Journey to 100 Hunts

Journey to 100 Hunts

A decade ago, after abandoning a lucrative career in commercial banking, the “Pure Hunting” TV host and FORLOH ambassador Willi Schmidt set his sights on transforming his passion for hunting into his full-time profession 

When asked to chart his trajectory as a hunter and rank the most memorable expeditions he’s embarked on over the past decade, Willi Schmidt, co-host of the award-winning outdoor television show “Pure Hunting,” ticks through a somewhat unconventional highlight reel of greatest hits — or, in some cases, misses.

It’s not that Schmidt is defying convention by reimagining the format of outdoor television programming (he isn’t), or that his hunts are exclusively filmed in far-flung locations in pursuit of exotic game (they’re not), or even that he pushes political boundaries in a polarizing manner to gain viewership (not even close).

Rather, what sets Schmidt apart from the herd is his thoughtful, even-handed approach to storytelling within the constraints of a television format, furnishing each 22-minute episode with the most honest depiction of the hunt he can recreate, even if it means favoring disappointment and humility over grip-and-grin heroics. In short, he focuses more on the hunt than the kill.

Consider, for example, the case of the wounded bull elk. 

In 2015, Schmidt drew a limited archery bull tag in Colorado’s famed Unit 76, a region where abundant land and low hunting pressure combine to yield a robust and mature elk population, affording a few lucky hunters the opportunity each season to pursue some of the biggest bulls in North America. Schmidt waited seven years before he drew a tag of his own, dedicating two weeks to what he anticipated being the hunt of a lifetime. But when he arrived in Colorado, unseasonable rainstorms had dampened the rut, and Schmidt, along with his hunting partner and co-host Chris Nowak, found the bugling bulls to be in scant supply.

After eight days, while hunting alone during a lull in the rainstorm, Schmidt called in a monster bull elk, which emerged from the forest at 18 yards to offer up a partially obscured frontal shot. Confident in his ability to make a lethal shot, Schmidt nocked an arrow, sighted the animal and fired. The elk bolted, pausing briefly in a copse of trees 60 yards away as Schmidt tried to coax it back out with a few bellows from his mouth reed. And then, the big bull disappeared forever.

Over the course of the next three days, Schmidt worked from dawn until dusk following and flagging the bull’s blood trail, expecting to encounter the elusive beast bedded down at every turn as he desperately performed grid searches and walked in concentric circles. Instead, he clipped his hard-earned tag and went home empty-handed, leaving his wounded quarry to the ravens, or perhaps to live and rut another day.

“I know it’s the biggest bull I ever would have killed, which is what I came here for,” a dejected Schmidt tells the camera after losing his bull. “This is my worst fear coming to bear right now. He could very well be alive but as far as I’m concerned I wouldn’t feel right trying to hunt another bull elk when I know I wounded one and left it to waste.”

Even now, Schmidt recalls the hunt with mixed emotions, but he’s proud of his decision to share the devastating outcome of the trip with his viewers, and he hopes that other hunters learned as much from the episode as he did. By broadcasting his successes as well as his failures in a raw, unvarnished format, Schmidt has also grown accustomed to enduring occasional digital barbs that other hunters throw at him on social media. But for every hunter who’s eager to criticize his decisions in the field, Schmidt guesses that several others learn from them. And that, he said, is a metric for success.

“Any hunter who says he’s never wounded an animal is either lying or he hasn’t been hunting long enough,” Schmidt said. “It goes with the territory. Losing an animal is never easy and it can happen on any shot, at any angle, and with any method of hunting.

“It doesn’t make you feel any better,” he added, “but you do learn from your experiences. I certainly learned from that one.”

For Schmidt, whose “everyman” persona carries a broad appeal to the tens of thousands of viewers who tune into “Pure Hunting” for entertainment as well as for instruction, embellishing the wounded-bull episode (or scrapping the footage altogether) would have amounted to sacrilege — a disservice to the sport and to sportsmen. By showcasing the dynamic interplay of success and failure in the field, “Pure Hunting” offers a more authentic and compelling storyline, Schmidt reasons, even if that authenticity requires viewers to occasionally watch as the unshaven, un-showered host devours peanut-butter-and-bacon tortilla wraps during multi-day hunts in the mountains. 

“I have a bracelet that I had made when I started hosting ‘Pure Hunting’ and it just says, ‘Be true to yourself,’” Schmidt said recently from his home in Bozeman, Montana, where he and his wife of 28 years have made a home along with their two grown children. “And that is really what I try to do with the show. I try not to emulate others, even if it’s someone I respect. I try not to muddle the truth, even if the truth isn’t pretty. Be true to yourself. I don’t really see that ever changing.”

In 2007, Schmidt learned that being true to oneself isn’t always easy, especially when it’s not a popular choice. He was living in Denver, Colorado, where he’d been working as a corporate banker for 14 years, a demanding career that earned him a lucrative salary but relegated hunting to a single week in September, when the archery elk season opened.

“One day I just realized that banking was not what I wanted to do with my life,” Schmidt recalls. “I didn’t have an exit plan but I knew I didn’t want to look back on my life and realize it had been squandered. So I quit.”

Schmidt started informing his customers that he was leaving the business, and one of them happened to work for a multimedia company that produced outdoor television shows.

“They asked if I had any interest in television, and I just knew that I wanted to spend as much time outdoors as possible. So I said I’d give it a whirl,” Schmidt said. “That’s how ‘Pure Hunting’ was born.”

In the weeks leading up to Labor Day, which marked the official start of hunting season in Montana, as well as the beginning of the 10th season of “Pure Hunting,” the 52-year-old television host prepared to commemorate a milestone as he put the finishing touches on his 100th episode.

“You can’t get to 100 episodes without having a first episode,” Schmidt said, charting his evolution as a storyteller and television personality before breaking into laughter. “I don’ want to say I would have done anything differently, but looking back on it, I might have done some things differently. I was pretty unpolished.”

There’s one thing Schmidt would never change, however, which is his decision to feature eight separate hunts he filmed with his late father, including a self-guided deer hunt in Kansas in November 2019, which ended up being the last hunt the father-and-son duo would take together.

“At that point, we hadn’t hunted big game together in several years, but we decided on a whitetail hunt. He used a crossbow because he couldn’t draw back a compound. I knew at the time that it was special, but I didn’t know it would be our last hunt together.”

The whitetail hunt with his father, as well as the wounded-bull episode and a successful archery-elk hunt, all make cameos in the 100th episode of “Pure Hunting,” which premiered on Sept. 6 and is available online at Schmidt said his decision to feature those episodes in the production of Episode 100 was based not only on feedback from his fans, who have forged a strong allegiance to Schmidt’s truthful manner of condensing textured hunting experiences into an episodic format for television, but also on his own selfish instincts.

“To have a recorded catalog of me doing what I love, pursuing my passion, is pretty remarkable. But to have those eight episodes of me hunting with my dad, who taught me to hunt and who taught me about conservation, to have those to show to my kids and grandkids is priceless.”

“This show has lasted 10 years, and it may last 10 more,” Schmidt added. “I don’t know if I’ll want to continue hunting in front of a camera the rest of my life. But even if the show doesn’t last forever, I won’t ever hunt any less.”