DREAM CHASERS — Five Men Behind the By-lines

By Charles J. Alsheimer

“Well, if you ask me where I come from, here’s what I tell everyone. I was born by God’s dear grace, in an extra ordinary place — where the stars and stripes and the eagle flies. It’s a big old land with countless dreams. Happiness ain’t out of reach, hard work pays off the way it should. Yeah, I’ve seen enough to know we’ve got it good. Where the stars and stripes and the eagle flies.”

Those lyrics to Aaron Tippin’s top-selling country hit Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagles Fly resonate daily in my mind. They provide a constant reminder of my love for America and the blessings and opportunities this country has given me. The United States and her people are inspirational. It’s one of the few places you can chase your dreams and have a chance of catching them.

My dream of pursuing a career in the outdoors began on a farm in western New York more than 45 years ago. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the events of the late 1950s and early 1960s were molding and shaping me into what I am today. In 1960, I became passionate about hunting and fell in love with the writings of Jack O’Connor, Outdoor Life’s shooting editor. I devoured everything he wrote and began dreaming of what it would be like to hunt and write about hunting in North America. O’Connor inspired me to chase a dream, but he wasn’t the only one. In those early years, writers such as Byron Dalrymple, Warren Page and Erwin Bauer provided the fuel to keep my dream burning.

When I had reached 25, photographer and writer Lenny Rue, hunting manufacturer Fred Bear and photographer Bill McRae were added to the list of folks who inspired me to press on. These men affected me more than they could have imagined, and had it not been for their writing, photography and accomplishments, my career path might have gone down a different road.

Fueled by inspiration and hope, my dream was launched in September 1979, when I left a corporate sales and marketing position to become a full-time nature photographer and outdoor writer. Economically, times were tough in the 1970s, but there were enough dream-makers to keep me moving forward.

If you are a serious student of the outdoor world, you know how men such as Bill Jordan of Realtree, deer biologist Al Brothers, Ray Scott, founder of the food-plot movement and the Whitetail Institute of North America and others inspired millions of hunters and wannabe outdoor pros across the land. They were just a few who played a part in motivating others to make the whitetail industry what it is today.

Torch Bearers

If you took the time, you could probably come up with a pretty good list of hunting personalities who have inspired and influenced you as a hunter. My guess is that TV personalities would dominate most lists. When I think of people who influence America’s sportsman, I tend to look at those who inspire hunters to want to “be there.” I also look at things such as their integrity and knowledge of hunting.

Certainly, many household names could make up my list. But there are just as many you might not know much about. The five I’m about to share with you are great deer hunters and have also influenced thousands of sportsmen through their writing and photography.

John Zent

With all the gloom and doom coming out of Washington, it can often be difficult to understand what is going on. A man with the ability to decipher Washington’s hocus-pocus is John Zent, editorial director for NRA Publications. He has the hunter’s back when it comes to preserving our rights. John is responsible for the editorial content of the National Rifle Association’s six magazines, three TV shows and four websites. Even thinking about his job description makes me tired.

John grew up on a farm in northern Maryland, where he fell in love with hunting at an early age. After college, where he earned an English degree, he set out to land a job in the outdoor field.

“Back then, I didn’t have any grand illusions of being a No. 1 editor,” he said. “I just wanted an editorial career with an outdoor magazine.”

His chance came in 1982, when American Rifleman magazine hired him as an assistant editor.

“Not long after taking the job, I quickly realized how far behind the curve I was when it came to my knowledge of guns and hunting,” he said. “I was from the East and knew very little about antelope, elk or moose, and when it came to Africa, I knew nothing. So, I had a lot of catching up to do. It was a real hustle, but I loved every minute of the process. Fortunately, my superiors stuck with me.”

His editorial career has involved far more than espousing the joys of guns and hunting. For more than 25 years, he and his NRA colleagues have fought the good fight to preserve our gun rights. Their journey has been tough and at times lonely, but it’s a battle he believes is worth the effort.

“America’s gun owners face some real challenges because of the political situation we find ourselves in,” he said. “It will be a battle, but it’s a battle we must win. I’ve been blessed to have had a dream job that has allowed me to meet some great Americans and travel to some great hunting destinations. Life has been very good to me, and I intend to do everything I can to make sure that my sons and America’s sportsmen hold on to their hunting privileges.”

Brad (Biscuit) Herndon

For more than two decades, this southern Indiana country boy (as he likes to call himself) has been one of the biggest names you might never have heard of in the whitetail world. Not only is he a great whitetail hunter, but he just might be the most prolific hunting photographer of our time. His hunter set-up photos have been the centerpiece for many of the major hunting magazines and manufacturer advertisements.

Herndon didn’t jump into the outdoor communication world full-time until he was older than 40. For most of his career, he and his brother were partners in an auto parts business. When he turned 37, he sold his half of the business to his brother and took what he calls a six-year vacation, during which he and his wife, Carol, and their daughter, JoLinda, traveled America until, as he said, “The money ran out.”

Looking for another career, Herndon began studying the hunting industry because of his life-long love of hunting. Convinced he might be able to make it as an outdoor communicator, he bought some cameras and set out to be a nature photographer and writer.

“The early going was really tough because nobody knew us,” he said. “In time, I became a pretty good wild turkey photographer, and this is what got me my first break. The National Wild Turkey Federation looked at my work and bought six of my photos for $25 each. One ran on a cover, and after this things started to happen for me because of this exposure.

“I also made a lot of contacts and asked a lot of questions along the way. People like Lenny Rue and the folks at Realtree went out of their way to provide great advice, and before long, I was getting more and more photo and writing assignments.”

Herndon’s work is so good that it’s safe to say most of the younger hunting photographers have modeled their work after his style. I’ve known Brad for more than 15 years, and one of the things that impresses me most about him is how he goes out of his way to help fellow writers and photographers better themselves.

Bill Winke

Raised on a dairy farm in northeastern Iowa, Winke is an example of how hard work can bring great rewards. From the time he graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering, he wanted to do something in the outdoors, where he could be his own boss. He has done that and much more.

Today, few in the industry know more about the nuts and bolts of archery tackle or whitetail hunting than Winke. His expertise lets him write more than 100 articles per year for many of the major hunting publications, about everything from camo patterns to bow equipment to whitetail hunting. But success didn’t fall into his lap.

After a stint as an engineer in the aircraft industry, he took an engineering position with High Country Archery in Tennessee. There, he met Greg Tinsley, who headed the company’s marketing and public relations division. After six months on the job, he had enough of factory work, so he quit his job and moved back to Iowa, with no job waiting for him.

“This was a bit of a scary time for us because I didn’t know what the future held,” he said. “Fortunately, my wife and I had no debt when we left High Country. We knew how to live cheaply, so this relieved some of the pressure. My short-term goal was to eat and be able to support my family. I knew where I wanted to be and had an idea what I wanted to do.”

So, after he was back in Iowa, Bill reconnected with Tinsley, who had become the editor of Petersen’s Bowhunting. Tinsley gave Bill a few writing assignments, and he was on his way.   

“As I reflect, I guess my journey has been a bit scary at times, but I’m convinced this is what God wanted me to be,” he said. “I love being self-employed, and tell people that I write for a living and hunt for fun. I’ve been blessed to have an incredible job, live in a special country and have a great family. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with my life.”
To find out more about Winke visit his website at www.midwestwhitetails.com.

Dan Schmidt

This 42-year-old Hubertus, Wis., native started chasing his dream of working for Deer and Deer Hunting magazine in the fourth grade.

“I was raised in a family of deer hunters, and my dad would often buy a copy of Deer and Deer Hunting at the local convenience store for us,” he said. “Once my family was done reading it, I would cut out my favorite articles and photos and put them in a box for safe keeping. I’d paste the best on my bedroom wall, next to my Robin Yount and George Brett photos.

“When I was in the eighth grade, my English teacher gave the class an assignment to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. My essay was about my dream to become the editor of Deer and Deer Hunting magazine.”

His dream never left him, and after graduating from college with a journalism degree, Schmidt worked for a twice-weekly newspaper, where he was editor. Though the newspaper business proved to be a grind, the experience he received helped land a job in 1995 as an associate editor with Deer and Deer Hunting. Seven years later, he took over the editor’s chair and immediately set out to ensure that it continued to be the best whitetail magazine on the market. He’s lived up to the task because his love for whitetails and deer hunting oozes out of every issue of Deer and Deer Hunting, making it one of the most widely read hunting magazines in America.

During the past 30 years, I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the best magazine editors in the country. Schmidt is one of the best I’ve ever dealt with. He’s more than a great hunter, writer and editor. His drive, humble kindness and attention to detail do not go unnoticed by America’s deer hunters.

Tracy Breen

You don’t have to be around this Muskegon, Mich., native more than a few minutes to be inspired. He has accomplished more in his 30 years than many do in a lifetime. He is not only a great hunter but one of the hottest outdoor writers in America. He also has cerebral palsy, which makes his story so incredible.

Cerebral palsy is a debilitating condition that affects the body’s muscles and tendons. In most cases, CP prohibits people from engaging in athletics. Through the years, Tracy has endured 15 surgeries to help him cope. Physically, he’s had a lot of ups and downs, but his faith in God and dream of becoming an outdoor pro have kept him going. Though he walks with a limp and gets fatigued when he does a lot of strenuous walking or climbing, he never complains or lets his condition keep him from doing what he wants to. He is a fighter who always has to go the extra mile to keep up with his peers.

“Because my dad was a taxidermist, I was around wild animals all my life,” he said. “He took me and my brother to the woods a lot, and I fell in love with hunting long before I could actually carry my own bow or gun. I guess my story is a bit different than others in this profession, but I wouldn’t trade how I got to this point for anything. Being a full-time outdoor writer has allowed me to see places I never would have if I had chosen a different profession. I’ve hunted all over North America. How many 30-year-olds can say that?

“The outdoor market is a tough place to make a living, but fortunately for me, I’ve been able to have many people help me along the way, none more so than my wife. She is my biggest supporter. Dwight Schuh was a real inspiration to me in the early going and went out of his way to help me when no one in the hunting world knew who I was. I don’t know where I’d be today if so many people hadn’t reached out to me along the way.

“God has truly blessed me. He’s allowed me to meet some incredible people, live in an unbelievable country and have one of the best jobs on Earth. This has been a dream come true for me.”

The next time you pick up a hunting magazine with Breen’s name in it, take a moment to read it. Or, better yet, visit his website at www.tracybreen.com. He knows his stuff and inspires all who come to know him.