adrenaline was draining, and the pain would rise like liquid up that leg. It took me six days to hike out of that country—about 20 miles.
But once I was out, I couldn’t wait to get healed up, so I could hike back in and kill another sheep.
Sheep hunting is the ultimate challenge—period. I’ve had a bunch of clients quit on me, but the ones who endure the pursuit will return again for the scenery, the challenge, and the satisfaction. It is unequaled.
Most clients come in convinced they can handle it, but then decide they don’t like heights. Or hiking. Or nasty weather—heavy snowfall, hammering rain. Maybe they don’t like running into grizzly bears. People idealize the backcountry, but once you’re out there, it’s rough, and you must deliver yourself to it. I’ve seen a client drop a sheep, only to watch it tumble down a 1,500-foot grade, then look at me like, I don’t have to go down there, do I? Of course you do.
On a sheep hunt last year, my client fired and scoped himself across the eye. He missed the ram, so he fired again. The second shot broke his nose. Blood streamed down his face—but he killed the sheep. If he was hurting, he sure didn’t show it. He just stood there with a bloodstained grin that would not relent. I knew how he felt. Without some pain, it wouldn’t be a sheep hunt. —As told to B.P.
➞ To hunt sheep with Overturf, visit bretoverturf.com
Guide: Peace Marvel
Big-Game Gig: Louisiana-based offshore captain, swordfishing expert, blue-water romantic
The swordfish is the most badass fish on the planet. They do everything a tuna or blue marlin will—but twice as hard. They’ll come up and look you in the eye before diving at 50 mph. Then, they’ll turn around and fly out of the water with their tail 10 feet in the air. But the hardest part is committing to them; it’s a huge accomplishment to catch one. I have 15 years of data on all kinds of conditions, and I’m wrong half the time.
I don’t like losing, and I’m losing when I don’t catch fish. So, I always push it to the last possible minute. I was out filming for a TV show a while back, and it started getting late. The host said, “You know dude, we’re running out of time.” I looked at him and said, “The bait isn’t in the boat yet. When it is, you can start thinking about giving up.”
My wife and I conceived our first son on a fishing trip. The night was romantic, so we did what spouses will do. She caught her first swordfish an hour later. Five years later, I took my son there for Father’s Day. We dropped bait, and bam! He caught a 215-pound swordfish. My wife got pregnant again that night. I call that spot Fertility Hump.
About 12 years ago, I fished in a swordfish tournament out of Biloxi, Miss. The swells averaged 13 feet, and they had teeth. We could see for a hundred miles at the crest, but the view in the troughs was all water. I didn’t win the tournament, but I like to end the story with: “But I lived.”
Last year, a lot of guides here started using electric reels to land swordfish. I’ve caught over 150 swordfish in the last year. Every one was cranked in by hand. I once had a client in her mid 60s spend nearly four hours reeling in a 215-pound swordfish. She didn’t just watch me press a button. That’s like hunting lions with artillery shells. It’s b.s.
I won’t kill more than 400 pounds of swordfish in a day. Two days ago, we reached that limit and released four more big fish. A customer can’t do anything with more swordfish than that. The ocean is a resource. You gotta treat those fish with respect.
I do two things before every trip. First, I send a video to my kids saying I love them. Next, I pray: “God, please forgive these fine people for the slaughter they’re about to commit.” Then I hit the throttle. —As told to J.P.
➞ To fish with Marvel, visit peacekeepercharters.com