By Finn-Olaf Jones - Special to the Tribune
SPIRITWILD RANCH, WACO, Texas -- The fox prowled the edge of a line of trees, seeking a wild turkey or some other snack before sunset. Then the hunter became the hunted.
A military green Polaris ATV jerked to a sudden stop on the other side of the field. In one swift motion the driver reached behind the front seats, swung out a Browning bolt-action rifle and peered through the scope. At 275 yards it was literally a long shot. But this, after all, was the same man who in 1970 advised Jimi Hendrix to stop doing drugs.
Two shots broke the quiet of the dusk. The fox jumped, unhurt, and disappeared into the cover of the high grass and trees. The hunter swiveled back into the driver's seat.
"I swear the dust came up between his legs," he joked. "Maybe he can still walk, but he can't breed."
Welcome to the world of Ted Nugent, rock 'n' roll extremist, troubadour of such timeless guitar ballads as "Cat Scratch Fever," "Motor City Madhouse" and "Stranglehold," and--*** Cheney excluded--the most famous hunter in America today.
Nugent, his 6-foot-3-inch frame covered head to toe in camouflage, looked at least a decade younger than his 57 years. He was as animated as a teenager, his foot-long ponytail wagging in the wind, as he bounced the ATV over rugged trails, rock promontories and mud holes in search of prey on SpiritWild Ranch, his 300-acre spread outside Waco.
"My level of awareness is constantly being prodded as a hunter," Nugent exclaimed. "I'm high on backstraps! I'm high on the spiritual flight of the arrow!"
That sense of elation is what Nugent offers through his Sunrize Safaris outfitting company. Last year, some 500 paying hunters joined him on several dozen expeditions he arranges annually. The choices are exotic: from two-day, $1,500 "Pork Slam" boar hunts at Nugent's Sunrize Acres Ranch in his home state of Michigan to weeklong, $10,000 big-game safaris in South Africa. About 60 percent of his trips are geared toward bow-hunting. For $4,000, Nugent will personally guide you on a buffalo hunt at Sunrize Acres, which, given that one of his most famous rock ballads is "The Great White Buffalo," might be the most distinctive Nugent experience of all.
While he hasn't recorded a platinum record in more than a decade, Nugent's popularity as a hunter is off the charts. In a recent survey conducted by North American Hunter magazine, he topped the list when readers were asked whom they would most want to go hunting with. With a mini-media empire that includes books, TV shows and a magazine, he's become the Oprah of hunting. He is editor and publisher of Adventure Outdoors magazine. He has a gaggle of cable TV shows, "Wanted Ted or Alive" on the Outdoor Life Network (which morphed out of "Surviving Nugent," still airing VH1), "Ted Nugent Spirit of the Wild" on the Outdoor Channel and a rock show, "Supergroup," premiering on VHI in May. His cookbook, "Kill It and Grill It," written with his wife, Shemane, is now in its 12th printing. (Sample quote: "We don't just cook; we dance naked to the primordial campfire of life.")
He is a board member of the National Rifle Association and one of its top spokesmen. "Here's my proposed U.S. foreign policy," he announced at a rock concert in Los Angeles two years ago, holding aloft an automatic rifle that looked big enough to blast a bowling alley through Barbra Streisand's mansion. His 2000 best-selling, in-your-face celebration of personal firepower, "God, Guns and Rock 'n' Roll," reads like Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs: "The rapid sequential pulsations of an M-16 held tight in my hands, virtually spitting out a torrent of lead, is truly ballistic heaven." He has been a professional hunting guide since 1972.
Nugent was using a conventional hunting rifle on his recent hunt at SpiritWild, but even if he didn't shoot anything, he was going to make sure his companions shared the exhilaration of being out in the wild at dusk loaded with enough firepower to win the West all over again.
Four blackbuck--sleek deer-like animals once indigenous to India and now bred for hunting throughout Texas--made spectacular ballerina leaps across the trail 20 yards in front of the ATV. They were out of season, so Nugent made a gesture as if he were shooting them with a bow.
"There's my idea of fast food," he exclaimed.
At the pre-hunt dinner, while presiding over a large outdoor barbecue on the lawn of his white stone ranch house overlooking a man-made pond, Nugent demonstrated his famous barbecue techniques with knives and tongs brandished with the same manic energy as his guitar. Dinner was a wild boar that Nugent had hunted down with his bow. He pulled out a Glock pistol from a holster hidden somewhere under his loose fatigues.
"I always like to be ready," he said, smiling. Four fully loaded clips also came out. Was it uncomfortable carrying around all that metal? "I'm uncomfortable without it," he responded.
"I'm convinced that the energy and force of my music is a direct result of this vitality that springs forth from breathing the air and pursuing the beast," Nugent said. He had just finished a concert tour and is scheduled to spend a month in a recording studio before starting to tour again in May--all of this between shooting his cable shows and frequent speaking engagements around the country.
Nugent has been hunting since he was 6, and came under the tutelage of his father's friend Fred Bear, a legendary bow maker widely credited with modernizing bow hunting. In 1975, exhausted by his touring schedule, Nugent took some time out in the Colorado Rockies and killed his first deer with a bow and arrow. It was a transformational experience. "I just danced naked and humped the sky," Nugent remembered. The bow remains his weapon of choice.
"All these great musicians were destroying their talent with drugs," said Nugent, who has been vocally anti-drug, even anti-tobacco, since early in his rock career. "The whole world was dying around me. To get close enough with a sharp stick to kill your dinner is the quintessential test of your awareness."
"Ozzie got high, and Ozzie's brain dead," he added, referring to Ozzie Osbourne. "I went hunting, and I'm still Ted." He happily stabbed the barbecuing wild boar with his tongs. "You ready for some real free-range food?"
A few minutes later the large slabs of rib were served at the big kitchen table downstairs in Nugent's airy and simply furnished family room. A buck was mounted over the fireplace--clearly the crib of a rock star who has traded bling for bang. The ribs were seared on the outside and miraculously light and tender on the inside, more like ahi tuna than pork.
"I don't want to hire people to kill tortured chickens on an assembly line to have my dinner," Nugent said. "I look my dinner in the eye when I kill it. We honor it." As with almost all the meat his family has consumed for the past two decades, Nugent had tracked this particular dinner every step of the way from field to plate, and he is ready to take on all comers who challenge his right to do so. Even vegetarians.
"I love vegetarians," he said, motioning to the ribs with his fork. "This guy was a vegetarian. All I eat are vegetarians, except for the occasional mountain lion."
Behind his verbal bravura is a man prepared to wade into long discussions about biodiversity, land sustainability, calorie efficiencies and other minutiae of the hunting debate. His obsession for detail also carries into his expeditions. Before climbing into his ATV for the evening's excursion for wild turkeys around the ranch with a reporter and two photographers in tow, Nugent carefully inspected his weapons and ammunition. Then he did a mad air guitar jam on his "Nuge bow" while his three hunt dogs went crazier than teenage groupies.
Driving out of his ranch yard he passed life-size models of deer and other game, archery bales and steel-backed gun targets, everything dented and perforated from frequent target practice.
Nugent is usually one of the first ones up at camp, cooking breakfast, tracking animals and preparing tree stands. While many of his hunts take place on his own properties, he also uses other hunting ranches or private game parks. Hunters sleep in nearby hotels or in bunkhouses and cabins on the grounds. The actual hunting occurs around sunrise and dusk, and the rest of the time is spent on target practice, meals, campfires and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of "Tribe Nuge" philosophy, exuberance and rock 'n' roll.
Occasionally Nugent has been forced to explain the lyrics of "Cat Scratch Fever" to amused middle-aged hunters--some of whom had no idea about his second life as a rock n' roll star--around the campfire. On other occasions, rock fans masquerading as hunters end up with all the finer points of hunting techniques personally given by Nugent when their ineptitude becomes obvious. "It's kind of sweet," Nugent said. "Some of them end up actually hunting."
"Ted feels responsible for people's money--he wants people to get a bang for their buck," said Calvin Ross, who became so inspired by bow hunting with Nugent that he opened an archery annex to his guitar store in Waco. "He's always got the guitar with him. But there's no smoking in camp," Ross noted.
"There's no one I know who has the passion of the outdoors as Ted does," said Craig Kirkpatrick, a Minneapolis real estate broker who has been on six Sunrize hunts with Nugent. "On a hunt he can be laid back and quiet or quite intense. But he's always fun."
For the past 17 years, Nugent has operated the non-profit Ted Nugent Kamp for Kids to introduce kids to hunting with an emphasis on safety and bow hunting. "We take them from their first hiccup to their first [killed animal] gut pile," he said. Several handicapped and terminally ill children attend the camp each summer.
The sun has set at SpiritWild, and Nugent is perched at the side of a cliff overlooking the Bosque River, which borders the property. The ranch is only a few miles from President Bush's Crawford spread, and Nugent is friendly with both the president and his Secret Service agents, some of whom reportedly drop by for a little target practice.
In the distance his three dogs are braying, ready to hunt again, which, given the busy lineup of expeditions coming up, they shall. "There's an overabundance of wildlife right now. Our frontiers are so overburdened, you've got deer running around in urban New Jersey and cougars attacking people in Los Angeles," Nugent said, excitedly fingering his Glock. "These are the good old days for hunting."
And he intends to get as many people out to enjoy them as possible.
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IF YOU GO - THE HUNTS
Sunrize Safaris is taking reservations for two-day hunts with Ted Nugent for axis, aoudad, oryx, fallow and blackbuck at Nugent's SpiritWild Ranch near Waco, Texas. Cost: $5,000 per person. You can also reserve a three-day deer bowhunt at Nugent's Sunrize Acres ranch in Michigan for $7,500. All meals and accommodations included.
Sunrize Safari's also organizes hunting trips with other guides.
Nugent USA, 4008 W. Michigan Ave., Jackson, MI 49202; 800-343-4868; www.tednugent.com