At look back at 40-plus years of hunting and fishing reporting
By JIM MATTHEWS
With this being the last outdoor column I will write for 2018, there is a long tradition of recapping what happened over the previous year. But this has been a year of milestones for me that span more than a year. I turned 65 year old just before Christmas and I starting thinking back over the past four decades I’ve been covering outdoor topics for newspapers and other print media in Southern California.
By 1978, I was the full-time outdoor writer at The Sun in San Bernardino, but I started selling freelance magazine pieces in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. Over the course of those intervening years, I think I have been doing a weekly outdoor package for 40-plus years. In 1980, the year my Mom passed away, I quit The Sun and “syndicated” my column across newspapers in this region, and at various points in time my columns, news stories, and fishing reports were used in 20 different newspapers, including the biggest papers. My stories ran regularly on the Associated Press, the New York Times News Service, and the Gannett News Service wire services. Some of those wire stories ran in over 1,000 newspapers across the country. In 1984, I covered the shooting sports at the Los Angeles Olympics and was one of only two U.S. reporters at the venue each day amid perhaps 70 or 80 reporters with print and electronic media from other parts of the world. (This is a sad testimony that even then the U.S. media didn’t realize that the shooting sports were an all-American activity that would have driven readership and viewership.)
During the same time period, I started writing for and worked as an editor at Western Outdoor News. At its sister magazine, the long-dead Western Outdoors, I was the guns and hunting editor and fishing editor at different times. I served as a regional editor at both Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines writing content every month. (That was back in the era when both magazines had robust circulations of well over a million and were nearly ½-inch thick.) I have been on the masthead of over a dozen guns, hunting, and fishing magazines, and was editor of the wonderful, long-defunct, California Angler magazine. In fact, many of the magazines I have written for over the years are gone now.
If you have ever read an outdoor publication in the past 40 years, you have probably read some of my stories. I focused on news and information stories, working as a reporter, not a celebrity. (For a lot of years, I jokingly used the moniker, “Most-read, least-known outdoor writer in the country.” I stayed behind the scenes.) But I certainly have met a lot of outdoor celebrities.
I’ll never forget my first event as the guns and hunting editor at Western Outdoors magazine. I was invited to the Remington Arms annual unveiling of its new firearms at a hunting ranch in Texas. The famous gun writer Jim Carmichael was there (he also had started as the guns and hunting editor at Western Outdoors magazine). I happened to be sitting next to Jim at dinner one evening. He was expounding on how to be a good gun writer, the writer needed to be an expert on the subject. Carmichael was a guru in the benchrest shooting competition game, and truly was an expert on cartridges and reloading and precision shooting. After making the statement (and doing so loudly), he looked at me and said, “Isn’t that right, Matthews.”
I simply said, “Well, Jim, I’ve always thought it was better to interview a dozen real experts on the subject and write my story using that information.” It was my use of the term “real experts” that caused the room to fall silent as everyone waited for Carmichael’s reaction. He is well-known to have a fairly sizeable ego, but I certainly didn’t mean what I said as a slight to his expertise. I was a young novice. He was one of those real experts. But there was a long pause as he looked at me, and then he roared with laughter saying something about that probably being equally as good a method.
But a lot has changed in the outdoor world of hunting and fishing, since I started in this business. I started writing my newspaper stories on typewriter, and they were set into lead type for printing. There were no computers (I had one of the very first home computers – an Apple IIc), no Internet, and no e-mail. We still shot film cameras. The major changes were in the outdoor world.
I interviewed Dick Kelty after he came out with the first frame pack with a padded hip strap (anyone who has ever tried to carry a heavy load with packs that only have shoulder straps will understand why this is so important). Now you can’t find a pack on the market without hip straps. The Endangered Species Act was passed, helping bring back a multitude of species from the brink of extinction. I remember shooting ducks with lead ammunition before it was discovered the spent lead was killing ducks by the millions who ate the shot. I wrote the first stories in the sporting world on the dangers of ammunition lead for condors and forecast exactly how the future would move toward ammunition bans for all hunting.
Buying into the hype, I bought the first graphite rod that came on the market -- an eight-foot Fenwick graphite fly rod. Now, fiberglass is cool again and retro rods costs as much as graphite, going for $300 to $600. I would never have believed that anglers would spend $800 on fly reels or $400 for a baitcasting reel or $60 for a single swimbait while plastic worms can still be bought for a nickel each, less than you pay for a real nightcrawler today. I am amazed after fishing with super lines that many anglers still use nylon monofilament lines that kink, take sets, are stretchy, and cast poorly in comparison. I am still fishing a reel spooled with the first fused superline I ever bought (Fenwick Fireline), and it is still as strong and pliable as the day it was bought. The superlines are one of the few new fishing products I can say is worth the extra cost.
I watched Southern California produce a succession of world record spotted bass from Lake Perris and then watched the spotties disappear as Florida largemouth outcompeted them. I watched robust winter time trout plants (that were more expansive and bigger than the dribble of fish planted today) drive fishing license sales. But more importantly, those trout grew a plethora of near-world record largemouth bass in a bunch of new reservoirs that culminated in a 22-pound largemouth bass caught by Bob Crupi, just four ounces shy of the 22-pound, four-ounce world record. I wrote several national stories on Paul Duclos’s 24-pound, would-be world record that was released before getting weighed on a certified scale.
I remember when Castaic, Pyramid, Perris, Silverwood and Diamond Valley reservoirs all opened for the first time, most in the early 1970s. I wrote about anglers fighting to get Haiwee Reservoir opened to fishing and then watched it get closed again after 9/11 for dubious reasons. A different era, no one has fought the L.A. Department of Water and Power to get it back open.
I have watched bait all but banned for bass fishing in California. When I started doing this, there were bait shops all over the region that sold crawdads, waterdogs (salamanders), and mudsuckers. You can’t buy any of those terrific baits at shops any longer because of environmental regulations, and bait shops have disappeared.
The state has gone from statewide deer seasons where tags could be used anywhere, to a zone system that has done little to help deer herds in most regions. I remember when there was a bounty on magpies, crows, and mountain lions. I watched and wrote about those lions going from shoot-on-sight predators to becoming completely protected. Now, as many lions as were ever killed by hunters are killed on freeways and under depredations permits each year. Hunting bears with hounds (the most effective way to selectively harvest the oldest males) has been banned, and more and more bears are becoming problem animals and getting killed on roadways, again proving that wildlife management by legislators and animal rights activist-driven bond issues doesn’t work. Leg-hold traps have been banned, effectively ending commercial trapping in the state. I knew a dozen trappers who supplemented their incomes in the 1970s and 80s by trapping. The use of 1080 (a poison used to kill predators) has been banned. Not surprisingly, the popularity of coyote and other predator hunting has boomed as the population of those species has skyrockets with the new protections.
The ocean fishing scene has gone on long roller-coaster rides where species flourish and then decline. Warm water years make fishing almost tropical for a season or two, and then the cold water species rebound. White seabass have completely recovered, yellowtail abundance has boomed again recently, and bluefin and yellowfin tuna numbers are high. Meanwhile, most anglers don’t even remember our last great albacore season with the fish staying well offshore, and it has been a long time since we had a boomer sandbass season. Rockfish numbers are skyrocketing again, a little inexplicably for the scientists who say the recovery has been too quick and too expansive to have been caused by the restrictive regulations and seasons they imposed. Old timers predicted the rise based on water temperatures and ocean currents.
Fishing and hunting license and tag fees have skyrocketed over the past few decades and the number of hunters and anglers has fallen in proportion to the fee increases. When I first started writing, we sold 2.5 million annual fishing licenses and 850,000 annual hunting licenses. Today, there are under a million fishing licenses and 250,000 hunting licenses sold. The state’s population has doubled over the same time frame.
I used to argue with anyone if they said that California politicians would eventually ban hunting and fishing in the state, staking some indefensible moral high ground. It would never happen, I argued. But today, after watching the decades of piecemeal desiccation of sound fish and wildlife management, and hearing the shrill voices banging the drums of bans, I don’t argue any longer. It could happen in my lifetime. Maybe I’m just turning into that grumpy old man I groused about 40-some years ago. Maybe. I’m just glad Lake Perris is full again and plan to catch some whopper bluegill this spring on my flyrod, maybe that old eight-food Fenwick.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.