As a teenager and young adult, one TV show I did not miss was “The American Sportsman” with host Curt Gowdy. The highlights were the bird-hunting trips with Phil Harris, Bing Crosby and the legendary Bear Bryant. Gowdy’s show was one of the longest-running TV shows that featured hunting on a regular basis.
However, at 23 years, “The American Sportsman” does not come close to the longevity record.
That honor belongs to Buckmasters, which is in its 33rd season on the air with Montgomery, Alabama, native Jackie Bushman as its main host.
“We’ve been chasing whitetails for 33 years on major cable television,” Bushman said with the 2019 Buckmasters Expo set for Friday through Sunday this week at the Montgomery Convention Center. “Just to watch how it’s changed from the cameras, the female hunters and new hosts, it’s amazing where it’s come in 33 years. I’m very, very proud of being a part of it.”
Bushman said his inspiration for Buckmasters was Ray Scott, who elevated bass fishing to elite status through Bassmasters, the organization Scott founded.
“Way back, Ray Scott was a good friend, and I watched what he did with Bassmasters,” Bushman said. “But bass fishing and deer hunting are two different sports. There are some things you can do in bass fishing you can’t do in deer hunting.
“I remember the hardest thing getting started was the cameras and light-gathering capabilities. That’s probably the reason nobody did a whitetail show. With the old cameras, I just wanted to pull my hair out. The most common two words from my camera guy were, ‘Don’t shoot,’ because there wasn’t enough light.”
When Buckmasters started, the cameramen were lugging around 25-pound cameras that cost $45,000 each. The evolution in video equipment to today makes it much easier with handheld cameras with high definition that cost $3,000 to $4,000.
“It’s amazing how far the technology has come since we started,” Bushman said. “And the light sensitivity allows us to hunt in conditions that we used to never dream of.”
Bushman said he really can’t pinpoint a time when he knew Buckmasters was going to be a success, and he could quit teaching tennis at Lagoon Park.
“I was doing the consumer shows, trying to sell Buckmasters, and still teaching tennis,” he said. “When we got to go to TNN (The Nashville Network), we went from 10,000 or 12,000 subscribers to 80,000. Then it just kept taking off from there. That was the biggest catalyst to get us going to the next level. For five years, we were the only hunting show on any of the major networks.”
When TNN was sold and the new buyers didn’t want any hunting or fishing programming, Buckmasters spent a couple of years searching for a new network home before settling in at the Outdoor Channel, its home for the past 16 years.
The TV show’s content has also changed over the years from strictly hunting whitetails to hunting a variety of big-game species.
“When it was all whitetails, that put a lot of pressure on us because you’ve got only X number of weeks to hunt to get original footage,” Bushman said. “We started mixing in elk hunts, caribou hunts and bear hunts. But it’s still 80-85% whitetail, because that’s what most people want to watch.
“When you go on location for 4½ days, you’re trying to get 17 minutes and 40 seconds of editorial content to fill up a TV show. I always tell everybody that if you see a lot of talking on the show, we had a bad week. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Over the years, Bushman introduced new features to the show, including Officer Rusty, a genuine Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Conservation Enforcement Officer, Rusty Morrow. A puppet character named Shotgun Red was also added.
“I always wanted to have something for the kids,” Bushman said. “For the 33 years, it’s always been about the kids and getting the new generation going. I was on ‘Nashville Now’ with Ralph Emery. We were talking about the new season of Buckmasters, and Steve Hall, who was Shotgun Red, was listening.
“Steve Hall said to me, ‘What you said about hunting and conservation, that’s the coolest things I’ve heard on national TV.’ I told Ralph that if it wasn’t for the hunters and fishermen, we wouldn’t have the abundant wildlife we have today.”
Bushman said anyone who loves to see and experience the wildlife and natural resources Americans enjoy should consider buying a hunting and/or fishing license regardless of whether they hunt or fish.
“I tell people, I promise that money will go toward conservation projects,” he said.
Shotgun Red quickly became a part of the Buckmasters TV show and was an instant hit. One promotion promised a Shotgun Red doll for youngsters who wrote into the show. Demand quickly outstripped supply.
“Kids loved Shotgun Red,” Bushman said. “I didn’t have a clue of how big it was going to get. I’ve had grown men come up to me and say, ‘I never got my Shotgun Red doll.’ It’s funny how it touched a lot of people.”
Another celebrity soon joined the show. The Buckmasters Classic was a huge event at Southern Sportsman’s Lodge outside Montgomery that combined deer hunting and a wide variety of celebrities who competed in all sorts of games. Jim Varney, the rubber-faced comedian of Ernest fame, came to Buckmasters Classic one year and asked how he could help promote the outdoors lifestyle.
“We couldn’t use Ernest, so we had to come up with another character,” Bushman said. “We went to an outdoors store, and Jim started trying on hats. He looked like Elmer Fudd in one hat, but then we found an orange hat with ear flaps. He put one flap up and one down, and he looked in the mirror and said, “Bush, this is it.’ From that day forward, he was Bubba.
“When we put Shotgun Red and Bubba together with me in the middle, it was a huge, huge hit. Now I’ve lost both my co-hosts. Jim Varney passed away when he was 50, and Steve Hall passed away this year.”
Bushman said Varney also helped him with his on-camera presence.
“He told me one day, ‘Bush, you look mad,’” Bushman said. “I said, ‘Jim, I ain’t mad, I’m scared.’ He taught me so much about the camera. He said, ‘The camera is your best friend. It’s not your enemy. When you’re talking to the camera, it’s got to be your buddy.’ I’m still not great, but I’ve learned to relax a little and be more myself.”
Bushman still marvels at the reach of the Buckmasters TV show.
“I’m just a country boy from Montgomery, Alabama, doing a hunting show,” he said. “You walk through an airport, or you walk on a beach, or you’re in a restaurant, and people come up and tell me they love the show. I never fathomed that so many people would watch the show.
“And believe me, the show was not about me. It was about getting people ready for deer season. I promise you, there are a lot better deer hunters out there than me. There are a lot of deer running around out there laughing at that part of it. I could do a three-year series on just missed deer.”
Bushman said his goal for the show is to project their love of hunting and try to point out the positive aspects of the outdoors experience.
“You know, bird watching is the fastest-growing sport in the nation,” he said. “What people don’t know is who funds the conservation efforts so that we have abundant wildlife of all species. The hunters fund it. But we want you to come hunting and be a part of our fraternity. A part of it is access to hunting land, but a lot of kids these days are in single-parent homes.
“If everybody in a hunting club took a kid or an adult newcomer hunting, it’s a pretty simple equation. We have 11 million hunters. If everybody took a kid hunting who didn’t have access to it, we’d double our numbers. If we don’t do that, our numbers will continue to decline.”
This weekend, Bushman will be hanging around the Buckmasters booth at the convention center with a variety of activities going on around him. More than 300 exhibitors will have the latest hunting equipment. The Brewster buck, the new world record whitetail, will be on display. Hunting celebrities will be available for autographs as well as the usual indoor archery championship. New this year will be the Buckmasters collegiate fishing competition.
Visit www.buckmasters.com/resources/expo for more information. Entry fee is a can of food that will be donated to the Montgomery Area Food Bank.