By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
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.”