March 22, 2023
When I wrote this article, it was the second season of the Canadian border being closed due to COVID. Thankfully, the border is now open, with conditions, but that’s good, because there is too much great hunting in Canada, and some truly great Canadian outfitters were in danger of having to close up shop as a result of nonresident hunters being denied entry.
Normally, I would’ve found myself flying to Edmonton, Alberta, to meet my friend and Bowhunter Assistant Editor Brian Fortenbaugh for our annual spring bear hunt at Buck Country Outfitters in Goodsoil, Saskatchewan. As this outfitter’s name implies, they’re known for big whitetails, but the bear hunting there is topnotch as well. Prior to the mandatory border closing, Brian and I had been enjoying our bear adventures for five years straight. While the border was locked down, I found myself reminiscing about past hunts and my time spent over many seasons chasing animals as a cameraman. I learned a few things along the way.
How I Got Started
I have always had a love of hunting and dreamed of making a living in the outdoors. When I was just out of college, I sent an article to Bowhunter Magazine about a deer I’d killed. I never intended to be a writer, and if you asked my high-school English teacher, she would have said that was a good thing. Thankfully, Dwight Schuh, Editor of Bowhunter at that time, had a different opinion.
In 2004, my first article was published in Bowhunter, and sometime after that I got a mass e-mail from Dwight asking if anyone on the list had an interest in working as a cameraman for Bowhunter on its new TV program. Why not? I thought. That sounds like fun!
Next thing I knew, I was flying to Oregon to meet and learn from Larry D. Jones. As a teenager, I’d admired Larry’s articles because his stories often took me to faraway places. Now, I was honored to be spending a long weekend at his home while he was teaching me the basics of running a camera.
I got my first video assignment that fall. I didn’t have to travel too far, as I was meeting Dwight in my home state of Wisconsin. We hunted south of Prairie du Chien, on an impressive farm that just screamed “big bucks!” We stayed in a cabin on top of a beautiful bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. I was so excited — I was on assignment with the legendary Dwight Schuh, and we were chasing giant whitetails!
Things Don’t Always Go As Planned
This is where I learned something very important about being a cameraman: What you see on TV is a tiny fraction of what is actually recorded on a filmed hunt. It takes hours of footage to come up with enough good material to produce a half-hour TV show. A half-hour episode is really only 15-18 minutes of actual show sans commercials, which means hours of footage are never seen. It’s all edited down to the best, most-usable clips. Unfortunately, on that hunt with Dwight, we had bad weather and very little action.
The week went by fast and I had racked up hours of footage, but the bucks just wouldn’t cooperate. That hunt ended with Dwight shooting a doe toward the end of the week. I was bummed out, but Dwight was upbeat. He wanted this show to be different. He wanted to show the viewers that not every hunt ends with a big buck being tagged.
That doe was the first of many animals I’d film. Some hunts would be awesome; others, not so much. Yet each one brought new adventures and new lessons. Honestly, the more I think about each hunt I’ve been privileged to film, the more I realize there were more that ended without a kill than with a tag punched. And regardless of the quality of what I was able to capture with my camera, the bottom line for me was this: A successful hunt is the best way to guarantee the fruits of my labor will see the light of day.
It’s Not All Action-Packed
A few years ago, I was setting up a Colorado elk camp with my wife, Nicole. We were hunting the southwestern part of the state in an over-the-counter unit — an area I was very familiar with, having been there several times before.
As we got settled in, a man and his son pulled up. They were excited and looking for a place to camp where they would also have access points for their ATV. I pointed them to another camp down the road that had good access.
They had been watching videos and were super-excited to hear the bulls screaming like they’d seen on TV. As they pulled away, I told my wife that I was pretty sure their hunt was going to be an eye-opener.
My reasoning was based purely on my experiences running a camera for TV. I once filmed Bowhunter Publisher Jeff Waring on a Montana elk hunt, and after a week of chasing elk, I didn’t even have a single bull on camera! Jeff hunted hard, and I did my best to capture as much good footage as I could, yet we both knew none of it would ever be seen on TV. There just wasn’t enough action to build a story. We tried and came close, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Much like my hunt with Jeff, the father and son had also struck out. They had not heard a bugle in several days and were very disappointed. The last time my wife and I saw them, they told us they had tried bathing in the ice-cold river, which didn’t go well. That was enough for them, and a day later their camp was gone. I could not help but feel that TV had given them unrealistic expectations.
These journeys are not easy. If we showed all the miles of walking, the rain and mud, the sweat, and the tears, on television, Bowhunter TV would not hold as much entertainment value.
Some people love to rip on hunting shows. I get the criticism — to a degree.
From “It’s all guided” to “It looks like a game farm” to “These TV guys always get to hunt the best stands,” I’ve heard it all. My buddies once made fun of me during a trip to Colorado because of an article I’d written for Bowhunter. It made me an easy target, and television makes the target even bigger. The internet and social media also add fuel to the fire. As much as we would love to tune it all out, it becomes part of the job.
I’ve been lucky to have filmed in some great places; some that even seem like a game farm. Nelson Outfitters in Sheridan, Wyoming, is an example. It is one of the coolest places to film, because the action doesn’t stop. Soon after daybreak, the deer leave Dave Nelson’s lush alfalfa fields to head for their beds in higher elevation. It is a parade of whitetails and muleys, and I’ve seen more deer there in one day than I’ve seen in 10 years at home.
I can understand why some viewers would think Dave’s operation is high fence. It’s not; Dave’s properties just happen to have the best food source (well-irrigated alfalfa fields) around for miles, and that’s why his clients are treated to seeing literally hundreds of deer — not to mention antelope and elk — during their hunts there. But the armchair critics know only what they see on TV.
Primetime Isn’t Always Primetime
I have been on plenty of awesome hunts where the “talent” and I went home empty-handed. Shots are missed, or the animals simply didn’t cooperate.
I once watched Dwight Schuh pass on a beautiful mainframe eight-point whitetail. The buck was wide and had two droptines — one coming off each main beam. That buck would have been a dream for me to take, and I’m sure for Dwight as well, yet he passed on that buck not once, but twice! Why? Because there wasn’t enough light for the camera. The cameras back then did not perform well in low light. We would sometimes lose up to 20 minutes of legal shooting light. Also, we were hunting with Jim Hole, Jr. at Classic Outfitters in the Edmonton Bow Zone, and Dwight wanted to get good footage for the TV show.
Dwight, being a writer, could have shot the buck and wrote a story about it, but he was there to film the hunt and was therefore stuck with the task at hand. Personally, I’m not sure I could have shown the same restraint that Dwight did. That was one dandy Alberta whitetail! By the end of the hunt, we had endured bitter temperatures, snow and ice, but we still went home empty-handed. You don’t get to see that on TV.
No Love For Cameramen
Over the years of working with the Bowhunter staff, some have confided in me that it wasn’t exactly a dream of theirs to be in front of the camera. Before TV, they were lucky and got to go on hunts without having someone there to make an already challenging hunt even more so. It was a game of one on one — not two on one.
If a deer got downwind of a staffer’s treestand, it was one person trying to fool the deer’s nose instead of two. If it was a spot-and-stalk muley hunt and Curt Wells was right where he needed to be, it took only patience and shooting skill to be successful. Curt now has to deal with making sure his cameraman is in position and able to capture the footage before he can even think about drawing — adding more challenge to an already difficult situation.
It became work for some, in part because not everyone wants a cameraman as a shadow. Imagine having to answer Nature’s Call while someone is hissing, “Big buck, or big bear coming!” This actually happened to me and Brian several years ago on a spring bear hunt in northern Saskatchewan. Brian was trying to take care of business out the window of our ground blind when a very large boar came charging in. Brian knew I wasn’t joking, and he quickly regained his composure enough to make a great shot on the P&Y-class bruin. The giant bear expired within sight. It was a moment that we joked about later, and had it not been for his cameraman, who occasionally likes to write, you wouldn’t know the rest of the story.
What A Ride
Every time I pause to reflect on where I’ve been with the Bowhunter staff over the past 17-plus years, and what I’ve seen, I realize just how lucky I am to have been blessed with the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful group of people. I have made friends over the years who have become like a distant family, and for that, I am thankful.
There was a time when I thought I would like to be on the other end of my camera. I don’t feel that way anymore, because years of working behind the lens as a part-time videographer have worked out just fine — and I’m still “killing” critters on every assignment I’m blessed to receive…without ever drawing my bow.
The author is a true friend of the Bowhunter staff, and he makes his home in Superior, WI, with his wife and children.