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'Just Hunters With a Camera'

Payton's push convinces Cianciarulos to put R.J. in picture

'Just Hunters With a Camera'
Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo

Final of a three-part series on Deer Camp at Archer’s Choice with Ralph and Vicki

Click here for Part I | Part II

LANARK, Ill. – Practically resigned to not having children, Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo are grateful they heeded the sage words of Walter Payton.

The Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back was a friend of the Cianciarulos, meeting them through their Archer’s Choice bow shop in Berwyn and becoming the subject of their first video, “The Caribou Epic” in 1986.


Ralph made memories on all kinds of hunts with “Sweetness,” but Payton’s memory lives on with them in their son, R.J. Cianciarulo.


“We were selfish,” Vicki said. “We weren’t thinking about having kids.”


Click image to see the "Archer's Choice Early Days" photo gallery
Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo right at home hunting in northwest Illinois


A successful hunting video series and speaking seminars kept Ralph and Vicki on the go, but Payton woke them up one night near Christmas. They remember he drove over to their house in his Lexus, and Vicki joked it was a nice gift, which received a “Whatever.”

But Ralph remembers he must have just been in a mood to check out their plans and give them a little push to think about children.


“ ‘You guys going to have kids or what? … You dumb white boy, I gotta teach you how to do it?’ That’s how he was,” said Ralph, explaining to him their hectic schedule. “He goes, ‘Forget all of that. I’m probably doing more than you are and I have two kids. I just want to tell you this, look at it this way; Your child could be the one that makes a difference.’

“I‘m sitting there thinking, Oh my gosh, Walter Payton just told me that.”

Vicki said Payton’s message sunk in. She said they added maternity to their insurance and then “something happened on a Texas turkey hunt.” A month later she got verification from a home pregnancy test in true Vicki fashion – over a 55-gallon drum outhouse at an Alberta bear camp.


After an initial thought that their world-hopping lifestyle would take a serious hit, Vicki embraced her pregnancy. Her obstetrician told her not to start anything new, or climb trees. And she didn’t.

“OK. I was climbing ladders,” she said, adding that stalking and canoeing after moose wasn’t new. “I wanted so bad to be pregnant behind a dead animal.”

She got her moose, while wearing double extra large bibs. The hunt had another interesting anecdote. Traversing water by walking on some willow trees, she fell in, but Ralph caught her by the backpack with one hand and pulled her out in one of those amazing, adrenaline-fueled feats of strength.

"He asks, ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Yeah,’” she said. “It was a matter of getting really mad or cry. Then Ralph and Fern start laughing at me. Hormones. Midnight. Dead tired. I say, ‘What the f#@% are you laughing at?”

R.J. was born in 2001. He attended his first Deer Classic at six weeks old, was 10 months old when Vicki carried him to retrieve her first mule deer, and he got his first kill three days shy of his fifth birthday -- a wild hog in Florida.

He’s since taken enough different species to make an adult jealous, including big game in New Zealand. (See Red Stag for Whole Family) Now 12, he’s been getting air time on “The Choice” as well as learning the cameras and filming both his parents on their hunts. (See That Boy Will Hunt)

“I personally would like him to take over the business, if he wants to,” Ralph said. “I think he has a great personality. He has charisma. He’s a little smartass at times -- he gets that from his mother. If he wants to, he has the potential of following in our footsteps.”


Click image to see the "Prime Choice For Deer Camp" photo gallery
Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo right at home hunting in northwest Illinois


Late season tactics

Ralph does love whitetail hunting, especially the chase at home. Figuring them out is a big part of it, and he relates some hunts last year that required due diligence.

“We keep our food plots near the bedding areas for the late season. We love the late season,” Ralph said. “If we get a heavy snow, they’re going to go to the closest cover that has the best food, period. You can have a lot of transient deer coming into your little honey hole in the late season. That’s what happened with me.”

Last January after the second gun season, Ralph scouted for several days under irregular weather conditions. It was unseasonable warm with south winds. He glassed and found the deer were bedding only 100 yards from the food plot, making it impossible to climb into a stand without busting them.

They don’t hunt many mornings in late season because the deer are already on or near the food source, so he tries to get to the stand near 1 p.m. to hunt until dark.

“So what we did, we crawled up over the hill, hugged the fencerow and got close to the food plot and hunkered down,” he said. “I had my TenPoint crossbow. All of the sudden, it wasn’t long, the deer just started filtering out of their bedding.

“The nicest buck out of the bunch, he stayed 33, 35 yards. I took my time. It was cool because we were on the ground and had about 15 to 20 deer all around us. We had a little bit of snow cover and it was just awesome. I held on him, released and it was over.”

The deer, taken for venison, was a nice mid-130s, certainly no monster like R.J. had a chance at earlier that season.

“We had a really big buck chasing a doe in back of us. She must have been hot because it was just insane,” Ralph said. “He never came out all the way, but it got R.J. pumped up. He did get a glimpse of him and it was a big, big buck. A monster.

“In a way, I’m glad it didn’t come out because I don’t’ think a kid should go out and shoot a Booner their first couple times … what do they have to look forward do in the future?”

Several more does came out along with a spike, which R.J. wanted to shoot. Ralph gave him the green light but it never presented a shot.

“All of a sudden, I look up and a really nice five-point just came out of the Osage, with the winds against its back,” Ralph said. “It came right up to us. He’s about 75 to 80 yards out. RJ got on him and boom, bada-binged him.”

Ralph said their scouting, the glassing and determining their movement patterns helped on both those hunts.

“Normally those deer won’t move like that,” he said. “For a lot of people, your best thing to do is maybe not pressure the area and keep pounding and hunting it, but get off to a distance and keep on glassing it at those prime times.

“Then you can see the movement, you see where they’re bedding. You know their route is going to that food source. Mark the wind, so you know exactly how they travel, then get in there accordingly.”

Life-changing moments

Ralph says he continues to learn via observation. When Payton succumbed to a rare live disease in 1999, Ralph and Vicki were invited to the closed memorial service.

“I was raised an Italian catholic. I was yelled at and hit with rulers,” Ralph said. “We sat at that service, even though we were sad we lost a dear friend, we didn’t feel it. It was a celebration of his life. The pastor that spoke made you feel not like you were a bad person. It made us look at church totally different. It was another change in our lives.”

Ralph and Vicki are religious but don’t push it. They have an antler shaped like the Holy Cross displayed in their home as well as other messages of inspiration. They pray before each meal, sometimes asking the children to say grace.

Archer’s Choice displays scripture numbers at the end of their shows, challenging viewers to go see the message. The Cianciarulos says they feel truly blessed to be able to do what they do.

“I thank God we that can make a living doing what we love to do,” Ralph said. “For us to be able to do this is such a privilege. We go hunting in places you’d have to be very wealthy to go hunt, and we go year after year.

“It’s not an ego ride for us. I don’t give a damn if you see our name in lights. I don’t. Today there are too many people who want to be on TV for all the wrong reasons. They want a line to sign autographs, they want to be recognized, but they’re not taking the time to put something back. If we don’t all, the kids won’t have that opportunity.”

Ralph is concerned for the next generations. He sees threats to the hunting lifestyle and hopes all brand of hunters can unite to make their voices heard. At seminars, he advises everyone to buy their husband, wife or child a hunting license, even if they don’t hunt.

“Our numbers would double. When we have numbers, we have more power in legislation. The strength in the numbers is the only thing the politicians look at,” he said. “They would see there is something to this hunting lifestyle. If we all did that one year, we wouldn’t have to worry about the future.”

As for their future, the Cianciarulos are always planning for the next thing. They just drove through the snow storm to attend this week’s Archery Trade Association show in Nashville. The week before they were in Mexico hunting Coues deer. Vicki posted a photo of her kill, and razzed Ralph that he “is still Coues-less.”

That self-deprecating approach is among the reasons they’re considered “America’s Favorite Hunting Couple,” which with R.J. progressing and coming into the fold might soon earn them “Favorite Hunting Family.”

“There’s probably better hunters and better shots who will never be on television,” Ralph said. “If you realize that, you will stay level-headed.

“At the end of the day, we’re just hunters, hunters with a camera. That’s it.”

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