By Mike Leggett – AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Wootters concerned about deer breeding, hunting trends.
INGRAM — Outside, it’s a hundred degrees and stifling. Inside, it’s cool and semi-dark and a nice place to look outside, which John Wootters is doing from an easy chair in his living room, gazing out across the valley and over to the next mountain.
The now mostly retired Wootters, 81, famous for his columns on hunting, reloading and shooting in Petersen’s Hunting magazine, and his wife, Jeanne, live in a house built into the side of a mountain in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.
Wootters has his reloading bench and shooting station there, his trophies from a lifetime of hunting and fishing and some of his guns. He’s been selling many of his firearms, though he’s keeping his handguns and a few rifles.
He’s owned the rifles for decades, and they have special value because they’ve been featured in so many photos of Wootters with trophies from around the world.
“I have an emotional attachment to them,” he said of the rifles. The handguns he treasures as well, but he also needs them to hunt now, since a stroke he suffered two years ago left him without the full use of his left arm.
Wootters recently sat down to talk about his life outdoors, his years at Petersen’s and the direction he believes hunting and hunters are taking.
“I love deer,” he said. “I never loved their scores. I’m not a record-book hunter. I’m not sure I even approve of record books. I think they’ve resulted in a lot of abuse of the resource.”
A mature whitetail buck is the No. 1 game animal in the world, Wootters said. (No. 1A would be Africa’s Cape buffalo.) But the emphasis on bigger bucks and higher scores, which has led to special deer-breeding programs, imported trophy animals and now steroids, has sucked something out of hunting, out of going for the pure joy of seeing a wild animal.
“We’ve already lost something,” Wootters said. “Most kids have never had any exposure (to the hunting that many Texans grew up with). They don’t have the opportunity anymore.
“That whole thing of a deer industry turns my stomach. It stopped being hunting. To me, those deer (featured in ads for breeders and buyers), I don’t even regard them as real deer. I wouldn’t shoot one. That’s not deer hunting to me.”
Wootters prefers still hunting, slowly moving through a pasture in search of the best buck, to any other method of hunting.
And he believes other hunters would, too, if they ever experienced it.
“People aren’t taught to hunt and haven’t learned the rewards of doing it and doing it right,” Wootters said.
“It’s more and more an older man’s sport. Hunting is on a downhill slide, and it’s not going to get any better.”
Wootters grew up in Houston, but summers and hunts spent with his rural grandparents hooked him on hunting and fishing. He learned to track and trail and to enjoy the outdoors for the value of an animal seen and a lesson learned.
He became interested in photography while fighting in the Korean War, and later launched a career writing books and magazine articles. His book “Hunting Trophy Deer,” published in 1977, has sold more than 100,000 copies, an incredible number for a genre publication.
But Wootters isn’t looking back. He makes that clear. He still hunts, he still writes for a local newspaper, and he still spends time loading and working on guns in his shop.
He’s asked what’s down the road for hunting.
“I don’t claim psychic powers, but I don’t really like the way we’re going. We’ve already gone past some of the limits of what I would consider honorable hunting,” he said.
That said, Wootters and his wife plan to return to hunting this year. He didn’t kill a deer (because of his stroke) in 2008, the first time since 1941 that he hasn’t tagged a buck, minus those two years in Korea.
“You just don’t look back,” he said. “I had a goal, and I reached that goal. I can’t fly (for travel) now, so I just go out and enjoy what I can do.”