December 08, 2021
By Jim Bequette
It was 1986 when a young Bill Jordan decided World War II camo had to be ungraded. And you have to take a step back and realize that when Bill Jordan started Realtree, trail cams didn’t exist, and neither did pocket-size rangefinders or binoculars for the outdoorsman. Think about the vast improvements in sights for your hunting compound or crossbow. Or riflescopes. Pop-up portable ground blinds? Never heard of them in 1986.
Times do change.
And Bill Jordan was right smack dab in the middle of some of those changes. Bill Jordan was a visionary then and is today when it comes to camo patterns for all the outdoor gear available.
But at the end of the day, Jordan is—as he acknowledges in this exclusive interview—just like one of us: a person with deep roots in the outdoors, who has a passion for hunting whitetail deer, fishing for big bream or largemouth bass, or simply sitting around a campfire with family trading stories about collective experiences in the outdoors.
I caught up with Bill in November 2021 for this Petersen’s Hunting-exclusive interview that offers a bit of insight into the man who was one of the pioneers in introducing modern-day camouflage patterns to our community of hunters, anglers, and outdoorsmen and women.
Petersen’s Hunting: Talk about your initial idea of finding a camo pattern beyond all the different and dated military-style patterns that had been previously used by hunters before Realtree came on the scene.
Bill Jordan: It’s hard to believe but 35-40 years ago all we had, for the most part, was World War II camo. I tried to get into the hunter’s environment, and went out on a limb (no pun intended). I wanted to make camo more realistic (thus the name Realtree). Jim Crumley and Trebark were around in 1980. His concept was intriguing to me, but I wanted to work on my own design, you know, different tree barks, and get a more universal feel to camo. I started hand-drawing and sketching ideas I had and set out from there to do something different and better. I’ve always been able to draw and transfer ideas from paper to fabric. That’s what planted the seed for the idea for Realtree camo.
I wanted to make camo patterns more “believable.” That there would be depth and differences to it. It’s hard to describe, but it takes a lot of willpower to come up with fresh, new ideas. It’s a feeling in your gut, what to do and how to do it. Confront problems, and don’t run away from them. Believe me, I learned from my failures. After a while, you realize your work is never done.
PH: How did Realtree change the mindset of hunters about the importance of matching camouflage patterns to specific field conditions. Some outdoorsmen may not realize that what you did at the time had never really been done before.
BJ: Timing was everything. It’s like when the Hula Hoop was introduced back in the day and everybody wanted one to try it out. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before. I wanted to develop new patterns, totally different and new, and my mindset was to try and experiment with those early ideas I developed. I was a big bowhunter—and I liked what I saw, and more importantly, it worked in the field. My idea about camo patterns, I guess you could say, was my Hula Hoop at the time!
PH: How have camo patterns evolved from when Jim Crumley launched Trebark in the early ‘80s to your current lineup of patterns like Realtree Edge, Excape, Max-5, and Timber? It’s really shocking to see how much more realistic camo patterns have become over the last 40 years.
BJ: From the very beginning, new technology emerging in materials used, printing, Photoshop, the so-called “dipping processes,” etc. have all advanced so far so quickly that it can make your head spin. We can now be way more creative due to advanced technology. It still requires a concept and ideas to make a new camo pattern a reality. And it sometimes takes thousands of photos to blend and make a pattern work.
I’m a perfectionist, but I don’t think I’ve done the perfect pattern – yet.
PH: What’s your favorite Realtree pattern, and why? What has to happen with a new pattern before Bill Jordan says, “OK, let’s go to market with this new pattern and put the Realtree name on it. And how did the idea of Advantage come about? I remember when it launched it was a real game-changer, and it took the outdoor industry by storm.
BJ: Well, I’ve always said the next year, the next pattern we develop at Realtree will always be my favorite. Advantage was a major change in how we looked at camo as we incorporated bark but also foliage/leaves. The idea was to work from the ground up (to the tree). We’ve accelerated from there and brought many more patterns to market. You always have to be at the top of your game, be on the cutting edge. We’ve designed patterns for the deer woods, turkey woods, for waterfowling, winter/snow conditions, spring/green, and so much more depending on the region of the country you hunt in.
I’m a bit obsessed with it [designing new patterns]. There’s not a day that goes by that I drive by something and look at it and think that it may have potential as a new camo pattern. It’s just in me. It’s hard to describe. It’s 24-7.
PH: Talk about Realtree and the “family and friends” theme you have promoted over the years on your cable television shows like Realtree Outdoors and Realtree Roadtrips, and in print ads in outdoor publications. Plus, on a more personal note, your oldest son Tyler is involved in the company. It’s all about family and the outdoor experience, the closely-knit group of people who have a passion for the outdoors, isn’t it?
BJ: I still get a kick out of how passionate people are about the outdoors. The excitement, you could almost say the obsession with hunting, fishing and all the outdoor world has to offer. And Tyler at an early age developed a passion for the outdoors. I’ve seen him grow from a young person and become a young man. And it’s been fun, and very rewarding, for me to watch him grow up in the business and for me to share with him my thoughts and beliefs not only about camo patterns but about the outdoor industry business as a whole. As a parent, all you can do is introduce your kids to the outdoors and hope they have the same level of passion as you do.
Family has always been important to me, going back to my mom and dad and how we were raised. Once you have a family of your own, it changes your priorities. Some things are not as important as they used to be. As you get older you want to spend more time with family and give back to them the passion my mom and dad gave me. As an example, I just spent two to three hours with my daughter in a ground blind hunting deer and the sheer excitement I saw, sitting behind her, as she glassed for deer with binoculars and was really “into the hunt.” It was wonderful to watch.
That’s my biggest “job” right now. My dad always took the time—found the time—to take me hunting and fishing. You don’t think about it at the time, but as you start your own family you begin to realize your parents always had time for you and spent as much time in the outdoors as possible. As a parent that’s what they gave me to pass along to my kids. At the end of the day, there’s no better joy than spending time with your children in the outdoors.
PH: What’s your assessment in general terms to competition amongst all the camo manufacturers? Does competition still get your competitive juices flowing?
BJ: Competition is healthy. The challenge for me and Realtree is that competition drives us on a daily basis to create a pattern a little bit better than all the others. It still drives me every day since 1986. We showed you two of our new patterns that we’ll be launching and no one really understands how much work, changes and more changes, go into a new pattern before it ends up on retailer shelves.
PH: What’s the future hold for camouflage patterns? More of the same conceptually, is digital camo here to stay? Are there new processes/design concepts on the horizon?
BJ: The digital patterns have come over to the hunting world from the military. I’m not a fan of it personally because I believe more in the natural ingredients in camo, a touch of realism and open-type patterns. One thing that sets Realtree apart is the blending of colors—color is as important as the actual pattern.
PH: What goes through your mind when you visit a sporting goods store and see a rack of Realtree clothing, Realtree camo compound or crossbows, or a series of Realtree camo rifles standing tall in a gunrack?
BJ: Well, I’ve always been grateful. I’ve been blessed. Really, it’s been a true blessing. Apparel was first and foremost on my mind when we started in 1986. But we quickly learned that gloves, neck gaiters, hats, footwear, binoculars, trail cams, bows, firearms and more would all be part of our camo campaign as we moved forward.
Most hunters want to look the same from head to toe. There’s also a “fashion” aspect to it. It’s very rewarding to see how our patterns have evolved into all these different types of gear categories.
PH: When the time finally comes to call it a career, how do you want to be remembered by the outdoor industry and by your loyal customers?
BJ: Well, I hope it’s not any time soon!
I realize it’s the fourth quarter of my life. You live life the best you possibly can.
I can truly say that due to my upbringing, I’ve been honest through all the years with all my friends and customers since 1986. Many of those friendships endure. I hope people say, “Bill Jordan did it the right way, with honesty and integrity.” If you operate that way in life, I’m a firm believer everything else will take care of itself. I’m a family person and relationships with friends and business partners matter. The business has changed; it’s not like it used to be. But you learn to adjust and move on. Like I’ve said many times before, I’ve truly been blessed—and humbled--to be part of the outdoors. I’ve always realized that I’m doing something that people all over the country wish they could do in terms of running a business in the outdoor field.
For more information on Realtree products, visit www.realtree.com
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.