Playing Grownups, and Having a Ball

So the plan is, we make a magazine people actually want to read, and pretend like it’s always been here.
by Ed Gray
From the May/June 2010 Issue

The first copies—the Preliminary Issue, Upland Birds 1975—arrived from the printer after hours on a Friday. It was Halloween, but none of us had any other plans. We were already in costume, a couple of 20-somethings and a 30-year-old editor masquerading as a venerable sporting journal.

That was the plan: Present this brand-new magazine to readers as if it had existed elegantly for years and they had somehow missed it. Design it to look traditional: Caslon type, perfect binding, borders and white space around the images. Call it a sporting journal, not a hunting and fishing magazine. And it worked. At least that part did. For years whenever people would first meet my wife Becky, they would say, “Oh. Are you Mr. Gray’s daughter?”

It helped that our first covers were graced by the work of well-known sporting artists: A. Lassell Ripley and Carl Rungius from the past; Robert Abbett, Chet Reneson, Tom Sanders, and Henry McDaniel still working. First impressions are everything when you’re working a dodge.

But our cover was almost immediately blown. By the end of our first year, our writers had done that, aided and abetted by me. I’ve always told people that we started Gray’s because I wanted to read it. That was true, but not everything I wanted to read was what members of The Angler’s Club expected to find inside the pages of a venerable old sporting journal edited by Becky’s venerable old father whose acquaintance they had somehow failed to make on the private waters they fished:

Ron wouldn’t know a Llewellin setter from a Cornish game hen. His grouse gun is a rusty twelve-gauge pump with a broken butt plate, half missing. It is the only shotgun he owns. His grouse jacket is a brown, wool plaid shirt with the backs of both sleeve seams torn out at the shoulders by a bartender in Dawson Creek who dragged him over the bar by the lapels. He wears wool trousers with a sewn-in crease, purchased at a Salvation Army store in Michigan for 50 cents. At least his cap is a little more traditional, though the wrong tradition: a camouflage Jones-style that really belongs in a duck blind.

That was from “Sugar Snow,” the first piece John Hewitt sent us. Ron, of course, was Ron Rau, “Hiram” to John’s “Bobby Lee” in much of what was to follow from them both in the pages of Gray’s. And much of that was, well, nontraditional. Here’s Rau in “Ptarmigan Tango,” his 1979 remembrance of their days in an outdoor writing class at the University of Alaska

“Neither did Hemingway,” I said.
“Neither did Hemingway what?” Bobby Lee asked.
“Have any of the formula crap on his mind.”
Ernest Hemingway sometimes wrote about fishing and hunting. His people seemed more real that Ruark’s. They had problems like Nick Adams in Big Two-Hearted River. Or poor Francis Macomber. Those were the kinds of hunting and fishing stories I liked. When the people seemed real. It made the whole story more real.

“Well, we ain’t Hemingway and Ruark, either,” Bobby Lee said.
“I know it. They’re both dead. We ain’t even formula writers yet. Did you catch that formula today?”
“What is it?”
“Whereto, howto, whento, whoto.”
“Right. You still want to do it?”

They didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want them to, either. It was a match.

When we read “Sugar Snow,” Reed Austin and I nearly danced around the office. Our first managing editor, Reed was all of 23; Becky and I had hired him into his first job straight out of Middlebury College. I changed not a word of John’s manuscript and gave it to our designer DeCourcy “Larry” Taylor, Jr.—in his forties and the only actual grownup among us—and Larry added his fine pencil sketch: a template for how we were to operate for the next 16 years.

We were rebels, but we weren’t militant. Far from it. As much as we disliked formula, we truly loved the best of the traditionalists. In that first issue arriving on Halloween eve were wonderful pieces from Frank Woolner, Lee Wulff, Charley Waterman, Bob Brister, Charley Dickey, George Bird Evans, and Robert Elman. An all-star lineup by any measure, followed in the next issue by Nick Lyons, Joel Vance, Duncan Barnes, and—arriving early, like an invited friend-of-a-friend whose tongue will loosen as the evening wears on—Russell Chatham with “Innocence Lost,” about a fishing trip to Baja:

As evening approaches the crowd does not diminish. Instead, its mood and spectrum of color shift to the minor key: dark red, indigo, purple, bluegreen. Shadows grow long and fade as twilight hovers over the town, striated by the pungent smell of food from restaurants,

When darkness falls, schools of toro, or jack crevalle, begin to feed, erupting along the bulkheads and sending curtains of minnows into the shallows. The fish are having an orgy of their own, scarcely noticed by the noisy crowd. Across the street in one of the nightclubs, a Mexican band is playing the Rolling Stones’ Angie. No one will go home early.

A very nice piece, I thought. Beautifully written and evocative, a travelogue from an exotic destination slanted toward the fishing with a discrete nod to the other pleasures of the trip. “Whereto” for grownups with literary taste. Pitch perfect in every respect. I asked Russ if he had anything else to offer.

He did. We ran a couple more that first year, including his exquisitely opinionated homage to tarpon fishing with the fly, “Sterling Silver”:

Suppose you have the time, the money and the faculties. Assuming you want to expend them all on exotic fishing, why would you choose to go for tarpon rather than, say, marlin, an historically much more glamorous quarry? . . .

To catch a marlin you must troll. Say the word over and over again to yourself, drawing it out as if it were spelled with lots of o’s and l’s. There may be nothing on earth, except perhaps an unsuccessful bridge club luncheon, quite so boring as trolling. Trol-l-l-l-ing. Several hours of it should be enough to dull your senses so that when the captain or mate or speed of the boat, or whatever it is, finally hooks a fish and you are faced with the appalling prospect of an hour in the fighting chair, you simply would rather have a beer.

On quite the other hand, nowhere else in the spectrum of available angling can there be found a more profoundly thrilling prelude to the hooking of a fish than the stalking of tarpon in shallow water. The fly rod ups the ante considerably, too. In short, it’s at least twice as much trouble as any other tackle you could use.

At that point, the pages of Gray’s were pretty much open to Russ whenever he had something to send our way. Like the aforementioned guest, he was loosening up and people were listening. Reader feedback was 100 percent positive.
And then, that October, we published Russ’s “The Great Duck Misunderstanding,” a reconstruction of nothing more than a duck dinner in San Francisco with a couple of friends:

Our wine glasses are grease-smeared, the table is thick with crumbs, rice, grease, sauce. We pick up each carcass and suck it down to bare bone and gristle. Our shirt fronts are ruined. Juice and blood run from elbows onto knees, the floor. The room is blurred. We laugh and groan, belch and fart.

Later, as we are lounging nearly comatose in the living room, drinking still more wine, I remember my date. I wonder hazily if it is too late, but the face of the clock refuses to come into focus. I find a mirror, and what I see there is best described as soiled.

I decide to make a run for my date’s apartment anyway, leaving the scene of the crime. Unequal to the task of operating a motor vehicle, I pass out somewhere on the byways of California.

A blazing morning sun wakes me, and I smell that grotesque left-over-duck smell and stale alcohol. In the zone of half consciousness I notice my shirt, feel the grease under my fingernails. I had been greedy, tried for too much. Yet beneath the bile is cat-like satisfaction. I squint at the highway snuggling up dangerously to my left flank. I am glad I had gotten off.

And that wasn’t even the part that really offended people. That passage, with reference to a parrot and an earlier encounter with Russ’s date, will have to remain safely tucked inside the covers of Water Fowl, Fall 1976. Like Russ in his own story, we had been greedy, had tried for too much.

So we eased back. Over the next several years we found, if not the dreaded formula, at least a set of ingredients to produce an outdoors magazine unlike any other. If a photographer sent us a selection of really good pictures from which to choose a few to illustrate a story, Larry and I chose instead to select a bunch and let the pictures tell the story on their own. Feature-length photo essays like those early ones by Dale Spartas, Peter Miller, Tom Montgomery, and others have been a Gray’s signature ever since. We asked fine artists if they might like to make some images to illustrate particular stories, and thus we found Robert Seaman, Franklin Jones, Arthur Shilstone, Russ Buzzell, and others of equally incomparable talent. The journal turned into a feast for discriminating eyes.

But beautiful and captivating as were all the images in  Gray’s, it was the written words that set it farthest apart. In a genre where no one published poetry, we sought it. Here’s why - “Witchfire” by H. H Gordon, Winter 1985:

My campfire flames embraced their log
And tapered into smoke,
Curling toward the elder leaves
Where wind in darkness spoke
Your name. You did not hear the voice
Of wind, or my desire
Calling you to share this night—
This witchery of fire

And now it is another time,
Another place of meeting.
You carry gloves: I wear a tie,
But for a moment fleeting
Illusion bends to memory
And you are unaware
That there is firelight in your face,
And pine smoke in your hair.

We found good writers, and good writers found us. Some, like Annie Proulx, Rick Bass, Dave Guterson, and Ron Carlson, went on from their debuts as unknowns in Gray’s to literary prizes and wide acclaim. Others, equally talented, shone brightly on our pages and then faded from view. Two of them nag me still: “Beginner’s Luck” by Thomas Preston in Spring 1982, and “Night Drift” by Clinton H. Russell a year later. Here’s the opening to “Night Drift”:

He was haunted. The image from his childhood, the lurking black avenger rising from watery subconscious depths, had prevented him from swimming in the deep part of the lake for years before the picture finally softened into a transparent wraith in which fervent nostalgic hope peeked through breaks in a thin veneer of adult whimsy.

That the giant bass were out there he was sure of with the unthinking certainty that comes only from the chance impressions of childhood; bits of subconscious flotsam halfheard long ago that float unquestioned on the currents of the mind for decades without touching shore. Incorrect words to overheard songs, the location and nature of Timbuktu, the enormous bass living catch-proof on the bottom of the warm Florida lake. Only a few deep-seated childhood illusions have enough pull on adult memory to repeatedly draw a man through a series of actions that, to the detached observer, mesh solely with the purposes and conditions of a world far different than the one he walks in common with the rest of humanity in the other hours of his life. One such illusion is religion. Another is fishing.

It’s a tale of obsession, built around a possibly mythical gar and ending with a screen door slamming shut, beyond which I won’t go here. And as for the deceptive simplicity of “Beginner’s Luck,” I won’t say anything here at all, save to share its opening:

We met these two fellas on the train between Sioux and Savant. I first saw them standing on the platform when the train stopped at Sioux. They didn’t look like fishermen to me.

Both stories are collected with 24 other pieces of verbal jewelry in Tales From Gray’s: Selections from Gray’s Sporting Journal, 1975-1985. Find a copy, they’re out there.

In fact, since I just did that, found my own copy here on a shelf behind my desk, it seems a natural place to end this little history of those early days at Gray’s, when the magazine you’re now reading began to come out from behind its startup mask and show itself for the unique individual it was turning out to be. So I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from me, writing the introduction to Tales From  Gray’s when we published it in 1986:

I have loved each of these pieces since the day that it arrived here, another envelope in the morning mail at Gray’s Sporting Journal. That’s how they come: in a manila envelope, usually, and with a hand-written address on the front. A short, often self-effacing, cover letter inside with the manuscript itself. They look, physically, just like the others that have arrived in the same batch of mail.

Until you start to read them. And then, well . . .
Well, you’ll see. They’re here, and I’m not going to say anything more about them, except this: These are not peas from a Gray’s pod. You definitely will not find a more varied collection of “sporting” writings inside one set of hard covers. So start anywhere, there’s no particular sequence.
And I do hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

I hope the same thing today, that you enjoy Gray’s as much as I have and that you plan on reading it for another 35 years. I know I do.

Ed Gray, with his wife Rebecca, founded Gray’s in 1975 and was its editor for 16 years. Their latest books, along with many others, can be found at

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