Secondary Menu

Charley Waterman, A Great One Moves On

By Joel M. Vance

He was, by any standards, a great outdoorsman. But more important, he was a great human being.

Charley Waterman died recently. Over his nine decades, he shared his outdoor hunting and fishing with generations of fans and did it with a rare skill. Real writers in the outdoor field are as scarce as teeth in bullfrogs. Charley was among the best.

He wrote with a breadth of knowledge about hunting and fishing that eclipsed virtually everyone. But he always downplayed his expertise, casting himself as the average hunter or angler who happened to get lucky. He’d done it all, and he wrote about it all in a covey of fine books, including an autobiography that is graceful, funny, heartwarming and sheer fun to read.

With typical humor, he wrote me about a bicycle accident: “My mind was scrambled and still comes on about like a third grader’s. To my horror I found I was 86 years old. I write my copy all right, and I can use a fly rod — even hit a clay target now and then. Debie and I have decided I won’t drive a car, as it brings out the third-grader mentality, which I am now sure is a permanent fixture.”

Would that all third graders could be that articulate, funny and smart.

He and Debie were married for 60 years and were soul mates. His autobiography is dedicated “To my wife Debie, who cooked much of my subject matter.” Charley delighted in telling how she would outshoot or outfish him. “I slowly came to the realization that I had a fishing nut on my hands,” he wrote. “One who was a little more rabid than I was.” He said that Debie’s rapport with the bird dogs was much closer than his: “There is an extra problem if Debie is feeling poorly. Not only do I have a wife with the flu or a cold, but the dogs immediately get sick, too. If I get sick they stand about hopefully, just in case that means leftover food.”

Charley grew up in southeast Kansas and fell in love with Ozark float streams. The James River was his first, but he also floated the White before Table Rock, Beaver and Norfork dams put it out of commission.

Charley had a wide and varied career, from being a professional wrestler in the 1930s to a commercial photographer, a newspaperman and finally a full-time outdoor writer. He also was a teacher, private detective and combat photographer in World War II.

He published 19 books. I have nine, all inscribed to me, which are as precious as inanimate objects get. Those and a bunch of letters from Charley will give me a chance to re-experience him from time to time, but they won’t replace the man himself. Nothing could.

Once I was griping to Charley about not being paid by a magazine we’d both contributed to and one that I knew owed him several thousand dollars. “Why do you keep writing for them?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I figure every writer should have a favorite charity and [blank] is mine.” I finally figured out that he was writing book chapters, and if he could get extra pay for them, fine, but if not, he hadn’t really lost anything.

But he wasn’t as blasé about slow and no pay as he implied. In his late 80s Charley still was producing more copy than most writers half his age. And he still was frustrated about the often-thankless job of wordsmithing. “I have just received a childish series of explanations of reasons why the publishers do not plan to pay me for anything they can think of, and the implication is that everyone is panting to write sparkling prose for free.”

No one could write sparkling prose like Charley, free or not. His column in Gun Dog Magazine ran for more than two decades. Titled “Point,” it usually made one. In his first column Charley wrote, “My dogs have reputations as lousy retrievers. I put gravy on their dog food, buy them squeaky toys and polish their collars, but they don’t seem to care about bringing me game.” Yet he adds that Tex (“big-footed old Brittany”) found a couple of crippled ruffed grouse he’d given up on. “Old Tex didn’t give up. Then when I saw the bird he’d spit it out, glare scornfully at me and go on hunting.”

Finally, at 89, Charley reluctantly gave up the column. If it hadn’t been for that pesky bike accident, though. Aside from the few times we talked in person, I most cherish a letter Charley wrote me out of the blue when he was 76 years young (he was never close to being old), saying, “You’re a busy guy. It isn’t necessary to answer this. At 76 I just thought it is time I said something nice to someone.”

Everything Charley ever wrote was saying something nice to everyone who read it.

Joel Vance is the author of Grandma and the Buck Deer (softcover, $15); Bobs, Brush and Brittanies (hardcover, $22); Tails I Lose (hardcover, $25); Down Home Missouri (hardcover, $25); and Autumn Shadows (limited edition, $65). Contact Cedar Glade Press, Box 1664, Jefferson City, MO 65102. Add $2/book for S/H.

Charley Waterman … The Part I Remember (with apologies to Charlie)

By Pete McLain

Charley Waterman was the kind of friend you may see only once or twice a year, but I felt like we were next-door neighbors. It’s been said that in a man’s lifetime, he is fortunate to have only a few really good, close friends. Charley was one of mine.

Meeting Charley

I met Charley in the 1960s when the New Jersey Chapter of the Saltwater Fly Rodders of America invited about 50 long rod experts to fish New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay for striped bass. The guest list included the country’s best fly-rodders. Many were also outdoor writers. Charley was among this illustrious group.

About 30 small outboard skiffs owned by chapter members were moored at a local marina. Everyone was assigned a boat and guide, but somehow Charley was missed. He was standing at the dock when I arrived. I introduced myself, recognized him as my favorite outdoor writer and invited him to join me. Thus began a 50-year friendship, during which we fished and hunted from Central America to northern Montana. There was never a day when we didn’t laugh harder than we fished or hunted. The following are just a few cherished recollections.

On the Tamiami Trail

Following our successful Barnegat Bay adventure, Charley invited three of us down to Everglades City in Florida.

To fish for snook, which we had never seen, we undertook a 30-hour drive to the home of Charley and his wonderful wife Debie. They had a house trailer in Ted Smallwood’s marina motel-campground in Everglades City. We stored our gear in one of Ted’s haciendas and were ready, fly rods in hand, for an education in Florida snook fishing along the Tamiami Trail, a narrow waterway that stretched the width of the southern tip of Florida.

Charley said, “You guys load up in my station wagon, and we will be off.” Our first problem occurred when we set three 8 1/2-foot fly rods so the tips were just out the open rear window. Charley fired up his station wagon and pushed the button to raise the rear window to keep the coral road dust out of the car.

There was a distinct crunching sound as the window neatly guillotined the tips off three fly rods. Charley looked over the carnage and said, “You Jersey clam diggers don’t know how to put fly rods in a car.” Fortunately, we all had extra rods and learned a good lesson in Florida fishing before we even started.

That day of snook fishing on the Tamiami Trail waterway was great until Mr. Waterman’s back cast hooked a fast-moving car and boat trailer speeding down the road, which was adjacent to the Trail. The boat was firmly hooked and geared for a fight. Our instructor quickly showed us how to point the rod directly at a fast-disappearing object, and we watched 100 yards of Dacron backing and the length of a weight-forward fly line sizzle off the hot reel, preceding the solid jolt when the line left the reel.

Snook in the Everglades

For the next class, Charley guided my friend Jim Snyder and me to Florida Bay in a fast little aluminum boat. When in the mangrove snook-fishing areas, he chose to row the boat as Jim and I cast flies and plugs at the overhanging mangroves, where the snook lie just under cover.

Now, in Barnegat Bay, casting is not a well-developed local skill, but in mangrove fishing, it has to be deadly accurate to position the lure just so. This resulted in a long and arduous day for Charley, whose duties required him to row into the mangroves every few moments to retrieve a vagrant fly or plug. This produced considerable sweat and awakened some ferocious mosquitoes. It didn’t take us long to develop an accurate cast to keep Mr. Waterman sane of mind and cool of temper.

Snipe hunting

This was the traditional midwinter snipe shooting in vast, damp cow pastures along a winding river. The 3 1/2-ounce winged bombs provide sporty wing shooting that can make an excellent wing shot blush.

We usually would launch our boat and run the waterway until we saw birds feeding or flying, then we’d anchor and slog through ankle-deep mud. I forget the legal bag limit, but we usually shot six birds each, which we took home for Debie to cook. One day, a local angler asked Charley what we were doing. He said simply, “Snipe hunting.” The man glared at Charley and said, “Oh, yeah,” then walked away, shaking his head.

Hunting huns and sharptails

My days of Hungarian partridge and sharptail grouse hunting with Charley in the low mountains of Montana are memories I will cherish the rest of my life. The dog work by his raw-boned pointer Dutch and Brittany Kelly was spectacular, but our shooting was occasionally not what you would call great. Hit or miss, Charley kept me laughing all day. Eating lunch under the blue sky against the distant mountains was something a flatlander like me just had to stare at, absorbing the beauty.

Charley wrote an excellent book, The Part I Remember, which told how he and Debie had spent nine years hunting the 21 upland game birds in the United States and Canada with their beloved Kelly. It was a delightful book, loaded with practical hunting information — in my opinion, one of his best.

Welcome to Louisiana

Charley and I drove to Louisiana to hunt woodcock as a result of an invitation from a friendly Louisiana woodcock biologist. The woodcock is one of my favorite game birds. We brought a rugged pointer and two Brittanies, all with considerable woodcock experience.

Shortly after sunrise, our guide, Ray, took us to a little woodland to find some birds. The dogs worked well, and we collected four birds and left the cover. As we crossed the open field, Ray dropped back for a call of nature, and we proceeded toward the car parked along the road. Just as we arrived, two sheriff’s cars pulled over, and a pair of belly-over-the-belt sheriff’s officers landed on us like a ton of bricks. “Well,” they greeted us, “it looks like we got us a couple of Yankee boys who think they can do anything they want down here in Louisiana.”

I asked them what the problem was, and before I could say another word, the officers said, “Boy, you say one more word to me and you’re going right to jail to tell the judge.” They raved about how the Civil War didn’t give us Northerners special privileges in Louisiana. They took our shotguns and checked our hunting licenses. This insulting and nasty approach lasted until Ray appeared on the scene, just as an elderly woman walked over from a nearby house.

The officers asked her if she had given these “boys” permission to hunt on her land, and she said no. At that point one officer said something like, “You two are heading to town.”

When the woman recognized Ray, he reminded her that he had called the night before for permission to hunt her land, and she quickly recalled the conversation. The sheriff’s officers looked disappointed, turned around and left without a word. Charley watched them leave and said, “Welcome to Louisiana.”

The wonders of Montana

When we were in Montana, Charley told me I should experience fishing the little spring creek where only the lightest of fly rods and tiniest flies are the self-imposed rule. All of my fly-rodding had been for saltwater fish like tarpon, snook, stripers and bluefish with a No. 8- or 11-size rod. Debie handed me some mosquito-like flies and her little 7-foot No. 5 rod, which looked almost too fragile to handle.

To make a long story shorter, I could not get the tip of the leader through the tiny eye of the hook, and only Debie’s help and motherly advice allowed me to start casting. As I beat the water to a froth, she and Charley methodically landed and released little trout that I thought might have been illegal to keep. After fishing for an hour without a strike, I hiked upstream. I saw several trout resting in some gin-clear water, and I crawled up the bank and shot out a cast just as a pair of mallards flew low over the stream. The fish flashed in the morning light and were gone. I folded up my equipment, saying that I was not going to fish for any fish that were afraid of ducks, much less a neophyte like me.

Boating on the Pacific Coast

On the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, we hired a native guide with a 15-foot outboard to try fishing for the black snook in a tributary, which flowed into the usually placid Pacific Ocean. By the time we reached the mouth of the stream, the waves had increased in size. Our guide said that he would need to ride the waves in to beach the boat and we might get a little wet.

Charley had carried his camera gear in a leather case, and we agreed the Nikons and lenses needed more waterproofing than we did. As our guide headed into the first wave, we wrapped the camera in our rain gear, and Charley took the bow seat in the boat, intending to jump out when it struck dry beach. Our guide didn’t know or care about waves, which run in sets of five or six, the last wave in the set usually being the lowest. Well, this guy got the second wave; it crested with us on top and then crashed on the little beach, filling the boat with water. We almost swam out of the boat and rolled onto the semi-dry beach. Fortunately, the cameras endured the near tragedy, but we spent the next hour wading in the ocean, looking for rod cases, tackle boxes, water-soaked lunches and other equipment.

Charley

Charley Waterman was a perfect example of a true sportsman who knew how to enjoy his sport and who found great pleasure in just being where he was with rod or gun and dogs — with the possible exception of Louisiana.

To his thousands of readers who devoured his magazine articles, he was at the top of the outdoor writers list, and his 20 books have generated hours of informative and enjoyable reading from a man who did it all and could tell about it.

Charley was a modest man who did not stand out in a crowd, but every word he wrote was true, and every picture he took was as it was. His philosophy exemplified who he was: Whenever he took guests hunting or fishing, he always tried to see that they caught just one more fish or shot one more bird than he did. That was Charley Waterman.

An OWAA member since 1966, Pete McLain lives in Toms River, N.J.

© Outdoor Writers Association of America