With another season of North American Whitetail's popular TV show premiering on Sportsman Channel this week (at 9 p.m. Eastern on June 27, to be precise), it seems as good a time as any to look at what goes into producing quality programming for today's deer enthusiast.
Right up front, I'll say this: It's hardly as easy as we sometimes make it look. Or, to put it more accurately as easy as the deer sometimes make it look. As you might have figured, we spend way more hours in the field than you ever see documented on your TV screen. I don't know the exact percentage of the footage we record makes it onto the air, but it's quite low.
It's hard to call any deer hunt a total waste of time; after all, we really love being out there, and we learn something every time we go. But from the standpoint of generating TV content, some trips are all but total busts, no matter how well we thought they were planned or executed on our part. Such is the nature of chasing free-ranging mature bucks, especially on land unfamiliar to us. Success only looks routine because we put enough time and effort into enough hunts in enough places each year to come back with a sufficient amount of show-worthy footage.
TUNE IN: Wed 9 p.m., Thur 12 a.m. & 12:30 p.m., Sat 6 a.m. on the Sportsman Channel. All times eastern.
I suppose big bucks have always been hard to hunt. I know for sure they're at least as tough today as when we started producing TV nine years ago. They don't like parading around in the open in good camera light, and they aren't all that keen on posing for easy shots. In short, it's hard to get a smart, free-ranging buck to follow the script. Then again, sometimes the buck does his part, but the hunter doesn't do his. Either sort of glitch results in there being far more hunting than killing within our footage.
Of course, that reflects the reality of whitetail hunting. And that's actually good. Too many "perfect" hunts and viewers get leery that something just isn't right. I don't think we've ever had that problem! Big bucks seem to hate scripts that end well for the hunter. And so, we end up every year with tons of footage featuring things other than deceased deer.
We get a lot of questions about TV production, and most involve the hunts themselves. Hunting trophy bucks in multiple locations every year is a privilege, and we know it's a dream for many deer hunters. So it's hardly a surprise that people want to know all about it. How do we decide where to go? How do we figure out the best time to be there? How do we analyze hunting spots we might never even have set foot in before that trip?
It's probably not so different from how you'd approach it yourself. Hunting is hunting, whether you have a video camera or not. First, we look for locations with a good density of relatively mature bucks. Next, we try to determine if the habitat allows for good video. (Unbroken blocks of thick, evergreen cover tend not to, for instance.) Then we try to figure out if the time we can be there fits into the big picture of the full season's schedule.
When it comes to predictably good daytime buck movement, "prime time" is a fairly short period across much of North America. Most places feature a standard November rut. But you can't hunt everywhere Nov. 5-15. If we could, I suppose we'd get more really good hunts on camera. The trick is figuring out enough locations that are good outside that period.
Our inaugural episode of the 2012 season offers a great example of coming up with a super opportunity outside the classic rut window. Stan is in Kentucky, on his first trip to bowhunt a new piece of ground. Kentucky's bow season kicks off the first Saturday in September, when at least some bucks still are in velvet and relatively relaxed. Knowing this, Stan is on hand for the opener. And I'm pretty sure you'll be impressed with what steps out of the woods near his tree stand!
Whether we're scouting out feeding patterns in early or late season, setting up on a scrape or rub line in late October or hunting around a doe bedding area during the "cruising" phase in early November, our strategies and tactics are subject to the same forces as yours. We have the additional burden of trying to zero in on the right stand sites in a hurry, because the clock is always ticking on our trips. We can't afford to spend the first five days of a six-day bowhunt looking for the right tree for a southwest wind. We have to hit the ground running. That brings its own pressure, of course.
Then again, we often can draw on solid local knowledge. Even if we haven't had a chance to visit the place before, we'll extract what we can from the landowner or our hosting outfitter. We don't expect to be led to the best tree on the farm, but whatever we can find out about overall deer use of the property and recent movement observations can go a long way to getting us headed in the right direction. After that, it's still sign reading and cautious hunting, same as for you or anyone else.
Successful encounters with game are of course every hunting show's bread and butter. But if you've watched our show, you realize they aren't our only focus. Since we began, every episode also has had a "Big Buck Profile," a "Muzzy Moment" and a "Dr. Deer" segment. The last couple of seasons also have included something we call "From the Stand," focusing on strategies and tactics we use in the field. Put it all together and you have what we feel is a well-rounded program. And based on our ratings over the years, it seems many other whitetail fanatics agree.
When we first turned the cameras on in the hunting season of 2003, to capture footage for our inaugural season in '04, the world of outdoor TV was a simpler place. There were just as many deer hunters then, but fewer had access to programming geared specifically toward their interests. Just about anything to do with whitetails would draw an audience. As for the technical quality of the footage, let's just say that what was then state-of-the-art video equipment might not even meet network specs today. Overall, the quality of a "good" hunting show tended not to be as high as you'll find today.
If you've been a faithful follower of our show, one new thing you'll notice right off this season is the studio. For the first time ever, we aren't using one. Instead, Stan Potts and I will be hosting each episode from the woods. Dr. James Kroll and I did this in the past two seasons of Winchester Ammunition Dr. Deer, also on Sportsman Channel, and we really like the way that turned out . . . so we've decided to expand it to NAW TV as well.
Another new aspect to the show is how we're handling hunt narration. We aren't using third-party voiceovers; instead, each hunter is describing the action in his own words. We really think this will help viewers to get a better feel for the hunts and the thought process behind them. As we all know, every hunt is unique, and so is the decision-making process involved. Hearing a hunter tell the story in his own words is simply better.
As for the hunters themselves, you'll see one new face on the show this year. It's Mike Clerkin, who's been behind the camera for us since the start. While Mike will continue to be one of our primary cameramen, he's now stepping around in front of the lens from time to time, showing off his considerable whitetail-hunting skills. This resident of southern Indiana is one of the best deer hunters I've ever known, and I'm sure you viewers will come to appreciate that fact as the season progresses.
Still on the show, of course, are Stan and James, along with Brent Beimert, NAW magazine editor Patrick Hogan and I. And I'm happy to report that Josh Viste is still the guy who's pushing buttons in the editing suite. So while the show will have a fresh look and feel this year, it will continue to feature many familiar elements as well. We all think it's a great package, and we certainly hope you agree.