Monthly Archives: December 2010

Goodnight ESPN Outdoors

DEC. 31, 2010 — They say that all good things must come to an end. 

Whether that is true or not, I don’t know.

But I do know that one of the best things to happen in the last 30 years to the world of fishing and hunting communication is coming to an end.

Tonight, on Dec. 31, 2010, as the big ball drops in Times Square and the official clock switches over from 11:59:59 to the stroke of midnight.

Ringing in a New Year…and turning out the lights for good on ESPN Outdoors. 

After nearly 30 years of outdoors television, radio, and Internet excellence, ESPN Outdoors went the way of the dinosaurs at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2011.

With that subtle move of the minute hand, a golden era of outdoors communication will end.

That era has included award winning television programming; radio coverage; Sports Center highlights; and some of the best hunting and fishing coverage that outdoors enthusiasts have ever seen.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I am more than a bit biased.

From the spring of 2001 until the end of 2006, I served as a lead writer and an associate editor for ESPNOutdoors.com.

Then again from the beginning of 2008 until early 2009, my byline – and my paycheck – once again came from EO.com, this time as a hunting writer, BASS tournament writer, and a blog columnist.

All of which enabled me to have a ringside seat.

A seat for the final decade of ESPN Outdoors, an entity that sprang to life shortly after the 1979 birth of ESPN in Bristol, Conn. where the cable network began its meteoric rise to the forefront of modern sports consciousness.

After debuting in 1981, host Jerry McKinnis and his hour-long “The Fishin’ Hole” program would become synonymous with the rise of ESPN Outdoors. In fact, by the time McKinnis retired from hosting the show in 2007, only the nightly Sports Center  newscast would have a longer tenure on the network.

Over time, ESPN would continue to expand its outdoors television line-up, eventually filling up programming for several hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings with fishing, hunting, timber sports, and even Iditarod sled dog racing from Alaska.

By 2001, outdoors television had been recast on ESPN from an often localized mom-and-pop affair to a high-tech national industry that brought the best equipment; the best on-air personalities like Tommy Sanders; and the highest standards ever applied to outdoors programming.

So much so that earlier this decade, the ESPN powers that be decided to purchase the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society from founder Ray Scott.

That move would soon bring big time sponsors and propel tournament bass fishing into the national spotlight with a weekly Bassmaster Tournament Trail television program on ESPN2 to full-fledged wire-to-wire ESPN television and Internet coverage of the world’s top fishing tournament, the Bassmasters Classic.

The powers in Bristol also decided at some point to re-launch the small outdoors section on ESPN.com, turning it into a full-fledged ESPNOutdoors.com Web site.

That’s where I entered the scene, being blessed to be able to seize upon a God-orchestrated moment of  being in the right place at the right time.

In a matter of weeks, I went from delivering local radio newscasts and writing local outdoors copy to helping men like Ed Scheff, Brett Pauly, Brian Lynn, Jeff Phillips, Jeff Rhoton and others launch EO.com.

When the new site went live in 2001, it was something I’ve never been more proud to be a part of.

Why? Because it was a constantly updated product that I’ve often described as a cross between a real-time outdoors oriented USA Today newspaper and an Internet version of a full-fledged, feature based outdoors magazine.

While bass fishing was always been a huge part of ESPN Outdoors, deer hunting and duck hunting would also come to occupy prime territory in the ESPN Outdoors world.

That would occur thanks to television programming featuring Tom Miranda, Bert Jones, and Larry Csonka among others; to breaking news stories on the EO.com site about huge bucks and bulls; and the eventual arrival of Bill Jordan, David Blanton and the Realtree Outdoors gang.

In recent years, Steve Bowman, Steve Wright, Kyle Carter, James Overstreet, and Larry Towell would bring duck hunting to the forefront of ESPN Outdoors with live streaming of the World Duck Calling Championships in Stuttgart, Ark. and the annual continent-crossing “Duck Trek” adventure featuring good writing, epic photography, and breath-taking video clips.

But all of that is coming to an end tonight as the clock strikes midnight.

Earlier this year, ESPN decided to sell BASS to McKinnis and a group of investors and to pull the plug on all outdoors television programming except for a smattering of BASS shows.

And more recently, the Bristol giant decided to retire ESPNOutdoors.com effective Jan. 1, 2011.

Bringing down the curtain on arguably the most influential – and in my humble opinion, the best – outdoors news and programming source of all time.

Again, I’m biased.

But then again, how could I not be biased about a job – and a passion – that allowed me to communicate the outdoors world by the written word, by photography, and by radio?

And a job that blessed me with the opportunity to travel, to hunt, to fish, and to meet some of the outdoor world’s most interesting people all the way from Alaska to Mexico, from New York to California, and from Texas to North Dakota?

And to work with some of the very best people that the outdoors industry has to offer?

So, with my bias duly noted, let me say that it’s been fun and it’s been real.

And now it is all over.

So long ESPN Outdoors – it’s been nice knowing you.

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A Christmas Wing and an Answered Prayer

As he pitched the last block onto the tossing water, Jake Thomas heard a soft whine behind him in the wind-tossed darkness
 
“It’s alright, old girl. I’ll be right there” he called out to his ancient Lab of 13 years, a canine companion waiting impatiently on sore hips in the makeshift duck blind.
 
When he got to the blind, Jake – a retired veterinarian – had to admit that Susie’s hips weren’t the only old bones creaking on this Christmas Eve morning.
 
Sitting down on his hunting stool, Jake quickly unscrewed the lid from his battered thermos bottle, pouring out a stream of hot coffee bearing a stout taste that no “foo-foo coffee house” java could ever hope to duplicate.  
 
As he sipped the homemade brew – strong with just a touch of milk – the pungent aroma was quickly torn away on the building gale.
 
“Probably won’t be much flying this morning Susie-Q,” Jake mumbled. “Darned warm weather has shut the migration down. And the birds that are here, well, they’re probably heading for that young feller that beat us to the ‘Bulls-Eye Blind.'”
 
As Orion the Hunter faded overhead with the reluctant approach of daylight, a quiet buzz rattle through Jake’s blind bag.
 
“Who on earth would be calling me this early in the morning?” he wondered aloud.
 
He knew his wife Kathleen was still asleep, so it couldn’t be her.
 
For starters, she wasn’t much of an early riser.
 
And with their meager Christmas buying complete – a bad economy and a retirement plan sunk by the crash of Wall Street had seen to that – there was little doubt that she was not the one behind the electronic intrusion into Jake’s annual Dec. 24th duck hunt.
 
When Jake wrestled the phone from his blind bag, he saw that he had a text message waiting.
 
After fumbling at the buttons, he finally saw the message glowing in the predawn darkness.
 
“Dad, we’re stuck at the airport. The snow is getting worse and they say that blizzard warnings are going up. I don’t know when…or if… we’ll make it today. I’ll let you know. Love, Sam.”
 
For a few moments, Jake fought back tears.
 
“Lord, this is just too much,” he quietly prayed as he wiped the mist from his eyes. I want to trust. But I just don’t understand. This year has been so very hard. What are you trying to teach me?”
 
From the financial woes of a retirement plan gone south to Kathleen’s building health problems to the loss of a couple of very good friends to cancer, the current year had left Jake weary at best and numb at worst.
 
For the last month, however, Jake had comforted himself with the thought that come Christmas Eve, it would all be better.
 
By mid-afternoon on the 24th, his son Sam, his daughter-in-law Sandy, and his six-month old granddaughter Annie would have made the flight from Denver and would be in the family’s North Texas homestead celebrating Christmas.
 
But now, a snowstorm, a text message…and a world suddenly gone sour.
 
“Why?” Jack queried softly, his voice breaking. “You know, sometimes, I just can’t make sense of it all. This year has been difficult and now…now…well now, Christmas may be ruined.”
 
As he finished off the last of the coffee, Jake glanced at his watch and saw that shooting time had arrived unnoticed a couple of minutes earlier.
 
As he sat his cup down, he reached into his worn duck parka and pulled out three loads of No. 2 steel and loaded them into his battered shotgun as they snapped home with an oily metallic clang.
 
For a while, there was only the sound of the building wind, a southeastern blow that promised rain by evening.
 
Finally, a half-hour into the day, Jake heard the familiar whistle of wings overhead.
 
As he looked up under the brim of his hat, the aging hunter saw a mallard drake and a hen winging by 50 yards downwind of his decoy spread.
 
A quick highball from the cocobolo wood Rich-n-Tone duck call – old Butch Richenbach had built it himself – turned the pair of ducks as if on a string.
 
Soft feed chuckles brought them overhead for a closer look.
 
And a timely contented quack caused the pair to set their wings.
 
When the greenhead lowered his landing gear and slid into range, Jake mounted his 870 pump-gun and touched off the shot.
 
At the report, the greenheaded drake crumpled and fell into the middle of the spread, an easy retrieve for Susie.
 
As the dog waded back in with the mallard clutched firmly in her mouth, Jake was startled to see a piece of silver wrapped around the drake’s bright orange leg.
 
“A band? Well I’ll be, it’s been several years since I’ve gotten a banded bird,” he thought.
 
But upon taking the bird from Susie, Jake realized that this band wasn’t like any other he had ever seen.
 
“What’s this?” he wondered.
 
And then he read something that sent a shiver down his spine: “Jack Miner Foundation. Kingsville, On., Canada.”
 
Jake could scarcely believe his eyes – a Miner band!
 
As he twirled the band in his fingers, Jake saw an inscription on the band that caused him to stop and catch his breath.
 
That’s because he suddenly saw the Scripture verse that Miner bands are famous for bearing.
 
This one read: “I walk among you” Lev. 26-12. Year 2007.”
 
For a long moment, Jake sat there and reflected on the events of the past few months.
 
On his own wearied faith and his prayers looking for answers that seemed slow in coming.
 
And now, on a promise born from the wind-tossed skies above by the whistle of greenhead wings on Christmas Eve morning.
 
I walk among you” the band declared, just in time for Christmas.
 
“Indeed,” Jake mused. “Even in a difficult year.”