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A long road from New Mexico

5/31/2006
Jack Samson holds a bonefish, caught by fly, on Ambergris Caye in Belize in May 1999. 

Stories my dad told me about bear and deer and elk of his youth in northern New Mexico turned me on to hunting when I was a youngster. Yarns about pheasant hunting near the Rio Grande fueled the flames. From the start, I seemed consumed by a passion for the out-of-doors.

I started hunting, as most do at an early age, around 13 as I recall. About the same time that I got my first smoothbore, a heavy Mossberg 12-gauge pump, I talked my dad into buying me a subscription to Field and Stream. A 13-year-old doesn't get a lot of mail and I remember how excited I was to get an outdoors magazine with my name on it.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the magazine carried the name of another New Mexican on it, Jack Samson, Editor-in-chief.

Samson, of Santa Fe, was at the helm this nation's premier outdoor magazine for about 15 years. His life surrounded by the outdoors, like mine, started in youth. The road to a New York City high rise office where he worked was full of twists and turns — New York was a far cry from the Tesuque, NM ranch were he spent a great part of his youth. Samson wound his way around the world a time or two before landing in New York City to head up the premier hunting and fishing magazine.

In 1930, doctors suggested to Samson's parents that a move west could save the then 8-year-old boy from asthma. In the humid Rhode Island climate the attacks were harsh, keeping him in bed two weeks at a time. After two weeks in a Buick on old Route 66, Samson, his mother, and two younger siblings landed at a rented ranch.

"My first hunting trips were with a slingshot in Tesuque, a boy of eight years old. I spent a lot of time trying to knock down cottontails and jacks rabbits — without much success," recalled Samson.

His first fishing trip in the West, chronicled in a 1991 New Mexico Magazine article, made a huge and lasting impression. Armed with a split bamboo fly rod left to him by a deceased uncle, Samson had his first tangle with a 16-inch brown trout on the banks of Pecos River.

On the long road from Tesuque to New York City, Samson attended the Greenbrier Military Academy in West Virginia. He joined up with the Army Air Corp when World War II started. As a navigator, he flew 52 missions over China under General Claire Chennault and what was left of his Flying Tigers. A turn in the road once the war was over, brought Samson back to New Mexico; he attended the University of New Mexico, a member of the first graduating class in journalism.

While going to UNM, Samson broke into the outdoor writing market. "I sold my first story to Field and Stream, in 1949 — when I was still a senior — for $75," said Samson. "A lot of money for that time."

His story, Tire Tube Ducks, told Field and Stream readers about his technique in hunting late-season waterfowl on the Rio Grande below Albuquerque. Six months later he sold another on pass shooting goldeneye while simultaneously flyfishing in the Rio Grande Gorge.

With the journalism degree in hand, Samson hired on with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish as the agency's very first public relations officer. Samson worked for the legendary director Elliot S. Barker, for whom Samson has nothing but praise, a man he considered ahead of his time.

"Barker was of the old-school game types, but he saw the future of PR coming," said Samson. "He instilled in me, and many others, that conservation of wildlife resources — and its proper management was the great future of wildlife agencies."

"I knew Barker well," said Samson. "He liked to write and taught himself — though he had only a high school education, he wrote some good books late in life: The Dogs Barked Treed, and Beatty's Cabin."

Samson's relationship with Barker apparently went beyond the workplace: "He was a real mentor to me in the wilds — teaching me to shoot properly, showing me the high country. He had a real fondness for writers and nothing made him more proud than when I became editor-in-chief of Field and Stream in '72."

Barker and Samson remained friends keeping up a correspondence until Barker's death at 101 years old.

A lot has changed since Barker's day. Samson believes that from a scientific standpoint, game managers are probably more capable today than ever before, but face far too many distracting, unrelated issues.

"Politically, these agencies have gone a long way downhill," said Samson.

He added, "Staff are frustrated by senior administrators unwilling to take a positive stand on the issues or (are) preoccupied by unrelated matters like sexual harassment, EEO, gender-related issues, and regulations for the handicapped. Wildlife specialists who hold degrees in all phases of game management seldom are held in as high esteem as some emotionally oriented civilian at a game commission meeting."

Samson, talking more on Barker, pointed out that the former director knew wildlife first-hand having grown up on a ranch near Las Vegas, New Mexico. He knew lions and deer and coyotes.

"I can see him turning over in his grave at the antics of environmentalists today — who assure us ranchers and coyotes, and lion and wolves can lie down together like the proverbial lion and the lamb — because that is what they want it to be like."

Following his stint as the Game and Fish public relations director, Samson again headed to the other side of the world, to work in public relations for a private airline in the Orient run by his former commander Chennault. Samson got to know the famous general and later wrote his biography.

Samson's next move put him in far more danger than ever before. Coaxed by a few too many drinks at a Tokyo lounge, Samson signed on with the United Press to cover the Korean War.

"I thought I wanted to be a war correspondent. I guess I read too much Hemingway," Samson told me. "Three bourbons later I woke up in GI clothes flying over Seoul with a hangover and a big pay cut."

Samson stayed in Korea until the prisoner exchange, and again, a turn in the road brought him back to New Mexico where he went to work for the Associated Press. A weekly outdoor column and other reporting earned him the coveted Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1960. His solid credentials and experience in the out-of-doors dating to 1930's Tesuque next landed him in New York City at Field and Stream.

Approaching 80 years old, Samson has seen a lot of ground — buffalo hunting in Africa, salmon fishing in Scotland, and just last summer, bonefishing on the Yucatan coast.

Saltwater flyfishing is high on his to-do list; he is after all contributing editor of Saltwater Flyfishing magazine. But how does he see the future of outdoors? According to Samson, today's society is disconnected to the outdoors.

"Anti-hunting sentiment is growing steadily, much due to what is taught in public schools — taught by ultra-liberals educated in teacher's colleges — who have grown up on the 'Bambi' concept of hunting."

I too have not known a deer that could speak, but I have known folks that Samson might call disengaged from reality.

"Obese parents feeding hamburgers, fried chicken and Cokes to their equally obese children today consider food as plastic — not made from once living beef cattle and once-pecking chickens," said Samson.

"Most children have no conception of what it once like to raise and slaughter one's own food. The only hope for hunting is that family will continue to raise kids to love the sport. The only hope for our sporting guns is to join and support the NRA."

Tesuque and New York City are miles and years apart but Samson's outdoor pursuits continue today — and he has become a legend. He is the first to land both Atlantic and Pacific sailfish and all five marlin species on a fly.

Moreover, visit any book store and the numerous titles on flyfishing authored by Samson stand as evidence. With a world-record roosterfish and 20 books to his credit, ranging from falconry and grizzly bears, to saltwater flyfishing and three biographies, it's hard to argue his mark is not indelible.