Spend a minute on the phone with Carson Smith and it's obvious you can take the man out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the man. Even after a decade as a Montana resident, the southern drawl is still there. So is the obsession with big whitetails.
At 67, he still hunts deer as hard as ever.
Few people outside of the hunting industry have ever heard of him, but if you've been on a guided hunt in Canada or to one of the largest deer hunting shows in the country, Carson Smith likely had something to do with it. He helped lay the foundation for the big buck craze that swept through the deer hunting community in the 1980s and 1990s.
He helped introduced America to giant Canada whitetails and he helped open outfitting businesses in Illinois, Kansas and Texas. He did it all without asking for the recognition he surely deserved. Fame was just never his thing.
"I prefer to let other people get all the publicity. I'm just a guy who loves to hunt," he says.
Partnering With Dick Idol
Smith spent much of his boyhood chasing whitetails on vast tracts of public land near his home outside Raleigh, North Carolina. During the 1960s, hunting pressure was light and quality bucks, at least by North Carolina standards, were abundant. He killed some big deer, too, but it wasn't until he met another local deer fanatic that his life changed.
"A taxidermist introduced me to Dick Idol. We just hit it off," recalls Smith. "Dick moved to Alaska after he got out of school and guided for a couple of years. He came back to North Carolina and we started booking hunts and working as outfitters in Texas during the season."
The two traveled the country throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, following rumors of big bucks. At the time, drawing a non-resident tag in places like Iowa and Illinois was difficult (Kansas did not allow non-resident deer hunters at the time), so Idol and Carson started exploring the deer hunting opportunities in Canada. Stories of giant deer and an endless supply of forest and farmland turned out to be true. Smith and Idol saw a pocket of gold just waiting to be mined.
"Back then, you could hunt Saskatchewan without an outfitter, so we started taking people up there," he recalls. "We also found some great deer in Manitoba, so we hunted up there, too. The first year we hunted in Manitoba, I think the government sold perhaps 50 non-resident deer tags. A few years later, they were selling 3,000."
It helped that he and Idol became friends with men like David Morris, founder of Game & Fish Publications, and Realtree founder Bill Jordan, along with other industry pioneers. With their help, Smith and Idol became the go-to guys for Canada deer hunts. At least for a few years.
The Dixie Classic Is Born
"Canada passed regulations that forced all non-resident hunters to utilize an outfitter. It didn't help that the government passed a bunch of gun regulations and fees that made it tough to hunt up there," he says.
When he grew tired of fighting the system, Carson set his sights on places like Kansas, Illinois and Wisconsin, where he again used his industry connections to help build some of the most prolific outfitting businesses in the country. He never made much money doing that, but money wasn't all that important.
"I got to hunt. I also got to meet a lot of great people and help them realize their hunting dreams," he says.
Between his own hunts and booking hunts for others, Smith found time to help establish one of the largest and longest-running outdoor shows in the country. The Dixie Deer Classic opened its doors in 1981 and was the first big consumer hunting show of its kind. It still draws upwards of 20,000 people each year. It also served as a template for similar hunting-themed shows throughout the country.
Coming Home To Montana
All the places he visited and the countless deer he killed held a special place in his heart, but after trip to Montana, it became obvious he belonged there. He and Idol made a pass through the state on their way home from one of their Canada deer trips and noticed piles of shed antlers lying in front yards, many of them from huge whitetails. The two vowed to return the following season with bows in hand.
"When we were there hunting, Dick told me he was going to move to Montana. He did a year or two later," says Smith.
Smith eventually followed and now resides near Kalispell, where he sells real estate with Dave Heine & Associates and specializes in recreational property. It wasn't just the deer hunting and the open spaces that lured him to Big Sky country. It was the endless miles of trout-filled rivers and streams, and the freedom to fish on much of that water. Carson is as fanatical about fly fishing as he is bow hunting big bucks.
"It's a completely different world. I can leave my doors unlocked and my keys in my truck here. I couldn't do that in North Carolina," he says. "I love the lifestyle of Montana."
By his standards, he's "settled down." What Smith describes as "settled," though, would make any whitetail fanatic envious. This season, after chasing deer in his home state, Carson plans to drive to Wisconsin to visit his brother, who is also a die-hard bow hunter.
"He's got tons of big deer," says Smith.
After that, he'll spend a week bow hunting with friends in Illinois before heading south to hunt the giant whitetails of Kansas. Then Smith will point his car toward his native home state, where he will spend Christmas with his son, Alex, also an avid deer hunter. Even after spending much of his life chasing the biggest whitetails on earth, he still has a soft spot for his old stomping grounds. You can hear it in his southern accent.