This is part 3, the last of my blog that describes my outdoor career. In the first two parts, I get into my early life, then my years in two colleges, three jobs in Utah, New York, and then back in Utah. Part 2 ends where I receive a phone call while working as a wildlife biologist for the US Bureau of Land Management in Vernal, Utah. The year was 1978.
When I picked up the phone, an Outdoor Life editor asked me a question. I was sure I wasn’t hearing it correctly and I asked him to repeat it. “We want you to be Western Editor,” he said. It was Don Causey who was Executive Editor, working under Lamar Underwood, Editor in Chief. “What does that mean?” I asked, confused and carefully ecstatic at the same time. “It means we want you to head up the yellow page section in the Western Region,” he said. “But can I handle that while still working for the government?” I asked. “It’s full-time,” Don said. “You’ll be overseeing 30 or so writers in the west and sending in copy every month. You’ll also be given plenty of opportunities to write feature stories for added income. We’ll pay you $9,000 a year on a handshake. There are no perks.” I had difficulty breathing. Never in my life had I had such profound, incredible news, even though the pay was terrible. I didn’t care. My blood pressure and heart rate must have been off the charts. “Let me talk to my wife and I’ll get back to you tomorrow,” I managed to say.
I drove home, barely able to contain myself. I opened the door and called out to my wife. When I told her about the offer and what she thought about it, I was almost floored by her answer. “If you don’t take that job, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.” She knew I wasn’t happy with my BLM job. I never gave the job offer a second throught. I immediately researched what I needed to do to resign. The next morning I told my boss of my intentions and filled out a form. My resignation would take place in two weeks, May 31, 1978. When that day came, I left the office, whistling as I went, and never looked back. My government pay at the time was $18,000. The Outdoor Life offer was half that, with no pension, medical plan, nothing. I was truly on my own. I was deliriously happy.
In those days, Outdoor Life had Four Editions, each containing news of that region in addition to the “well”, which had national feature stories and columns that appeared in all the editions. The regional editions included the northeast, midwest , south, and west. There was a “yellow page” section in each with the regional news. For example, if you lived in Maine, you might see a regional story set in Maine about sea ducks or black bears. You wouldn’t see it in other regions. If you lived in Alabama, you might see a regional story about quail, but only in that region. My western region was huge, from the Dakotas down through Texas, and all the states to the west coast, including Alaska and Hawaii, 18 in all.
My job was to send 720 lines of clean copy to New York every month, along with appropriate maps and pictures. The yellow pages were on cheap stock, all the images in black and white. I had about 30 writers working for me. Some states had two or three writers. “Clean copy” meant the articles had to be ready to go to press with little or no editing when my package arrived in New York. Some of my writers were top notch, and some terrible. The late Russell Tinsley, who wrote for the Austin Statesman newspaper, was my favorite. His copy always arrived first, well before deadline, and needed almost no editing. Then there were those who could barely write a complete sentence, like one of my very best buddies. I winced when his copy arrived and had to rewrite the whole thing. Obviously I couldn’t tell him he was a lousy writer, given our friendship.
And so my new career took life. Working on a manual typewriter, I burned the midnight oil and often worked 18 hours a day. Besides my editorial duties with Outdoor Life, the magazine allowed me to do some freelancing with noncompetitive markets. That meant I couldn’t write for FIELD AND STREAM and SPORTS AFIELD.
The income from Outdoor Life wouldn’t support my family. We had 4 children and I was struggling to make ends meet. I took on a position with Western Outdoors Magazine as Rocky Mountain Editor, which included Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho. I began writing books, the very first one “The Fishing Guide to Flaming Gorge Reservoir,” followed by a hardcover on ice fishing. More books followed, the next one called HUNTING AMERICA’S MULE DEER, a 358 page hardcover which was the second-ever book written about mule deer. Many more books followed, 22 in all, with 7 on elk hunting. At one point I wrote 3 books in 18 months. Then I became established on the show circuit as a lecturer. I signed a contractual agreement with International Sportsmen’s Expositions which had the largest hunting expos in the west, in Seattle, Portland, San Mateo, Eugene, Sacramento and Denver, with occasional shows in LA and Phoenix. These were five day shows. I was named shooting sports consultant for the company and had a booth at each show where I sold my books and elk calls. I gave 2 to 3 seminars on western big game hunting a day, most of them on elk hunting. In addition I was invited to join NRA’s GREAT AMERICAN HUNTERS TOUR, where we traveled in circuits around the country with three speakers to a team. Our northeast tour, for example, started in Maine and we did 17 shows in 19 days, traveling around New England and finally ending up in Ohio. Crazy, but a welcome part of my income. All in all, I once figured I’d given hunting seminars in 90 US towns and cities when all were considered.
Back to Outdoor Life. My job as Western Editor petered out when the yellow pages were discontinued. New York made me Editor-at-Large, where I had the wonderful freedom to travel and write features on anything I liked, reinforced by the editors, of course. That meant hunting and fishing articles. The editors loved bear attacks, and sent me on many assignments. Every one of my bear features was accompanied by a bear on the cover, jaw agape, spit and snot streaming out of his mouth and nose and ad nauseum. Those issues were big hits on the newsstands. People love to read about bear attacks. I also interviewed and hunted and fished with the top experts in the country. I hunted with Johnny Morris, made many hunts with Chuck Yeager, the top guys at Cabela’s, rubbed shoulders with Hank Williams Jr., hunted with turkey experts, deer experts, elk experts, and by doing so learned a great deal about hunting myself.
Then magic struck again. I always wanted, desperately, to be Hunting Editor. Jim Carmichel had the title of Shooting/Hunting Editor. Jim was and is one of the top shooting writers out there, directly following in Jack O’Connor’s footsteps with Outdoor Life. Though I hinted about the possibility, I found no support with the Editor-in Chief who had to make the decision. That editor was replaced by Vin Sparano, my very dear friend who hunted with me extensively in the west. Vin had a meeting with the editorial team, and with Carmichael’s blessing, named me Hunting Editor. That was it. I had reached the highest pinnacle in the industry. I had effectively taken a position once occupied by the legendary Jack O’Connor. I had the world in my hands. At one point, before I was named Hunting Editor, I was offered the top job when the magazine needed an Editor-in-Chief. It would have been an enormous pay increase with credit cards with no limits, all the pomp and excitement, but also the politics and headaches. Besides, it meant I’d have to work in New York City and move my family back. I gave them a resounding no.
My life got crazy. I was writing magazine articles and books at a feverish pace, doing seminars all over the country, and traveling like a madman. I continually needed to go on new hunts to feed the hungry magazine mouth, as well as my seminars which I updated constantly. I hatched upon the idea to hunt all 50 states for deer, and all the “elk” states in the lower 48 and Canadian provinces, and completed both of those odyssey’s.
And then it got crazier. I was approached by the huge 3M Company to do a one hour video on mule deer hunting. The money was decent, so I spent 31 days shooting the video around Saratoga, Wyoming, where producer Jerry Ciapetta taught me how to have a camera presence. Then more videos with different producers. A particularly tough one was a bighorn sheep hunt here in northwest Wyoming where we took our heavy camera gear and supplies on 10 horses to one of the most remote grizzly-infested areas in the country. There were other videos on bugling for elk, late elk hunting, another on mule deer hunting, and whitetail hunting, all on the big herky jerky cassettes. The sheep video sold for $69.
And then came TV. I met Jake Hartwick, who was Exec VP of the OUTDOOR CHANNEL, at a huge cable show in LA. It was a big trade convention where you might bump into Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, and other top stars. There were thousands of suits walking around, very few of them who knew the difference between an elk and a moose. I was in the Outdoor Life Network booth which was a cutaway of a log cabin where I cooked buffalo, elk, and salmon. People walked by and I gave them samples. At the time I was doing a few vignettes for OLN. The Outdoor Channel booth was downstairs in an area where there was little traffic. I took an immediate liking to Jake, and visited the booth several times.
Soon afterward, Jake pestered me frequently to do a TV show for the Outdoor Channel, which was in its infancy. I told him I wanted no part of TV. I didn’t understand it and all the politics and angles, and was totally disinterested. I’d done some hunting vignettes for the old defunct Nashville Network, (TNN), and that was it. Finally he said if I could find a cameraman, the Channel would produce my show. They’d find the sponsors and essentially do everything. In other words, they’d own me in that sense. I had to do nothing but go hunting with a cameraman, all expenses paid, bring in film from the hunts, and make pretty good money.
After checking with my Outdoor Life magazine bosses and learning they had no problem with me working for the Outdoor Channel (which were non- competitive) I told Jake I was in. And the wild, crazy world of TV began. My hunt scheduled ramped up even more, which I didn’t think possible. At times my cameraman and I left for several weeks and drove well up into the Alaska Highway where we’d do four or five hunts in Canada, hoping to get at least two episodes out of each hunt. At the time I was contracted to do 26 episodes a year, which was insane. In Canada I hunted moose, elk, caribou, grizzlies, sheep, black bears, black tail deer and muleys. Much of the time my cameraman and I were either on horseback, hiking rugged country, and in bush planes, living in tents or cabins. It was heaven on earth for me. I loved it all.
In addition to all this I worked hard helping the new Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation get on its feet, serving 3 terms on the board for 12 years. I was also active with two professional outdoor writer organizations, also serving on their boards. At one point I began hosting disabled military warriors on hunts, working with Christina Holden, who lived near Walter Reed. She handled all logistics, details, and paperwork, and over the years we hosted more than 200 veterans on hunts, many of them amputees with severe injuries.
I was at a point where I was on the road more than 280 days a year. I was getting burned out. I was still passionate about hunting but I needed to slow down. The first thing I did was to quit the lecture circuit. That in itself took a two month chunk out of my traveling life every year. It was nice.
Then, in 2007, my career came to a screeching halt. I wrote a blog that created a firestorm in the shooting industry. All my TV sponsors except Swarovski and Stoney Point dropped me like a hot rock. Outdoor Life turned me loose, my relationship with the NRA was in the toilet. The Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA), of which I was a founder, was terrified. They couldn’t figure out whether to support me or not. Two of the top members, disgusted by POMA’S cowardice, quit the organization. Only the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation publicly supported me. Steven Colbert did a nasty satire on me when he had a show on the Comedy Channel. Ted Nugent was the very first caller after the blog went public, told me “I fucked up” and invited me to his Texas ranch to educate me. I went. The editor of SWAT magazine told me if I’d take a tactical weapons course, he’d let me write a feature story for his magazine. I did. Practically every big newspaper in the country had editorials on my blog. The New York Times put a picture of me on the front page of the Business Section, showing me holding Shemane Nugent’s pink and black striped AR-15 which led to a full page story on the surge in sales of “Black Rifles.”
I called it my crucifixion. But as time passed, things calmed down. My TV show was back on the air five months after it went dark. I hunted with NRA excecutives, and editors, formerly unfriendly, wanted my copy. Ironically, people were saying that only Obama had sold more black rifles than I. Two gun company CEO’s privately thanked me for their increased sales. I continued doing TV for several more years and wrote sporadically. On the one hand I was thankful for the much slower pace, but there was still a black cloud hanging over my head.
That all changed when I was told I’d be receiving the Grits Gresham Award which was always presented at the State of the Industry Banquet at the SHOT SHOW. The banquet was an annual event of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. NSSF was the shooting/ hunting industry leader and owned the SHOT SHOW. I was floored when I learned I’d be getting the award, which was the highest in the industry. I was uptight and on edge when I was about to be introduced on stage. I didn’t know if I’d be heckled or booed or what. When I was called to the podium by Tom Gresham, I was astounded when 2,000 people stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I mumbled my way through a short acceptance speech, and when I left the podium the crowd stood up again with another standing ovation.
That was it. I was vindicated. No more black cloud. No more guilt.
So now I’m living the life I want, in a log home in northwest Wyoming, with my wife, Madonna, three dogs and a cat, where big game hunting is second to none anywhere in this country, where fishing is wonderful, where I only travel a few weeks a year, and living in a state I love. I’m perfectly content doing a little writing, which includes a monthly column I really enjoy writing for Petersen’s Hunting magazine, and for a couple NRA digital magazines, as well as this blog which you’re now reading. There’s plenty of firewood in the yard, the freezers are full, and life is good. What more can a guy ask?
NOTE. These three parts only included highlights of my career. If you want to read the rest of the story, including most of the details of my personal life as well as many, many aspects of my life that I didn’t get into here and all the details of my blog, you might want to read my 381 page biography, titled ZUMBO, authored by K.J. Houtman, available at Amazon. http://www.zumbothebook.com/