70 years WON-ning

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WON DUDES IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT— Bill Karr, Mike Stevens, Ernie Cowan, Rich Cowan (who Ernie may have snuck in as his “photography assistant”) and Pat McDonnell at the media dinner prior to the 2018 Eastern Sierra trout opener.
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BY MIKE STEVENS 

In 1994, I was 17 years old and about to fish saltwater for the first time with a family friend who recently bought a boat and heard that I was obsessed with fishing.

He said, “Pat McDonell is going to come with us.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

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“He’s the editor of Western Outdoor News.”

            “What’s Western Outdoor News?”

            To that, he tossed a copy at me before calling it a night and reminding me that we were getting up at 4 a.m. I dug into that issue and I remember a “woah, this exists” feeling coming over me. Pat ended up backing out of that trip, but along with getting my first taste of saltwater fishing, this high-school newspaper sports guy had a green publication on his radar and the name of the dude I needed to make an impression with.

What I didn’t know was WON had been steaming along for 42 years at that point. That means over the next 20 years as a subscriber and now closing in on a decade as a staffer, I haven’t even seen half of it.

The first components of WON I remember turning straight to was the whopper list and the form charts, two components of the paper to this day. At 18 I was working in a tackle shop while going to school for journalism, and when WON would arrive, I would open the paper to the formcharts and leave them on the counter for customers to read before shopping. Looking back, I realize that might have killed a few sales of the paper, but it was also an early indicator of how much I dug sharing what was happening on the water.

Around this time, the combination of being a full-time student with a part-time job during the not-everyone-has-the-internet-yet era, I was putting the bulk of my trust in WON to steer me I the right direction when it came to exercising my newly reached right to vote. It was my first time realizing that this outdoor passion includes battles that need to be fought, and there are people out there legitimately trying to take at least portions of it away from me, or at least trying to make it more difficult. While present-day WON readers are more informed because of technology, among other things, I still try to act as if there are people out there who do the same when it comes to some of the content.

Eventually, I started to take note of the bylines at the top of the stories I was reading in WON, and I’d later realize that WON has played host to absolute outdoor-writing royalty since it —along with Playboy— came to life in 1952. Funny thing about outdoor writers, they write forever.

While I didn’t know about WON until my senior year of high school, I discovered the existence of outdoor writer positions at newspapers in my early teens while reading Ernie Cowan’s column every Thursday in the North County (San Diego) Times. That was over 30 years ago, and he’s still in the game covering the Eastern Sierra for WON on a year-round basis. Now here I am in a position to “give him orders” which is still slightly uncomfortable. Like most WON writers, he’s a well-oiled machine that manages himself, but I still take advantage by getting on his case when I spot one of his rare typos.

There are currently five current or former WON staffers in the California Outdoor Hall of Fame (cohof.org): current NorCal editor Dave Hurley and Bill Karr who held the position for over 30 years before him. Columnist Tom Steinstra (still putting in work with the San Francisco Chronicle), former WON Baja columnist Gary Graham and the late Bill Beebe. Beebe’s many accolades include being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a photo of JFK on the beach after a swim in Santa Monica Bay.

The current list of hall-of-famers is also peppered with writers who contributed to WON over the years, shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Jebediah Smith, Kit Carson, John Muir, Ansel Adams, Yvon Chouinard, Bill Poole, Alex Honnold and Shaun White, to name a few.

Eventually, I started writing about fishing, and I would send them to whatever lower-profile publication or website that would print me (for free, by the way). At that point, I started looking at WON as an instruction manual, because there is no textbook or classes on outdoor writing. I was especially drawn to the style of Rich Holland and Pat McDonell who “write like they talk” and get well-informed stories across in a way that felt like you just got done chatting with a fellow angler. The reader would wind up a master class in whatever the topic was without having to trudge through a 3-page word salad.

That’s how I write today, and that’s what I expect out of the current staffers and freelancers delivering content from the tip of Baja to beyond the Oregon state line. A lot has changed in 70 years, but a fair amount has stayed the same. My desk is surrounded by bound books containing every page of every issue of WON since it launched, and it’s amazing to see how things have evolved outdoors and how many of the same battles we are fighting now were being fought decades ago.

Five years ago I was one of the youngest WON staffers (another beauty about being in the outdoor media, you’re still young in your forties) and now I’m second oldest. Things have moved a lot faster in the last few years than they ever have, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

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