The phone rang at 6 a.m. irritated, I rolled over in bed and picked it up, wondering who would be calling at this godawful hour in the morning.
“Hi Jim,” a man said when I muttered a groggy hello. “This is Bill Rooney. Hope I didn’t wake you up, but if I did, you’ll soon be smiling. Your duck photo will be on the cover!”
What? Is he kidding? I was immediately awake, totally in awe at that news. I couldn’t believe it. Having your photo chosen to be on an Outdoor Life cover was akin to hitting a home run with bases loaded, or catching a Hail Mary pass to win a big playoff game.
I thanked Bill profusely. He was an Outdoor Life editor based in New York, and obviously knew that there was a two hour time difference, though he was certain I wouldn’t be upset. He was right. The cover was to appear on an issue in 1976.
Over my morning coffee I thought about the events that allowed me to shoot that cover. I’d been duck hunting with my best friend, the late Jeff Grandison, who was a game warden in Utah. It was bitterly cold that day, 20 below zero, and we hunted by jumpshooting ducks that sat in small pools of open water in creeks that were almost entirely frozen. Practically all the ducks were mallards, super smart mallards that had hair trigger responses at the least hint of danger. Without exception they’d explode into the air, often well out of range, if we made a stealthy but failed approach due to a bit of carelessness on our part.
On this eventful day we decided to start our morning by checking out a waterhole out in the desert. The water was the result of an oil exploration attempt that turned up dry, though it produced warm water that bubbled up from the pipe that was still in the hole. The pipe was in a depression that produced a tiny pond about 30 feet by 30 feet. Despite bitterly cold air temperatures, the water remained warm and never froze. To a duck it was a great spot to loaf, both day and night. Sometimes we’d find mallards in the pool, sometimes not, but we always gave it a look on the coldest days.
Jeff parked the pickup a quarter mile away, and we quietly retrieved our guns, unloaded Jeff’s black lab, Ebony, and started our sneak to the pool. We had no idea if there were ducks on it or not. A dirt rim prevented us from seeing any ducks, but it also prevented them from seeing us until we were well within range.
We were about 50 yards from the truck when suddenly we saw a huge flock of mallards in the sky. They were swirling tornado fashion, obviously intent on landing in the pool. Jeff grinned, held on to Ebony’s collar to insure she wouldn’t bolt, and gave me a big smile. This was going to be a spectacular shoot. We lowered ourselves in the sagebrush and remained still until every duck had landed on the pool. From there it would be a slow, nerve wracking stalk.
Suddenly I had a thought. As an outdoor writer/ photographer, my instincts kicked in and I saw an outstanding opportunity for a fantastic picture. All the elements were there for a great action shot. Why not?
I whispered to Jeff that I wanted to ease back to the truck and trade my shotgun for my camera. He looked at me in surprise, but knew me well enough to understand. He sat quietly with Ebony while I half crawled back to the truck.
When I returned to Jeff’s position, no conversation was necessary between us. As we’d done many times before, we’d sneak up to the rim, and when we were within range Jeff would let loose of Ebony’s collar. She knew the drill and would dash in, causing every duck on the pool to instantly become airborne. I whispered to Jeff that I’d be a few yards behind him with camera ready and to let Ebony go when I gave the signal. We were ready.
I was a bundle of nerves as we approached, especially since the ducks were happily quacking away, completely oblivious to our presence. They were in their little world, we were in ours. I fiddled with my camera, making sure everything was in order. The motor drive was ready to rip 36 exposures, the lens was clean, the full roll of film was in place, and all I had to do was to depress the shutter button. In a case like this, I knew to hold my camera vertical in the wild, rare chance that a photo could be a candidate for a cover. Magazines have a vertical format, so the photos that are most likely to be considered for a cover are also in vertical format, though there are exceptions.
Finally, with my heart pounding and my nerves totally wired, we were in range. I knelt behind Jeff, camera ready, and willed my brain to behave. Then, with my finger on the shutter, composing Jeff properly, assuming where Ebony would be as I began filming ( I wanted her in the picture) I shouted “NOW!”
Jeff let the dog loose, swung the gun to his shoulder, and a couple hundred mallards exploded from the pool. I held my finger on the button as the motor drive ripped away until the 36 roll of film was exhausted. I tried not to flinch as Jeff shot, and had no idea if he’d hit any. But, knowing Jeff, he’d methodically pick off greenheads that were a bit isolated, hitting only that target and not multiple ducks.
I slumped into the sagebrush when it was over. I was as giddy as a teenager with a new car. I just laid there, stunned, as Ebony and Jeff retrieved ducks. He’d shot exactly a limit.
I didn’t know for sure, but I was almost positive I had something good. I was on Cloud 9 when I walked back to Jeff’s truck. Now it was a matter of waiting. In those days photographers shot 35 mm slides. The routine was to put the exposed roll into a special envelope and send it to one of the half- dozen Kodak labs in the US. The lab would process the film into slides and then send them back to you in a small box. It might take a few days or a couple weeks to get the slides back. If you had filmed something special you’d often lie awake nights wondering how the slides would turn out.
It seemed like months before the slides came back but it was more like 10 days. I excitedly opened the box and looked at the slides, being extra careful not to get fingerprints on them. One look and I was ecstatic. Several slides looked perfect. Dozens of ducks in the air, Ebony dashing in, Jeff with the gun at his shoulder - it was all there.
I submitted the slides with a late winter duck story and waited. As time went on I was sure the NY editors weren’t overly impressed.
And then the phone rang on that fateful day at 6 in the morning.