Sitting in the Montgomery Civic Center minutes before doors opened for the second day of this year’s Buckmasters Expo, Jackie Bushman found it amazing that 25 years had zipped by so quickly since the idea of the world’s premier deer-hunting fraternity was cultivated in Lowndes County.
Back in the early 1980s, Bushman was a member of the hunting club with Ray Scott, who took weekend bass fishing and turned it into the Bass Anglers Sportsman’s Society and all that it entails.
“Ray and I were sitting in a soybean field waiting for some folks to start a deer drive,” Bushman said. “He was telling me how he started Bassmaster and how everybody thought he was crazy. Every day after that I had the vision to do something similar to what he did for bass fishermen but for deer hunters.”
After an All-SEC tennis career at Auburn, Bushman played on the tennis circuit for several years and then became tennis director at Lagoon Park in Montgomery. He and his father put on the Blue-Gray tennis tournament each year with the help of the late Perry Mendel of Kindercare fame, who posed a question to the younger Bushman one day after the tennis event was over.
“Mr. Mendel asked me what I would like to do other than hit tennis balls to kids and little old ladies the rest of my life,” Bushman said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I’ve always dreamed of taking what Ray Scott did for bass fishing and doing it for deer hunting.’ ”
Mendel put up the seed money, and Bushman produced a “how-to” tape on deer hunting. He went to deer shows in Birmingham and other cities and sold enough tapes to have money left over after expenses.
“Mr. Mendel said I could take that money and start flying around to sell the Buckmasters idea, or I could take the money and go back to hitting tennis balls,” Bushman said.
With the help of Rob Hartley, Kindercare marketing director at the time, Bushman brushed up his marketing skills and put together a mock-up of a Buckmasters magazine. Off he went to sell the idea to companies that produce outdoors equipment and products.
The other concept Bushman pushed was the Buckmasters Classic, an idea to bring celebrities in from sports and entertainment and have them vie in a variety of outdoors-related competitions. For example, the tomahawk-throwing contest was one of the most popular. Archery, pistol and rifle shooting, as well as an ATV obstacle course, were also part of the competition made for TV. Of course, the participants also hunted deer during the event.
“That first Classic we had Bo Jackson, Johnny Lee (country music star), Lynn Dickey of the Green Bay Packers and Jody Davis of the Chicago Cubs,” Bushman said. “It was like a Superstars event. It was such a big hit.”
After two successful Classics, Bushman pitched the idea to TNN (The Nashville Network, which eventually became the Spike channel). But TNN was opposed to airing hunting on TV.
“I told them I would put together a pilot that was similar to what NBC did with Superstars, but I wanted to do it with an outdoors twist,” he said. “They said if there was no hunting and it was edited well, they would consider it. I got Dan Black to do the production and we sent it up there. They aired it in October of 1988 at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I’ll never forget this – I was still teaching tennis at the time – it was the highest rated show on all of TNN.
“I was teaching tennis at Lagoon Park when Mr. Mendel called me. He said, ‘Hey, you need to come on over here. Five guys from TNN just flew in on a corporate jet, and they want to talk to you.’ I walked in in my tennis shorts, and they said, ‘Son, we want to talk to you about doing the first hunting show on TNN.’ Remember, it was just a bunch of ol’ country boys throwing hatchets and riding four-wheelers, but I knew we had the audience. They were starving for it. We started the series in 1989 and we were off and running.”
“Now there are 530 hunting shows on four different outdoor networks, so go figure.”
Another surprise for Bushman is the number of females that have taken up hunting and shooting.
“Let’s face it, 20 years ago deer hunting was the men’s only club,” he said. “Nobody invited Momma to the hunting camp. Since then, more than 5 million women have become involved in the hunting and shooting sports. We’re not going down in license sales; we’re going up a little because of the women. That really surprised me. That’s a blessing for the whole sport.
“Even my little girl, I never expected her to want to go hunting, because she was a cheerleader and dancer. But she told me she wanted to go. She had a great time. Of course, I lost her when she was 16 because of the boys, but I’ll get her back. She really got into it at the time, but she understood what hunting was about. Whether I shoot another deer, that’s irrelevant. It’s about passing the tradition on. And these kids have so many things to do now. When we were growing up, we had one TV set and three channels. You had to go outside. These kids don’t have to go outside because they have so many things they can do. To get them involved in the outdoors and keep them involved, that’s our biggest challenge. I tell this to everybody, probably the worst thing you can do is get a 10-year-old kid and stick him in a deer stand and tell him to be quiet. You’ll run them off. Go back to what we did – BB guns, squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting and dove hunting. Get them some action first. Ease them into deer hunting.”
One hurdle that Bushman says he wishes he had the answer for is the availability of hunting land for the average citizen.
“In the old days, you could hunt for free,” he said. “But I understand that farmers and landowners have to utilize their property. I’ve seen people lose farms and property because of a drought for four or five years. I understand that.
“I think the Forever Wild program is something we need to continue, to have more land available for the average hunter. I don’t want to see the sport get to the point that you can only hunt if you have money. Another thing, if you’re in a hunting lease, take a buddy hunting with you. Everybody knows somebody who is down on their luck, or lost their job or just can’t afford the lease. Take him or her hunting with you a couple of weekends. They’ll come help you plant fields or work around the camp. I think if everybody did the ‘adopt-a-hunter’ deal, we’d keep our numbers up. I really believe in that. We’ve been taking fans who watch the show on a dream hunt for the past five years, and we have had more fun doing that.”
Bushman said that nothing he does is more important than the Buckmasters Classic Life Hunt, which evolved from the original Classic. Now, the celebrities are disabled hunters from around the nation who gather each January at Sedgefield Plantation near Selma.
“I say this all the time: We do 26 shows a year, and if I could do only one, it would be the Life Hunt with the disabled hunters,” he said. “We’ve also got the Taking Heroes Hunting program, so we’re bringing them to the Hintons’ place. Those are the best three days of the year. I don’t have any problems after seeing what these people go through. They didn’t want Disney World. They wanted to go deer hunting. We’ve taken more than 7,000 disabled kids and adults hunting. It’s been awesome. God’s blessed us is all I can say.”
Judging from the lines at the Civic Center, interest in deer hunting and Buckmasters has not diminished. The gate for the weekend was up 56 percent from last year as people from 39 states piled into the facility over the weekend. Admission was a can of food to be donated to charity. More than 39 tons of canned goods were collected during the event.
“This is a big deal to the Salvation Army,” Bushman said. “They have a hard time meeting their canned goods needs. And our people are not bringing one can; they’re bringing sacks full.”
The celebrity draw this year at the Expo was Troy and Jacob Landry of the “Swamp People” reality show.
““The reason we met was because Troy had a Buckmasters sticker on the front of his boat,” Bushman said. “Only in America can people in aluminum boats hunting alligators reach rock-star status.”
Of course, in certain circles, Bushman has reached that status, although he’s not comfortable with that designation.
“Let me tell you where I’m not a celebrity, my own household,” he laughed. “I still have to take the garbage out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I still have to change out the air filters in the house.
“But, it’s been a great run. It’s amazing what television does. It’s amazing how many people watch the show. But I put my britches on like everybody else. Everybody does their job. I just do television. Steven Spielberg hasn’t called me about my acting ability, so I haven’t reached that upper echelon. I just try to entertain folks. I don’t want to be the deer hunting expert. People have shot a lot bigger deer than I have. I just try to entertain people, get people ready for the deer season and have fun with the sport.”
Some 25 years later, I’d say he’s done a pretty fine job of it.
PHOTOS: (Courtesy of Buckmasters; 2nd by David Rainer) Jackie Bushman, founder and CEO of Buckmasters, presents Troy Landry, left, and Jacob Landry, right, with Lifetime Buckmasters Memberships during the Buckmasters Expo recently in Montgomery. Bushman celebrates the Buckmasters Classic Life Hunt for disabled hunters with Skylar Blair of Huntsville, who bagged this nice buck at Sedgefield Plantation.