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Sure enough, when I began to study published outdoor photographs carefully, I was surprised at what I saw. For instance, in a pheasant-hunting article in a national magazine, there was a traditional color photo showing a hunter with his expensive shotgun halfway up, an apparently just-flushed bird a few yards out ahead of him over an exceedingly picturesque grain field. It looked a little too good to be true, and it was. Examination under a magnifying glass showed that the pheasant—apparently a bird stuffed in an attitude of flight—had been suspended over the field on monofilament line.
My education continued at the meeting of a fishing club I was invited to. After two or three drinks, I fell into conversation with a successful producer of outdoor movies. I complimented him on one of his efforts—a film that dealt in part with a river I knew fairly well—but I also told him I was surprised at the size of a trout he had shown being landed from that stream, a fish twice as big as anything I'd ever caught there myself. "Well." he said with a smile, "don't feel bad. That trout came from another stream. We caught it and dumped it into a garbage can full of water, and then drove like hell to get to where we had the cameras set up."
When I asked him if that sort of thing was fairly common, he admitted it was, and even gave me a few examples, the most interesting of which concerned some work he had done with a bass fisherman in a rowboat on a lake. He needed footage of a fish running line from the reel, and managed it by setting up his camera in another boat between the fisherman and shore. Then the fisherman's line was tied to the collar of a Labrador retriever sitting at the water's edge, and the dog's master was stationed 50 yards back from the water. When the master whistled, the Lab sprinted to him, line whistling off the reel as the camera rolled.
I certainly don't mean to imply by this that outdoor writers are never guilty of transgressions in prose. Even those of us who have given up photography and consider ourselves essentially honest misrepresent our experiences now and then. Quite naturally, we tend to write about the exceptional days afield—the times when fish rise willingly, when game is abundant, when something out of the ordinary happens. All those other days—when we fall into the river instead of wading gracefully across it, when every third back cast tangles in a tree, when opportunities are missed or wasted and every plan fails miserably—are not apt to make good reading, so we usually ignore them.
Worse, though, are sins of commission—exaggerations and outright lies. Once I spent a summer working at a steelhead fishing lodge, and while I was there a writer showed up to do a story for a national outdoor magazine. He had never fished the river before, and only stayed two days. I kept my eye on him, and, in truth, he wasn't much of an angler. In fact, I never saw him hook a thing.
But when his story appeared months later, it depicted a day during which he had landed better than a dozen steelhead, the largest of them 15 pounds—an accomplishment I would rate as comparable to a rookie shortstop batting in 100 runs.
The obvious fact is that the editors of the magazines in which such stories appear believe that their readers want furious action and are gullible enough to believe what they are told and what they think they see.
I can't imagine that the situation will ever change, but perhaps all those involved in the production of outdoor stories, photos and movies should be asked to submit to lie-detector tests at the completion of each assignment. Though that will never happen, it would certainly be amusing to get a look at some test results.