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Byers always is hunting for a good story

January 20, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Retired Washington County educator-turned-photojournalist Joe Byers said crafting a good story is like drafting a good lesson plan: They both need to catch people's attention and be interesting and informative.

Since retiring in 2000 from his 30-year career as a principal and teacher in Washington County schools, Byers has devoted much of his time to writing stories for such outdoors-oriented publications as Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, American Hunter, Safari and Bowhunter.

Byers has been writing professionally for 15 years and has worked as hunting field editor for Connecticut-based Heartland USA magazine since 1999, he said.

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Heartland USA features articles about American outdoor life targeted at adult outdoorsmen. The bi-monthly magazine tends to favor stories with a Western slant, said Byers, whose article about early Florida cowboys - called "crackers" - will run in a future edition.

Byers works primarily from his Hagerstown-area home, meeting with top editors at Heartland USA a few times a year to plan the articles he writes and illustrates in each edition. Byers uses the pen name William Joseph when he authors more than one story in a single volume, he said.

The lifelong hunter captures interesting stories close to home and beyond, capitalizing on the outdoor opportunities in his back yard and traveling hundreds of miles to cover snowmobile races in Alaska, big game safaris in Africa and fishing trips and hunting expeditions - sometimes with celebrities - in places from Alabama to Australia. Byers shoots his own photographs to accompany his magazine articles.

His work takes him away from Vel, his wife of 35 years, for up to 70 days each year.

"That's the downside," said Byers, 56.

He recently produced a story about goose hunting with eight Pennsylvania miners who survived a terrifying underground ordeal. Byers once interviewed baseball legend Ted Williams' best friend, Karl Smith, about turkey hunting with Williams in Alabama.

He shot clay pigeons near the Camp David presidential retreat with country singer Trace Adkins, who was shot in the heart by his ex-wife, Byers said.

Byers hunted with former Oak Ridge Boys member Dave Watson in Newfoundland. He covered a South Dakota turkey hunt on horseback in 2 feet of snow, and he escaped a flash flood while snapping photos of turkeys in Texas, he said.

Byers enjoyed fishing with pro football Hall of Famer Larry Csonka in Alaska and talking to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s best hunting buddy, David Blanton, about hunting turkey with the NASCAR legend, he said.

"(Blanton) said Dale had zero patience. As soon as he saw the turkey, the turkey was dead," Byers said.

For one edition of Heartland USA, Byer said he looked at trees in Arkansas with Utah Jazz basketball player Karl Malone and his brother, Terry. Byers was slated to go fishing with Malone, he said, but Malone decided instead to check out property for sale.

Their hike through the woods took an interesting twist when Byers felt something crawling up his leg and dropped his trousers to confront the culprit - which turned out to be a stick, he said.

"Terry said I was probably the only person who had ever mooned Karl Malone and lived to tell about it," Byers said, laughing.

His large downstairs trophy room brims with souvenirs from his personal and professional hunting experiences. Byers said the mounted head of an 8-point buck symbolizes the start of his writing career because he was so thrilled that he had slain the big deer he decided to write a story about it.

The mammoth Ontario black bear rug - complete with head and claws - triggers fond memories of the grandparents who cultivated Byers' love of hunting and travel during a 13,000-mile transcontinental road trip in 1963.

Byers made the journey from boy to man when his grandparents, Joseph and Catherine Hoffman, took him hunting and camping across Alaska, he said. The head of a Dall's sheep that Byers killed on the trip at age 16 hangs in the trophy room as a reminder of that journey.

He displays mountain lions from Montana, elk from Colorado, a wolf, bear and Sitka deer from Alaska, two bobcats from Alabama and four turkeys representing the main species in North America. Trophies from three African safaris include a nyala, oryx, impala, small antelope, wart hog and red lechwe.

Though hunting and writing about experiences in nature are his passions, Byers said he would love to one day interview the president of the United States.

"But I don't expect to go hunting at Camp David," he said.

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