The key to understanding outdoor magazines - which I both read and write for - is that they exist to sell advertising. This is neither an indictment nor something unique: Virtually all periodicals except nonprofits depend on ad sales for their survival. The advantage of a large circulation comes not from income, but as bait to lure more and bigger advertisers and justify steeper ad rates.


Among outdoor magazines, the stars are the so-called Big Three: Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield. All are published in New York City, all have been around for a century or more, and all are general-interest slicks shooting to be all things to all outdoorsmen - and increasingly, outdoorswomen. All operate on the "service article" triad of how-to, where-to and product hype.


Browse any of the Big Three or their plentiful competitors, and you'll see monthly columns on how to improve your skills in hunting, fishing, shooting, boating, woodcraft and more. Gadget-related columns carry such straightforward titles as "New Gear Review" and "Vehicles," and either directly or indirectly complement the ads that consume roughly 50 percent of all healthy commercial prints.


To their credit, the Big Three also carry regular coverage of conservation and ethics issues. The opinions and information expressed in these columns, features and print-bites, however, vary tremendously in insight and accuracy. Even so, it's more than is offered by most other magazine genres, which find it commercially convenient to ignore issues that could cost them income.


Like the columns, hook-and-bullet "feature" articles follow the seasons: "Spring turkey tips," "Summer bass hot-spots," "Fall big game bonanza," "Winter ice fishing." As one editor recently admitted, "We've been recycling the same "How to get your deer" story for a hundred years now."


In their early days, the Big Three offered hunting, fishing and adventure stories, plenty of conservation coverage and a conspicuous absence of commercial hype. Back then, sportsmen necessarily relied on woodcraft, skill, patience and hard work. Consequently, they were more serious and deserving of respect than today's gear-laden poseurs and dilettantes.


By the end of World War II, as hunter-conservationist Aldo Leopold complained, the outdoor media had "turned billboard for the gadgeteer." But - an important point if we are to maintain objectivity - so had all of America.


Today, following the style popularized by USA Today, the Big Three hold most articles to 2,000 words or less, employ lots of sidebars and flashy graphics, and otherwise cater to the well-founded assumption that the average American reader has an attention span shorter than his nose. And, too (thinking goes), the briefer your articles, the more of them you can cram into X number of pages. Good if you're looking for a variety of fast information, but frustrating for serious readers and writers.


In these days of political correctness, true-believerism and ideological polarity, it's tempting to view hunting - and the publications that champion it - as either good or bad. It's not that simple. And nowhere is the complexity clearer than in the wildly democratic pages of the hook-and-bullet press. Below are necessarily subjective profiles of five leaders in the field.





FIELD AND STREAM: Founded in 1895, Field and Stream is the most widely read men's monthly of any genre. The proud owner is Times Mirror (which, ironically, competes against itself with Outdoor Life). The statistically average reader of Field and Stream is a 40-year-old, middle-class male. In 1996, the magazine boasted sales of more than 1.7 million copies per issue, with a pass-along readership of nearly 13 million.


According to Times Mirror senior vice president Jason E. Klein, Field and Stream is the world's leading "outdoor lifestyle" magazine. "The best outdoor photographers want to get their images on our pages, and the best writers want to write for us."


Field and Stream is indeed a handsome product. My primary criticism is with the publication's "conservation" coverage as voiced by columnist George Reiger - whose hostility toward professional wildlife management and strenuous wildlife law enforcement strikes me as myopic, misguided, self-serving and ... well, scary. And, hardly compatible with Field and Stream's self image as "the soul of the American outdoors."





OUTDOOR LIFE: Outdoor Life readers number more than 1.3 million paid, about 5.4 million total, and are demographically indistinguishable from consumers of its sister publication. Nor are the magazines themselves strikingly different. Klein, who oversees both, interprets the distinction thus: While Field and Stream aims to evoke the "feel and texture" of outdoor sport, Outdoor Life emphasizes service articles and adventure.


Regrettably, Outdoor Life's idea of portraying adventure has been to present nature as hostile and threatening - as evidenced by the long-running cartoon misadventure feature "This Happened to Me," and such testosterone-soaked cover blurbs as "Grizzly Terror," "Cougars that Hunt People" and "Horrible Hyenas." Cover art follows suit, leading one to wonder what Outdoor Life would do for covers without its snarling bears, snarling African lions, snarling cougars and snarling coyotes. A lot of readers I know find such blatant appeals to machismo juvenile and embarrassing. Yet Klein reports that Outdoor Life's fierce creatures are "extremely popular."


Regarding ethical, environmental and political issues, Klein says that Outdoor Life has no across-the-board stance, but takes positions as it sees fit. Historically, those positions have been all over the map, including the enthusiastic endorsement of that bogus "sportsmen's friend," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. Young and his cronies in the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, with enthusiastic support from such "hunter's rights' groups as the Archery Manufacturer's Organization (AMO) and Wildlife Legislative Fund of America (WLFA), have proven adept at tricking outdoorsmen into believing they're on the same team. Outdoor Life (and others), in the past has fallen for and furthered the hoax.


I see a lot of potential for Outdoor Life, if only it can figure out what it wants to stand for and garner the courage (and permission from its owners) to stand for it. My hope is that this second-largest of the hook-and-bullet press will continue laboring to be the courageous, intelligent, lead-don't-follow publication it was becoming under Stephen Byers, the editor-in-chief who resigned when management (buckling to pressure generated by WLFA) yanked Tom Beck's essay critical of bear baiting. Byers' replacement is Todd Smith (formerly of Petersen's Hunting). I wish him luck, dignity and guts.


SPORTS AFIELD: Established in 1887, Sports Afield bills itself as "the magazine for today's sportsman." Editor-in-chief and publisher Terry McDonell recalls that the mandate he was given by the Hearst Corporation when hired some years ago was simply to "make the magazine profitable," which it wasn't at the time. "Hearst knew my history," says McDonell, "with Outside, Smart, Esquire and Esquire Sportsman, so they probably had an idea what I would do. Mostly, I wanted to apply some basic, old-fashioned journalistic disciplines ... good writing, fact-checking."


Under McDonell, Sports Afield has become aggressively political. "We relentlessly promote the idea that serious sportsmen are dedicated conservationists; to fail to understand that is to miss the whole point of what's been going on since Teddy Roosevelt."


McDonell's contributors' list bulges with talent, celebrity and authority (not to imply the three always coincide), including Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Tim Cahill and Russell Chatham - none of them regulars, but well worth hanging around for. While not neglecting his "service" base, McDonell has bolstered the magazine's credibility with vigorous ethics and conservation coverage, largely through the reasoned and informed voices of columnists Ted Kerasote (-Eco Watch') and Susan Zakin (-Outdoor Rights').


Like its competitors, Sports Afield has traditionally attracted a mostly male readership, fortyish and middle-class. But that's changing, says McDonell. "Income and education are going up, and age is dropping a little."


When I commented to McDonell that he was conducting a brave and dangerous experiment by introducing strong environmental and political themes, some of which spit in the face of AMO/WLFA-mandated "correctness," he responded, "I don't think so. Hunters have been negatively stereotyped for so long now that it's almost impossible to see reality any more. I'm absolutely convinced that sportsmen care more about the natural world than almost any other group. Their connection to nature is direct."


Reinforcing that optimism is the fact that under McDonell, Sports Afield's "numbers' are all well up.





GRAY'S SPORTING JOURNAL: Gray's Sporting Journal is widely considered the classiest act in hook-and-bullet prints. The writing is consistently literate, and the art and photography are spectacular enough to prompt my discerning spouse to ventilate each issue with scissors before I'm allowed to pass it along to friends.


To its credit, Gray's eschews how-to articles. This, along with a stiff cover price, may explain why paid circulation runs only about 40,000. In outdoor journalism as in art, quality doesn't assure an audience, and vice versa.


Montanan John Barsness, who recently resigned as editor of Gray's to pursue a full-time writing career, recalls that in 1992, "we did a big demographic study and learned that our average reader was between 40 and 50, had a household income of $125,000, and often a graduate degree. He or she was mostly into fly fishing and upland bird hunting, but also interested in waterfowl and big game. And Gray's readers travel more than do subscribers to other outdoor magazines.





"What readers expect from Gray's," Barsness concludes, "is vicarious experience and an illumination of the human condition."





BUGLE: What I like best about Bugle, the journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is that it, more than any other hunting periodical, focuses on such "peripheral" themes as natural history; it offers frank discussion of hunting ethics and wildlife management, and selects hunting stories that view "success' as a matter of quality of overall experience. Bugle also gives its writers plenty of room to roam. Of the five magazines discussed here, Bugle alone is published by a nonprofit. Of its 150,000-plus quarterly copies (soon to be bimonthly), about 102,000 go to foundation members; the remainder sell briskly on newsstands nationwide. Pulling opposite the Big Three philosophy even more vigorously than Gray's, Bugle shuns the entire triad of how-to, where-to and product-plugging - yet it's always fat with profitable ads.


Like Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited, the elk foundation's mission is to squeeze money from members and corporate grantors (and Bugle advertisers), and put it to work "on the ground" to benefit elk and other (often nonhunted) wildlife - a hunter's Nature Conservancy, as it were. In its first 12 years, the group has raised over $50 million to fund more than 1,300 conservation projects affecting nearly 2 million acres of habitat.


According to editor Dan Crockett, Bugle's primary goals are "to encourage the highest ethical hunting behavior and to foster a deep love and respect for the land, the wildlife it supports and the outdoor experience." In all of that it succeeds admirably.





David Petersen is the editor of A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Bloodsport. He lives in rural southwest Colorado.