Ronnie Philips pulled into the parking lot of the Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center early Saturday afternoon and was caught off guard.
He and his fellow “Heartland Waterfowl” and “Heartland Bowhunter” creators Shawn Luchtel, Logan Burditt and Michael Hunsucker were checking on the logistics of their premiere party that night for their shows, and hundreds of fans were lined up around the building.
“It was early afternoon, and there were all these fans out there – I couldn’t believe it,” said Philips, who works with co-owner and co-host Burditt on the “Heartland Waterfowl” program on the Sportsman Channel. “I went in and got some bottles of cold water and went out and handed them out. It was like five or six hours before we were ready to open the doors.”
He paused for a moment, and shook his head, smiling, as more than 1,000 fans of all ages attended the event.
“It seems like such a long time ago that we had our premiere at Bass Pro with 100 or 200 fans,” he said, “and now, well, I just can’t believe it. We must be doing something right.”
The two programs have won national awards and attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers.
“We believe in working with good people, good guys who know what they’re doing, who we feel comfortable with, and that’s what it’s like working with Ronnie and everyone,” said Brandon Mendoza, the owner of Tornado Alley Waterfowl in Reading, Kan., who has been a frequent guest hunter on the show.
“They’re genuine. They know what they’re doing, and they have a great show. We’re proud to be a part of it. Look at this turnout tonight – that’s all you need to look at to see what type of respect they’re getting from their fans.”
As Philips, Luchtel, Hunsucker and Burditt visited with sponsors and fans, they reminisced on an improbable journey that has turned dreams into a lucrative reality.
Luchtel and Hunsucker created “Heartland Bowhunter” 12 years ago with a little bit of grit, gumption, determination and talent they didn’t realize they possessed as rookie television entrepreneurs.
“It’s a collaborative effort, with me and Mike on the ‘Bowhunter’ show and Ronnie and Logan on the ‘Waterfowl’ show,” said Luchtel, who graduated with Hunsucker, his lifelong friend, from Lee’s Summit North High School. “We put some things together, shot a show, people liked it, and here we are today.”
“It’s all been pretty incredible, and so much fun. When we saw the line of people outside the hotel, we couldn’t believe it.”
“Heartland Bowhunter” airs at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays on the Outdoor Channel, and “Heartland Waterfowl,” entering its sixth season, airs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays on the Sportsman Channel.
“It’s amazing the following we’ve got,” Hunsucker said. “It’s funny, because we have a big national following because we hunt all over the country, even going into Canada. But look at this turnout. It shows that we have a great local following, too. And we owe all that to our fans. They’re amazing, just amazing.”
Philips youngest, and most ardent fan, is his 5-year-old daughter Reagan.
“She knows Daddy is on TV and she really seems to follow the show and enjoy watching it,” Philips said. “My wife Rachael works some evenings, and when she does, Reagan and I have daddy/daughter date nights. And do you know where she wants me to take her?”
“To Bass Pro. We go to the big aquarium, and she tells me which fish is which, and we go to the decoy aisle and she’s telling me the names of all the duck decoys. She’s a special little girl, and so is my wife.”
The scope of the two programs still thrills and grounds its founders.
“I don’t think any of us realized how big it was going to be, but this is pretty amazing,” Burditt said. “You look at our shows now – the cinematography, the stories, our guests – they’re totally professional. Some of the early shows, well, you can tell they’re from the first or second season.”
“But we’ve all learned, we’ve all grown together and doing what we love.”