For more than three decades, Jim Shockey has been a fixture of the outdoor world—first through his writing, then in the home-video market, and now on his groundbreaking TV show Uncharted. I recently spent some time with Shockey to talk about his success, the business of hunting, and the responsibilities that hunters have. Here’s the result, found in the new January/February 2018 issue of Sporting Classics.
Tell us about growing up in Saskatchewan and the path from All-American swimmer and player on the National Water Polo Team to one of the more prominent figures in the outdoors.
Yeah, it’s been quite a journey, for sure. I got my first deer when I was 14 in Saskatchewan, but I knew from way before that I was a hunter. I was just chomping at the bit to get out there and hunt, and I knew I’d live my life around that. [But] Saskatchewan didn’t hold for me what I needed for a university. Fortunately, I was a swimmer, so I got a scholarship at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I competed at All-American, but after a couple years of that, I decided that I wanted to be a water polo player, so I actually just walked onto our national team and then played for Canada for six years.
I moved out east to finish university, and then I started an antique business, but it was just a way to make enough money to get into the hunting industry, though I didn’t know exactly what I would do. Then, in 1984, I wrote my first hunting article for Bow Bender magazine, so that’s really when I entered as a professional in the hunting world.
The $45 Shockey received for his article certainly wasn’t enough for him to become a full-time outdoor professional, so he had to keep on selling antiques and writing articles. Luckily, things soon changed.
One day, Ralph Lauren walked into one of my stores in Vancouver and essentially bought all of my inventory. That gave us enough money to buy a place on Vancouver Island, which I then refinanced so we could buy our first hunting territory in 1992. We leveraged that again to buy our Saskatchewan whitetail operations. Before long, we were taking 130 hunters a year. We then bought our Rogue River opening in the Yukon. That’s our flagship—12,000 square miles, several million acres. It’s unbelievable; not a single road, not a house. Remote.
Along the way, the editors of various publications I wrote for were tied in with television shows on ESPN at that time. So by 1993 I think I did my first co-hosting of a television show. It was North American Outdoors on ESPN. The North American Hunter magazine editors were looking for places to do hunts for television. I said, “Heck, come on up here.” So we did that one—that might’ve been 1992. And because I was writing for magazines, I already had name recognition with the people that were starting to do television. ESPN was a big network. I would co-host as sort of the guest outfitter of the hunt, then there would be a national host, but I was on there to guide them. That’s how I got my taste for television.
I think it was ’96 or so when I started putting together my first VHS video on hunting whitetails. It was a how-to and quite long production, but I learned about the behind-the-scenes work of editing and storytelling.
In 2003, we started our Hunting Adventures television show, which spun off into The Professionals, which spun off into Uncharted.
Like most people that look back 20 to 30 years earlier in their lives, I’m sure you cringe at some of the decisions you’ve made. With that in mind, what is your biggest criticism of your early forays into video and television?
Honestly, I try not to look back at those early performances. At the beginning, I forgot that hunting is about having fun. It’s not about being tough and doing something the hardest way. It’s about enjoying it with family and friends in the outdoors. Like I said, I was pretty driven in the beginning, and maybe some of those early years I forgot to smile on camera.
Back in those days, I was extremely focused. Would I do anything differently? Absolutely not. There’s not one thing I regret; not one thing I’d do differently. Every decision I ever made was made with the best of intentions for that moment in time. I took it all in and made a decision, so why would I change anything now? It wouldn’t be any different.
Uncharted is a great show, really unlike anything else on TV. How would you describe it to people who have never seen it? Would you say it’s a hunting show that features travel and adventure and character studies?
At first, I never claim it’s a great show. I love it. In writing, it would be higher prose. It’s deeper; it delves deeper into what hunting’s about. So how do I describe it to people? It’s very difficult, actually. It’s a travel documentary with hunting as the theme.
In Uncharted, the kill on the hunt is a tiny, tiny little sliver of a pie. We try to focus on all the other aspects of the hunt rather than the kill.
You have stated publicly that your son Branlin came up with the concept for Uncharted. How did he describe what the show would be, and what was your initial reaction?
It actually started before that. My wife and I never, ever forced our children or in any way cajoled them to get in our industry. Louise was vegetarian when we met; she doesn’t hunt and never will. So it wasn’t something that we tried to bring them into. Both Eva and Branlin went off and worked in other industries, and then Branlin came to me . . . it would be 12 years ago . . . and said, “Dad, I’m thinking about getting in the industry.” He told me that he loved hunting, but he said that if he tried to be great at it, he’d always be in my shadow and people would say, “It’s because of your old man,” and you know, he wanted to make his own way. So he told me at 16 that he was going to look for other avenues in our industry, and he finally sorted it out.
Branlin came to me one day and said, “Dad, I can make your television show [Hunting Adventures] better. I can sort of bring it into the 21st century,” and I go, “How are you gonna make this better? Have you ever edited anything?” “No.” “Have you ever put a show together?” “No.” “Have you ever filmed?” “No.” But he said, “But I can do better than what you’re doing.”
He said, “I have this idea . . .” and it was actually The Professionals that he came up with, and you know, The Professionals won first year best overall for outdoor television, which is our biggest single award.
I would like to claim some of the credit for Uncharted, but I was just doing what I do. It was Branlin’s vision that put what you see on the screen.
How many countries have you visited throughout your career?
Over sixty for sure. There’s not many countries left in the world that I haven’t visited to explore the hunting side.
Uncharted not only details how interested you are in other cultures but also shows the respect you feel for them. On some episodes you even dress in the area’s traditional garb to hunt. How important is it that you show such reverence?
As a hunter, we’re ambassadors when we do these international hunts. How we act on the ground with these people is going to be their takeaway from it. If you just read the press, every one of them hates us in those parts of the world, and every one of them is a danger to us, and that’s just not true.
The majority of the people around the world are wonderful family people. Yes, culturally they’re different, their religious beliefs are different, their food is different, the way they dress is different.
In Pakistan, for instance, wearing the sherwani was a lot more comfortable in hot weather than it was to wear our hunting garb. What the other people wear is a function of necessity in these countries, so why would I judge them? When you go to another country, you should actually care about what they’re eating, the clothing they wear, and why . . . like I say, you’re an ambassador. Not only an ambassador for the West, but an ambassador for hunting.
Even if they still hate the West, they don’t hate hunters. I know it’s kind of self-serving in that way, but it’s a start. Then let the bird-watchers go over there and do the same thing . . . let the fishermen do the same.
Do hunters have an obligation to defend what they do and to educate the public? I ask because it occurred to me recently that I can think of no other pastime—baseball, soccer, gardening, SCUBA, etc.— that does such.
I think we do. Not to defend; I don’t look at it as defending. It’s educating. Does every hunter have an obligation to educate? That’s pretty encompassing because there are a lot of hunters that just go on the weekend who don’t think any more deeply than that. They get together with their buddies and, you know, go hunt a deer once a year. Are they responsible for educating the public every chance they get? I don’t think they even know if they have to. I don’t think it’s every hunter’s responsibility, but the hunters that have the opportunity or the voice to reach, I think it absolutely is a responsibility. One that we haven’t done very well at.
I think we have to look at it a little bit more introspectively and embrace the spiritual side of hunting. I think that’s the only hope.
So what’s next for Jim Shockey? What does the future hold?
For Uncharted in 2018, we’ve already got the show in the can. In fact, we’re editing right now. That’ll have been five years of Uncharted, and now I want to try something that’s slightly different. For 2019, it’ll be Uncharted Yukon, but with the same type of format. So we will get intensive on a given place.
How do you possibly talk about Nepal in one hour? The Himalayas, in two hours if we do a two-part series on it? It’s just not enough. To me, we’re still not doing service to these places and their many wonders. So Uncharted will become Uncharted Yukon, and going forward, Hunting Adventures will continue.
Hunting Adventures is a pretty vertical hunting show—old school, tells a story. Five elements: family, culture, humor, adventure, and big animals. The perfect Hunting Adventure show will be twenty percent of each of those elements.
So that’ll continue and there will be international hunts on Hunting Adventures, but in Uncharted Yukon, I want to explore deeply into that one place for a season at least. Besides the fact that I love the Yukon, it’s one of my favorite places to hunt in the world . . . truly a wonder. They should make the entire Yukon into a World Heritage Site. It’s spectacular up there. So few people and so wild; it’s the greatest and most remote frontier left in the world. Siberia doesn’t compare; there are people everywhere in Siberia.
The Yukon is where I want to put down roots for at least the 2019 Uncharted season.