Thirty Years of Fish & Game, 1984-2014

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Roy Neves

The year 1984, like the year 2000, was once used as a sort of symbolic shorthand to describe the world of a distant future. In the case of 1984, that world was always dark and forebidding, thanks of course to George Orwell.

We are now 30 years beyond that once-distant future—the year itself is almost as far back in our past as it was ahead in Orwell’s future when his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four was published in 1949.

Looking back, the year wasn’t dark or dystopian. The raging inflation of the late 1970s had been whipped. Reagan was president and he had the Soviets quaking in their American-made boots. NASA was launching space shuttles like they were Southwest flights. “Ghostbusters” and “Beverly Hills Cop” were the blockbuster movies (and Blockbuster was as big as Netflix is today). Mark Zuckerberg, who would engineer a twist on the “big brother” theme of Orwell’s novel by creating Facebook, was born that year. It was also the year Chrysler introduced the mini-van and Apple Computer introduced the Macintosh.

And in Marble Falls, Texas, an outdoor magazine called Texas Fish & Game published its first issue. Or, rather, a group of people at the area’s weekly newspaper published it. I was one of them, and so was my wife, Ardia.

Like the birth of a child, the launch of Fish & Game forever altered our futures and has been a driving force in our lives. And like our actual children, the magazine has been a source of both breathtaking anxiety and immense pride.

tfg-timeline

The magazine would not exist if not for the almost impulsive actions of three men: Marvin Spivey, Dan Alvey, and Bill Bray.

In late 1980 Marvin was the editor of the state’s then-leading outdoor magazine, Texas Fisherman, which was headquartered in Houston. Marvin’s wife, Nancy, a talented artist who contributed regularly to that magazine, and would also contribute later to Fish & Game, suffered with severe asthma and was miserable in the humid southeast Texas climate.

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Tabloid Newsprint 1984

At that time in Marble Falls, The Highlander was, according to the Texas Press Association, the largest weekly newspaper in Texas. Being situated in the heart of the Highland Lakes region (Lakes Travis, Marble Falls, LBJ, Inks and Buchanan) and covering news in Llano County, Deer Capital of Texas, the newspaper naturally had a strong outdoor interest in its readership.

Bill Bray owned The Highlander and Dan Alvey was its publisher. In 1980, I had been there several years as advertising manager. A.W. “Mac” McLaughlin, a veteran sports and outdoor writer, served as outdoor editor on a freelance basis.

As our coverage of the booming outdoor scene kept ramping upward, A.W. was becoming more interested in slowing things down for himself, and so he decided to retire.

In seeking a replacement, Alvey, Bray and I decided that we had reached the point where we could justify a full-time editor for the outdoor section. At the time, The Highlander employed an unusually large staff of writers and editors for a rural community weekly—which typically have an editor/publisher and maybe one multitasking reporter. In addition to an editor and managing editor, the newspaper had two reporters covering local news from its Marble Falls office, a news editor and satellite office in Burnet, 15 miles north, and another satellite office and news editor in Llano County, 20 miles to the west. It also had a full time sports editor covering three school districts. Now, we felt we also needed a full-time outdoor editor.

Alvey interviewed a kid from Houston named Larry Bozka. Bozka had graduated from the University of Houston and had worked in the outdoor and sports sections of The Houston Post and Houston Chronicle and served as editor of Gulf Tide (the forerunner of CCA’s Tide magazine). Bozka had both a passion and abundant talent for outdoor writing and photography. He seemed like the right person to fill the new job and was as good as hired.

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Magazine Trim Size 1986

Then Marvin got wind of the deal and made Bozka a proposition he could not refuse. The editorship of Texas Fisherman was a dream opportunity for someone like Larry—as opposed to editing the outdoor section of a weekly paper, way the heck out west of Austin. Meanwhile, Marvin was desperate to escape the oppressive humidity of Houston and find relief for Nancy.

When Alvey learned that Larry was taking the other job and had recommended Marvin as a consolation hire, we were delighted. We would have been happy to turn the reins over to young, enthusiastic and obviously talented Bozka. But the chance to have the editor of the state’s top outdoor magazine take over was even better.

So Marvin and Nancy moved to Marble Falls and Marvin started putting together a weekly outdoor section covering the fishing and hunting action in the two-county area straddling the Highland Lakes and the “Deer Capital” of Texas.

Compared to covering all the fishing action in the entire state, the job was considerably less taxing—and less challenging. Soon Marvin began get a little restless.

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“Slick” Paper 1988

Alvey was a born promoter. This guy could persuade the Chamber of Commerce in Tombstone, Arizona that they needed a summer ice festival and they’d buy it—and it would be a success. We were always coming up with novel promotions to prod the local businesses into spending more ad dollars with the big weekly newspaper. Visitors Guides, Industrial Appreciation Guides, Graduation Guides (when you sell sponsorships of graduate mug shots for three decent-size high schools to booster-oriented businesses—not to mention parents and grandparents—how do you not make money?). One of my favorites was “Midnight Madness” where we got most of the Marble Falls retail community to stay open past midnight—dressed up in Halloween costumes—back in the days before 24-hour Walmarts.

When Marvin started wondering out loud about ways we could leverage the local outdoor resource into a more ambitious marketing opportunity, Alvey and I both reflexively answered, “Sure, why not?”

Soon after, The Highland Lakes Sportsman was born, as a quarterly insert in the paper. We first targeted local boat dealers and sporting goods shops—like the old Burnham Brothers store on U.S. 281, the one with the live rattlesnakes in the front window.

The quarterly was fun to produce, modestly successful, and well-enough received by the local readers that it inspired a second-round of ambitious “what-if” brainstorming.

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New Logo 1990

Why not take The Highland Lakes Sportsman statewide?

We had the former editor of the state’s premier fishing magazine. We had some of the state’s hottest fishing and hunting action right in our back yard. And the outdoor business was booming all across the country, especially in Texas. Plus, we were young marketing geniuses. We couldn’t lose.

We also had a secret weapon: an owner with more ego, guts, and competitive drive than rest of us combined. And a bank account, which would make Herculean contributions to the cause.

With Bray’s blessing, we rolled out in early 1984. The first few issues were actually published under the masthead Texas All Outdoors. (Texas Sportsman was already taken). Then, another magazine with a similar nameplate cried foul, and we were forced to come up with yet another new name.

After retooling, we charged back out the gate with Texas Fish & Game in May 1984.

For Ardia and me, it has been a wild ride ever since.

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New Logo 1991

She was still working primarily for The Highlander, having replaced me as advertising director when I stepped up to replace Alvey as the paper’s publisher. Now that we were becoming a multi-title publishing company, Alvey assumed executive duties over the larger operation. But both Ardia and I pitched in on Fish & Game ad sales and circulation marketing while holding our day jobs with the newspaper.

For the first six months or so, we made slow progress, maybe getting up to 1,500 monthly paid copies—most of which were sold over the counter in Hill Country retail shops, which in turn generated a few hundred subscriptions from people who had picked it up when passing through the area.

Then we decided to get serious. Alvey had done research into magazine circulation marketing and quickly found that it was done mainly through direct mail methodology executed with rocket science precision.

First, you had to get a mailing list—a big one, since two-percent returns were considered “home runs.” If you wanted thousands of subscribers, this meant you needed hundreds of thousands of prospects.

To us—naive young hotshots—the obvious source of mailing lists for a Texas outdoor magazine would be the state’s huge lists of fishing and hunting licenses and boat registrations: they hunt, they fish, and they’re well-off enough to own a boat.

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New Design 1991

But when we called Texas Parks & Wildlife and asked them to send us the lists, we were told they weren’t available… they did not share them with the public. They did, of course, use the lists liberally to promote their own products and services, one of which was their own monthly magazine.

We stewed briefly over this, then Alvey hit on a clever idea. The state had passed an open records law in 1982, so we a filed an open records request for the lists. Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox agreed that these were, indeed, public records and should be provided to us, forthwith. I think it cost us $250 to get 500,000 names, the state’s cost of transferring them to magnetic tape.

With that initial mailing—we still had to print a whole package of materials and pay postage on the 500,000 pieces that went into the mail, so aside from the cheap list, it was a very expensive effort—we got something like 3.5 percent response. This shot us from almost zero to 20,000 subscribers literally overnight.

Once we were reaching so many paying subscribers, we needed to prove it. So we signed up with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, or ABC. To be taken seriously by major national advertisers, a magazine needed an ABC pedigree—the publishing world’s equivalent of the Nielson ratings used in TV. The major difference was that Nielsen measured raw viewership and nobody paid for the TV shows they watched Even with today’s pay-TV model, audiences are not measured by whether they pay or not. With magazines, if the subscription wasn’t paid for, it wasn’t counted.

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New Design 1994

ABC auditors were tough. They used to chase IRS auditors down and steal their lunch money. If you were missing a copy of a check for a single subscription in the audit sample, it could cost you not just that one subscriber, but maybe a hundred more. But it was a price for playing in the big leagues, and so we did it. ABC is now known as Alliance for Audited Media, or AAM.

In early 1986, Alvey left to start his own printing business, and I stepped up to manage the magazine and newspaper. Three years later, Bray sold The Highlander and asked Ardia and me to stay with Fish & Game, and continue building it into a major statewide publication. We chose to do so, and moved the operation to San Antonio.

As our subscriber marketing efforts continued to bear fruit, and our numbers broke the 50,000-subscriber level, we began to create competitive friction with Marvin’s old employer, Texas Fisherman.

By 1991, Texas Fisherman had changed owners, falling into the hands of a crafty businessman named Mike Henry, of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bozka was no longer there, having left to pursue a freelance career. In fact, Fisherman was being published without an editor. Its publisher and chief ad salesman, Mike Haines, was handling the story assignments as well as selling the ads.

We were still mounting our aggressive twice-a-year direct mail efforts to build circulation. This forced Fisherman to follow suit in order to stay ahead of us and maintain their advantage with advertisers. This high-stakes competition got more and more costly for both companies. When we reached the 70,000 mark—within spitting distance of their 76,000—we got a phone call from Mike Henry who wanted to feel us out on the notion of a merger.

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Current Design 2014

One very interesting, long weekend meeting convinced everyone that Henry and Bray would not work well as partners and that one company would have to buy out the other.

Henry was a businessman who happened to be in publishing. We were publishers. So it was clear that we wanted the combined enterprise more than he did, and a deal was struck. We took over Texas Fisherman and absorbed it into Texas Fish & Game with the April, 1991 issue.

After merging the two subscriber lists and purging the high number of duplications on both lists, Texas Fish & Game’s paid distribution ballooned to over 100,000—making us the second largest magazine in Texas, behind only Texas Monthly, which targeted more of a mass audience.

For about a year, we operated from offices in two cities, Houston where Mike Haines had been running Fisherman, and San Antonio. In late 1992 we decided to bring the offices together and relocate to the larger city, which was also more central to the bulk of our subscriber base.

Over the next five years, we worked to build Texas Fish & Game’s national profile while keeping our paid distribution in the mid-90,000 range.

Maintaining such a large list was almost as costly as building it. Bray began to tire of the havoc this wreaked on the bottom line and in early 1996 he began talking about finding a buyer.
Ardia and I both knew that this was where we wanted to stay for the rest of our careers. Concerned that Bray might sell to a big publishing conglomerate, and that we would not feel comfortable — perhaps not even welcome — in such an alien culture, we decided to mount a management takeover.

Ardia’s sister, Stephanie, and her husband, Ron Ward, had listened for years with interest as we recounted the fortunes of working in the outdoor industry. Ron had grown up on a fishing resort in northern Wisconsin, and has been an avid sportsman his entire life. After retiring early from a successful career in oral surgery, he had been investing in small businesses for a number of years. One of those businesses was a big game outfitter and guide service in Montana.

Ron’s outdoor background and his interest in small business attracted him to Texas Fish & Game, and so he and Stephanie signed on to back our venture.

On New Year’s Eve, 1996, we closed the deal and took over TF&G from Bray.

Marvin had never been happy about the move back to Houston and wanted to return to the Highland Lakes, where he still had a house on Lake LBJ. Meanwhile, after the Fisherman/Fish & Game merger, Larry Bozka had begun doing a lot of freelance writing for us. In fact, he was the host of a TV show that Fisherman had launched before our takeover, and which we inherited. The show didn’t last, but our working relationship with Bozka did.

After the management takeover, Marvin retired and Bozka came aboard as editor.

Bozka was instrumental in one of our major ventures—book publishing. Actually, it was his bad luck that enabled us to get our first book off the press. We had talked about publishing a book for more than a year, but Larry could never find time to settle down and write the thing. Then, one fateful day in 1998, he was at a Fast Lube waiting for his car when he stepped on a slippery floor mat, did a Three Stooges pratfall, and broke his hip. Laid up on his couch for three months, he finally had time to write Saltwater Strategies, the first of more than 15 books that we have since published.

In 2001, Larry once again got the itch to be a freelance outdoor writer and he left the company. Don Zaidle, then serving as assistant editor, took over as editor.

One of the many changes Don oversaw in his dozen years as editor was the launch of our Coastal, Inland and North Texas regional editions in 2007. Not long after implementing those editions, we also elevated Chester Moore, a longtime TF&G contributor, to the role of executive editor.

Zaidle also played a significant role in our shift from ink-on-paper publishing to multi-media outdoor complex. He took direct charge of programming and design of our website, which had floundered in the hands of technical nitwits for years. He also was instrumental in the conversion of our print issues into the enhanced digital versions that are now available on iPads, Android tablets and Kindles.

When Don passed away suddenly last year, Chester stepped up and took the reins as editor-in-chief. Chester’s long association with the magazine, first as regular contributor, then as saltwater editor, and then executive editor has made this transition almost seamless. While Don was a big act to follow, Chester has brought an impressive résumé of his own to the position. Not only is he an accomplished nationally-recognized writer in his own right, he has become a skilled radio, TV and video host. And, of the 15 books in the TF&G library mentioned above, he has authored six of the titles himself.

Over the years, we have been fortunate that some of the most talented writers and photographers have contributed to the pages of our magazine and books. In the beginning there was Russell Tinsley, Byron Dalrymple, Hal Swiggett, Buddy Gough, A.C. Becker, Bob Hood and Joe Doggett Other talented writers and photographers have joined the ranks, including Doug Pike, Matt Williams, Reavis Wortham, Ted Nugent, Lenny Rudow, Steve LaMascus, Lou Marullo, Greg Berlocher, Cal Gonzales, Kendal Hemphill, and Dustin Ellermann.

Many others contribute to each issue and the other entities that make up Texas Fish & Game Publishing Company, LLC. Elliott Donnelly has assumed responsibilities for web and digital ventures and has already made light years of progress on what Don started. Viga Hall is indispensable as Ardia’s right-hand man in ad sales.

With Chester behind the wheel and our solid cast of supporters on the magazine, the web and various digital and video incarnations of Texas Fish & Game, our book division, and other exciting ventures we have planned for the near future, the coming years promise to be just as exciting and rewarding as the first 30.

I cannot end this observance of our 30-year milestone without paying due tribute to the people who really made it all possible: you, our loyal and treasured readers. Whenever Ardia or I encounter subscribers out in the field, we can’t describe the joy it gives us to hear so many of you say you read every copy of Texas Fish & Game cover to cover. Even when someone calls to complain about a missed or damaged issue, or even to disagree with some position we’ve taken, they almost always add how much they like the magazine.

If you were going to make something your life’s work, as we have with Fish & Game, you couldn’t ask for a better experience than the one you have made possible for us. Thank you all. I can’t wait to see what I get to write at TF&G 40.

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