First in a three-part series on Deer Camp at Archer’s Choice with Ralph and Vicki
LANARK, Ill. – Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo don’t have to go anywhere for Deer Camp; they live it.
Amid the miles and miles of corn and soybean fields in northwest Illinois, there stands the largest wooded area around. The Cianciarulos had hunted nearby in their early years together, and when this property came up for sale, they pulled up stakes in Chicago and set up their homestead/deer camp.
Ralph said that it is prime habitat, abundant with the three things he always considers when hunting – food, cover and water. But it wasn’t the prime deer hunting grounds until extensive management.
Click image to see the "Archer's Choice Early Days" photo gallery
“When we first bought this, very seldom did you see a deer track,” he said. “People walked it; they let everybody just go through. When we bought it, we shut it down.”
There are approximately 100 acres of Archer’s Choice property on several parcels of land. They’ve set up food plots between the ag fields and bedding areas and have figured out in the past decade exactly when, where and how to hunt it.
The two long ago acclimated to the small-town atmosphere and are happy to be raising son R.J., 12, in the close-knit, farming community. They have their home, office, family and friends close.“We love this place,” Vicki said.
Ralph’s mom, Arlene, lives about “one look” down their drive. Another mile away lives Vicki’s best friend, Kathy Spong, the mother of R.J.’s best friend, Travis. The women keep busy with school activities and things like bringing dinners over to each other’s house.
“Mom knows everyone in this community,” Vicki said. “Everyone at the bank, everyone at the store. But we’re not here as often. I do a lot more at school than Ralph does.”
“I don’t mesh. I know I don’t,” said Ralph, who’s in his own world taking photos at R.J.’s football games. “I don’t really visit with the fathers. I’ll say hi to them. Last year we saw one football game. We took ourselves off the road. We turned down a lot of appearances. There are more important things in life.”
Ralph mainly keeps his focus on the business and the deer, but he wants to be at his son’s football and band activities as much as he can. On the eve of the Illinois youth opener, he breaks camp to hit the town’s parade, watching R.J. march with the band in his football jersey.
Click image to see the "Prime Choice For Deer Camp" photo gallery
While most folks in the town of 1,457 know they have TV celebrities in their midst, they don’t get the crush of requests like they would during an appearance at an outdoor show.
At the parade, a boy who watches their shows and follows them on Facebook approached Vicki.“Hey Vicki, was that an 8 or a 10 you shot up in North Dakota?” was his question, she said. “I know them all.”
Late season favorites
The late season is Ralph’s favorite time to hunt. The main hunting areas are plots they call the “Fifty” – it’s really just 40 acres – and another, the “Thirty-three.”
“There’s 20 acres of woods and 10 acres nobody ever goes in,” Ralph said. “I want them to have a sanctuary. We hunt the fringes, but we never go in it.”
That area is key to keeping deer around. No one hunts the AC land until after the youth opener (See "There Is Crying In Hunting"). Then Ralph and Vicki travel out of state for various hunts – they own property in Iowa -- before hunkering down for late season deer.
“What you compete with in early season is a lot of corn and a ton of soybeans,” Ralph said. “We have a tremendous oak population. You just have such a diversified amount of food in this location. When most of the ag gets cut, it starts pushing a lot of deer, especially does, into our timber.”
And that brings the bucks. Ralph likes the late season after the rut because the bucks aren’t worried about anything but a food source.
“We get in stand about 12 at 1 and you hunt till dark,” he said. “The reason is, most of time, when we have snow, you can’t get close to these food plots because the deer are laying there. So you go midday when they go in a little thicker cover. You hunt with the wind in your favor. We try to keep our winter plots close to the thick cover where they bed. It goes back to food, cover and water.”
The story of how Ralph and Vicki, city folks growing up in the big shoulders of Chicago, came to become internationally known hunters and bow experts, is an example of passion.
Ralph grew up in Berwyn, which was house upon house in ethnically divided neighborhoods. His mother’s family hunted and fished, and it was at his grandparents’ cottage on Gages Lake where he became intrigued with wild game. His first bow, a big all-wood long bow, came at around 6.
“It was heavy to draw back. I just fell in love,” he said. “I would draw back and shoot that arrow, and watch it … sometimes hit the target. But you could watch it. It’s like watching a football. Next thing I know, the squirrels and the rabbits.”
A big mistake was getting caught shooting at his mom’s bird bath. “It was ugly.” But he kept shooting. He’d mow the lawn, get his allowance and take most all of it to buy arrows, five for $1, at the True Value. And shoot. And shoot.
“Mom and dad both thought I was weird,” he said.
When he got a little older, he started riding his Stingray with a banana seat to the closest archery shop 45 minutes away in Forest Park. He worked a deal to shoot for free if he changed out the target butts each month.His first ever deer hunt was with an uncle at 13, and he didn’t fare too well. “I tell everybody I think that arrow is still in orbit.” (See "A Shaky, Shaky Start for Cianciarulo").
Soon after, he ordered a Bitzenburger jig from Bowhunters Discount Warehouse and started making his own arrows. Apt to tinker, he later came up with an idea that made him indispensable at the bow shop.
“I painted a bow. Camouflaged it,” he said. “At the range, some people were like ‘Oh my, gosh! Where did you get that? I started charging people $20 to paint theirs. The bow, site, quiver, the whole thing. It was Gucci.”
He first used leaves from his mom’s plastic plants as stencils, then his technique advanced and hit a pinnacle when he started airbrushing. He was spraying piles of bows, even from other shops, and continued to make inroads in the business. Breaking his neck at 20 put him on hold for a year.
Ralph wanted his own archery shop, and the owner where he was working had promised to sell him his, but then changed his tune. He told Ralph if he opened one within 100 miles, he’d shut it down.
So in 1984, after the name Archer’s Choice just hit him, Ralph ventured out on his own.
“I was still a junior high school at that point. Just to let you know,” Vicki chimes in, kind of rubbing it in.
It was slow going and most told him he wouldn’t make it after bringing in $55,000 the first year. But because of his passion and dedication, the business tripled the following year.
“Right place, right time, right attitude,” Ralph said. “Archery was on the rise, the compound bow, the whole nine yards. All the athletes were coming to my shop. I didn’t treat them any more special. They came to me because I love bow hunting and archery, and I love setting up the bows.
“In anything, if you have that passion, you ain’t working. You don’t care that you work around the clock, because you love to do it. I would stay up late at night fletching the arrows for the customers who needed their arrows. We ended up taking another store next door to us, put more ranges in.”
And Ralph was generous, giving away bows to kids, some of whom like him became hooked.
“I am not a business person,” Ralph concludes.
“I concur,” Vicki said. “But he has the passion. And we’ve been blessed to make a living out of what we love to do -- take a hobby and making a successful business out of it.”
Next: Ralph wins the lotto with Vicki.
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