Airline travel is the only practical means of transportation for some out-of-state bowhunts. Even if you choose to drive to remote places such as Alaska or northern Canada, you still might need to board a large transport plane or smaller bush plane before you reach hunting camp.
Airline rules are constantly changing—usually for the worse. For example, in recent years most domestic airlines have reduced the maximum weight of a checked bag from 70 pounds to 50 pounds, and many airlines have cut back the free allowance from two to one checked bag. Overweight, oversized and extra bags beyond one per passenger are penalized with fees, and these fees vary a lot between airlines. Excess baggage is a fact of life for the airplane-hopping bowhunter, so it pays to check out fees ahead of time.
Different airlines also have different policies about checked antlers. If you fly home with a caribou or elk rack, expect a $150 fee from Delta, a $100 fee from Northwest and a $80 fee from U.S. Airways. With some Canadian airlines, such as Air Canada, large antlers must be enclosed in a rigid crate, and the cost is $150 or more per rack. With every airline, game skulls must be clean and wrapped, and antler tips protected with rubber hose, bubble wrap or cardboard. Frozen meat can be checked in an ice chest with most airlines.
Your outfitter can probably fill you in on such details, or you can go to the Web sites of various airline companies.
Lean And Mean
Most archery outfitters also have weight and size recommendations for gear you bring along. Decide what gear you need for a successful bowhunt, and do not agree to an outfitter’s sometimes unrealistic demands. In my experience, these things can always be worked out ahead of time if you negotiate first and pay later. Always be polite, but remember that it’s your money and your hunt. If the outfitter is inflexible, find another one.
That being said, it’s best to fly with a lean, no-nonsense set of equipment. My standard airline travel setup is simple and effective: one hard-sided bow case, one large duffel bag and one or two small carry-on bags.
If you need specialized gear for a do-it-yourself deer hunt in Alaska, a treestand trip for hot-weather elk, or a waterhole hunt for pronghorns, it might make sense to send your favorite ground blind or treestand plus other equipment and extra clothes ahead of time. Rates with UPS or FedEx can beat airline excess baggage fees by a mile. Simply address your equipment to a hotel, outfitter or friend in the area you plan to hunt.
Should you worry about the airlines losing your gear? I don’t think so. During nearly 4 decades and more than 300 airplane trips to bowhunting destinations, I’ve never had archery equipment lost. Only twice has my bow failed to arrive on time with me, and only once was it damaged. In that instance, my aluminum case had been dropped, the whole corner crushed, and one compound wheel destroyed. Thankfully, I had a set of spare parts, including wheels, cables and limbs. I tuned the repaired setup through stretched newspaper in camp and shot a bear 5 days later.
Don’t mess with a second-rate bow case because you get what you pay for. I prefer modern aluminum models such as Bulletproof or Toughmate—both available through Cabela’s. These cost $150-$250, depending on the model, but they’re worth it. Almost as good, in terms of toughness, are higher-end synthetic cases such as the DoskoSport Deluxe Bow Case ($110) or SKB Double Bow Case ($229).
I personally use an aluminum case large enough to hold one bow, 18 arrows, separate box for broadheads, essentials such as an armguard and hip quiver, rangefinder, spare binoculars and GPS. I add to this a repair kit with Allen wrench and other tools, spare bowsight pins, compound bow wheels, cables and bowstrings, bow limbs, string peep and portable bow press. I include four metal clips and a few sheets of newspaper for paper-tuning in camp. In a pinch, I can jam two arrows in the dirt in front of a soft bank, stretch paper between them with the clips, and shoot.
If you aren’t an experienced bow mechanic, you might want to take two complete bows in a double bow case. If you don’t mind the excess baggage fee, and the cost of another case, it’s a safer bet to bring two bows in two separate cases. This spreads the risk of damage. The chance of bow failure on a remote hunt is slim, but if it happens and you don’t have a backup, you’re sunk.
For airline travel, you need a tough duffel bag with heavy-duty zippers. Airline baggage handlers are notorious for throwing stuff around. On most hunts, I prefer a wheeled duffel such as the Cabela’s Alaskan Guide ballistic nylon bag. This distinctive green model has several zippered compartments and is almost indestructible. On wet-weather bowhunts, a strong, fully waterproof duffel such as the Boundary Waters bag is ideal. A 16x16x36-inch duffel is about the right size for 50 pounds of clothes, boots and incidentals.
I usually divide my arrows and broadheads between bow case and duffel bag. With modern screw-in heads, it’s safest to leave these in original packaging or a small box such as the Plano Archery Accessory Box. A Tupperware container also makes a decent transport case for broadheads. One stray broadhead blade in a bow case can cut a cable or string and ruin your trip.
You can carry half your arrows in a plastic case or tube inside your checked duffel bag. MTM makes an excellent 18-arrow clamshell case, and Easton sells a sturdy arrow tube. These and similar choices are available through most catalogs and archery stores.
I carry 36 arrows on most bowhunts —18 in my bow case and 18 in my duffel bag. Some are practice arrows, some serious broadhead arrows. This reduces the chance of travel damage to all my arrows. Plastic vanes from Flex-Fletch, Bohning and other top-quality companies can be compressed in a tube and then quickly brought back to original shape with a little friction rubbing between your fingers.
I carry my main binoculars, spotting scope, rangefinder and camera with me on the airplane because such optics are too fragile and too valuable to trust to baggage handlers. There are usually less-expensive binoculars and a rangefinder in the bow case as a backup.
I stencil “Archery Equipment” on the outside of all my hard-side bow cases in bright paint to make clear there are no guns inside. Firearms transport by air requires inspections and declaration forms. To avoid complications, I want security screeners to know what’s in my cases.
Let me repeat two things. First, check with the airlines before you bowhunt for the latest rules on bag size and weight, excess baggage fee and trophy transport. Second, consult with your outfitter to decide on the leanest, meanest set of equipment and clothing that will provide an enjoyable and successful bowhunt. The last thing you need is an unpleasant surprise at the airport or after you meet your guide.