I was bowhunting for deer when military camo was the only camo you could buy. I was doing a lot of speaking engagements back in those early days. I was speaking at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge in Alabama at a Buckmaster’s hunt, and I met a fellow named Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland. Back then, I was living in Montana where I lived for 30 years. My brother Barry and I had started a guiding business for bowhunters to take big bucks in Montana. At that time, Montana hadn’t been recognized as a great state for taking trophy bucks. Most hunters who came to Montana to hunt wanted to hunt mule deer. For 7 years, we took 28 guys bowhunting during deer season each year, and 96 percent of our bowhunters killed nice white-tailed bucks.
Cuz asked me, “Can I come out to Montana and film Barry and you taking some of those big Montana bucks with your bows?” At that time, we were hunting the Milk River. Since then, the Milk River has become quite famous for producing big whitetails, due to the abundance of agriculture near there. Barry and I had 7 miles along the Milk River where we hunted and guided. So, Cuz came and filmed and videoed hunts for TV. We really enjoyed and built up a friendship with Cuz. Then Cuz introduced us to Toxey Haas, the creator of Mossy Oak. When we had speaking engagements in Alabama, Toxey would invite us to stay at his lake house. So, we got to know Toxey. We went to a baseball game to watch his sons, who weren’t very old at that time, play baseball. We got to know Toxey as a friend - not just as the founder and president of Mossy Oak. We really liked being with Cuz, Toxey and all the people at Mossy Oak. They were our friends, and we hunted on some of Toxey’s property in Mississippi. One day I said to Barry, “You know Toxey, Cuz and all the Mossy Oak people we meet treat us more like family than just friends.” As we got to know more people at Mossy Oak, we kept feeling like the Mossy Oak people were a part of our family, and we were a part of their family. To be honest, I was more interested in being with the people of Mossy Oak than I was necessarily in wearing the camo.
I really got excited about the evolution of different types of patterns to fit various kinds of terrain. Since Barry and I hunted whitetails all over the country in a wide variety of terrains and foliages, Mossy Oak had patterns to match any type of terrain or foliage where we hunted.
When Barry and I produced our first commercial video for the bowhunting industry, “Bowhunting October Whitetails,” Barry made two really good shots on running bucks with his recurve bow. Barry and I would video each other shooting deer, and we were selling those videos for $39.95 each. When we played those videos at the Harrisburg Deer Show, customers blocked the aisles watching them. At that time, people were reading magazine articles about bucks making scrapes and hunting bucks with bows – a time before outdoor television shows and many hunting videos. As far as we know, the Harrisburg Show was the first time hunters ever had seen a bowhunt on a TV screen in the form of a video. We made a total of 9 or 10 videos during the 1980s and sold a lot of them.
My first book was published in 1981, “Bowhunting Rutting Whitetails,” and then I changed the title to “Rutting Whitetails.” I sold thousands of those books in both softcover and hardcover. So, I guess Barry’s and my careers and our outdoors businesses really started just ahead of the Mossy Oak Company, which began in 1986. We sort of grew our businesses around the same time.
We became friends in the early days. Mossy Oak often invited us to hunt with them and either guide or be the subject of TV shows and videos. We always looked forward to being with the Mossy Oak people, because we felt they were hunters just like we were. On those early hunts, many of the people who are now executives at Mossy Oak were guiding customers and outdoors writers just like we were. Also, Barry and I were traveling all over the country hunting, teaching people how to deer hunt and doing seminars. Everywhere we went we were promoting Mossy Oak. Even before rattling became popular, we had been gathering antlers to rattle in bucks. When that tactic really took off, I started selling rattling antlers that were the sheds I had been picking up for many years. I sold over 2,000 pair of sheds during that period of time. So, Mossy Oak was promoting us, and we were promoting and trying to help sell Mossy Oak. Even today, we feel like we’re not just a part of Mossy Oak. We are a part of the Mossy Oak family.
Day 4: What Advice Gene Wensel Has for Hunters about Taking Big Bucks