It’s past midnight by the time we drive through the security gate and park alongside the former elementary school. Jim Shockey hops out of the pickup, unlocks a door that leads into a hallway, and flicks on the lights to reveal room after room of mounted game trophies and cultural artifacts gathered over a lifetime of hunting around the world.
A few dozen moose and caribou racks adorn what used to be the gymnasium. A side room contains the African species, including an elephant, a lion, and a Cape buffalo skull with a bullet hole punched through it. (Shockey had been visiting the site where a buffalo killed one of his friends when, on the ride out, an aggressive bull charged the vehicle. Shockey killed it at point-blank range as it rammed the front bumper.) Another room holds full-body sheep and goat mounts from the far side of the world—argali from the Himalayas, ibex from Mongolia, blue sheep from China, and red sheep from Iran.
I’m captivated by the animals, but Shockey wants to talk about the artifacts. He shows me pottery from Peru, rugs from Kazakhstan, and knives from Maasai warriors. Shockey traded for or purchased hundreds of these mementos during his travels. He bought the abandoned school (which his kids, Branlin and Eva, once attended) to convert it into a sort of natural history museum—and shrine to his career—that will one day be open to the public.
We had spent the day bear hunting in a cold rain on the north end of Vancouver Island before driving more than four hours south to Shockey’s museum. Tall and lean, Shockey still has energy to burn, and it seems like he might talk me through the origins of each artifact, one by one, all night long. But he’s also about to turn 60 years old, and as we pass the sheep mounts, he notes that his days of high-mountain hunting at the edge of the earth are numbered. Now approaching the twilight of his 30-year career as big-game hunting’s most recognizable TV show host, it’s clear that Shockey is trying to establish a deeper meaning amid the trophy heads hanging on the classroom walls.
“A trophy is a memory of something that happened—only recently have people twisted it to be about ego,” Shockey says. “Once I hunt a place, I can remember things about the species there and what’s going on with the local people. That knowledge and experience, that’s mine. [Trophies are] about paying respect to the tradition of hunting. And hunting and exploring are the same thing. Hunters are explorers.”
Through his show Uncharted and his social media platforms, Shockey has been promoting the idea that hunters are explorers and hunting is conservation as loudly as anyone. His show focuses on the places Shockey travels to, the stories of the local hunters, and the conservation efforts—always facilitated by hunters—under way to manage the animals being hunted.
But through his success, Shockey has helped grow a hunting television industry that often contradicts those core principles. Segments of outdoor television glorify the kill, while other programs have morphed hunting culture into lowbrow reality TV. Media insiders contend this type of content actually threatens the future of hunting.
The Man in the Red Bandanna
Shockey’s influence on the world of hunting has been twofold. First, and most important, he’s made adventure hunting in far-off places for exotic species palatable (and at times even inspirational) to average outdoorsmen and women. Second, he’s been a prodigious promoter of brands and products. Fans want to know what gear Shockey uses, and that gear sells.
But the most influential celebrity in big-game hunting came from unlikely beginnings. Shockey grew up in a trailer park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where his father, a road construction worker, taught him to hunt for deer and moose. From boyhood, hunting was a passion, and the Shockey family lived on wild-game meat. As a young man, Shockey was business-focused, and in his 20s, he owned high-end antiques stores in Vancouver. He eventually sold his stores and mortgaged everything he had to start an outfitting business for black bear hunters on Vancouver Island.
At the same time, he was writing hunting stories for Canadian outdoor magazines. Shockey grew up reading Jack O’Connor, and he idolized those high-adventure tales that made hunting feel larger than life.
With the help of his mentor and longtime sponsor, Tony Knight, of Knight Rifles, he broke into U.S. hunting magazines (he wrote several stories for Outdoor Life) and began writing articles about bear hunting to promote his outfitting business. In 1995, he bought a whitetail outfitting territory in Saskatchewan—just as the boom in trophy whitetail hunting hit that province.
Somewhere along the way, Shockey borrowed a guide’s black cowboy hat for a photo. He liked the look, so the hat became a fixture. During another hunt, an Outdoor Life contributor Richard P. Smith told him he needed to add a flash of color to his photos to help them stand out, so Shockey started wearing a red bandanna. The iconic Shockey look was born. By the late ’90s, hunting television shows and videos were gaining in popularity, and Shockey wanted a show of his own that covered adventure trips for big game.
“At the time, there were many people that told me the show wouldn’t work because it wasn’t about whitetails or turkeys [in the lower 48],” Shockey says.
But the doubters were wrong. With his three shows—Uncharted, Hunting Adventures, and The Professionals—he has ranked as one of the top five most-watched hunting-show hosts for more than 10 years, according to the Outdoor Channel.
From a broader perspective, the Shockey name might be the most powerful in hunting media. His daughter Eva’s popularity on social media (1.2 million Facebook fans and about 426,000 Instagram followers) is unrivaled. And Shockey’s son Branlin—who produces Uncharted —has had a major impact in advancing the style and format of storytelling in hunting television.
“If you’re talking about Jim’s programs, then Branlin is just as much of a star,” says Jim Liberatore, president and CEO of the Outdoor Channel. “Until recently, there has not been a lot of storytelling in Outdoor TV. But Branlin is a storyteller. Branlin is an artist.”
Along with his media success, Shockey is likely the most accomplished big-game hunter of the modern era. He’s taken 364 free-range big-game species—arguably the most taken by any living hunter.
Because Shockey targets the rarest big-game species, his message that “hunting is conservation” needs to cut deeper than images of a hunter smiling with an exotic trophy. Polls show that the general public is largely supportive of hunting for meat, but that support drops off when it comes to trophy hunting (Shockey argues the terminology needs to be changed to “selective hunting”). In other words, most people are okay with hunting deer to fill the freezer, but they get a little queasy about killing big cats, elephants, and rare mountain sheep. Shockey can get philosophical about hunting, but his take on conservation boils down to the basics of supply-and-demand economics: If big-game animals have monetary value (i.e., hunters are willing to pay to hunt them), they will be conserved; if a big-game species cannot be hunted, it will go extinct.
He points to the Suleiman markhor—a wild goat species in Pakistan with massive spiraling horns—as a prime example. Markhor were hunted by local tribes and slaughtered by poachers to the brink of extinction—only 200 remained—until a hunting program was implemented that allowed a few rich hunters to pay some $250,000 each to kill mature males. That influx of money encouraged locals to conserve the species by hiring 80 armed guards to stop the poaching. Today, there are about 3,000 Suleiman markhor in the wild, according the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“If hunting is just about getting meat, we reduce the value of that animal to 99 cents per pound,” Shockey says. “It has to be more than that if we’re going to save some of these species.”
Shockey’s success and fame have paralleled rapid changes in outdoor media. When Shockey started Hunting Adventures in 2000, there were a handful of big-game hunting shows on the Outdoor Channel. Now, between the Outdoor Channel and the Sportsman’s Channel (its sister network), there are more than 250 shows. The Outdoor Channel reaches almost 40 million households in the U.S., according to the network.
Much of this outdoor programming does not feature the cornerstones of a hunt, such as camaraderie, making meat, adventure, and conservation. And some shows rely on the most dramatic part of the hunt—the kill—for ratings. Following the trend of reality television, many hunting shows push their host’s personality and their content to the outrageous and absurd.
A few examples:
In an episode of Pigman: The Series, the host, Brian Quaca, shoots a doe whitetail through the neck. After the shot, the doe runs off and makes a loud death rattle offscreen. Quaca then speaks into the camera, saying: “Pigman has officially made a deer speak the language.... If you don’t like what you see, tune in again next week and I’ll show you some more.”
Tim Wells’ show, Relentless Pursuit, opens with a series of slow-motion archery and spear kill shots that include bloody footage from action cameras mounted on spears. Wells’ voiceover to the intro segment is a poem: “It’s not easy to like me / and I understand why / for the creatures that I meet / have a tendency to die.”
Part of the problem lies in the way that the outdoor TV industry is structured. A host buys airtime from the network. Then the host funds his or her show through sponsorships from manufacturers. But with the increase in the number of shows, wealthy hunters who want to showcase their achievements and boost their egos have bought up airtime without having to worry much about promoting messages that resonate with audiences. Middling TV shows aren’t lucrative, but they are a means for some hosts to reach a celebrity status within the hunting industry. In a sense, these hosts are chasing the fame that Shockey has attained without crafting the positive messaging that Shockey has honed over the years.
Shockey is not blind to the trends in outdoor television and the messages they convey, and he hopes good storytelling wins out over ego-driven content.
“This should not be about beating your chest,” he says. “[Hunting] is about much more than that. It’s not religion, but it is spiritual, and we need to return to hunting’s spiritual center.”
Meanwhile, Shockey doesn’t see (or won’t admit) his own content as ego-driven. And when I ask him about being competitive with other hunters to shoot the most—and the most difficult—species, his response is terse: “I’m only competitive with myself.”
But the very success of the show hinges on Shockey’s personality. The cinematic style combined with Shockey’s on-camera presence function to prop him up as a sort of heroic hunter—and that image has resonated both within the industry and with fans.
Read Next: Eva Shockey on the Future of Hunting
I met Shockey for the first time at a hunting-industry convention in Las Vegas in 2017, at the Outdoor Channel’s suite. The room was filled with hunting-show hosts and TV industry execs, and that evening, the Outdoor Channel was hosting its television awards ceremony. You could almost taste the rivalry in the air. People circled our table, trying to get a piece of Shockey, who was clearly considered to be the tastemaker of the room. Dressed all in black and perched tall atop a stool, Shockey reveled in the attention and the competitive banter. That night, Shockey’s Hunting Adventures won best overall series.
The issue with kill-focused, ego-driven content is that a surprising number of nonhunters watch outdoor television, and they form negative opinions when programs don’t show the hunt in totality, according to Mark Damian Duda, the executive director of Responsive Management. Duda’s firm does extensive research on natural resource and outdoor recreation issues, and in the last three decades he has conducted 25 focus groups and eight quantitative surveys on public attitudes toward hunting.
“Nonhunters might not watch a whole episode, but the shows are on and people are flipping channels and they start watching them,” Duda says. “It’s actually pretty amazing how impactful it is. The American public does not know a whole lot about hunting.... [Television] is sometimes their first and only exposure to hunting.”
Some industry insiders recognize that this type of ego-driven and kill-focused programming is not good for the sport, but all who were interviewed for this story agreed that TV advertising is still important for staying competitive.
“So much of it now is the glorification of the kill and the size of the animal that we have gotten away from what hunting is about,” says a former marketing manager for a large outdoor company, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still works in the business. “When I first came to the company, I was a major advocate for TV.... I was a believer in it, and it worked for my company. Today, I am not a proponent of it. I think you still need to be there [for business reasons]. But quite frankly, there are a lot of shows that aren’t doing our industry justice. They are hurting hunting.”
Shockey’s own track record proves that celebrity hunters have a major influence on consumers and can move product. Thompson/Center grew by 20 percent each year for 12 years straight, and the key to that success was sponsoring celebrities like Shockey, Michael Waddell, and Lee and Tiffany Lakosky, says Gregg Ritz, former vice president of sales and marketing at Thompson/Center.
A media buyer who works for a firearms company, and who also requested anonymity, had a more positive take: “There are still a lot of good things about outdoor TV. At the end of the day, we can’t run from the reality that we kill animals and they bleed. But you need to own that appropriately. It all comes down to the context of how the kill is shown.”
When I ask him about kill-focused and ego-driven programs, Shockey stops short of criticizing other shows.
“I never want to pass judgement on anyone else and it’s not for me to say what is right and what is wrong,” he says. “I try to lead and set an example to influence change in a positive way.”
Still, the very goal of Uncharted was to push past the derogatory hunting show stereotypes and offer audiences a deeper look at what hunting is really about. “The image and ideas of who hunters are is somewhat stereotyped, and that stereotype isn’t the most flattering image,” says Branlin Shockey.
Bears Back Home
Shockey has just returned from Somalia when I meet him at his bear camp on Vancouver Island. It’s late May, and the plan is to spot and stalk boars as they travel old logging roads looking for sows and forage.
Shockey will be guiding his daughter, Eva, on the hunt; a cameraman and I are along for the ride. The Jim and Eva you see on TV don’t change at all when the cameras stop rolling. Shockey is the expert who handles most of the tactical hunting decisions. He’s always stopping to share a story, cheesy joke, or natural history fact. Even off camera, his voice stays at a calm, low-frequency hum, as if it got stuck that way from decades of video interviews in the field.
Shockey is extremely driven and supremely confident in his abilities, and he can be a hard-ass around his cameramen and guides—mistakes by the staff do not go unnoticed in a Shockey camp. But on this hunt, he’s laid-back; the vibe is similar to that of a family deer camp. Even though we have a cameraman along with us—Shockey always has a cameraman with him on a hunt—there’s not much pressure to kill a bear.
As we drive, Shockey sings the only verse to Kiss’ song “Beth” that he knows, over and over again: “Beth I hear you callin, but I can’t come home right now, me and the boys are playin’, and we just can’t find the sound.”
Eva is not an expert hunter, and she doesn’t pretend to be one. From the beginning, Shockey was intentional in positioning his daughter as an eager new hunter who was ambitious and unfailingly positive. After she graduated from college and decided she wanted to be involved in hunting and media, the Shockeys got offers from friends and outfitters to guide Eva on hunts for big-ticket game species like brown bear and Cape buffalo. But Shockey knew viewers would resent seeing a first-timer on a hunt that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the average outdoorsman. So Eva’s very first big-game animal was a warthog, killed on video. She teared up after the shot.
Eva’s expertise is in business and communication. Her Instagram feed is a mix of lifestyle and hunting posts (there are as many shots of her baby daughter as there are field photos). Her fan base is largely made up of women, and includes many nonhunters. Every media expert interviewed for this piece recognized Eva as a critical role model for recruiting women hunters at a time when women are joining the sport at a higher rate than men. After a few days of riding around and spotting a handful of small bears, we finally bump into a big old boar on a logging road. The bear notices us, but he’s rutting and isn’t concerned with our presence. He walks down a side trail about 150 yards off, so we slip out of the truck.
Shockey leads Eva and their cameraman down the logging road to get a broadside shot on the bear, which is now posturing with his legs splayed wide to show his dominance. They get to within 80 yards of the bear before Eva sets up on shooting sticks. The cameraman sharpens his focus on the bear, filming over Eva’s shoulder, and she gets the green light to shoot as the boar quarters away slightly. The shot is perfect. The bear whirls, runs 30 feet, and dies.
We take some photos in a driving rain, and Shockey skins and quarters the bear. Both Eva and Shockey have received death threats for showing photos and videos of their kills (Jim Shockey once received a cardboard envelope with poison-laced razor blades pressed into the packaging material), so both are careful with the images they gather. In social media captions, they focus on the fact that the bear was a mature boar and that they’re taking the meat, but they don’t back down from posting dead-animal photos.
After the hunt, I get a tour of Shockey’s museum-in-progress at the south end of the island. Scanning the walls of horns, antlers, and bones, I ask him to tell me the story behind his favorite trophy, so he walks over to a moose rack that has a tine blasted off from a rifle shot.
Shockey was moose hunting with his dad, Hal, in the Yukon when they stalked to within close range of a big bull standing in thick cover. Hal used a canoe paddle for his shooting stick and excitedly sent his first shot right through the bull’s rack. The moose shook his head after the impact and Hal shouted, “I hit him!”
Hal killed the bull with a follow-up shot. It turned out to be the biggest and last bull he took before he died in 2013.
Now that Shockey has hunted just about everywhere (he’s spent the majority of the last five years in foreign countries, away from his family), he plans to change the angle of Uncharted so it focuses on hunting the Yukon—which has always been Shockey’s home away from home. I ask him about what’s next, now that there’s nowhere left to explore.
“Every explorer at some point goes home. I’m tired now. I always felt that it was on my shoulders to represent hunters and represent hunting in the best possible light. It’s been a long fight. Now that war is for younger hunters.”