Every outdoor writer would like a dime for every time someone has told him what a wonderful job he had.
Granted, there are worse things to do for your daily bread than fish, hunt, camp, hike and go boating. But the outdoor writer's life is not without its pitfalls.
One of the common disasters is the source who is not a source. You find some guy who has invented a whole new way of fishing, for example. He doesn't need a boat. He suspends his bait from a radio-controlled airplane, sends it out to the Gulf Stream where it hooks a blue marlin, then he directs it back to the beach from his command post in the beach grass.
"Great story," says the boss, so you drive three hours to Ocean City and spend two days with the guy.
He tells you his life story there in the rain on the beach. By the time he finally hooks a fish you know every intimacy of his family life, you have bled tears over his son who hates the water, you've commiserated ad nauseam over the price of rigged ballyhoo.
Now, in the last light before dark, his tiny airplane is hauling a 600-pound fish up through the surf. He looks at you in triumph. You grab the pad and pencil and madly start scribbling notes.
"Hey, wait a minute," says the source who is not a source. "You can't write about this. You'll bring every nut in Maryland down here with an airplane. Besides, my wife thinks I'm at work, and my boss thinks I'm home sick. I'll get fired. Or divorced. Or both."
Go ahead, laugh. This stuff happens. You go back to the office and end up writing a column about boat shows.
I have one guy who isn't actually a source who is not a source. He's a source who doesn't want to be a source.
He lets me write hints about the wonderful things we do. No specifics, just little intimations of where we were and how we did it.
Even at that, he worries.
"No problem." I tell him. "Nobody reads this stuff."
Once we went drifting on a river, looking for ducks to hunt, and I wrote a little story. He worried. I didn't even say what river, and we never got a shot, anyway. Who would get turned on by that?
On New Year's Day we went back for another try. We drove up to where we put in the canoe.
"Good," he sighed. "No other cars."
Mind you, this is New Year's Day, just after dawn.
We hauled the canoe down the hill, and just as we came back to gather our gear a Plymouth station wagon pulled up with a johnboat on the roof. Two guys got out.
"Going fishing?" we asked, hopefully.
"Nope, going duck hunting."
We watched them go. They were quick, and we were still climbing into our waders when they disappeared downstream.
My partner eyed me venomously. The river, he pointed out, was not big enough for two boats.
We went anyway, and while the other guys flushed four dozen ducks, we got close to only one pair in seven miles. We heard them shooting, way downstream.
I argued my case. "Local guys," I said. "They've been coming here since before we were born."
Then, at the end of the shooting day. I took a chance.
"You guys been doing this long?" I asked the two strangers.
"Nope. Second time. We tried it in October and did real good."
"Hmmm," I responded, tossing caution to the wind. "Where'd you hear about it?"
"Newspaper," one said.
And then, as if responding to some heilish cue, he reached slowly into his pocket, withdrew his wallet and plucked out a faded piece of newsprint.
Riding home, I shut up and listened.
"If you ever write about this again," said the source who doesn't want to be a source, "you will say it's two things. Unproductive and terribly dangerous."
I'm just glad to be alive.