When talking about work, Steve Bowman often uses the word “important.” He even says it distinctly, with emphasis on the last syllable.
Important describes his thoughts on working as outdoor editor at a statewide newspaper, as well as publishing at the two largest outdoors web sites, ESPNOutdoors.com and Bassmaster.com.
“There’s a driving force within all of us to have the best coverage,” he said. “What we’re doing day to day, what we did last weekend (The Chesapeake Elite), those things are important.”
Mainly from his 14 years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where his coverage affected change in the state, Bowman was inducted into the Arkansas Outdoors Hall of Fame on Friday in front of a crowd of 1,500.
“Just to be up here and accept this award is unbelievable,” he said. “I have to start with thanking God and all the blessings he’s bestowed on me, and the guidance he’s given me through my life.”
He was sure to thank his “beautiful wife,” Barbara, who supported his efforts despite his extended trips, and their children, Melissa, Virginia and John, who because of Steve know their way around duck blinds, bass boats and most other outdoor endeavors.
Bowman certainly meant it when he said it was a humbling experience. That showed in several red-eye moments.
“You understand this honor was completely beyond me,” he said. “I still can’t believe I’m standing in front of you and having an opportunity to belong in a Hall of Fame with some of the most esteemed men and women in the country.”
Growing up with a single mother, Bowman taught himself how to hunt and fish, and it was his life’s passion. Since he began as a kid fishing from a creek bank, he said he will always relate to those with limited opportunities.
“I didn’t have anyone to take me, but I was blessed to live along the Fourche Creek bottoms in Little Rock,” he said.
It was there, after sneaking out some biscuit dough to bait a hook, that he caught his first bass, bream and catfish. His first squirrel, rabbit and duck, also came within city limits, some hunted with a slingshot and jacks.
“I thought of them as ninja stars,” he said. “They were bad to the bone. In a slingshot, they were deadly.”
There were novice mistakes, like fishing a gift Norman Big N like a bobber.
“I tied it on, threw it and watched it for hours,” he said of the lure intended to entice strikes by bumping it on stumps and rocks. “When there was wind, I would reel it in because I was afraid it would hit a stump or rock and get hung up and lose it.”
He and other friends did the best with what they had and progressed into bona fide hunters and tournament anglers. He took his passion and tried new lands and lakes around Arkadelphia while attending Ouachita Baptist University. He earned a degree despite “being on probation after getting caught cleaning deer in the men’s dormitory bathroom.”
After winning awards as a page designer in college, he went to work at the Democrat-Gazette, helping dress up the gray lady. He came straight from the field or lake for his 4 p.m. shift, and people noticed his passion.
“I told them I’d do anything in the world for them except write, but they fired the outdoors guy and asked me to do it,” he said. “And I did it for 14 years.”
Taking a stand
Bowman quickly developed a niche as he took the outdoor columnist pulpit and advocated for the common man, the guys just like him.
“It was important to speak for those who didn’t have a voice,” he said. “I took every issue seriously. I always found it easier to write what was on my mind, because biting my tongue just made it hurt.”
Bowman pushed for certain actions from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, never afraid to step on toes. He ingratiated himself with readers early as he railed on a state official caught exceeding game limits.
He fought for things like developing a three-point rule to harvest bucks, setting dates to create the optimum duck season and stopping a proposal to channelize the White River.
“I really got on them about setting duck season correctly. Now it’s as late as possible ever since,” he said. “The three-point rule was something nobody ever would have dreamed about back then. We changed deer hunting in the state. This is now one of the top deer hunting states in the country.”
Bowman rallied readers to fight and quickly shut down the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to channelize the key waterway to Arkansas’ renowned waterfowl hunting.
The Corps of Engineers had a public forum, with a spokesman asking those gathered not to heed Bowman’s objections. The first man from the crowd to speak said Bowman’s words were why he was there, and that he believed him more than the Corps.
The list of topics Bowman advocated, or opposed, go on. He was driven to fight for his fellow hunters.
“When your passion gets pushed to the side, you either get angry or do something about it,” he said. “I had an opportunity to do something.
“I just wanted to stand up for those without a voice. Along the way, if somebody thinks that I helped somebody, that’s an amazing thought to me, incredibly humbling, and I appreciate it.”
In good company
It wasn’t until Bowman was 24 that he went hunting with someone he would consider a mentor. But what a great one it was in Steve Smith, who started the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and the Arkansas Outdoors Hall of Fame.
Bowman is one of the few journalists in the hall that has inducted 80 outdoor luminaries, many known across the nation, and he’s written about or befriended most.
“I’ve probably spent at least one day, in the field or on the water, with every one of them,” he said.
He’s reported on icons like Wallace Claypool, Butch Richenback, Chick Major, Rollie Remmel, George Purvis and Witt Stephens. He covered the first of his 28 Bassmaster Classics in 1984 when Rick Clunn won in Pine Bluff.
An angler himself who still attempts to qualify to the Classic, Bowman has relations with fishing icons in the Hall like Rayo Breckinridge, Cotton Cordell, Forrest Wood, George Cochran and Larry Nixon.
Bowman was lured away from the newspaper to work for Jerry McKinnis, where he helped produce TV shows before nurturing relationships and taking over as editor of ESPNOutdoors.com. There, he developed and reported on popular features like Duck Trek and Deer Camp.
During that time he also directed coverage of B.A.S.S. tournaments, building a following via extensive coverage. It was important to get standings up quickly, but more important to put the audience in the pros’ boats with complete coverage.
“The results are, as bad as I hate to say it, I’m right,” Bowman said. “People will consume it and enjoy it. They want the same kind of coverage of the sport they love, just like the SEC football fan wants of his team.”
“Outdoors deserves the credit for being as strong and important as anything else does. License buyers are the largest special interest group in most every state. And I fought for its exposure. I wanted to fight for the outdoors to get coverage.”
He doesn’t have to fight so hard at the JM offices, where three Hall of Famers, Bowman, Jerry McKinnis and Tommy Sanders, work in concert to promote the sport of bass fishing. But he has continued the fight to improve coverage.
"One of my favorite things about Steve is he is always pushing the envelope -- in search of better photos, and stories, and better approaches for covering the sport," said B.A.S.S. digital VP Jim Sexton. "And he pushes everyone around him. Steve’s an innovator and a hard worker. He’s the guy who saves the hardest assignment for himself."
Among Bowman’s other accomplishments are three books: Arkansas Duck Hunter's Almanac with Steve Wright; The Season, A Photographic Look at the Sport of Duck Hunting; and The Series, a Photographic Look at the Inaugural Bassmaster Elite Series. He also holds the rights to the famous Claypool Reservoir photograph, given to him by Purvis, his Sunday school teacher.
Others inducted Friday were the late Joel Campora, Wildlife Officer First Class, former AGFC Commissioner and Ducks Unlimited President George Dunklin Jr. and master bladesmith Jerry Fisk. The late Jim Gaston, who helped establish trout fishing in Arkansas, won a Legacy Award.
Bowman concluded by imploring everyone to try to make a difference for the outdoors, whether it be with youth, actions or even elbow grease.
“Get involved,” he said. “It’s important.”