By: Randy Tucker
Coonskin cap, flintlock rifle, homemade clothes, living off the land. Total self-reliance.
These things conjure up the image of the outdoorsman myth and legend have passed down to us since Daniel Boone roamed the Kentucky woods, Davy Crockett settled Tennessee and Texas, and Jim Bridger explored the Rocky Mountains.
Historical outdoorsmen are easy to define, but the modern version takes on more varied connotations. Perhaps the easiest explanation of what an outdoorsman is comes from a pair of them. Ike Eastman of the “Eastman’s Hunting Journal” TV show, and my son, Brian Tucker of Hi Mountain Seasonings, share similar definitions.
“An outdoorsman is someone who makes their living in an outdoor occupation in something involving, hunting, fishing, guiding etc.,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t have to be the only source, but it does need to be a significant source of income.”
“There’s a lot of controversy surrounding what the definition of an outdoorsman is,” Eastman said. “How I define it is that if you make the majority or all of your income from the out-of-doors or the industry – for example, as a hunting guide, game warden, in the media, anything in the outdoor industry, then you’re a professional outdoorsman.”
‘Poverty with a View’
Many people look to outfitting as the primary example of making a living as an outdoorsman, and it can be lucrative when the economy is strong and you have access to prime hunting and fishing areas. But many times, it just doesn’t pay the bills.
“It’s a hard way to make a living. It all depends on supply and demand, and there’s not much pay,” Eastman said.
Residents of the picturesque mountain town of Dubois, Wyoming, with an economy heavily dependent on elk hunting, fishing, dude ranching, and snowmobiling, have a description of their local economy. They call it “Poverty with a view.”
Ike Eastman of "Eastman's Hunting Journal."
Following the Seasons
“I have three seasons,” Eastman said. “Hunting season, on the road from August to November 1st filming TV shows. The second season is the show season. We travel to 20 shows a year, talking to consumers, selling subscriptions, DVDs, etc. The third is family season. It’s when I’m home. We do a lot of strategic planning and get ready for the two upcoming busy seasons. We talk with advertisers and do follow-up from shows.”
Eastman and his wife have two little girls, aged five and eight.
“The third season lets me go camping and fishing with my kids,” Eastman said. “With two girls, God is teaching me patience.”
Tucker is the national sales manager at Hi Mountain, working as an outdoorsman in the production and sales side of a business that produces jerky kits and wild game seasoning.
Though he works in a different avenue of the outdoors from Eastman, Tucker also has distinctive seasons to follow.
“We have the hunting season and the show season,” Tucker said. “From February to April, it’s slow-down, recovery season, then fishing season, work-wise, [is] our busy season, then it’s hunting season again.”
Like any career, there are perks and downsides to being a professional outdoorsman.
“The best part of this career is networking with fellow outdoorsman and getting to spend time in the field,” Tucker said. “Knowledge of game codes and laws is extremely important, since as an outdoor professional you’ll be held to higher standards. People make mistakes, but when you’re in the public eye, you need to a be a trend-setter and leader in ethical outdoor practices.”
Getting a Foot in the Outdoors
Eastman’s business began with his grandfather, Gordon Eastman, in Alaska in 1957.
“He was a guide up in Alaska,” Ike Eastman said. “He mortgaged his house to buy a camera to start filming hunts. He came to the lower 48 with all that footage and live-narrated it. He’d fill a high school auditorium, show the film, and narrate it.”
By the 1980s, Gordon Eastman tired of working on the road and started a new venture.
“He was looking for his next hustle,” Ike Eastman said. “One of my uncles said, ‘Why don’t we take all these old movies and put them on VHS and sell them to video rental stores?’ Dad was a contractor in Jackson, Wyoming when the housing bubble popped, and he went broke. Dad started selling VHS’s, traveling all over the country to video stores.”
Video rental moved away, but new television channels bloomed across the U.S. in the late 1990s.
“Dad started shooting live footage and looking online,” Eastman said. “A new station, the Outdoor Channel, had a program called ‘Gold Fever.’ They were looking for content to go along with gold panning. Dad found them in 1997 through a friend. He talked to their production manager, [and dad said,] ‘I want to put out a TV show, 13 original episodes, and repeat them each year.’”
At first, the show idea didn’t sit well with the production manager, who said, “When you have them in the can, send them.” Gordon Eastman told him, “I have them in the can now. I have the episodes filmed and edited, already on VHS.”
The Eastmans’ first season aired in 1999, and they now produce 26 original episodes each year.
A Different Path to the Outdoors
Tucker’s entry into the outdoor business was a bit different. He was an avid hunter and fisherman who processed game privately using Hi Mountain seasonings, and had hunted with Hi Mountain co-owner, Hans Hummel.
“Hans knew about my experience with his products. I used Hi Mountain more than the average person,” Tucker said.
Tucker was working as an ad salesman at a local newspaper when Hummel approached him.
“He knew about me,” Tucker said. “I was diligent in my job, and they called up and offered me a position without ever applying. After six months, they made me the senior executive. A year-and-a-half later, they made me the national sales manager. With that position came the opportunity to travel, do trade shows, hunt, and do marketing and product development that led to hunting and public appearances.”
Societal changes have affected hunting and fishing in a negative way in many parts of America, and outdoorsmen must lead the fight to preserve public lands for future generations.
“In certain areas, it’s becoming more a rich man’s sport than a hobby,” Tucker said. “The pressure for hunting rights, getting limited access to private land, and the battle over firearms could drive-up costs, making it more expensive and forcing people out.”
Our American heritage is under attack on many fronts, and the outdoors is one of the most visible areas of the conflict.
“I don’t think it will ever die, since it’s our heritage, and it’s been passed on for a long time,” Tucker said. “But some would rather look at computers, cell phones, and video games than go outside and enjoy the outdoors. It’s harder for my generation and the generations before me to pass on those traditions and beliefs. Electronics are easier to do than getting up at 4:00 a.m. to hunt or fish.”
Pursuing an Outdoor Life
If a young person does make the decision to work in the outdoors, there are plenty of roads that lead to a career as a professional outdoorsman (or woman).
“The easiest way to get started is to become a guide,” Eastman said. “You get a ton of experience, you get paid to get experience, you get to deal with [diverse] people and situations, and you learn about animals. You learn everything you need to know about hunting.”
Patience in your career choice is perhaps the most important trait for an outdoor professional. It takes time to learn the business of being a modern outdoorsman.
“You can’t just open up an Instagram account or a Facebook page and start a business,” Eastman said. “You have to be legitimate. People in the business have tons and tons of experience and a sensitive BS meter. If I were starting out today, I’d do everything. I’d be a hunting guide, a fishing guide, a tour guide for snowmobiles, get to know people and the business. As with everything, networking is key, so you need to keep the good people close.”
Outfitters and ranches generally need hands in the fall, and manufacturing, media, and outdoor supply companies are always looking for motivated, talented young people. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and work your way up.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock