OUTDOOR LIFE was my favorite magazine. When growing up, I read it cover to cover. Jack O’Connor, the Shooting/Hunting editor, was one of my heroes. I read every article, sometimes twice, especially his feature stories that would take us on his faraway adventures. From time to time, Jack would write about one of his companions, Jack Atcheson Sr. I knew that Jack Sr. lived in Butte, Montana, and wondered if I’d ever get to meet him.
As it happened, I met Jack at a meeting in Butte, and we immediately hit it off. As the years passed, we hunted together many times, for whitetails in Iowa, pheasants in South Dakota, mule deer and elk in Montana, two Alaskan adventures for moose, antelope in Colorado, and others. Every trip has its own set of memories, and I cherish them all.
Jack was fun to hunt with, a laugh a minute. Having said that, he was extremely tough, savvy about the quarry, and didn’t know when to quit. He was one of my favorite mentors. He drove a suburban, which was totally full of "stuff". It appeared that a bomb had gone off in it, but he had the amazing ability to quickly locate every item he needed, even if it was buried two feet under other stuff. His pet rifle, a .338 Mag, looked like it had been through two wars and run over by a couple tanks, but it worked, and he shot it with incredible accuracy. He liked to tell people his gun had "character".
I’d like to relate some amusing stories about our hunts together. I need to say that Jack and I cussed each other so much in public that people who didn’t know us thought we were always mad at each other. Too much fun.
I think the most profound moment I ever had with Jack was during a dinner we had together, after a busy day at a hunt Expo. We chatted about hunting, which was almost always the case. At one point I casually mentioned that I wondered where Jack O’Connor had made his last hunt.
"I was with him on his last hunt, "Jack said calmly, like it was no big deal.
I was astounded! "What did you, say?" I stammered. "You were with him on his last hunt? Are you serious?" "Yes," he said. "We hunted whitetails in Eastern Montana. He passed away shortly afterward."
The wheels quickly turned in my brain. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the story of the decade, a bombshell.
I quickly called the editor of Outdoor Life magazine in NY. He couldn’t believe it either. As it turned out, I wrote the story as an ATT (As told to). When it appeared, the credit said, by Jack Atcheson Sr., as told to Jim Zumbo.
There was a picture of Jack O’Connor on the cover of the magazine in a hunting scene. As I understand it, the issue sold very well. No surprise there, and thanks to Jack Atcheson for sharing the story.
I invited Brad O’Connor, Jack O’Connor’s son, to hunt antelope with me. I planned on filming it for my TV show. I also invited Jack Atcheson. As it turned out, Brad had open heart surgery several months before the hunt, and his cardiologist was advising him not to hunt. Then, a few months before the hunt, Brad’s doc cleared him to go, and the trip was on. To our enormous surprise, Brad brought along his Dad’s Winchester .270, the very rifle that Jack O’Connor used on many of his hunts. It was because of that rifle that O’Connor was responsible for the huge surge in popularity for the .270. To Jack Atcheson and I, and Dick Dodds, the outfitter, that gun was akin to the Holy Grail. When the hunt began, a respectable buck antelope was spotted, and Brad made the stalk with Dodds and my cameraman. I stayed behind, to reduce the size of the party. The hunters eased over a rise, and I said a silent prayer that Brad wouldn’t wound the animal. I had no idea what shape he was in due to his open heart surgery. I scrambled over the hill when he shot, and was delighted to see the antelope on the ground. Jack Atcheson hunted next, using a .270 cartridge that Jack O’Connor had given to him specifically to shoot an antelope. Jack Atcheson obliged, and made a great 300 yard shot. After the hunt, we retired to the lodge and poured over old photos that Brad brought along in a scrapbook, showing both Jack O’Connor and Atcheson on numerous hunting adventures. It was a historical night, and one to remember.
Many of our elk hunts were in the Centennial Mountains, whose high peaks were the border of Idaho and Montana. We hunted with our dear friend, the late Keith Rush, an outfitter who lived in a tiny community called Lakeview. Other than Keith’s family and employees, only a handful of people lived there. It was also the headquarters for Red Rocks Lakes National Refuge. On one hunt, Jack and I took off from the lodge before dark and hiked up the nearby mountain. It was bitterly cold, with a foot of snow on the ground. At one point we had the option of going around a steep ridge, or over it, which would have been exceedingly difficult. Jack was adamant about going over, so we did, but before doing so we built a small fire and warmed up our sandwiches on forked sticks. On thé back side of the ridge, we came across a fresh set of bull elk tracks. We followed, and an hour later saw where he’d walked up to our old campfire so closely that he must have smelled the warm ashes. "So much for elk being frightened by campfire smoke," Jack said. We never did catch up to that bull.
On another hunt in the Centennials, we had a serious miscommunication while hunting horseback a dozen miles from the road. Keith instructed one of his friends to take my horse, Jack’s, and Vin Sparano’s, down to the bottom of a bowl and wait for us at dark. Jack, Vin, and I were to wait on top while Keith and his guides tried to push a bunch of elk by us. It didn’t work, so the three of us descended to the bottom of the bowl in deep snow, expecting to find our horses, but they weren’t there. The snow was so powdery and there were so many elk, moose, and deer tracks that it was tough to tell what was what. Keith rode up on his mule, Sugar, and was not happy with the situation. He told us to start hiking out. By then it was dark, with some starlight barely illuminating the thick forest. We walked for two hours, when Keith rode up to us. I have no idea how he found us. Then he told us we were headed the wrong way, not to the horse trailers, but to Idyho. He pronounced it Id-ee-ho. He was right. We were confused by the myriad of tracks. So we turned around and headed to the vehicles, which were still about a dozen miles away. Vin, who was editor of Outdoor Life and a resident of sea-level New Jersey, was doing okay, despite the elevation. Despite the cold, we worked up a sweat and were thirsty. When we crossed a creek, Jack busted through the ice with his boot and produced a small collapsible tin cup from his backpack. Once again he came through to resolve a little problem. Finally, after another hour of tedious hiking, we spotted a fire far below us. As we approached, we saw it was the rest of our party, including our horses. On the ride down the icy trail in the dark, Vin rode into an unseen branch, and my horse slipped. I jumped out of the saddle, but the horse rolled over me. Vin was blind and I was crippled. I almost kissed the horse trailers when we finally reached them. By then it was 3 am.
One of our favorite hunts in the Centennials was a drop camp that Keith had established. Camp was a tent, about a half dozen miles from the road. The tent was large, with a wood stove and small cooking stove and had enough cots to accommodate a half dozen people. Keith brought us in by horseback, and after we got settled in and unloaded our gear, he’d take the horses out and leave us on our own. On one hunt, four of us shared the camp. One of the hunters smoked, and Jack was seriously allergic to second hand smoke, even though the hunter smoked outside. Jack set up a tiny one man tent, and despite the bitterly cold sub-zero temps, opted to sleep outside with no heat in his tent. An amazing man.
We were in South Dakota hunting pheasants in the Pierre area on Cody Warne’s farm . Hunting was phenomenal, and birds were flying everywhere. Jack was about 50 yards away from me. Suddenly he walked over and said, "Zumbo, you no good &#@*%#@, this gun I borrowed from you doesn’t work worth a sh-t. And I ran out of ammo." As always, there was a hint of a grin on his face.
And then there are two short stories regarding nature calls. We were driving to a mule deer hunt in eastern Montana on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. It was dark. We drove our own vehicles, and I had no idea where we going, but Jack did. I followed, but the dense dust was billowing so badly behind his vehicle that I held back a ways. I couldn’t see his taillights, just the cloud of dust. At one point I was struck with the urgent need to make a nature call, not the easy one. I didn’t dare pull over, because Jack would be so far ahead I’d never catch up to him. I doubted he could see my headlights in the dust to know I was no longer following. I did what I had to do. I sped up, and was totally engulfed in the dust. I couldn’t see his vehicle, and finally saw his taillights just a few feet in front of me. I drifted left and roared past. Once I was slightly ahead of him, the road was clear. Jack hit the brakes, rolled the window down and asked what the HELL I was doing. I explained, and he had a good laugh. I drove ahead a ways, jumped out in a ditch and took care of business - just in time.
On another hunt, we were in Alaska. I would be hunting moose and grizzlies, and he went along just for kicks. That’s the way Jack was. We enjoyed each other’s company and hung out together as often as we could. Our guide stayed in his small tent, Jack and I in ours. It was a small dome-shaped affair, with two cots and no heat. It rained every day and night. We never saw the sun for nine days. It was plumb miserable. Our clothes, boots, and, worse -our sleeping bags were damp and wet. At one point, Jack offered me a bit of wisdom. Instead of getting out of the sleeping bag to take a pee break outside during the night, he used a bottle that he kept under the cot. A couple nights later, I awoke to hear him cussing up a storm. When I asked what was wrong, he told me he couldn’t locate the pee bottle under the cot, but found a Zip-Lok bag that he used instead. To his great dismay, the bag had a hole in it and let’s just say that his mattress got that much damper. I roared with laughter. Of course.
We made several hunts in Iowa with our good friend, Tony Knight, who invented the inline muzzleloader. Tony’s farm produced huge whitetails. He had a garage that he converted into a hunter’s bunkhouse for friends, complete with bathroom and kitchen. On one occasion, Jack and I walked out to our treestands for the afternoon hunt. Just before dark, I saw an absolute giant buck in a neighboring field that we couldn’t hunt. There was a treestand near the fence, and I knew that deer in that field often crossed into Tony’s property near that tree. The treestand would be a good place to sit the next day. I told Jack about the buck, and insisted that he sat in that stand. He resisted, saying that I should sit there because I’d spotted the buck. After an argument, I won, telling him that if he didn’t sit there it would be empty. Unfortunately, the big buck didn’t come by when Jack sat in the stand. It was not seen again on that hunt.
One of my favorite stories took place in Africa. I wasn’t with him. Jack hunted with Jim Carmichel, Outdoor Life’s Shooting Editor. Jim shot a huge crocodile, and Jack and the guide had difficulty loading it in a boat. They had a huge lake to cross, and the boat was barely large enough to accommodate the hunters and the croc. They were in the middle of the lake, and the old outboard motor quit. At the same time, the croc opened one eye. It was trussed with rope, but nonetheless was cause for great concern. Jim was reluctant to shoot it again for fear that the bullet would penetrate completely and sink the boat - in a croc-infested lake. They decided the engine died because of an electrical problem. Jack rummaged around in his backpack and came up with some sort of gizmo. To everyone’s surprise, it worked and the motor started. Another example of Jack’s ingenuity and ability to improvise.
Jack was a champion for hunters and anglers, always fighting for our cause. He was an outspoken advocate for public land accessibility. He was a primary leader responsible for the passage of Montana’s Stream Access Law, guaranteeing access to the public. He personally sued Montana to open up 5.2 million acres of state land to the public, and won. Jack was an outspoken opponent of the wolf introduction in Yellowstone Park and Idaho. He helped me many times when I wrote my wolf articles, by providing reams of studies and research on wolves in Alaska and Canada. He was the recipient of the coveted Outdoor Life Conservation Award.
Jack’s career was totally outdoor oriented. In the 50’s he began a hunting consultant business which turned into an industry unto itself. He started a taxidermy company like none other, and grew a thriving international business. Jack’s lovely wife, Mary Claire, was instrumental to his success, and his lifelong partner. Their two sons, Jack Jr. and Keith, along with extended family members, now run the consulting business.
Jack passed away December 27, 2017. On that day we lost a great man, a friend to all of us who love to hunt and fish. Rest In Peace, good buddy.