A Documentary Is Being Made About Johnny Cash’s 1961 Canadian Moose Hunt

Johnny Cash country music
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It’s one of the most iconic photos of The Man in Black ever taken.

The legendary Johnny Cash deep in the Canadian wilderness wearing dirty jeans, an earth toned jacket, and a black t-shirt. A Bowie knife on his hip, a walkie-talkie in one hand, and a rifle in the other.

The picture was reportedly taken on a moose hunting trip in Newfoundland, Canada, on October 11th, 1961.

The picture seems to periodically pop up on internet and go viral a few times each year, but little context is ever provided beyond mentioning that the photograph was taken while Johnny Cash was moose hunting.

However, fans of Johnny Cash will soon be able to immerse themselves in the details of the hunting trip like never before.

It was recently announced that a documentary titled “When Johnny Got His Moose” is set to wrap up filming later this fall.

The documentary is being made by Jonathan Holliff, the son of Johnny Cash’s former business manager who also directed the 2012 documentary “My Father and the Man in Black.”

He was inspired to make that film after stumbling upon a box in his dad’s old storage locker that was simply labeled “Johnny Cash.”

“It was really like finding a treasure.”

The filmmaker had no intention of doing a project about the hunting trip in particular until a collector reached out on social media and mailed him about 30 different photos from the hunt.

Once he saw the pictures he knew he needed to share them, and he started reaching out to folks in Newfoundland about Johnny Cash’s visit to their province.

In October, he tracked down the hunting guide who took him on the trip, and since then the story has been reinvigorated like never before. He was even able to track down a copy of Johnny Cash’s old hunting license.

“Johnny Cash was an excellent hunter. My father hated the idea of hunting, but hoping to impress Cash, he suggested they travel to Newfoundland and hunt and do a small tour.” 

This isn’t just a story about a moose hunt though. The film is apparently going to be so much more than that.

It is also expected to cover Cash’s early career, much of which was spent touring in Canada. Some of those concerts even included his eventual wife.

“This is kind of the Johnny and June origin story.” 

The hunting trip was arranged by a Canadian man named Saul Hollif, who was already well established in the music business. Hollif had offices in London, Los Angeles, and Nashville and was an experienced concert promoter.

Cash was hoping Hollif could help him catch up to Elvis Presley on the radio charts.  Saul was hoping to use the hunting trip to foster a business connection with Johnny. Both of their plans worked out better than either one of them could have imagined.

Holiff would go on to be Cash’s manager in an official capacity until 1973. At that point Johnny Cash was a full blown musical sensation and Holliff quit, stating that he had underestimated Johnny too many times to continue holding him back.

It was at the airport after the moose hunt in 1961 that Johnny first asked Hollif to work with him.

He only agreed to do so on the condition that a female musical act join the circuit with them. The two men agreed to hire a singer and fiddle player from Alabama named Rose Maddox to join the lineup.  She wound up abandoning the tour midway through it though because she felt like being on the road with Johnny was “too wild” for her tastes.

After Maddox dropped out, Saul needed to find a substitute quickly and he decided to bring aboard the more established June Carter as a replacement. The rest is the greatest love story in country music history.

While touring through Ontario in the spring of 1961, Johnny started asking Holiff about hunting opportunities in Canada. Holiff suggested that if they returned in the fall to play some shows in Newfoundland then he would get a moose hunting trip lined up.

“He knew Johnny Cash liked to hunt and he knew Johnny Cash was interested in working with him to basically help him catch up to Elvis Presley in the charts.

He said, ‘Have you ever hunted moose in Newfoundland?’

Johnny said no and Saul made the offer.

‘If I can set up a tour around a moose hunt in October, are you in?’

Johnny Cash said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m there.’ That was enough, I think, to impress Johnny and seal the deal.”

The hunting trip came at a rather tumultuous point in Johnny Cash’s career though.

His problems with prescription pills were allegedly at their peak in the early to mid 60s, and he had taken several musical leaves of absence during the 1961 tour because his voice was failing as he was struggled to balance the pressure of his newfound fame and his growing vices.

Getting off the grid and into the Canadian wilderness was no doubt good for Cash’s psyche at the time, and recently uncovered photographs and an interview with Heman Whalen, the hunting guide and wildlife officer who took Johnny on the hunt, have only recently been made public.

Whalen is 88-years-old now, and he shared his story with CBC News. A detailed editorial about the hunt was also just recently published in The Salt Wire.

“We were fortunate, I guess, in keeping it fairly quiet. But then on the other hand … when this trip took place, Johnny Cash wasn’t as famous as he went on to be.

Everyone thinks of Johnny Cash as sort of being a tremendous entertainer and a musician. However, I saw Johnny Cash as a real good hunter.”

Both Johnny Cash and Heman Whalen were 29-years-old at the time of the hunt and Whalen said that he and Johnny immediately felt like kindred spirits upon meeting each other since they were the same age and had both served in the Air Force.

Whalen was already a fan of Johnny Cash’s music prior to meeting him, although he was not all that big of a name yet.

“He was in the station wagon, introduced himself, and I introduced myself.

And from then on I would say we were the best of friends.”

Reports vary on if it was a 4-day or 10-day excursion into the Canadian wilderness. Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis joined in on the hunt too, as did Saul Hollif and a few other men.

However, Whalen said it was Johnny Cash that quickly stood out from the group as an experienced hunter who knew what he was doing in the woods and with a rifle.

It didn’t take long for the two men to find a moose for Cash to shoot.

“I was very anxious to see Johnny Cash get his moose first. Once he got it, it took a little bit of a burden off my shoulders. About 20 minutes out of camp, he had a moose.

I found out later that he was quite happy to get the much smaller moose, ’cause he was looking for the perfect meat.

The group actually shot three moose that trip.” 

Johnny dropped a 500-pound moose with a well placed shot from about 200-yards and impressed the guide with his shooting ability. The moose reportedly went less than 100-yards after absorbing the bullet.

The iconic photograph was taken just as Johnny pulled out his walkie-talkie to excitedly let Merle Travis know that he had successfully downed a moose already.

“Hey Merle! We got us a little ole cow moose. Oughta weigh about 300 when we get her cleaned out.”

Shortly after that, the walkie-talkies started buzzing again and Merle Travis reported that he had also harvested a moose. The next day, some other men in the hunting party shot the only bull moose that was taken on the trip.

Whalen said he offered to field dress the moose himself, a customary service that most hunting guides offer their clients. Johnny elected to do the work himself though. The meat was later packaged and shipped to Cash’s home in California.

“I saw the moose first and we got into position. I told him it was a female.  ‘You know it doesn’t have any antlers right?’

Johnny smiled and said ‘you can’t eat antlers.’

He wanted good eating meat, which is what he got. Generally if I’m alone it would take me 10 minutes to field dress a moose. It probably took Johnny Cash an hour.”

They were staying at a logging camp and by the second night of the trip word got around that Johnny Cash was in town. Soon several truckloads of lumberjacks showed up looking for some entertainment and Johnny got out his guitar and played a few songs along with Merle Travis and some of the musically inclined loggers, although Cash was still suffering from pill induced laryngitis at the time.

The memory of harvesting the moose is something that Whalen certainly cherishes, but he said it was the conversations with Johnny about their families and personal lives that really resonated with him.

“Johnny Cash was a very family-minded person. He grew up doing what his mother told him and his father told him. That was his philosophy in life. 

The trip pretty much went the way we wanted it to. He was elated with his visit.  He thought Newfoundland was a beautiful place.… He had dreams of coming back again.

We agreed not to say goodbye; we agreed to say that we would get together again. We both underrated how much we enjoyed the trip.”

Cash and Whalen stayed in touch through letters after the hunt, and although Johnny made several offers to have Whalen visit him in the U.S. such a trip was never feasible for the man from the middle of no where Canada.

A long lost story about the hunt also appeared in a 1969 copy of Gun World Magazine with Johnny Cash on the cover.

The magazine article was not published until 8-years after the hunt. By that point, Johnny Cash had become a big time country music superstar.

A book with a person playing guitar

“He plays a mean guitar and makes a lot of records. And he has the TV show that has done pretty well. He also shoots a mean rifle.”

In the article Cash summed up his intentions for the hunt with the same poetic simplicity that defined his music.

“I just came up here to shoot me some eatin’ meat.” 

The article also details the unique firearm that Johnny used on the hunt – A Mannlicher-Schoenaur Bolt Action Carbine with a 20-inch barrel. The gun was imported to the U.S. by the Stoeger Arms Company. That particular model of firearm was a staple of World War 1 combat.

The gun was produced in a variety of popular calibers, but Johnny Cash reportedly preferred the still popular .30-06 with a 3 x 12 scope. It was a high tech hunting set up for the time.

As part of the documentary, the film crew will retrace the route of Cash’s moose hunt this October, the same time of year that the hunting trip originally took place 60 years ago.

They intend to hike in and try to uncover the old logging camp where the hunting camp was set up. There will be a live concert in town with a Johnny Cash tribute band and more clips from the upcoming film will also be debuted at the event.

No word on when the full film will be available to the public, but stay tuned for more as it’s bound to be an authentic, entertaining,  and enlightening story that will showcase who Johnny Cash was outside of his music, his marriage, and the bad habits that troubled him for most of his life.

The filmmaker, Jonathan Holiff, spoke with CBC News about his fathers hunting trip with Johnny Cash last fall when he announced that When Johnny Found His Moose was still in the planning staged.

And while you’re at it, you might as well start your week by listening to what is believed to be the earliest known video footage of Johnny Cash performing his hit song “Walk The Line” way back in 1958.

The song sold over 2 million copies, spent 43 weeks on the country music radio charts, and put The Man In Black on the map throughout the nation.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock