September 22, 2010
A nostalgic look back at this legendary writer's career demonstrates that he was a dedicated whitetail enthusiast to the core of his being as a hunter.
By Jim Casada
By 1971, Jack's hunting career had spanned four decades and he had hunted big game all over the world. Although he had hunted his beloved Coues deer in the Southwest since boyhood, he had yet to take a nice "Northern" whitetail. In October of that year, while hunting with his good friend Dave Christensen -- an outfitter/rancher based out of Riggins, Idaho, near the Salmon River -- Jack downed this outstanding 11-pointer with a pre-1964 Winchester Model 70 Featherweight .270.
Most folks with an intimate acquaintance with American gun and hunting literature would agree that among 20th century sporting scribes, Jack O'Connor was without peer in those fields. Prolific, knowledgeable, opinionated in a fashion beloved by legions of readers, adamant in his refusal to be an industry shill, and a skilled wordsmith, the college English professor turned writer was and continues to be something of an icon.
When Jack's name is mentioned, those familiar with the outline of his career normally think of his great love for .270-caliber rifles, sheep hunting, safaris and shikaris to exotic locales in Asia and Africa, or wide-ranging technical expertise as a self-confessed gun crank.
Yet he was also an avid lifelong whitetail hunter. In one of his earliest stories for Outdoor Life, "What, No Whitetails?" Jack wrote about his grand love affair with the diminutive desert whitetail that seems to be styled "O'Connor's deer" about as often as it is called a Coues deer.
"If I had to pick the American big game animal that has given me more real pleasure than any other, I think I'd choose the Arizona whitetail," he wrote. "I like the big mule deer, the majestic elk, the great, brown mountain sheep, the gaudy antelope; but for real, deep-seated thrills, little Odocoileus couesi is my favorite. The flash of his big, white fan, the sight of his small, compact antlers, his sleek, gray body scurrying through the brush -- well, they give me, more than any other animal, those moments of high ecstasy which make a man a sportsman."
Interestingly, for all his many encounters with Coues deer (he wrote dozens of feature stories revolving around the subspecies, with one of his pieces that appeared in numerous anthologies, "We Shot the Tamales," being among them), Jack did not hunt what he styled "northern whitetails" until quite late in his career. In fact, in today's hunting world, one in which whitetails have become commonplace over much of the country, it seems remarkable that it was not until the February 1972 issue of Outdoor Life, only a few years before his death in 1978 and just two days short of his 76th birthday, that he wrote his first story on the animal. Ironically, it was about a buck killed in his home stomping grounds, Idaho's Salmon River, while hunting with his wife, Eleanor, and son Brad.
"Until recently," he wrote, "the northern whitetail was to me as strange a trophy as the greater kudu, the desert bighorn, and the ibex are to most hunters...The northern whitetail had always eluded me."
It might be more accurate to say the whitetail had ignored him in person, because such was not the case in print. He mentions whitetails, and not just Coues deer, fairly frequently in his books and articles. For example, there is a chapter on whitetails in Hunting in the Rockies (1947), as well as in his impressive coffee-table-sized book, The Big Game Animals of North America (1961).
Primarily, though, Jack O'Connor was a Coues deer hunter. That was only natural. His birthplace and his sporting roots were in Arizona. He was born on Jan. 22, 1902, in Nogales, a decade before Arizona became a state. His was in some ways an idyllic childhood, thanks to his maternal grandfather, James Wiley Woolf, who was a serious hunter and Jack's sporting mentor. Sadly, when Jack was only 13 he lost his grandfather (one cannot escape the comparison with Robert Ruark of The Old Man and the Boy fame, who lost his grandfather at the age of 15), and from that point forward he was without a sporting compass.
Much of what the young hunter learned, and that was particularly the case with deer, came through the school of hard knocks, voracious reading, and a rare knack for observation. His later teens were troubled, as careful reading of his book Horse and Buggy West: A Childhood on the Last Frontier (1969), reveals. Yet it was also the time when he took the first steps along a lifelong trail as a deer hunter.
One of Jack's uncles who owned a sawmill in Sinaloa hired him. After Jack proved to be an abject failure as a truck driver, he was assigned to a more amenable task and one for which he exhibited rare aptitude. He began shooting deer for the mill workers. In company with a Mayo Indian who was close to his age, he took dozens of deer and also learned a great deal about the effectiveness of high velocity bullets from smaller caliber guns (a .250-3000 compared to a .30-30).
These early years of hunting made lasting impressions in a number of ways. For starters, he developed a deep respect for family links (especially those missing in his own childhood, thanks to divorced parents and his grandfather's death). Jack made a concerted, ongoing effort to include his children (two girls and two boys) and his wife, Eleanor, in his hunting experiences.
There were a number of family outings that involved deer hunting, and stories such as "Christmas Present Deer Hunt," "The Gals Meet the Champ" (Eleanor proves to be a Diana of considerable ability), "We Shot the Tamales," and many others.
A number of the hunts took place in Arizona, which was home to Jack and his family until a move to Lewiston, Idaho, a few years after the conclusion of World War II. There were also frequent sojourns to what he described as "the wild, beautiful Sonora coast of the Gulf of California" down Mexico way. In the 1930s and 1940s, the region was a game-rich paradise where there was little hunting pressure.
As any devoted sportsman knows, there's no ground like home ground, and for Jack the sere landscapes of the Arizona and Sonora deserts were his hunting homeland. He came to love sheep hunting and the remote mountain strongholds where they were found, and according to Jack's close friend Buck Buckner, Jack "rated a trophy Coues buck as being generally more difficult to bag than an old desert ram."
Certainly the little whitetails laid a firm hold on a corner of Jack's hunting soul. One of his earliest stories, "Elves of the Brush Country," which appeared in the October 1935 issue of Field & Stream, was on Coues deer, as was one of his last pieces, "Southwestern Whitetail: That
Magnificent Midget," for Petersen's Hunting in March 1975.
It should also be noted that Jack was almost single-handedly responsible for directing the attention of sportsmen to the little deer. In fact, his contribution to the 1939 edition of the Boone and Crockett record book, "Hunting the Coues Deer," was something of a breakthrough in focusing interest on the animal. Interestingly, his approach to hunting them was simple in the extreme when compared to those employed by today's outfitters.
He was first and foremost a sport hunter, with the joys of procuring venison for the pan coming in not far behind. While he shot his share of trophy Coues heads, Jack was in no sense obsessed by record racks. As Buck Buckner puts it, he "loved to ride the oak and grama-grass hills until he jumped a buck, then leap from his horse, jerk his .270 or .30-06 from the scabbard, and try to connect before the deer disappeared. Toward the end of a lifetime of hunting, he still considered this the most enjoyable way to hunt." It was a far cry from today's sit, glass, and wait tactics, and one that demanded a quality Jack possessed in ample degree -- superb marksmanship.
Coues deer run as a bright and shining thread through the entire fabric of Jack's literary career, and what a career it was. He was the highest-paid outdoor writer of his time. Outdoor Life pretty much owned his pen as long as he was employed there (he became the Arms & Ammunition Editor in 1941, a position he held until 1972, when frustration with the publication's editorial direction led to his resignation). The magazine, not Jack's children, still holds the copyright to the bulk of his writing.
Along the way, Jack developed a large and loyal readership, and for anyone of my generation (I grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s), he was and remains a shooting and hunting icon. He won plenty of awards, such as the Weatherby Trophy in 1957 and the Winchester Outdoorsman of the Year in 1972, and he was inducted into the Hunting Hall of Fame. Most of all, O'Connor was a man who possessed that elusive quality we call style.
He clearly had a rare talent for friendship, and those who knew him remember him with great fondness, as is indicated by their efforts underlying the recent opening of the Jack O'Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center in Idaho. Truly a hunter for all seasons, Jack O'Connor left a timeless legacy in the form of a significant body of fine articles and books. It places him squarely in the forefront of America's rich literature of the outdoors, and coverage of the world of the whitetail was an integral, important part of his legacy.
When Jack died, he bequeathed his impressive collection of trophies and other memorabilia to the University of Idaho, but until recently his legacy has not gotten the attention it merits. In 2006, however, after years of work by Jack O'Connor enthusiasts and with full support from the state of Idaho, the Jack O'Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center opened its doors.
Located at Hell's Canyon Visitor Center within a couple of miles of where Jack lived on the Snake River in his latter years, the Center houses his trophies, some of his many guns, a display of his books and other mementos, and examples of his many contributions to Outdoor Life. For more information, visit www.idahoparks.org/parks/hellsgate.aspx.
(Editor's Note: Author Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer with a keen interest in the literature and history of sport hunting. He has written or edited a number of whitetail-related books, ranging from anthologies bringing together great writing to venison cookbooks. One of his most recent endeavors was to edit and compile The Lost Classics of Jack O'Connor. Signed and inscribed copies of the lavishly illustrated hardback are available from him for $40 postpaid, while the leather-bound and boxed limited edition, which includes four extra stories, is $100 postpaid. To order your copy, visit www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com or write Jim at 1250 Yorkdale Dr., Rock Hill, SC 29730.)