Steve Pennaz talks about the highlights, lowlights and learning curves of launching a club that has grown to become the largest of its kind in the country. Steve was editor-in-chief for the first issue of North American Fisherman 20 years ago, and has risen the ranks to become host of North American Fisherman TV and Executive Director of the Club.
Q. Describe the early days of the Club. What was going through your head as a kid two years out of college in charge of a national magazine?
A. I had no doubts, none, that NAFC would succeed. Shows you how naïve I was back then. I believed completely in the vision of founders Paul and Steve Burke. For the first two years, every phone call started with a two-minute speech about what NAFC was, who we were, and where we were going. It was an incredibly exciting time.
Q. What has surprised you most about the fishing industry in the past 20 years?
A. It’s amazing how much fishing has changed in the past 20 years, and how North American Fisherman has been at the forefront in covering breakthroughs in technique and technology. In the Oct. 1989 issue, we first mentioned a GPS, which would soon become anglers’ primary navigation tool. We wrote that a GPS would be “accurate to within 100 meters 95 to 100 percent of the time” and “will cost somewhere between $6,000 and $1,000.”
Q. Tell us about one of your most memorable NAFC trips.
A. In 1989 we took the first annual NAFC Adventure Trip of a Lifetime to Cost Rica to fish tarpon. They were biting, if you could get outside the river mouth, which raged with towering waves. Because the lodge ran 16-foot jonboats, each trip out was so dangerous most anglers stayed in and fished the safer, slower river itself. The last day of the trip, NAFC Charter member Dick Stoesser and I headed outside the river mouth and I quickly hooked a tarpon. The fish was inches from our guide’s hand when the muddy water erupted at boatside and my line fell limp. Shark!
Dick suggested we get even, so we tossed out a hooked a chunk of jack on an 80-pound-class Penn rig and tossed it out. When the shark hit, Dick and I took turns on the rod. Fishing a big shark from an anchored jonboat without at least a gimble belt is insane, I know realize, but the excitement was too much to resist. The fight lasted more than an hour before the shark was boatside. It went nuts when the guide buried the gaff inside its cheek, and the tiny boat we were in nearly swamped. I helped the guide, Orville, by grabbing a baseball bat and taking it to the head of the shark.
That’s when things went from bad to worse. While pulling the anchor into the now-overloaded boat, Orville pulled us into the path of an 8-foot wave, sending on a wild ride down its face as the boat teetered on tipping. Dick and I threw ourselves over the gunwale to prevent the boat from capsizing, then ended back in the middle as the wave washed beneath us. Orville worked feverously to start the outboard and the Yamaha sputtered to life just in time to save our lives. We make the trip back to the lodge in silence, knowing that minutes before we nearly died.
EXTRA: ONLINE EXCLUSIVE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. How did you formulate a plan for the magazine?
A. Our goal for the publication then, and now, was to reach avid multi-species anglers nationwide with the information and benefits that would increase their fishing skills and enjoyment. Looking back now, the goal was incredibly ambitious given how localized fishing can be. Crappie fishermen in the southeast don’t follow the West Coast salmon scene, for example, but most anglers dream of the day they can fish new waters for new species, and that was one of the hooks of the Club—now they “knew” anglers in other parts of the country.
I had a chance to sit down with several top fishing writers before the launch and describe the club concept, and most of them were speechless! There was nothing like it on the market. Still isn’t. Signing them up to write for us was easy after that.
Q. What are some of your most vivid memories from when the Fishing Club started?
A. The meetings. We met constantly, often for hours, strategizing the launch of the NAFC. Toughest questions we had were: A) Who is likely to join? And B) What types of benefits would be most important to prospective members?
We knew regular communication would be key and dedicated significant resources to developing what was to become North American Fisherman magazine. Remember back, there was no such thing as the internet and the opportunity to meet and interact with other anglers nation wide simply didn’t exist.
The benefits were a bit more challenging. We targeted three primary areas: 1. Sense of community; 2. Information sharing; 3. Fishing tools. Out of these grew the benefits that are still important today.
Q. What was the staff like back in ’88?
A. Well the father-and-son team of Paul and Steve Burke was a duo of avid outdoorsman and incredible visionaries. I can’t recall how big the staff was back then, but I can tell you we all fit at one table during the first annual Christmas party!
Q. When did North American Fisherman-TV start? What was it like in the early days?
A. Late in the winter 1990, I won the US Ice Fishing National Championships, an event that was taped for a show to air on ESPN. After the tournament, I met with the producer to learn more about the program, his goals and his needs. It became obvious that the show presented an opportunity for him and us, so I mentioned the conversation to our Publisher Mark LaBarbera and he negotiated a partnership arrangement that eventually became North American Outdoors, a program that aired on ESPN (later ESPN2) for more than a decade.
Bill Miller from the North American Hunting Club did a great job hosting the majority of the hunting segments while I handled most of the fishing segments (each show featured one hunting and one fishing segment each). I look back now and laugh at some of the early shows, but am truly proud of the product that we put on the air now.
Q. Why has NAFC done so well?
A. The NAFC succeeded because the Burke vision was right on—anglers across the country wanted to be part of an organization that helped them enjoy fishing more. It continues to succeed because of the incredibly dedicated members. I am honored that our roles include incredible numbers of members who have been with this organization for a decade or more. Some have been with the NAFC from the beginning.