By Nick Simonson
It was 20 years ago this summer I took a job in between college and law school as a part time reporter for my hometown newspaper, the Valley City Times-Record. In fact, it’s a publication for which I still proudly write today, and I am happy and sometimes amazed that they’ve kept me on this long and through many moves. Between reporting on developing technology in the community, looking over the police blotter and covering the occasional Legion baseball game that summer, I was also given an opportunity to share my growing passion for the outdoors, which at that time was solely focused on angling.
Each week in the remaining two months of my stay at the shared desk where the reporters gathered, I’d assemble a profile on one of the prominent species in the area and share tips and locations where they could be caught locally and statewide. The Fish Files, as I called it, ran alongside Doug Leier’s column and the NDG&F Department’s press releases, eventually giving way to this weekly column, Our Outdoors, which started a two-decade streak of sharing my take each week on all that was happening in hunting, fishing and conservation from season to season.
In some ways 20 years seems short. It’s not a lifespan to me, but for many who read my work, it encompasses all of theirs thus far in the outdoors – from their first bluegills, to learning walleye patterns, to pheasant hunts and sits for deer – with hopes for at least three or four more of those 20-year sets to come. There are many of those moments in the outdoors, so filled with success or big memories that they seem like yesterday: a dog’s first point, the incredible experience of sturgeon angling, or watching my son catch his first fish through the ice. While they’re 17, 10, or seven years ago in reality, the moments remain so close I feel as if I could reach out and touch the feathers and fins in the cool autumn air or the chilly water. Having written them down, shared them through this medium and archived them on a few different lost-and-found hard drives over the years makes remembering and reliving each moment that much easier.
The time has flown by, but as I look back, I’m amazed that one major goal – catching a smallmouth bass the same length as the age of this column – has remained a continuing challenge. In all those days on the water which have whizzed by in a blur, I’ve not topped the 20-inch mark for a smallie. While I’ve landed more than my share of fish between 19 and that oh-so-close 19.9 inches in the fast-moving springs and summers since I began writing about them, my 20-inch bronzeback still maddeningly eludes me. I’m hopeful it will come eventually, but as I do spend a lot of time angling for them, I’m surprised it hasn’t already.
In a way too, 20 years can seem frustratingly long. Having had my first hunting dog and taken to the field at the most recent height of CRP in 2004, watching grass disappear from the landscape in the years since and doing the research on the ups and downs of the habitat program throughout the seasons establishes a pattern of troughs and peaks where bird, deer and other wildlife populations follow suit with conservation efforts. In those moments, where it seems society must experience the consequences of its actions, re-learn everything it once knew and then re-implement it through the red tape and rigmarole of government, that 20-year cycle of ups and downs can certainly feel like a drag on the outdoor psyche.
Regardless of the conditions throughout that time however, the aspects of the outdoors which I have tried and taken to have mounted, and the number of other styles of fishing and hunting I’ve not attempted has shrunk, with but a few I wish to pursue remaining. Since that first column, I’ve learned to pheasant hunt and fly fish, and become passionate about that pairing which makes up a good percentage of my writings in fall and spring respectively. I’ve become an ardent supporter of shooting sports, as I did not grow up a hunter or a target shooter. Through my involvement in organizing several high school clay target teams – a sport which has also grown wildly over the last twenty years – it is my hope that those kids, when they choose to take to the field, will do so with a greater level of success and at an earlier age than I did. In that process and through more time in the field each fall, I’ve become a better shooter, a more experienced hunter and, perhaps most importantly, a stronger student of nature. Through my obsessing about wind and weather and trying to tie the presence of plants and animals on the landscape into the bigger hunting picture and to life in general, I have done my best to encapsulate that week’s musings, many missteps and occasional major accomplishments into 20 column-inches or so of information fit for print.
I was lucky to be granted the opportunity to share my thoughts which began this 20-year run and was always happy to talk fishing or hunting with those folks who caught me on a morning walk or while making an evening cast and asked me about my last article. While now everyone has a medium on which they can share their fishing success, hunting outings or thoughts on conservation – be it Facebook, Twitter or Tik Tok – I’ll always recall fondly those early days in the back room pasting the pages together and admiring my early efforts at sharing just a snapshot of what the region had available in its waters.
Likewise, I am grateful now for the four-dozen print, radio and online outlets that carry this column, and for the “dozen and dozen” of readers I have out there on social media and the web who read it. As with the shift from gray LCD screens to multi-color live displays on sonar, and the near obsolescence of GPS units in favor of maps on today’s smart phones, it may be tough to predict the changes that will come in the next two decades in hunting, fishing and conservation. Here’s hoping, however, that I’ll be granted the privilege of continuing to share it all with you, through both the figurative and literal hills and valleys and whatever they may bring from season to season and week to week…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: while the author is still seeking a 20-inch smallmouth, he enjoys writing about his quests for one and for other adventures in the outdoors. Simonson Photo.