Second in a three-part series on Deer Camp at Archer’s Choice with Ralph and Vicki
Click here for Part I
LANARK, Ill. – Ralph Cianciarulo said he won the lotto with Vicki. Rarely does a woman come along who shares your passions and stands alongside you every step of way, while sometimes beating you at your own game.
She completes him – even his sentences, or sometimes she just cuts him off completely.
“She’s doesn’t take any guff. I used to be 6-6,” Ralph jokes. “Mentally she’s beaten me to this height.”
Although there were naysayers, “Archer’s Choice with Ralph and Vicki” became the first couple show on Outdoor Channel. It has run 13 years and remains the only all-archery show to win a Golden Moose Fan Favorite award.
Click image to see the "Archer's Choice Early Days" photo gallery
“When we started, there were no couples,” Ralph said. “I actually had guys in the industry saying, ‘What the heck are you doing? Why are you bringing your wife? It’s a guy thing.’ There’s a pile of couples now.”
But the Cianciarulo’s rate as North America’s Favorite Hunting Couple. Their give and take – at times more like push and shove – started with archery and progressed. They’ve expanded into two shows from their home base Deer Camp in northwest Illinois.
“The thing is, we started it because we love to hunt,” Vicki said. “We do this because we love to hunt. We didn’t do it to become a TV star. And we’re not. If you walk out of the hunting industry, no one knows who we are.”
Ralph knows who she is, what all she does and is proud of his wife.
“Married for 20 years, she’s a housewife, she’s a mother, helps run a successful business,” he said. “She cooks, she cleans. She does all these things.”
“I can bring home the bacon, brrrr-ah, brrrr-ah,” Vicki responds, reciting the lead-in from a perfume commercial from the 1980s, about the time they met at Ralph’s archery shop.
A big draw to Archer’s Choice was the shooting ranges -- carpet and old tubes painted and hung from the rafters created shooting lanes, and there were moving targets and popups powered by a compressor.
“We had all kinds of crazy stuff," Ralph said. "I’d hear them having a blast and ricochet the arrows and I’d be like ‘Cha-ching!’ They’d have to buy another half dozen arrows. But they loved it because it was hunting. It was fun.”
Vicki was a dating a guy who joined a bow league with his buddies. The next exchange tells a lot about the Cianciarulos' relationship.
“He’d come up and grab my arm. ‘Hey gorgeous, how’s it going?’ He’d ask me how my day was,” Vicki said.
“I’m an Italian from Chicago,” Ralph explained.
Sick of being arrow caddy, Vicki wanted to shoot and went to Ralph for a bow.
“He didn’t give me a discount,” she said.
“She had a boyfriend,” he countered. “Why am I going to give her a discount?”
“See how he is?”
Vicki began shooting in the league with all the guys, and Ralph said her scores were “very consistent, very good.”
“You remember that? I don’t remember that,” she said with a lilt of sentiment.
Around that time Ralph and the shop received great press from Chicago Tribune writer John Husar, and that helped open doors with a number of the city’s athletes, who became clients. Husar gave updates in his column like this:
Former Bear Walter Payton got his pair of caribou in Canada on a bow hunt with archery guru Ralph Cianciarulo of Berwyn`s Archer`s Choice. Ralph is filming segments for Babe Winkelman`s new hunting TV series.
“I wanted more,” Ralph said. “In 1985, we started filming. I ended up being asked to do some shows. I was starting to build a great reputation.
“I got no money still, even with the shop. And I wanted to hunt. I was going to state woods, out west I was shooting deer, bears, elk on my own. Then I started outfitting out west, up north.”
His first video, “The Caribou Epic with Ralph & Walter” in 1986, blew the doors wide open for him during what he calls the “hunting video era.” With his shop and growing reputation, athletes like Bo Jackson, Jody Davis, Keith Moreland, Brian Dayett, Kurt Russell, Carlton Fisk, Dr. Phil Claussen and Bill Buckner came in and became friends.
“Because of John Husar and all the avenues that were opening up, these guys are calling me up to take them hunting on their breaks,” he said.
The video series sold at sporting goods stores and archery distributors, and Ralph said he actually started to make money. In 1989, he signed his first financial contract with a manufacturer, who paid him to use their equipment.
“I’m still with most of them,” he said.
Vicki and Ralph started dating, and soon after Ralph received an invitation to speak at the Anderson Archery Clinic with Archery Hall of Famers like Fred Bear, Jim Doughtery, Judd Cooney and M.R. James.
“There’s this little kid, this young punk, sitting there with these guys, and they’re talking to me, and they’re listening to me, and I’m listening to them with big ears like Dumbo,” Ralph said.
Ralph said he was blown away when the Andersons asked if Vicki would join him for a seminar. It went over well, as women interested in archery flocked to Vicki, and the couple started appearing at a variety of outdoors shows. Ralph said Vicki’s presence helped more women get involved in the sport.
They married in 1993, and things were going well with the DVDs, public speaking and the shop, so well that there were two offers to buy Archer’s Choice.
“We thought about it,” Ralph said. “The serious one, they wanted the name. The name was ours. I couldn’t do it. Again, it was a stupid business decision.”
“No it wasn’t,” Vicki said.
“It was, Vic,” he said. “I could walk away with some money back then.”
The Cianciarulos finally did sell the shop in 1995 and all the inventory, but they kept the name. About two years later at antelope camp, they were asked why they weren’t doing TV. They talked it over on 20-hour drive back and decided to investigate further with a startup network.
“We put a pilot together and Outdoors Channel said, ‘Yes, this is what we’re needing. There are no couples. This is awesome,’” Ralph said. “We said, ‘Now what?’”
Ralph said most people don’t realize that the producers have to pay for their show to air and have to recoup it by selling ad time, and Ralph said that first year they didn’t make a profit.
“Our production time, all of our time, our expenses, was ours,” he said. “But what happened was the show airs. The next thing, our phones are ringing for us to come speak here and do this and get paid more money to do that and do this. Holy nuts, how cool is this?”
The show was a hit from the start, as most viewers could relate to the likeable married couple interacting on hunts. The Cianciarulos already owned their homestead/deer camp in northwest Illinois when they started a second show, “The Choice with Ralph & Vicki” in 2005.
Click image to see the "Prime Choice For Deer Camp" photo gallery
It includes their big game exploits, gun hunts and more recently their son, R.J. Ralph said he loves his deer hunts, and Vicki said he loves running around trying to figure them out, but it’s the elk, moose and bear they really enjoy.
“For me to just sit over a food plot and hunt deer, it would drive me nuts,” he said. “There are so many animals to me that captivate that adventure more than a whitetail.”
Vicki is the same way. She enjoys the adventure of being in remote areas where you must depend on yourself, and she handles those rigors better than most men.
“There’s something about when you get dropped off from a little Piper Cub, it’s you,” she said. “You have to make sure you can get back to your tent at night. Something happens, you got to make sure you don’t throw your binoculars around your neck after climbing over a log and cut your lip wide open and try to superglue it shut.”
That happened to her, but they’ve both had rough outings. Ralph’s broken a number of bones. They recalled one trip for brown bear in Alaska when they were stuck in the wilds an extra five days as fog grounded their flights out.
“We got a little stir crazy, but they finally came in and picked us up,” Vicki said.“I just want to go home. I never want to come back here again. A month later, let’s do it again.”
That’s the attitude that makes Ralph say he won the lotto with Vicki. He’s taken men on 10-day hunts who fell apart after five days, and that’s why he’s so proud of what she’s been through, mentally and physically.
Vicki’s not exactly sure the origin of her fortitude.
“Honestly, I think -- that’s a really good question. No one in my family hunts. I grew up a tomboy. I’ve always been a tomboy -- middle child, two sisters. I like pickup trucks. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always loved outdoors,” she said.
She said got hooked on hunting when an old boyfriend took her out for grouse, but what keeps her going is showing everyone that a woman can do it.
“I got hooked up with this goofball here (looks at Ralph) and part of my drive is, when we’re out, I’m a girl and I’m going to prove to everyone that I can do this,” she said. “I don’t have to be a man. You can ask Ralph, I get very stubborn about this, don’t I?”
“I’m going to take the fifth,” Ralph said.
“The drive that I get behind me,” she continues, “you do what you got to do and it feels good. They can do it, I can do it.”
Next: Walter Payton wakes Ralph and Vicki up to consider children.
Go to Deer Camp
“Archer's Choice” Show Page
“The Choice with Ralph & Vicki” Show Page