People often ask me how I got to where I am. They wonder how I'm able to make a living by hunting. To tell the truth, sometimes I wonder that myself. I'm a lucky guy, but I never take what I've got for granted. It didn't come easy. As they say, experience is the mother of learning, and I went to the school of hard knocks when it came to writing and journalism. Indeed I hunt for a living, typically going on 25 to 30 hunts a year, and being on the road for at least 250 days annually.
I was raised in Newburgh, New York, which is just 60 miles up the Hudson River from the “City”. I didn't live in the surrounding rural part of town, but grew up in cement and blacktop. Early on I was captivated by critters, whether they were ants, spiders, bees, or snakes. I couldn't get enough of them. My Dad took me fishing before I could walk, setting me on the bank wrapped in blankets. Later on, I finally became of age to hunt with him and my Uncle Phil, Uncle Nick, cousin Anthony and Grandpa Angelo Corbo. My grandfather had a pair of beagles, and on Saturdays we'd chase cottontails with the little dogs. At the end of the day we'd return with a few bunnies, and maybe a squirrel or two as a bonus, and if we were really lucky, a raccoon. My grandmother always had the pot waiting. I'll never forget her rabbit cacciatore, a great dish from a recipe that she brought with her from her homeland in Italy.
I'll always remember the first rabbit I'd taken, and I couldn't get enough of hunting and shooting. Sparrows and starlings were fair game and classified as varmints, and any that were foolish enough to land in range of my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun would get shot at. I loved to knock them off the TV antenna high above the house, (but it always unnerved me when I hit one and it flopped down and landed in the street) and one of my greatest delights was climbing a tree and waiting for them to come in to roost. I'd be there at eye level, but the first shot had to be good because they'd spook and fly off.
My Dad was my greatest childhood mentor. He became scoutmaster at our church, and I participated in all the outdoor activities I could with him. We camped, hiked, fished, hunted, and shot at ranges. I can honestly say that the Boy Scout program nurtured my love of the outdoors to the point that I knew, at an early age, that an outdoor profession was my exclusive career goal.
For me, my adolescent and high school years were always prioritized with all the hunting and fishing I could fit in. That was back in the late 1950's, and sure, I had a hot rod and drag raced in the streets and had my high school sweethearts, but I never lost sight of what was important. How many fish could I catch on a weekend, or how many muskrats would be in my traps, or how many critters would end up in my grandmother's pot was the real focus of my life.
The men in my family worked in the trades in those days. The women stayed at home and cooked and cared for the house; the men had one job, and families made do….a far cry from today. My uncles and cousins were barbers and welders and electricians and plumbers, and my Dad became a top notch car salesman, after working with his Dad, my paternal grandfather Antonio Zumbo, driving dump trucks and hauling whatever it took to make a living. Later, as a car salesman, my Dad won many awards for being the top salesman of the year in southern New York. I went through high school with one clear and focused thought…I wanted a career in the outdoors, but I didn't know where to begin. Because of my outdoor interests, my grades in high school were only average, but I loved English. I loved to read books about animals and wildlife conservation. I had an English teacher, Miss Fink, who critiqued one of my compositions, and said something like, “Jimmy Zumbo, you have a talent for writing.” I'll never forget it.
I have one sibling, Rita, who is ten years younger than I. When she was a baby, she crawled to the top of a stairway and started falling down. I made a flying leap, caught her, and somehow delivered her to the bottom of the stairs, cradling her in my arms. Get this…..I was a Boy Scout at the time, and got some kind of award for heroism or something like that. Another fond memory… Rita discovered my hidden pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes under a rock near the house and dutifully reported that news to my parents. For a while we were not fond of each other. But, as I like to say, she's my favorite sister, and now has a fine family and is a grandma.
When I graduated in a high school class of some 350 in 1958, I probably ranked about 150. Hunting and fishing took its toll regarding my grades, and I was fairly certain that I'd join the military, and afterward see what I could do to work in the outdoors. Enter Kenny Taylor, who taught me how to trap and how to read sign in the woods. He was two years older than I, and when I graduated from high school, Kenny was just graduating from Paul Smith's college in northern New York, smack in the middle of the very rural Adirondack mountains. Incredibly, I was on the way out the door of my house to enlist in the military when the mailman delivered a letter from Kenny, who strongly suggested I go to Paul Smith's, which offered a terrific two-year Forestry course. I took Kenny's advice, but unlike him, who took the Pre-Professional Course that was a prerequisite for a Bachelor's degree, I took the terminal course that would prepare me to be a woods boss. My courses included dynamiting, sawmilling, surveying, sugarbush (making maple syrup) and other very basic classes.
It was at Paul Smith's that I can truly attribute the beginning of my outdoor writing career. One of my classmates asked me to write a story for the little college newspaper, and, to make a long story short, I wrote about a big elusive buck, Old Joe, who had eluded hunters for years. I had an encounter with Old Joe, never got a shot at him, and wrote the article. My pals thought that was pretty cool, especially the editor, and I wrote a couple other articles for the newspaper.
Enter Kenny Taylor one more time. With an Associate Degree from Paul Smith's in my pocket, my options were to work in the woods as some sort of foreman in a logging camp, or a technician job. Kenny had just graduated from Utah State University with a BS, and strongly urged that I do the same. His idea appealed immensely, because all my life I wanted to go west, and in fact was more than a little chagrined that I wasn't raised on a ranch somewhere out in those wide, open spaces. I applied for USU, was admitted, and a couple months later I was on a Continental Trailways bus headed to Logan, Utah, and a place that was totally foreign. I was more than a little nervous. At that time, Pennsylvania was the farthest I'd been out of New York State.
With no Interstate highways during those days, it seemed to take forever as the bus worked through every town along the route from New York to Utah. After about 60 hours of looking out at endless fields of corn, I gazed out the tinted window just as it was breaking light, and saw no corn, just endless prairie from one horizon to another, and strange buttes jutting up into the sky. Then I spotted them in the sagebrush….strange animals that I'd never seen before, but I recognized them immediately from the books and articles I'd read. They were pronghorn antelope!
I had arrived. I was in the west. I was in Wyoming. The sight of those animals and the incredible sunrise moved me to the point where I promised myself that Wyoming would eventually be my home. Sooner or later, my intention was to live in the Cowboy State.
University life in a big college was different. There were plenty of activities, but I was again focusing on the outdoors. Once, I was discussing the little writing I had done with a classmate, and he knew the editor of Student Life, the university newspaper. The editor asked if I'd write a forecast of the upcoming deer season in the area surrounding Logan. I was thrilled, and wrote the article. The editor liked it and asked me to write a hunting and fishing column for the paper. Again I was in Seventh Heaven, and from that time on my column, Outdoor Corner, ran weekly, though I must admit my grades suffered. Life being priorities, I was known to skip a chemistry lab in order to shoot some crows at a farm or ducks in a nearby marsh.
Another event occurred that propelled me toward an outdoor writing career. I was at a Paul Bunyan party with a bunch of forestry classmates and professors, and we were attempting to empty a bathtub full of bottled beer. One of my professors made a wager with me that I couldn't write a “real” article, rather than the silly local stuff in my university paper column. He suggested I try a piece for Outdoor Life magazine. The wager was on, as crazy as it seemed, and the winner would get a case of Lucky Lager beer. I was intimidated from the minute I agreed to try it, because I had no clue how to contact a magazine, and in fact didn't own a camera. But another professor agreed to help me with photos, and I decided to write an article about the Bonneville Cisco, a small fish that lives only in Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border. These fish are harvested only in January when they spawn near shore. Otherwise they live deep in the lake and eat only plankton. When they spawn, people come from near and far to catch a limit of 50, and it's a gala event, drawing hundreds of folks who try to net fish in sub-zero temperatures. A comedy of errors followed as I attempted to sell the article to Outdoor Life, the most profound being my query letter sent to the subscription department in Boulder, Colorado, rather than the editorial office in New York City. Three months passed and no word from Bill Rae, the editor, but one day he responded, explaining the delay because of the miss-sent query. He said he'd look at the article on speculation. I was speechless, sent the article, and he bought it, paying me the grand sum of $350 for a full-color feature article. That was a fortune in those days.
After graduation, I got married, took a job with the Utah State Department of Forestry and Fire Control, and moved to Price Utah, where our first two children, Janette and Dan were born. After two years on the state job in my territory that amounted to one third of the state of Utah, I took another job for the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, just a dozen miles from Newburgh where I was born and raised. I really didn't want to leave the west, but I saw no advancement potential in the state job, and the new assignment would allow me to work in the woods nonstop. I would be Post Forester, Game Warden, you name it…….the 14,000 acres of prime hardwood forests, streams and lakes would be my responsibility. I'd run the hunting and fishing program, and everything else in the outdoors. I worked there for eight years, and our third child, Judi, was born in Newburgh. Though I liked the proximity to my parents, the west continued to tug at my heartstrings. I had to get back, and took a job in Vernal, Utah as a wildlife biologist with the US Bureau of Land Management.
All the while, since my first article was accepted by Outdoor Life, I had been freelancing and selling stories to a dozen different magazines, but I was most loyal to Outdoor Life. Then it happened. In mid-May of 1978, I received a phone call from an Outdoor Life editor who asked if I'd be interested in being Western Editor of the magazine. You could have knocked me over with a canary feather. For about two seconds I thought about my 12 years with the federal government and all the nice perks and benefits, and walking into a career at half the pay and no benefits. When the two seconds were over, I agreed, and immediately tendered my resignation. On May 31, 1978, I was officially done with government life. I never looked back, and walked away whistling. After a few years I was made Editor-at-Large, and the June, 1991 issue heralded my appointment as Hunting Editor with this on the cover: “Jim Zumbo starts up new Hunting Department.” Vin Sparano was editor-in-chief and made the decision to make me Hunting Editor. I remained in Vernal for some time, and while there, our youngest child, Angela was born.
As Hunting Editor, I was constantly traveling and hunting far and wide, and had an opportunity to move to a place that was best suited to my career. Cody, Wyoming was that place, a town in northwest Wyoming that offered the best big game hunting in the lower 48, and which was an hour drive to Yellowstone Park where I was doing a lot of wildlife photography. We moved there in 1985. I divorced, remarried, and that's where I remain to this day, with Madonna, and two Labrador retrievers.
My career moved along nicely. I had written 23 books on hunting and fishing, was on a nationwide seminar circuit, and had written about 2,000 magazine articles, and I had a TV show, Jim Zumbo Outdoors. Then, on February 16, 2007, I wrote a blog in my Outdoor Life page about assault rifles that created an instant firestorm among America's gun owners. Within a few days, I was radioactive in the industry. There was an editorial in the Washington Post that was carried by several hundred newspapers around the country, an editorial in the New York Times, a satire about me on the Comedy Channel, and countless articles by gun and hunting writers. Less than a week after the firestorm started, most of my sponsors pulled out of my TV show, and the editors who I worked for backed off. Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine, asked me for my resignation, and I was suddenly without employment. I was done writing, and my TV show was on hiatus. Many of the companies that supported me in the past issued severance statements with me on their websites, as did shooting and firearms organizations such as the NRA and NSSF. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was the only organization to express a positive statement on their website.
Ted Nugent immediately came to my rescue, and I flew to his ranch in Texas to learn about the so-called black rifles. Ted wanted to use my ignorance as an example of an avid hunter who was unaware of the popularity and uses of these firearms. He taught me a great deal. I went on to work with the Second Amendment Foundation, denounced a statement by an anti-gun senator and exposed his strategy to continually work his flawed words in the Congressional Record, and attended a three day assault rifle course, which I immensely enjoyed. I wrote about that experience in an article in SWAT magazine.
On July 3, 2007 my TV show went back on the air, and some sponsors began coming back. Over the last few years I've been focusing on wounded soldiers who suffered severe injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking them on all-expense paid hunting trips. I'm doing that even more so now, with several hunts with our military heroes last year, this year, and many more planned in the future.
My hobbies are cooking, gardening, and of course, all the hunting and fishing I can get in. I'm a member of RMEF, NWTF, DU, USSA, NRA, POMA, and served two terms on the Board of Directors of RMEF. I've hunted all 50 states for deer, all the western “elk states,” most of Canada, and four continents.
So what's left? Plenty more hunting and fishing, of course. No one should be surprised.