We were cruising about 800 feet above the western reaches of the Susitna valley, boreal forest giving way to expanses of tundra and rock as the tributaries thinned to small veins of quicksilver on the ground below. Though I had flown with this outfit many times, this pilot was new and a bit too apprehensive for my liking. As we flew up the Chakachatna toward Merrill Pass, my concern escalated to fear as he frantically looked at his map and through the windscreen repeatedly, finally rotating the map.
He had been reading the map upside-down! After a word of correction I pointed out that there were many dead-end valleys in the area and many of them decorated with the wreckage of aircraft piloted by folks who simply got turned around in there, especially when flying in inclement weather. As the saying goes among experienced Alaska pilots, "there's rocks in some of those clouds". Thankfully, a gentle word of correction and a nod in the proper direction soon had us soaring through Merrill and on to the river we were hunting.
One of the most important aspects of planning your Alaska float hunt is the choice of an air service. Let's look at some considerations.
Choosing an Air Service
There are currently around 150 licensed transporters in the state of Alaska. A small number of those are operating with horses, and some operate boats (mostly in Southeast Alaska and on Kodiak Island). But the majority of them are operating as air charters, and drop hunters off in remote areas by bush aircraft. See our Alaska Bush Aircraft page for details on the types and capacities of the most popular types of aircraft used.
In most cases, float hunters will use commercial air services to access the area, however there are variations on this that we should consider. First, some rivers may be accessed from the road system, eliminating the need for any flying at all. These hunts are by far the most inexpensive. But because of the reduced cost, they are also usually the most crowded. The next option is to locate a river that allows road access at one end or the other. In other words, you can launch the raft at the highway and float out to a pick-up location or fly in to a drop-off location and float out to the highway. Such hunts effectively cut your air charter bill in half. But just like the road-based hunts, these hunts can be more crowded than hunts that are fully supported by aircraft.
Hunters who are looking for ways to reduce competition from other hunters, while accessing truly remote areas should consider a remote fly-out hunt. These hunts offer the guarantee of higher cost, and much higher chances of success.
Choosing a quality air service is not as easy as looking in the phone book. Though most outfits do everything on the up and up, some are known for over-hunting certain locations, or dropping multiple parties off in the same spot. Those that offer river drop-offs may drop multiple parties off only a day or two apart, or even less. This is a deal-breaker for many hunters, and such outfits are often given a wide berth by hunters in the know. Here are some tips for finding a reliable air service.
Select Your River in Advance
Never call an air service to find out where to hunt! Surrendering your choice of location to someone else, while convenient, can put your entire hunt at risk. Do your homework to find a river that meets your criteria, and then seek out an air service that can get you there.
Check Our Directory
Our Directory offers a comprehensive listing of air charters from around the state. While the Directory does not tell you who the best carriers are, it does tell you who is operating in which areas of the state. This is a great place to start; make your list of operators who work the area you plan to hunt.
Check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Though ADF&G cannot offer you a recommendation, they may be able to let you know who is flying in a particular area. They charter a lot of the flying they need to do, and they may also let you know who they use to do their aerial survey work. Chances are pretty good that the air service used by ADF&G will be reliable and have a good safety record.
Check With the FAA
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees air charter certification, pilot certification, regulatory compliance and aviation safety in the state of Alaska. They also maintain records of aircraft accidents and safety violations, which are accessible by the general public. Check their website for more information that could give you a picture of the safety and regulatory compliance of the operator(s) in question.
Check our Forums
Our forums are a great place to ask the general public about specific operators. In order to post questions in the forums, you must be a registered member. If you are not registered, you may do so by calling our office at the number listed at the bottom of this page. For the security-conscious (and everyone should be), we take your privacy very seriously, and we do not make your information available to anyone outside our office. If you're new to the forums, review our rules before posting. We try to make them as unrestrictive as possible, however we do not allow negative comments about individuals or companies and we do not allow inappropriate content to be posted in the forums. Although our site does not allow negative posts about air charters in our forums, we do allow positive ones. So if someone has used the air service in question and has had a good experience, they may share that with you openly. If they had a negative experience, they may opt to contact you privately with the details.
Comments on Negative Air Charter Reports
Note that some hunters who are unsuccessful in the field tend to find fault with whatever commercial services they hired to help them. In such cases, it's hard to get an objective opinion about the air charter they used, so learn to listen with both ears if you want to understand what really happened. And keep in mind that you are only getting one side of the story! Don't condemn an air charter on the basis of one negative report. But if you're hearing the same things from several people, buyer beware!
Questions for Air Charter Outfits
Over the years many air services have come to expect hunters to pump them for information about game counts, success rates, migration patterns and timing and a host of other questions that should be answered through proper research. If you call an air service with a question about the best place to go moose hunting, you are tipping yourself off as a greenhorn who didn't do his homework. Really, when you boil all the sap out of it, there are only three questions you should ask of your air service, as follows:
First Question: "Can you get me there on my dates?"
This question presumes that you already know two things: 1) where you are going, and 2) when you would like to go. If you are planning your hunt right now but do not yet know where you are going, you have the cart before the horse. You're reading the wrong section! Turn to our section on River Selection to get started. Finding a place to hunt takes time and research, and our River Selection section will give you the resources you need to use in your research. Put in the hours and you will be ready to contact an air service. Calling them without having this information puts you at their mercy, and will have you hunting locations that may not really offer the kind of hunt you are looking for. While most outfits will make an effort to put you somewhere where you have an opportunity to take game, your chances of success are much greater if you do your own research. And who knows? You might discover a place that had not occurred to the flight service.
The second part of this question refers to the timing of your hunt. This also presumes that you know something of the species you are hunting, have studied the recent migration patterns of the target species in your area and have determined the right window for your hunt. Figuring out the timing of your hunt takes into account your scheduling parameters, game movement patterns, likely water levels (which change during different times of the year, and the onset of freezing conditions, which may influence the air service's ability to land an aircraft in the area (particularly if they are landing on a lake). Figure out the timing of your hunt before calling an air service on your initial inquiry. Once you know when you would like to go and why, you have a solid basis to deviate from, if a minor schedule adjustment is required by the air service. Not all dates may be available.
Second Question: "What are your weight restrictions?"
All air services are under increasing scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and are unlikely to allow you to travel with loads that are beyond the rated capacity of the aircraft, even if by only a few pounds. Asking about your weight restrictions lets them know that you are aware of the need to limit your load. Inexperienced Alaska hunters are known to over-pack, and most air services reluctantly bear the inconvenience of having you weed non-essentials from your load as the pilot is trying to get the aircraft loaded and back on schedule. Don't be "that guy".
Some air services expect you to rent their camping and rafting gear, and will give you a number that includes only your personal gear (clothing and personal hunting gear). Since you may or may not use their equipment, you need to know the total payload of the aircraft, including passengers. Speaking of weight limits, NEVER fudge the numbers on your gear weight! The Helio Courier on the left crashed on takeoff because it was overloaded (nobody was hurt). Each aircraft is rated differently (even airplanes of the same type and configuration can be rated differently), and you must stick strictly within the guidelines the air service provides. In most cases they will weigh your gear before it is loaded, so you will be found out anyway. The consequences of sneaking a few items aboard are crashed airplanes, injured people and lost lives. If you have to go over the weight limit, let the air service know so they can arrange an additional flight.
Third Question: "What is it going to cost?"
If you are traveling to a place where the air service regularly drops hunters off, they should be able to give you a cost estimate during that first phone call. But that's not always the case, for any of several reasons. They may need to do some figuring and get back to you. Fair enough.
Air charters generally bill out in one of three ways, and it's important that you identify how you are being billed, or you could end up with an expensive surprise at the end of your hunt. Here are the most common systems for calculating the rate you will pay.
The "Tach" in "Tach Time" refers to the aircraft's tachometer, a gauge that keeps track of how many hours are on the engine. A carrier that is charging this way is charging for actual flight time. This means that you are paying a straight hourly rate of so many dollars an hour. This is commonly done when the charter has not been to the location where you want to go, and they want to be sure they can do it without having cost over-runs. If you're flying a simple "point to point" routing, tach time can work in your favor as it's a straight calculation without any fudge-factor built in. If, on the other hand, you have to fly around a weather system or (worse yet) turn back because of bad weather, you could easily rack up several hundred dollars in additional flight time. The same holds true if, at the end of your float hunt, you don't make it to your take-out on time and the airplane has to come back for you later. Be careful with tach time.
The zone system is a means by which a fixed rate is charged for any flight within a certain distance (zone) from the air charter's base. The farther you fly from base, the more you pay. Picture the air charter's office at the center of several concentric circles. Let's say that the first circle (Circle A) extends 50 miles from the air charter base, Circle B extends another 50 miles out from Circle A, and Circle C extends an additional 50 miles around Circle B. Flights taken into each of these progressively larger circles will become progressively more expensive, the farther you get from base.
Some air services reserve certain special areas and charge premium rates for accessing them. The criteria that makes one area "special" might be the number of hunting parties they drop there, or it could have something to do with difficulty accessing the area, or it could be a longer flight to get in there. Whatever the case, expect to pay top-dollar for these hunts. In most cases such areas will only see one or two hunting parties a year, so if the game density is good, such a hunt could be the stuff dreams are made of.
Air Charter Equipment Rentals
As was mentioned, some air services offer camping gear; tents, stoves, cooking gear, tables, chairs and the like. Others may supply rafting gear as well. In some cases this can be a real windfall for you, as it reduces your cost of acquiring those items yourself and shipping them to the air service (and back). On the other hand, the equipment may be of poor quality or in bad repair. In those cases, you could be in for trouble in the field if the raft leaks, or the stove won't light, or the tent poles are broken. If you are using the air service's equipment, take time to get a picture of the type of gear supplied, the age of the equipment and so on. If the equipment is faulty for some reason, it's unlikely that the air service is going to tell you that. Instead of trusting your gut instincts, ask for references from some recent clients. Call them and ask about the condition of the supplied gear.
Some air charters may pressure you to use their equipment instead if bringing your own. Understand that the motive is usually driven by weight and bulk restrictions in their aircraft. They have purchased specific items because they will fit in the aircraft with your personal gear; they prefer hauling gear they know will fit in the airplane than opening themselves up to whatever heavy, bulky gear you may bring instead. Work with them on this issue. If you are insistent on bringing your own boats and camping gear, take some extra time to ease their minds, making sure that the total weight of your food, gear and passengers fits well within their guidelines. Also remember that it's not only the weight of the gear, it's bulk too! You might be within the weight limits, but your gear is too bulky to fit inside the aircraft. If the air service expresses some concerns, photograph the load and send the pictures, so they know what you have. Hunters are notorious over-packers, and pilots have learned the hard way to be apprehensive about taking the customer's word for it. We will discuss this in more detail in our Packing and Shipping section.
Air Charter Rafting Gear
Something should be said about the rafting gear supplied by air charters. The typical air charter boat is a round boat, 14' or so in length, with a couple of canoe paddles. Depending on the operator, the boat may or may not be a self-bailer (for a complete discussion of the types and sizes of boats recommended for float hunting, refer to our page on Inflatable Boats in this section, or our section on Inflatable Boats in the main site pages). The charter will expect each boat to carry two people, their food and personal gear and a complete camp, which may also include a cooler. In most cases, there will not be a rowing frame or oars. This rig works well for the air service, as it streamlines the payload and reduces weight in the aircraft (some cataraft frames can weigh a hundred pounds or more). Summer floaters and fishermen can make this setup work by packing light and being very careful on the river; lining the boat in fast water or through obstacles. Paddle-equipped rafts work best when lightly-loaded on streams that allow ample setup time to avoid hazards. But heavily-loaded boats are much harder to control with paddles, and are often swept into logjams and strainers because the paddlers either lack the skills to maneuver the boat correctly or because the conditions simply do not allow enough time to avoid trouble. This is a combination destined for disaster.
Float hunters are at a particular disadvantage with such a setup. The typical moose yields 650# of meat, antlers and cape. Toss in a tent, cooking gear, food, sleeping bags / pads, personal gear and rifles or bows, and you have close to a maximum load. A second moose will push you over the edge of the weight limits of the boat, and your rig will be almost impossible to control. You might pull it off on slow Class I rivers, but if you have current running at three miles-per-hour or more, or if there are many river hazards (sweepers, strainers, jams or exposed rocks), you could be in serious trouble. In nearly all cases, with the exception of packraft hunts, you should use a rowing setup. With some charters, it might take some doing to get them to allow it, but insist on it and, if necessary, rent a frame and oars elsewhere and use it on their boat.
While most air services make an effort to supply good equipment to their hunters, there are notable exceptions. The boats in the photo in this section were supplied by an air charter on a river in western Alaska. The boat in the background is a 12' Northwest River Supplies (NRS) Otter, and the one in the foreground is a cheap, military surplus boat that should have never been out in the field. Both boats are WAY too small for a moose hunt; they lack the interior space needed for meat, food and gear plus a passenger. The black boat in the foreground has another issue; the black color, combined with inferior materials puts the hunters at risk of a tube explosion on a hot sunny day, rendering the boat useless. The hunters using these boats killed a moose each, and were grossly overloaded. The boats were so full that the hunters had to line them from shore for the entire float. Check in advance to make sure you know what you're getting, work off of a good checklist, and use enough boat!
Packing for Fly-Out
Hunters are notorious over-packers, and it is a sore subject with air charter operators. Stick to your list and do not go over the maximum weight allowed. Pack everything into small packages that will load nicely into the airplane. Do not bring large aluminum dry boxes and such; they can puncture the fabric on the sides of the aircraft and they're hard to load in and out of the aircraft.
Raft frames are bulky and heavy; try to use simple flat frames whenever possible; these fit into the aircraft much more easily.
If space is really tight, you might choose a boat made of rubber fabric (Hypalon® or CSM) instead of plastic (PVC / urethane). Rubber fabrics roll up into a tighter package than plastic fabrics, especially when they're cold.
Michael Strahan is the author of "Float Hunting Alaska's Wild Rivers", the definitive guide to float hunting in Alaska. The book is over 500 pages and is filled with float hunting lore, discussions of the gear needed, tools, tips and details on all aspects of Alaska float hunting. The book dives into the details of finding a river to hunt, and outlines 50 river systems across the state, of interest to float hunters. Use these rivers as a guideline for your hunt, or use them as a template for your own research! Michael is a Registered Guide with a specialty in float hunting, and an experienced public speaker on the topic of Alaska float hunting. He wrote this entire section on float hunting for the Alaska Outdoors Supersite. If you want to learn more about Alaska float hunting, this book needs to be close at hand, while you plan your hunt. ORDER YOUR COPY HERE.