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Terry Tomalin: The more I learn about the outdoors, the less I realize I know

The man in the supermarket seemed surprised when he spotted me in the frozen foods section.

"I thought you would be bigger," he said.

"Fatter?" I asked, self-conscious about the 20 pounds I have put on in 20 years on the outdoors beat.

"No," he said. "Just bigger. Taller. Larger than life."

I laughed. We talked about kids, waffles and those poor snook suffering out there in the cold. Then he asked, "How does a guy get a job like yours?"

Driving home I started thinking about his question, and the past two decades, and how lucky I've been to meet so many people, catch so many fish and write so many fun stories.

In 1990, when I went from writing news stories to the sports department to fill a job that had been vacant for nearly a decade, most of the nation's outdoor editors were "hook and bullet" guys.

But I had recently returned from a yearlong backpacking trip. My travels had taken me through California, Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. I had lived out of a tent for months at a time and knew there was more to the Great Outdoors than just fishing and hunting.

I had spent the first 17 years of my life in Soprano Country, suburban New Jersey, about a half-hour drive from New York City. Fortunately, my advertising executive father loved to camp, fish and hunt, so nearly every weekend, we would head into the woods. And in the summer, it was off to the wilds of Maine.

In 1980, I moved to Florida after a brief stint at college in Washington D.C., where I didn't do much but drink beer and play rugby. I tried my hand at marine biology, until I realized that my Friday afternoon chemistry lab conflicted with "Slappy Hour" at the University of South Florida's Empty Keg.

Luckily, a friend suggested I switch my major and enroll in the School of Mass Communications, which he discovered had the lowest number of required classes. So I studied Canoeing, Viking History and the Novels of Kurt Vonnegut.

I also had to take a class called Beginning Reporting, where we had to write stories and read the newspaper — instead of doing something really important like catching alligator gar in the Hillsborough River.

The only good thing about that class was I got to read a story about a monster hammerhead shark by this fellow named Jeff Klinkenberg.

"I want that job like that," I told my teacher.

"There are only a dozen of those in the country, Tomalin," he said. "And you are not getting one."

Eventually, I earned enough credits to escape college, so I packed my backpack and fly rod, and took off for Europe, where for three months I was kicked out of every farmer's field with a stream running through it from Italy to Ireland.

Back in the United States, I worked construction for about three months in New York City until I heard about a job at a newspaper in a small Central Florida town. So I hopped in my pickup, drove south to Leesburg, and set up camp outside the editor's office until he hired me.

I spent the next five years writing about everything from serial killers to the Ku Klux Klan for three newspapers, including this one, until I saved enough money to take off and pursue the really important things in life — beer, rugby and rainbow trout.

But all good things must come to an end. After 11 months, I returned from that New Zealand trip and my St. Petersburg Times editors assigned me to cover the Pinellas County Commission, which for me is about as exciting as watching goats graze.

I seriously thought about joining the Peace Corps or the CIA, but once again Lady Luck intervened, and in 1990 they created this job in Sports.

My initial approach was unorthodox. About three months into the job, I wrote a story about a new sport called "sea kayaking" and received a barrage of hate mail. One gentleman was so upset he wanted to meet me in the lobby so he could "kick my (butt)!"

Over the years, however, folks got used to reading about camping, paddling, sailing, scuba diving, surfing, mountain biking, as well as fishing and hunting. Our outdoors coverage has garnered several national awards, including best in the country several years in a row.

Through it all, the only thing I can say for sure is that the more I learn, I realize the less I know. Every time I step on a fishing boat, I pretend it is the first time. I keep my eyes and ears open. I have fished from the Amazon to the Outback, and one thing I know is that everybody does it differently, yet they all catch fish.

At 50 years old and looking ahead, I hope to work another 20 years. I have no New Year's resolutions for 2011. This past year, I tried to be on or in the water every day, but I was successful only three quarters of the time. Still, if I played baseball, a .750 batting average wouldn't be bad.

Looking back, I used to like to say, "Attitude is everything." But now, 20 years older and wiser, I know that "Attitude is the only thing."

Times Outdoors Editor Terry Tomalin plans to usher in the New Year by participating in the second annual Frogman Swim across Tampa Bay. To learn more, go to www.tampabay frogman.com.

Terry Tomalin: The more I learn about the outdoors, the less I realize I know 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 7:01pm]

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