Apr 4, 2023
I first met Kevin Costner several years ago when I was invited by an agent friend to join a handful of Hollywood A-listers for a feral boar hunt in the central coast of California.
I first met Kevin Costner several years ago when I was invited by an agent friend to join a handful of Hollywood A-listers for a feral boar hunt in the central coast of California. The prolific pigs had outbred their welcome and the farmers and wine growers needed relief in getting the swine populations under control. Having spent a fair amount of time around celebrities who had interest—but often not a lot of experience—with outdoor pursuits, I always approach such outings with a degree of caution. That’s especially the case when firearms are involved.
Prior to our hunt, we did the obligatory check of our rifles to make sure both the gun and hunter were on. It was obvious that Costner was more than a Hollywood cowboy—he was comfortable around his rifle, safe and fluid in its handling. The reason for that was simple—he grew up a hunter and fell hard for the lifestyle at a young age.
He shared the story of his origins in the field sports at the annual Park Cities Quail Coalition banquet recently in Dallas. The event is billed as, “Conservation’s greatest night,” owing to the extraordinary amount of money raised (some $3.5 million this night) for bobwhite quail research and management. More than 1,200 who’s who of Texas businessmen and philanthropists turned out for what has become one of the conservation world’s can’t-miss galas.
“We’ve raised more than $18 million for conservation since 2007,” says event visionary and organizer Joe Crafton.
If the hunting world has an Oscars equivalent, it is this event where, each year, hosts bestow the T. Boone Pickens Lifetime Sportsman Award (named for the legendary finance magnate and quail aficionado) to the icons of the hunting and conservation world. Previous recipients of the award include notables Tom Brokaw, Ted Turner, George Strait, and Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, a conservation giant in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition, among many others.
This night it was the chance for one of Hollywood’s ever popular and most iconic actors to take center stage in the heartland, far from the lights and facades of Tinsel Town. Instead, he was wrapped in the glow of his starring role in TV’s hottest series, Yellowstone.
For Costner, however, growing up in a modest California home with little access to hunting ground made his real- life experience closer to his role as Robin Hood than that of John Dutton.
“I never saw myself standing in a room like this quite honestly,” he said with a wry smile. “Truth is, I stood a better chance of meeting your property managers than the people here. I often had to run from them when I would just try and get a taste of world-class hunting ground—land that not only looked the part but delivered.”
When Costner turned 12, his father bought him a shotgun, a seminal moment in his sporting life.
“The next day I took my hunter safety course. All I knew was that I wanted to hunt—all day and every day. I didn’t care about seasons or limits. Everything I knew and dreamed about came from watching Curt Gowdy’s American Sportsman TV show. I was in awe of all the places around the world featured on that program. Did they really exist? I had to know.”
His father’s job, however, came with a lot of moves at a young age, so it was difficult to continually leave old friends and make new ones. He struggled to fit in. Then a chance encounter set him on a new path.
“My junior year of high school I found myself living in the Central Valley of California. I was having a hard time with everything. My older brother was in Viet Nam, and I was tired of trying to fit in…I was lost, but then something changed. As I was driving one day, I saw a man out in the fields near Visalia with a dog. He was hunting and I could see him carrying his shotgun across his chest. It was like art to me—like poetry. It was picture perfect and the scene was frozen in time forever.”
It wasn’t something that he witnessed on TV, but rather it was something that he watched play out before his own eyes—and it changed him forever.
“The next day I went out and bought a bird dog…a little German shorthair pointer. Suddenly the world wasn’t flat anymore—it was just me and that dog. I think we hunted every ditch in that county, scaring up maybe one pheasant if we were lucky before school. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was out hunting.”
From there, Costner’s hunting horizons began to grow, which led to another turning point in his young life.
“It was the first day of pheasant season in California and I was in yet another school in Orange County. There were no pheasants in Orange County, so I drove out by myself to the Salton Sea on the other side of Palm Springs. But it didn’t look like the kind of ground Curt Gowdy would hunt with his friends.
Instead, Costner lamented that Fish & Game had released 300 ‘confused’ birds in the dessert and let the first 200 hunters pursue them.
“It was public land,” he said, “but it just didn’t look right and there was no beauty to it. It was a mess, and I was miserable and so was my dog. It was also dangerous, so I left.”
Unfortunately for Costner, the day was far from over. “On my way home, I saw something off the highway that looked like reeds in the distance, and I could see some water. I pulled off and headed down the dirt road…right past a ‘No Hunting!’ sign. I scared up a mallard that my dog retrieved perfectly. It was then that I saw the flashing blue lights coming at me. There wasn’t much that I could do with that truck bearing down on me, so when the vehicle took a dip out of sight as it was coming down the road, I flung that duck as far as I could without my dog seeing it.”
Soon, however, the game warden arrived and stepped out of his car and inquired whether Costner had shot and, if so, wondered if he had gotten anything.
“I said ‘no’…that I had missed, but behind him I could see my dog had left us and was hunting the duck I tossed. It was a slow death for me as I watched him work back and forth, and when I saw him catch the scent of that bird, I knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d come back with that duck in his mouth—no doubt confused about how it got so far away from where he’d dropped it.”
The dog had done everything right, so it was difficult for Costner to fault the animal for doing what he had trained it to do.
“It didn’t take long for him to cover the ground trotting back. For me it was a lifetime. There were no words, really. I lost my gun that day, the warden taking it and I had to come back a month later and go to court to get it. I found myself sitting in a row with a bunch of guys dressed in orange. They weren’t hunters. The group around me all had handcuffs on…all of us criminals waiting for our turn to go before the judge.”
High-school aged Costner would never have been cast in such a role and that wasn’t lost on the others in the courtroom who noticed that he was out of place.
“I could tell one guy was looking at me, and then he whispered, ‘What are you in for?’ I was tired of lying at that point and all the trouble it had caused me, so I said, I killed a duck, and they took my gun. For all I knew, the others may have been in for murder. There were enough laughs which caused the judge to look over. As I walked out with my gun that day, I got a thumbs up from the guys in handcuffs.
“From that point on I was determined that I would never have to run off land that I was hunting, and that I would take my father and brother to the best places in the world if I was able. I was blessed to be able to do that, to take them to places that were as God intended.”
Costner says he is looking forward to the next chapter in his life’s script that will include hunts with his young sons Cayden and Hayes, 15 and 14. There’s little doubt that the Costner boys will hear of their father’s stories and come to understand their grandfather in the process as well. If that is shared while afield, when the world has unique clarity, it will be the natural order of a hunter’s life and legacy. It will be the kind of perfection only such a life can deliver.