An award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Field & Stream, Hal Herring has written for a wide range of publications including The Atlantic, The Economist and Bugle. He’s a lifelong outdoorsman, mountaineer, hunter and fisherman whose fans have come to expect deeply reported, thought-provoking stories and essays. Born and raised in north Alabama, Hal lives in Augusta, Montana.
Hal has hosted Backcountry Hunters & Anglers' Podcast & Blast since 2017.
In the fall of 2019, Hal sat down for an interview with our own Zack Williams. The following appeared in the Winter 2020 Issue of the Backcountry Journal
What was your upbringing like that led you to the work you do as a journalist today? What were your earliest outdoor experiences like?
My mother and father were both nature people. My father was a lawyer, who, by the time I came along, worked pretty much all of the time to support five children and send all of us to college. He did not fish much, and he had given up hunting as a youth, but he had grown up fishing the Chattahoochee River in east Alabama, and he was actually a pretty skilled fisherman. I remember once we were staying at a cousin’s lake house near Birmingham, and he picked up a fly rod off the wall of the boathouse, cast a big popper up against a weedline and caught a really nice bass, right off the bat. I was about 8 years old, and up to that moment I didn’t know he even knew how to cast a fly rod.
My mother was from Montgomery but had lived for a time as a child on Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, and she loved the mountains – the Cumberlands, the Smokies, and the native plants like ginseng, goldenseal and bloodroot. We had all the books: bird books, plant books, reptile, fish and insect identification guides. She and my father were both church-going Christians, but my mother, in particular, was very much aware of and engaged in the mystery of it all – the sort of unbelievable wonders of creation: the eyes on the wings of a luna moth, the spots on a salamander, the colors of birds, water cress, trout lilies, light and storm. … it was all explained to me as the handiwork of the Lord, but also, I remember my mother saying, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” That certainly gave me something to chew on, and I still ponder that today. I think I understand it now.
Mostly what my parents did was encourage and enable me to hunt and fish and be outside. I got guns for Christmas and ammo, good fishing tackle, boots, etc. Before I could drive, my mother would drop me off at Guntersville or Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River and leave me there all day; there was always something to catch, and it was an incredible education: drift worms or minnows along the riprap for crappie, brim and river drum; go deep for catfish and get hung up almost every time; snag paddlefish and buffalo in the spring; run out of bait and throw jigs for sauger, white bass and stripers; use spinners and catch skipjack, pretending they were the tarpon I read about in Field & Stream and all the other magazines (Full Cry, Fur-Fish-Game, Sports Afield). I had shelves yawing with outdoor books – Deer Hunting with Dalrymple, Gene Hill, Waterfowler’s Companion, Zane Grey – lots of Zane Grey, on hunting and fishing and his novels. The Spirit of the Borderwas a huge book for me – I wanted to be Lewis Wetzel. I have the giant copy of McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia, its spine is broken and pages are falling out – read and reread and then read again. It is truly a book of dreams. We were a family awash in books and always bringing more in. I was taught that pretty much anything you’d ever need to know was in a book somewhere – from literature to judo or raising chickens or pole beans. And that is true. I wrote my first short stories when I was in middle school – the one I remember best was a Western called “McKittrick: Death Is in the Name,” which I also illustrated. There was a lot of killing and burning and long-range sniping with Winchesters. I’d never actually been out West, so I had to wing it on the landscape.
But the single best thing my parents ever did for me, or for our family, was to buy a farm in Sharp’s Cove and move us there when I was 12. They found some 19th-century log cabins that had been abandoned but were still pretty sound, set them up and restored them to live in – we had only wood heat for a long time. It was a big adventure, and it was, at that time, everything I’d ever wanted. We had woods behind our house when we lived in Huntsville, and a creek near the elementary school where we fished and caught snakes and shot BB guns; but in Sharp’s Cove, there were all those things a thousand-fold. I felt like Daniel Boone or Lewis Wetzel, and I made the most of it. It also gave me the chance to learn practical skills – tractors, chainsaws, logging, fencing, hauling hay, how to work in the heat and cold. How to sort-of fix machinery if there were no actual mechanics around. All of that was indispensable when I went out on my own – it was what allowed me to up sticks and move West and find work anywhere.
I think that it is funny. … I was just out this afternoon, trying to put up some Wilson’s snipe with my dogs. We busted a few out of a beaver-flooded meadow (I missed them as usual – they are tough birds to hit), and we hiked back to the truck and drove to a little reservoir where the stocked rainbows are surface feeding on the bounty of the hatching equinox bugs … big whirls of them – not sure what kind of bugs, but they are very small and numerous (size 18 or so). Fish feeding on them everywhere, but spooky and picky. I managed to catch one fish before it got dark. And, as I was walking back to the truck, I thought, “I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life; I’ve been doing this my whole life. This is the one thing I can truly say has not changed in my life.”
I love big adventures in Alaska, hunting caribou, going on pack trips for elk in the high country. I’d like to fish for golden dorado in the Bolivian jungles. But I fish and hunt no matter what. I’ll fish for chubs in a drainage ditch. I’m as obsessed with throwing nightcrawlers for channel cats as I was when I was 10 years old, and a channel cat at the pay-to-fish lake was the biggest game there was. I’ll hunt whatever is in season; and I shoot – bows, slingshots, rifles, pistols and shotguns – year-round, not to practice, but just because that’s what I do and have always done.
I don’t know what it says about me, but I really love doing the same things I loved doing when I was eight years old. It’s not arrested development. It’s like no development at all, maybe. But if you are lucky enough to start out doing something incredibly fun, and that thing (hunting and fishing) is connected to the biggest energies in existence – the earth, the waters, the all of Creation – well, then I guess I can be forgiven for never outgrowing it.
Listening to the podcast, an overwhelming takeaway is that you not only are extremely knowledgeable in the subject matter but also are a very engaging and enthusiastic host. Does conducting these long-form interviews come naturally to you? How do you prepare for them?
I come from a storytelling culture, and part of that, of course, is listening to people who have good stories or who know something you want to know. I’ve been publishing nonfiction and journalism for over 25 years, and I must have conducted thousands of interviews. Ninety percent of them have been a blast; I can’t think of anything that fires me up more than asking questions and having some human being, who knows what they are talking about, answer and expound – taking you to places you never knew existed, opening new doors of understanding. There is an old interview with the writer Tom McGuane (whose podcast with us is one of my all-time favorites) where he says he just loves to watch people work at some task that they really know how to do – it is poetry. The same is true for me with people who truly know their subject. People who love something so much that they’ve spent their lives trying to understand it or do it well. You’ll hear all the time that people love to talk about themselves, and some people do, but what’s wrong with that? I’ve had people on the podcast who have lived unimaginably fascinating lives, and who have gone out there beyond the pale and latched on to hard-won wisdom that they are willing to share with us. And they share it. People are incredibly generous with their knowledge. Sometimes it blows my mind. I’ve never taken it for granted.
We’ve had people on the podcast who fight for the best kinds of things – conservation, land protection, wildlife, water – a future that we all want to live in and leave for our children. Why do some people do these things? What drives them? What makes them happy or sad? They tell us. It is their story. A story is what makes us human beings. Other animals seem to have no need for it – my dog has seen grizz up close, has pissed his way across America twice (once eating an entire three pound deer sausage, wrapper and all, that we foolishly left in the car with him), seen timber rattlers in Alabama, retrieved mallards and Canada geese in blizzards while breaking through ice. He’s seen me at my best and my worst. ... But he, as far as I can tell, has absolutely zero need or desire to tell his daughter about any of these things. He lives in a kind of divinely eternal now. But we do not. Humans live in the present, the past and the future (and we often live in realities we create in our own heads) – a dizzying, sometimes nauseating, state, and that state requires story to give it any meaning. And we demand meaning, too. So, story. And I am a fool for stories: listening to them, seeking them out, reading and writing them, recording them. The podcast has been a natural path for me, I’d say.
As for preparing for interviews, I do a lot of that. Reading, researching, asking questions beforehand. We usually talk for a long time before I hit the record button (and I will not tell the story of how sometimes I have forgotten to hit that button, which is one of the things that throws me into a cold sweat, still). The last thing on earth I want to do is waste somebody’s time who has been generous enough to offer it to me.
Those that read your writing, or follow you on social media, know that you are extremely motivated about protecting our public lands, waters and wildlife – the BHA mission. How did that come to be? Was there a particular moment – or experience – that instilled this sense of responsibility in you? Does having children play into this?
HH: My parents taught me the old adage, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I think about places like St. Vincent’s Island in northern Florida or the Apalachicola River and the adventures my friends I had in those places when we were in college. The list would go on forever – Aldridge Creek in Hunstville, Alabama (where we went when I was six years old), caves we explored and snakes we caught (I once caught and released a scarlet snake and a scarlet king snake on the same day when I was about 10 years old – I’ve never seen either of those species again). I am completely overwhelmed by the gifts I have been given by this planet we live on. There were still bobwhites around when I was in 8th grade; my mother pan-fried them for me and served them on toast – an old Alabama recipe and one of the greatest, most sacramental meals I have ever eaten. The bobwhites are gone. Nobody seems to know why, exactly, but I do know – I witnessed it – we’ve treated that incredible landscape with carelessness and cruelty: spraying it, clearing it, channelizing the creeks, draining the wetlands and using it up. Clearly, there has to be another way. I feel the debt. There’s no way I can ever repay it; that’s not even a thing. But I can honor the gifts. I can celebrate the planet that has given us all of this. I can write about it, point out where we can obviously do better and research what that would look like.
We’re moving into a future where conservation and clean water and air are not going to be just the engines that drive an $887 billion recreational economy. They are going to be – they always have been – the engines that sustain our existence. We have had the luxury of abstraction here in the U.S. Lots of room to mess up: pollute the rivers, kill off the bison and the pronghorn, and then restore it all (albeit with billions of dollars and decades of tireless effort from those same great human beings we talked about earlier). Well, that luxurious wiggle room is disappearing fast. We don’t have the luxury of letting short-sighted or ignorant people unravel what we Americans – uniquely in the world’s history – have so painstakingly knitted back together. We are at a crossroads, and I feel like all of us, all of us who love hunting and fishing and the connections those pursuits create to the whole of Creation, well, we better suit up and get out on the field. We are in God’s pocket. We can take care of it, and we can forge new ways to live on this planet and we can, pretty much, have it all. Or not.
What is the most challenging part of hosting a podcast? The most rewarding?
Hal Herring: At first, by far the most challenging part of the podcast was learning to use and become confident in the equipment. I’m not a Luddite, but I have a very short attention span when it comes to technology, and I come from a time when nobody trusted technology. I sweated the SD cards, the headsets – the setup; this was a real problem. Ty Stubblefield (BHA chapter coordinator and new chapter development) helped me a lot with this, showing me the basics and letting me know that you don’t have to be Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk to record a podcast. I still worry about it, checking it all, OCD-style, but running through the halls of Congress and setting up on 17-minute deadlines and pulling that off (with the help of Katie McKalip, BHA communications director) gave me some confidence that I can mostly do it.
We have not recorded podcasts over the phone yet – I am wary of non-face-to-face conversations, so there is a tremendous amount of travel involved. I simply can’t record every podcast that I’d like to – there are so many stories out there and so much important knowledge to be gathered. (Especially right now, when so much is at stake with the relentless attacks on the environment, access and public lands and waters.) I spend so much time on the road that when I’m home I mostly just want to stay there, to run my dogs, shoot my guns, walk in familiar places, fish for little brook trout and fry them up whole. This is kind of tough on my wife, who would like to go places sometimes. I look for balance, but balance has never been my strong point.
As for what is most rewarding, again, it’s the people I meet, and the stories they tell. A long time ago, I figured something out: human beings who love the natural world and are willing to make a stand for what they believe in tend to be the very best kind of people. They are connected to ideas and passions that are much larger than themselves. Most of them are humble because understanding one’s true place in the fabric of the earth and of being lends itself to humility. But those with big egos are still using those egos for something larger than themselves – it is hard to be immersed in self, or entirely self-referential when you are fighting for clean water, a place that you know and love or a new way of living. Or, as the saying goes, fighting for something beautiful to leave behind to be experienced by future generations, our own and everybody else’s. I think that is why we remember the Teddy Roosevelts, the Aldo Leopolds, the John Muirs, Rachel Carsons, David Browers, Jane Goodalls and on and on … to people on the most local level (all conservation and environmental protection is local, isn’t it? Even if one is working to protect a landscape that they may seldom or never visit, as in Alaska or Siberia, the knowledge that such places exist, still intact, still vibrating with life, still ruled by the forces of the eternal, this knowledge enriches our own lives wherever we are, just as knowing that they are destroyed impoverishes us in some way) – we remember them because they served the idea that we, as human beings, could be less destructive and more aware … that we don’t have to be the agents of destruction or carelessness. That is powerful, and it is real. And a lot of those people are on our podcast.
Photo by Katie McKalip
What are your goals for the podcast? What are you trying to accomplish?
HH: When we envisioned this podcast, the idea was to find the voices – famous or not – of people who were working to make a better world through conservation and through deep engagement in the natural world: the obsessed hunters and fishers, the skilled, the visionary, the dreamers and doers. That is kind of how it has worked out, too. What I did not anticipate was how many of those people are out there and just how powerful their stories really are. I knew it would be fun – find people that you respect, that you would love to talk with anyway, and let them roll – but I did not know just how much fun it would be. I did not know how transformative it would be, for me, and for the listeners who write to me. I did not think about the power of creating a space in a busy world, to simply sit down and have a real, unhurried conversation about something that we are both passionate about. Now, I understand that idea better.
My goals for the podcast are to celebrate the natural world and the people who love it and who will fight and work to protect it. In a hurried, distracted society that is nevertheless utterly, 100 percent dependent on soil and water and rain and sun, we have made a place where a person can settle down and listen to what I hope are the verities of our time. I think we’ve set the bar pretty high – some of these interviews blow my mind and some of them have brought me wisdom or practical knowledge that I would not have gotten on my own in five lifetimes. My goal is to listen better, record, share wisdom and experience, celebrate, entertain, empower and change the world for the better.
What outdoor adventures are you most looking forward to in 2020?
Well, I don’t plan ahead very well. I can say what is happening right now (October 2019) – I’m packing in with a buddy and his horses to hunt elk in the Scapegoat Wilderness for the week to come. I get home for one day and I leave to work a job I’ve had for years now: running a 15-person crew planting sagebrush on the big range fires in southern Idaho, working with the BLM and the Mule Deer Foundation. If that job goes well, I get home in time to go pronghorn hunting, and then general rifle season starts, and I have a cow elk tag and two deer tags. My dogs will expect me to be waterfowl and upland bird hunting as much as possible until January 1, when, hopefully, there’ll be enough ice to start fishing Holter Reservoir for perch and ling. I’d like to get better at walleye fishing. I’ll be working on a book on our public lands, so there will be, again, lots of traveling (with the podcast gear, too). And on almost every one of those trips, I plan to buy a hunting and fishing license and hunt and fish as much as I possibly can.