An Interview with J. Alain Smith
Originally published in the November/December 2023 issue of Safari Magazine.
By Ryan Sparks
There isn’t a single word to describe J. Alain Smith, but if forced to pick one, “hunter” seems most appropriate. Hunting has been a guiding force in Smith’s life, impacting everything from his worldview to his business.
However, Smith is also much more than a hunter. He is a writer, businessman, musician, television host, conservationist, father and husband.
Smith has hosted the show “Rugged Expeditions” for 10 years, traveling the globe on hunting adventures. During those adventures, he has hunted the alpine peaks of Pakistan with former Taliban fighters, stood his ground against charging Cape buffalo and brown bear, and clung to sheer cliff faces while pursuing wild sheep. Those experiences have earned him over 350 different species and cemented his passion for conservation.
Smith is a past recipient of the Weatherby Conservation Award, SCI International Hunter of the Year, and earned SCI’s Hall of Fame Award in 2022. While he has traveled the globe and pursued a variety of big game animals, he is perhaps best known for his extensive experience hunting Cape buffalo in Africa. Smith has made over 100 trips to Africa and currently spends three months a year on the continent.
Safari Magazine recently caught up with J. Alain Smith, discussing everything from his earliest hunting memories to his excitement about the future of SCI.
SCI: Was hunting a passion from the beginning or something you grew into?
Alain Smith: I grew up in a non-hunting family although my dad and mom did take us camping and fishing quite a bit. We didn’t have a whole bunch of money so that was a good way to get three wild boys outside to burn off some energy. My parents weren’t opposed to hunting, they just never did it.
We had a neighbor that took me and my younger brother bird hunting for pheasants, ducks and quail. He had bird dogs and shotguns and showed us the ropes. He convinced my folks we should take our hunter’s safety course, and once I got a driver’s license and could go by myself it was “Katie bar the door.” It shows you what an impact a mentor can be. He took two kids from across the street and made a huge impact. Everything that came after was because of him.
Fast forward a bunch of years to when I was 23 and started a shipping business going to Kodiak, Alaska. When I got to Alaska and saw all the hunting and fishing opportunities, the switch flipped on for me, and it was game over. Alaska is a land of opportunity if you love big game hunting.
SCI: It certainly is. When did Africa come into the picture?
AS: As I continued hunting and building experience, I started to think about Africa. I had always had a burning desire, even as a kid, to go to Africa, so I started saving up my money for a trip to Zimbabwe. My entire budget for the trip was somewhere around $3,000. That trip changed my life.
On the way back from that trip I wrote down everything I had to do with my business to be more successful for the sole reason that I wanted to go back to Africa at least every two years. My goal wasn’t to make more money to buy a fancy car or a bigger house. I wanted to hunt more.
That phenomenon has repeated itself many times. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat on the side of a mountain while hunting and my mind clears, and I’m able to make important business decisions and make new goals for myself. It makes you realize positive changes you can make to your life. In a way, big game hunting is what has made me successful. I work harder so I can hunt, and when I hunt, it improves my life and my business.
SCI: Where did the concept for “Rugged Expeditions” come from?
AS: A group of friends and myself were sitting around a fire in Alaska during a moose hunt talking about the lack of quality hunting shows on TV, especially African big game shows. Somebody suggested I should start filming my hunts, and I said, “maybe I just will.”
It was during a time in my life when I had hired great managers to lead my other businesses, and I had the time to devote to the TV show. Tom Miranda was a big mentor of mine. He was doing the editing and really helped me get started. So that’s how I started “Rugged Expeditions.”
SCI: How do you go about choosing locations for the episodes? Is it species interest primarily or do the landscape or cultural aspects also play a role in selecting the various locations?
AS: Different cultures and locations give each show a unique feel. If one show is in Pakistan, the next is in Tanzania, and another is in Nepal, you really get a feel for the diversity of hunting experiences in the world — what it is like to travel the globe and hunt.
Having said that, I realize we are pretty heavy on Cape buffalo hunting, but that is because I really love doing it.
SCI: That ties in nicely with another question I wanted to ask you. What is your favorite animal to hunt? Cape buffalo I’m assuming?
AS: Yeah, my favorite animal to hunt is, by far, Cape buffalo. I’ve done that more than anything besides probably Sitka blacktail. To me, Cape buffalo are the epitome of dangerous game. You never know what is going to happen. They can absorb more firepower than anything I’ve ever seen, especially if they are fired up. I think we all live pretty mundane lives, so when you have a chance to go on a thrilling Cape buffalo adventure, it is just really tough to beat that feeling.
SCI: Is there a particular Cape buffalo hunt of yours that stands out?
AS: I’ve had one true charge. We were hunting in some thick brush in Tanzania, and I had one get within 8 yards. Luckily, I had a .577 and was able to kill it with a shot to the head. That was the most exciting hunt I’ve ever had. We got it on video for an episode and you can tell by my face there was no acting involved.
SCI: What about your most challenging hunt?
AS: My most challenging hunt would be leopard. It took me 37 days and nights sitting in a leopard blind over the course of seven safaris before I got a leopard. I just had bad luck. Anyone who has been cat hunting knows that it is not much fun. It is a grind. I was lucky in that when I did get a leopard it was a tremendous animal.
A very close second would be my polar bear hunt. It was the most miserable I’ve been. The cold combined with a lack of equipment made it very difficult. The hunt was very rough and poorly organized. We were out on the ice with dog teams and no snow machines. It was -35 degrees the whole time. We slept in a small tent with no heat. Both the guides smoked in the tent. I never took my clothes or boots off the entire trip. For eight days we followed tracks for 12 hours a day. I’m glad I did it, but I never want to do it again.
SCI: To change subjects a little bit, you’ve written several books — nine in total if I’m correct. Around half are fiction, following your hunter-protagonist Matt Simmons. The other half are nonfiction and relate stories from your hunting adventures. Do you have a preference between writing fiction and nonfiction? Is your writing process different from one to the other?
AS: The writing process is tremendously different from one to the other. The great thing about doing the hunting books is I get to relive my adventures. Writing fictional novels is a longer and more detailed process. There are elements of the real world in my fiction. For example, the first book in my novel series, “It’s Not a Game Anymore,” has some hunting in it and is loosely based upon my experiences in the Central African Re-public. While it is fictional, anyone who has been to the CAR would recognize the characters and the historical events that take place.
SCI: You’ve been the Master of Ceremonies at SCI’s annual Convention for many years. I’m sure you have a story that would surprise us or make us laugh?
AS: The most fun I’ve had through the MC jobs has always been when Jim Shockey and I are together. I write the scripts out in advance, and I don’t know why I bother because Jim never follows them. He just wings it which makes it better because I don’t know what he is going to do next. I think that give-and-take and giving each other a hard time have become what we are known for at SCI’s Convention.
SCI: How did you first get involved with SCI?
AS: I got involved with SCI through my friend Chris Klineburger, a great taxidermist and probably one of the greatest hunters of all time. He was also from the Seattle area, and he got me involved in our local chapter. When I went to my first Convention I was hooked. I was like a kid in a candy store. It opened my eyes to the hunting opportunities in the world. It made me want to work harder so I could go and do these things.
SCI: Is there anything going on with SCI right now that particularly excites you?
AS: Seeing the evolution of SCI over the years and how it has grown to where it is today has been amazing. SCI has really transitioned to a major organization and puts on the biggest hunting convention of its kind in the world.
The move to Nashville is taking SCI to a whole new level. As a musician, I am going a couple of days early and staying a couple of days later to see the music scene that is going on. My personal interests aside, I think moving to Nashville is one of the best moves SCI has made as an organization.
It is also exciting to see all the great pro-grams SCI is managing — getting kids out hunting, getting women more involved, our education programs, our worldwide conservation programs — those are all things that only SCI is doing.
I also like seeing that SCI is bringing other hunters into the mix that aren’t just African big game hunters. SCI represents everybody, whether you hunt whitetail deer or upland birds or dangerous game in Africa. We are the only ones doing that. Every hunter is benefiting from the work SCI does.
SCI: Do you have any projects you are working on or hunts that you are excited about?
AS: On the “Rugged Expedition” side of things we are going to be on Carbon TV soon, which is an exciting platform that is all hunting shows. We are still on television through Amazon, but also moved over to YouTube to reach a wider audience. Now we reach all over the world and have over 6 million views a year on our channel.
I’m also working on another hunting book focusing on Cape buffalo. It’s a slow process because I’m hunting a lot more than writing these days.
I’ve got a trip coming up to Morocco to hunt aoudad. To get to hunt one in its home range is going to be fantastic. It’s funny though, I’ve been going back to my early days of bird hunting a lot lately. It has come full circle. I still like to big game hunt all over the world, but I tell you, getting back to how I started is pretty special.