As people started to fill the Montgomery Convention Center for the Buckmasters Expo recently, Jackie Bushman,  Buckmasters’ CEO and founder, sat upstairs and wondered why it had taken so long to put two and two together.

That simple arithmetic concerned the recent alliance between Montgomery-based Buckmasters and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES).

“Here’s something that has been sitting in our backyards, and we just didn’t recognize it,” said Bushman. “When we approached them (ACES), they said, ‘Wow, what a great way to get our message out.’ From a biological standpoint and the other dimensions they bring, this couldn’t be better for us. We’re all how-to in the magazines and the things we teach, but the biological aspect brings the how-to part to a whole new level.”

“And their 4-H outreach helps us get the message to the kids. The 4-H situation is awesome. With magazine, television, digital and email, they’re bringing a lot of editorial content that we can’t provide. That’s just not our expertise. So they’re bringing that expertise so we can share it.”

According to Bushman, ACES not only covers the biological aspects of deer hunting through population and habitat management, they also provide a wealth of information on all aspects of outdoors recreation.

“Now we’re going to sit down and really go over all the information that our readers can use,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to share a lot of knowledge with a lot of folks. The extension system is not just for farmers.”

Mark Smith, Associate Professor/Extension Specialist at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, agreed that the ACES-Buckmasters connection makes perfect sense.

“Buckmasters was seeking education information for the magazines for what they do in the deer world,” Smith said during the weekend expo. “This was an ideal partnership for us and Buckmasters to get science-based information to their members and followers, whether through their TV shows or magazines.”

“By pairing up with us (ACES), with our science and expertise, Buckmasters will be able to add educational value to their entertainment. That was the intent of the partnership, to increase the science-based content of Buckmasters. And for us, it helps get the word out that we do more than agriculture. We have a whole staff in forestry and wildlife management. This is good for us because we get the national exposure. It’s good for Buckmasters because they get good science-based information for their membership.”

At the young bucks exhibit, 4-H had a variety of information and recreation for the families, an important outreach for Buckmasters.

“We’ve got to keep the youth going, and social-networking seems to be where all the kids are,” Bushman said. “So we’re doing as much as we can on social networks, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or the other Internet stuff. That seems to be where that age group is headed, so we’re trying to stay out there as much as we can.”

“License sales have been up (nationally) for the last couple of years. That has a lot to do with more women getting involved. The more women who get involved, the easier it is to get the kids involved. I see it more as working on a family unit as a whole; then everybody is involved.”

Since the inception of the Buckmasters Expo, the public has gained entrance by donating a can of food, which goes to a local food bank. Bushman hopes that will remain constant amid rising prices for many other aspects of outdoors recreation.

“With the help of our sponsors, we can let people in with a can of food,” he said. “As long as we get the support of our local cities, counties and state, we can do that. We don’t want to have to charge. That’s what our formula is all about. As long as our local and national sponsors are involved, we can let people in for a can of food and feed a lot of needy people. And the people can take those dollars they would normally have to spend to get in and spend it with our vendors at the show.”

The 2012-2013 hunting season seemed to be a banner year for big bucks all over the nation, including Alabama. Plenty of mounts with huge racks were brought to the convention center to be scored by Buckmasters. Bushman is not surprised.

“Let’s face it, 20 years ago nobody really knew much about this management stuff,” he said. “The knowledge that is available now about how to grow a big deer, when to let a buck walk, and that type of information is unbelievable. You’ve got trail cameras everywhere that let landowners know what’s on their property. Everything is out there for the hunter to absorb, and we’re getting a lot smarter on catching up with that big buck.”

“I’m sure the rain also has something to do with it. When you have drought situations, the antlers are going to be smaller. This year, Alabama bucks ought to be the biggest ever. We ought to have a bumper crop of big deer due to all this rain. We see that in other places we hunt, like Montana, Texas and New Mexico. The people in south Texas can tell you what kind of racks they’re going to have by the amount of rain they get in the spring and summer.”

Of course, hunting big deer helps with the popularity of the Buckmasters TV show, which recently zoomed past a milestone in terms of longevity.

“We passed Curt Gowdy and the American Sportsman as the longest-running outdoors TV show,” Bushman said. “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or just that I’ve gotten old. But that means a lot to me.”

“Buckmasters has more than 200,000 members. Our Rack and Gun Hunter (magazines) are doing well. You just have to get through the hard times. Our job is to educate and entertain deer hunters, and that’s what we’ve done over the years.”

Bushman said the Buckmasters team is trying to keep the brand fresh with a new logo, but some things are not following national trends. Surprisingly, most Buckmasters members aren’t exactly ready for the digital age.

“We have a new logo and we’re changing the look for the younger hunters,” Bushman said. “I’m doing Twitter now. And we’re prepared to go digital, but 98.7 percent of our members still want a paper magazine. We’re ready to change, but people still want to watch Buckmasters and the Jackie Bushman Show on the Outdoor Channel and read that paper magazine.”

The wear and tear of hunting big game across North America for that long might force some to cut back on travel, but Bushman is doing just the opposite.

“Believe it or not, I’m probably doing more now than in a long time,” said Bushman, who recently bagged a grizzly bear with a bow. “The hardest thing about traveling so much was my kids. I always got back home for ball games and I coached some. I don’t speak at a lot of the deer-hunting shows because I made a commitment to be home with my kids and coach baseball and basketball.

“Now my kids are grown and out of the house. So, I really enjoy being on the road, doing what I do. I love to hunt and I love to entertain. As long as people like what we do, I’m going to continue to do it.”

Image courtesy David Rainer

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