LANARK, Ill. – The shot was slightly off its mark, but he hit the deer and needed another shot. R.J. Cianciarulo took it hard. There were tears.
The 12-year-old son of “Archer’s Choice” hosts Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo didn’t like seeing the doe suffer, and he knew what he had to do. He just wasn’t too happy he had to.
“The shot wasn’t perfect,” Ralph said. “It was high, the deer dropped but he needed to follow up for a fast, humane kill.”
Click the image to see photos from R.J. Cianciarulo's hunt
R.J., who has hunted since he was 5, including hogs in Florida, bear in Canada and red stag in New Zealand, was satisfied in helping manage the land by taking his fifth doe, just not his aim.
“Not the best shot on my part,” he admitted. “Everything happens for a reason.”
He borrowed that last line from a sign hanging in the Archer’s Choice offices. Always the mentor, Ralph sagely broke down for R.J. what he thought was the reason.
“Because sometimes we get overconfident in our shooting, and God says, ‘Whoa , stop.’ Sometimes it ain’t perfect all the time. Right?” he asked.
It was a valuable lesson, something he and Vicki know R.J. has to experience in the maturation of their “Little Man” into a hunter. Vicki later told the story of guiding an adult who had a more difficult time putting her second arrow into a wounded animal. She also said it happened to her when she first started hunting with Ralph.
Long ago, while Ralph gave Vicki an early pass by letting her end one of their first hunts because she was cold, he was more adamant on another outing when she injured an animal.
“He said, “You started this, you finish it,’ “she recalls. “It’s one of those things that no one likes to see an animal suffer, so you got do the best you can and get it done.”
Mom consoled and counseled R.J. as they headed up past the food plot for the second shot. She’s the soft touch to Ralph’s hammer.
“You make us very proud every time,” she told R.J. as they filmed for their show. “Bud, you’re a pretty amazing kid.”
What they all knew was the doe on the opening day of the Illinois youth season meant fresh back straps, not that they tired of wild game they’d served up to Deer Camp visitors, including caribou sausage, elk nachos and wild boar sausage and gravy.
Teaching, mentoring and even tough love are all in the Cianciarulos’ grand plan. Ralph, a fun-loving Italian who takes Vicki’s loving barbs in stride, turns super serious on anything to do about a hunt, the weather, the wind, the weapon, and especially when he’s teaching kids.
Young adrenaline flowing
Archer’s Choice properties hosted a bunch of kids for the state opener, and they were taught as they went. There were four youth of friends, family and co-workers who took deer on Ralph and Vicki’s 100 acres of hunting ground in northwest Illinois. And the girls beat the boys
R.J. was the first then show producer Freddy Lagos’s two daughters took doe before the daughter of Vicki’s best friend, Kathy Spong, took her first deer. All left with lessons learned.
Ralph was helping Katie Spong, 10, learn to shoot a shotgun properly in his front yard before opening day. Katie had a terrifying first experience when she was 8, as she wasn’t instructed to place the butt of the gun into her shoulder and suffered bad bruises.
While Katie’s a tough tomboy type, Ralph knew she would be somewhat trigger shy, so he had her line up her shot at a target several times and “squeeze” the trigger before he let her try it with a live round. He reported she did flinch the first two times but came through with an accurate practice shot, and obviously during the hunt.
Her brother, Travis, 12 and R.J.s best friend, practiced from a ground blind in the Cianciarulos’ front yard the day before his hunt. His Hoyt bow, set at 56 pounds with a Beman ICS Hunter arrow and tipped with a HellRazor, found its mark in the target time after time, but on one set he shot one arrow a tad high, saying the bottom limb bumped his knee.
Josh Lancaster, Ralph’s right-hand man, sat down and showed Travis how to put both legs to the side and shoot. Travis practiced it and found it worked fine, but he wasn’t presented a shot to test it during the opening weekend.
Kids get first crack
Ralph was adamant that no one hunted the property before the youth weekend, but he laments things like the prospect of giving R.J. the go ahead to shoot a trophy buck. He doesn’t want the kids to think it comes easy.
“As a father, I hope we see some game and he gets a shot and makes a good shot,” he said the night before the hunt. “As a mentor, there’s part of me that hopes nothing happens so that he understands that’s hunting.“I’ve spoiled him. I try to get the kids in great spots where they’re going to see game and they’re not going to lose their attention span. And part of that is wrong. I battle with that every time I do this with the kids.”
While Ralph wants them to have success, he also wants to show them the reality of hunting.
“I don’t want him to just think dad and mom are going to set me up I’m going to go out and kill something and be back and play a video game,” Ralph said.
So he often points out to R.J. things like a book that says there’s 18 percent hunting success, and then spells it out that only “18 of 100 people are successful.” Ralph has other examples, like a man at an East Coast seminar who told him he hasn’t seen a deer in the woods in three years.
“But he’s still going out. Now that’s a hunter,” Ralph said. “Maybe not a good hunter.
“That’s what you need to understand when you go hunting. The percentages are low, very low. If we are seeing game, it’s because we did a lot of work before that – the food plots, the scouting, understanding where they’re bedding, what they’re feeding on, where they’re watering, trying to give them areas of pure sanctuary where you don’t go in.”
While the kids have cart blanche to shoot anything and could possibly have the good fortune of shooting a trophy, Ralph would prefer that not happen – yet.
“I want him to be successful, but I want him to learn management,” he said. “I don’t manage the deer over the children. I want him to have opportunity but I want him to understand that there’s a lot times where you may never see a deer.”
Keepin’ it real -- fun
Ralph knows most pre-teens don’t have the capability of sitting on guard in a stand for three, four hours straight. They might get bored silly, then hunting would become tedious and the youth might be lost.
“If he’s not interested, you know he’s not absorbing it,” he said. “You gotta keep it fun. You mess around. That’s what’s so cool about the (Ameristep Quad Pod) blinds. You can relax, stretch out, get away with a little more movement, take a little more gear.
“We can sit there and laugh and have a pretty good time. They want to lie down and rest, let them rest.”
Getting R.J. hooked on hunting seems like a no-brainer, given his parents and their rural locale. But the Cianciarulos never pushed him. They’ve presented it to him and waited for him to decide it’s what he wanted to do.
“He didn’t like guns,” Ralph said of young R.J. “He didn’t like the noise, even when he got a little older. Then about three years ago, it just clicked with the gun stuff. Later we found out that part of it was the teachers were going to give them school off.”
But it has stuck, and R.J. is eager now. Ralph said getting that seed planted is important as other interests will come in the teen years, from school work to sports and other extracurricular activities.“We know we’re going to lose the boys when they start chasing the girls and the girls start chasing the boys,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things thrown at them, football, soccer, basketball, baseball, band. We as parents are going to lose the kids at that time.
“As long as we can plant that seed and get them to understand that hunting is a good thing … they’re our future. Even if they walk away from it, they know what it is and what it’s good for.”
He said kids are prone to move out of the small town atmosphere with the desire to experience life at college and in big cities, but he also knows a high percentage will come back to the deer woods.
“Because that’s their roots. That’s why to us it’s always been important to get the kids out in the woods,” he said. “Yeah, you’re killing an animal. Have respect for the animal. But who better than God to tell you in the bible to become stewards of his animals and his land? He told us straight out to go hunt them. Pick up your bow and quiver and let’s go. I ain’t questioning the Big Guy.”
He is questioning his “Little Man,” making sure he picks up all the intricacies of hunting. Ralph and Vicki hope to groom R.J. to fill their shoes.
“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.
“If he doesn’t, I just want him to understand that hunting to his mom and dad is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. We live it 24/7. We love it.”
From football to deer camp
On the eve of the deer opener, after practicing their shots, getting gear ready and playing a little football with Ralph, R.J. and Travis went to the high school football game with Vicki. They came home at halftime with their Eastland team leading 48-0. Then it was a shower with scent-free soap and straight to bed. A tent was set up behind the Archer’s Choice office and they quickly bedded down.
With a 5:30 wake-up, the boys were up and at ‘em. A quick bite, spray down for scent and video on the front porch, and the boys were off to their stands.
Josh Lancaster and Kathy picked up Travis to take him across the highway to his spot on an L-shaped food plot, where Lancaster hoped to video a bow kill. Ralph and Vicki drove R.J. in the Jeep to the “Fifty.” Ralph was careful on the approach to the huge food plot as it lies between bedding areas and corn and soybean fields.
“R.J. helped me burn all the weeds. He loved that. We caught it all on fire, almost got in trouble,” Ralph said. “This has sort of been his field.”
Because of a south wind, the blind in the southwest corner wouldn’t do. Instead, Ralph opted to try an old barn on the east side. He knew when he first bought the property that it would make a cool shotgun set up but had never used it before.
“We can get back in the barn and still be elevated. We’re not adding anything to the area,” he said. “It’s like your backyard, if you put something new in, they notice it.”
Like last season, when R.J. had to be roused from slumber for his morning doe and afternoon buck, he snoozed. At first light, a group of five does walked within a few feet of the barn but got spooked.
More than an hour later, three doe emerged from the thick brush where they were bedding. R.J. watched as they browsed then aimed his TC 20-gauge shotgun and fired. He would need that second slug, but Ralph said it’s all part of the learning process.
“You want them to experience a bad hit,” he said. “Don’t kid yourself; everybody is going to have them. It’s a hard thing. Death is not easy – you show the animal drop and that’s it. But the thing is have the respect for it.
“When that happens, you do the best thing you can for the animal, and you also have to do it as fast as possible so the animal’s not suffering.”
And Ralph and Vicki see the experience as just another step in R.J.’s progression from their “Little Man” to hunter.
“The reality of it is he had enough respect that he actually had tears in his eyes. He has the emotional effect of what hunting does to people. He also had the adrenaline rush,” Ralph said. “Kids, listen to me, there’s no drug, there’s no alcohol on this planet that will give you the true adrenaline rush that hunting can. And that’s why we do it.”
“Archer’s Choice” Show Page
Go to 2013 Deer Camp