The iconic names of the late legendary fly fisherman Lee Wulff, whitetail deer mogul Peter Fiduccia and acclaimed big-game hunter Jim Zumbo have several things in common. The three are all members of New York’s oldest outdoor media organization – NYSOWA. These are just three of many, and it all started with a writer from Sanborn in Niagara County.
A group of dedicated and passionate media professionals devoted to the outdoors – the New York State Outdoor Writers Association – celebrated its golden anniversary last weekend in the same area the group convened for the first time five decades ago, Lake George in Warren County. While there have been many changes through the years, both with the area and the organization, there was one constant that rang true with each passing year … William R. Hilts (Bill, Sr.), one of the founding members.
He wasn’t the only one with a vision for a state group though. It was the early 1960s and while Hilts was polling New York scribes at the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) conferences around the country, there was another pen pusher in an opposing corner of the state doing the same thing: Hans Paller of Massena.
“When I heard Paller was calling writers to form a state group, I immediately picked up the phone and called him,” Hilts said. “We talked for over an hour.”
That was the foundation for a New York outdoor writer organization. It was time to band together to promote New York’s outdoor resources, provide craft improvement and expand a limited network base.
After a few informal committee meetings and much discussion, the first “official” meeting was held in September 1967. Hans Paller was elected president, a position he held until 1973. From 1973 to 1976, Bill Hilts, Sr. was at the helm, all the while melding a professional group that the Empire State could be proud of. The proof of that was when OWAA held its annual conference in Niagara Falls, at a time when Bill Hilts, Sr. was president of the national writer organization. Never before was the OWAA conference held in the hometown of the president. NYSOWA was heavily involved, fueled by a committee of 20 members. Over 50 NYSOWA members attended the conference, to this day the second largest ever for OWAA.
Many sportsmen and women across the state probably don’t even realize that there is a media group focused on the outdoors, with a special focus on hunting and fishing (but including all outdoor activities). In the last 50 years, we’ve lost 41 members along the way – many of them leaders in the outdoor fraternity. They came from all corners of the state. Some of them you might not recognize unless you are familiar with the Adirondacks, the Catskills, the Finger Lakes or Long Island. People like Wulff (and his wife Joan) were members, as was M. Paul Keesler (who was the person behind the popular New York Sportsman magazine). Other leaders in the industry included C. Scott Sampson from the Finger Lakes, Bill Roden of the Adirondacks, Dick Nelson from the Catskills and Wayne Nester of Long Island, to name but a few.
Here in Western New York, some of the media giants we have lost included John Long, Sr. of Niagara Falls, Ken Sprenger of North Tonawanda, Jack Lloyd of Chautauqua and Floyd King of Rochester.
While it was a time to pay tribute to the last 50 years, it was also a time to celebrate the current media mavens who inform, educate and entertain on an outdoor stage that is second to none: Steve and Paula Piatt with NY Outdoor News, Peter, Kate and Cody Fiduccia with Woods N’ Waters TV Series, Dave Figura and Mike Kelly in Syracuse, Dan Ladd and Leo Maloney in the Adirondacks, Bill Conners and Glenn Sapir in the Hudson Valley, Angelo Peluso, Charles Witek and Chris Paparo from Long Island.
Elder statesman on the local front, the “rod father” so to speak, is Hilts, Sr. and he made the trip to Lake George once again, 50 years later. Other northworthy scribes include Dave Barus of East Aurora (aka Forrest Fisher), Will Elliott of Pavilion, and John Lenox with Rush Outdoors TV Show (he’s originally from the Boston Hills). Again, we are only mentioning a few of the 60 people in attendance at this historic golden gathering at Dunham’s Bay Resort (www.dunhamsbay.com) in Lake George. It was a perfect setting overlooking the water, like royalty gazing down on its kingdom.
The NYSOWA conference was a well-coordinated event that was more than a year in the planning. The maestro was Ladd of Fort Ann and his helper, Ed Noonan of Saratoga Springs, recipient of this year’s American Crossbow Federation’s “Bill Hilts, Sr. Award” for dedication and promotion in crossbow usage. It was only fitting that Northern Zone crossbow season was open while we were there. Saturday opened the muzzleloader season, too, giving writers many outdoor opportunities for stories.
I spent one morning fishing with Jim Zumbo, originally from Newburgh, but now residing in Cody, Wyo. We fished from a pontoon boat in Glen Lake, a craft we borrowed from The Docksider Restaurant. He wanted to catch some panfish.
Zumbo has the “stuff” books are built from. In fact, his most recent biography entitled “Zumbo” is an interesting read and highly recommended. As former big-game editor of Outdoor Life magazine, people associate Jim with moose, elk, deer and bear, not panfish. However, he was a fisherman before he was a hunter, angling these same Adirondack lakes as a kid growing up. He still loves to fish for panfish no matter where he hangs his signature black cowboy hat. He is now an honorary member of NYSOWA.
When I fished this lake 10 years ago, it was in the spring and bluegill, crappie and perch were everywhere. This was the fall and the fish were hiding. With no electronics and a limited knowledge of the lake, we did manage to figure out the panfish puzzle. Of course, we also had a bevy of fish-thinking brains to find the golden treasure – Will Elliott, Leon Archer and Steve Zahurak rounding out the fishing crew. We found the panfish in 18 to 20 feet of water on a sharp drop-off. We managed to catch a couple dozen hand-sized eaters before it was time to head in for our breakout luncheon at The Docksider (www.docksiderrestaurant.com). Owner Christine Mozal was a most gracious host. She also made an excellent chicken wing – hot and crispy. I will be back.
We’re just scratching the surface here. Find out more about the Lake George area by checking out www.visitlakegeorge.com. It was a perfect golden anniversary celebration for this dedicated group of writers, both young and old.