During a town hall meeting in the heat of the debate over channelizing the White River, Steve Bowman sat in the back row, sunglasses on, hat down low. He’d slipped in to hear the backers of the proposal, who sought to change the natural construct of one of the state’s most important waterways for commercial interests.
The first speaker pounded the bully pulpit, listing the reasons why channelization was good for Arkansas and warning against false prophets in the press.
Whatever you do, don’t listen to Steve Bowman, the man said. He doesn’t know anything about what we need on the White River.
Bowman began to shrink in his seat as they opened things up for questions. A queue of 40 locals flocked to the floor mike, the very first of whom said: “I don’t give a (expletive) what you say, I don’t trust you. But I trust Steve Bowman.”
Steve Bowman might not have always been the toast of the Arkansas’ upper crust outdoorsmen, but for the blue-collar hunting crowd, he was a member of the family. He never sounded like other writers on the outdoors beat; he was a simple outdoorsman, like them, who happened to write about his adventures.
“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 grew up in a single-parent household in Little Rock. While many of his pals were being introduced to the outdoors by their fathers, Bowman discovered it all on his own, developing an independent streak that would later crystallize in his writing.
Three years after he graduated from Ouachita Baptist University with a degree in communications, he landed a page layout job with the Arkansas Democrat. It was a dream gig.
“I didn’t have to be at work ’till noon and some days I didn’t have to be at work ’till 4:00,” he said. “I’d hunt and fish every day and I would come into the sports office wearing camouflage or smelling like fish.”
Bowman told his boss Wally Hall he’d do anything at the paper except write. But one look at the young man trooping into the newsroom with fish blood on his hands and the editor knew he was the real deal. Hall asked if he’d consider writing an outdoor column; three months later, the outdoor editor was sacked and he approached Bowman to fill in.
I was like, what the heck?” Bowman said. “I filled in for him for 14 years.”
What he lacked in writing experience, Bowman made up for in authenticity of voice and a voracious appetite for his subject. His column was akin to swapping stories at duck camp but around a much larger campfire.
“I wanted to do everything,” he said. “I loved catching brim, walleye and bass. I wanted to duck hunt everywhere, deer hunt everywhere, turkey hunt everywhere. I wanted to do it all.”
Bowman’s passion didn’t just result in glowing travelogues, it also seared the page to address goings-on he saw as harmful to the state’s working-class sportsmen. More than once he stepped on toes to call out improper management or double standards in favor of the wealthy at the expense of the man on the street.
Among the things for which he fought -- and won — were the three-point rule for harvesting bucks, conservation sales tax, optimizing the scheduling of duck season and most importantly of all, the fight to halt the White River project, for which his columns mobilized intense grassroots activism.
“It could have turned into a boondoggle to the whole of duck hunting in Arkansas,” he said.
“The White River is the most critical part, then the Arkansas River, which they’ve already channelized and ruined. It could have hurt us in a big way if we hadn’t shut that down.”
Bowman’s other contribution to the state’s duck hunting came in 1998 when he and Steve Wright published Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac. The book details a slice of Arkansas’ duck hunting history and culture from best-loved places to its characters, much of it directly from the mouths of the old-timers themselves. It was an instant hit and is today considered a must-have for anyone interested in the sport.
“When we started that book they told us if you sell 5,000 of these in a year you’re going to have a best seller,” Bowman remembers. “Shoot, we sold 11,000 of them suckers in a few months. To this day we have sold 31,000 books.”
After leaving the paper in 2000, Bowman was part of the team that started ESPNoutdoors.com. Under his guidance as executive editor, duck hunting gained prominent billing in stories and programming, including live streaming of the World’s Duck Calling Championships in Stuttgart and an annual continent-crossing feature called “Duck Trek.”
He published another book on the sport, The Season, A Photographic Look at the Sport of Duck Hunting. In 2015, he was inducted into the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Outdoor Hall of Fame. He said inclusion into the Waterfowl Hall of Fame is similarly overwhelming.
“I look at the group of guys that they’re inducting and those guys are thoroughbreds. I’m a hound dog,” he said. “I can’t believe that I was actually nominated for this thing. I’m very humbled by it.”