An event that I always look forward to is the annual meeting of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. As someone who started writing about fishing relatively late in life, I’ve greatly appreciated the educational aspect of the conference as well as making many friends among the really fine people that are members. I’ve also gotten an opportunity to visit places in Florida that I’ve rarely visited, if at all. Since I’ve been a member, we’ve had conferences at Homosassa, Punta Gorda, Tallahassee, Ocala, Naples, and Titusville. This year the conference was in Polk County at the Westgate River Ranch Resort, an actual dude ranch in central Florida, located on the Kissimmee River near Lake Wales. Even as a Florida native, I’ve never been to this area of the state. In spite of being about 25 miles or so from “civilization” (i.e. Lake Wales on one side and the Florida Turnpike on the other), the resort was comfortable and a great place to have a meeting. Not surprisingly, many of the activities at the ranch are directed toward outdoor activities, including riding, shooting, fishing and hunting.
Our first evening event was a trip to Bok Tower and the surrounding gardens. The tower was built by Edward Bok, an immigrant Dutch publisher, and was built on the highest piece of land in Florida. It was dedicated in 1929 by President Calvin Coolidge. The tower is covered with painted ceramic plates and the surrounding gardens provide a beautiful and relaxing stroll.
The educational programs start with craft improvement seminars. This year, photographer Stuart Patterson gave a great talk about improving your outdoor photography, and guide and writer Rob Modys introduced many of us to the use of social media as a business opportunity. A fascinating session addressing writer’s block was given by an all-star panel: Sandy Huff. FOWA board member and freelance author with over 1700 published articles; Dorothy Zimmerman, communications director for Florida Sea Grant; and legendary television pioneer Mark Sosin, host of the longest running television program about marine fishing, Mark Sosin’s Saltwater Journal. After an update on Lake Okeechobee restoration efforts, FOWA member Jill Zima Borski presented her take on presenting yourself as an expert, teaching writing skills, and ghost writing. Good friends and well-known photographers Sam Root and Tommy Thompson did an outdoor session on lighting that was well-attended and instructive.
At every FOWA meeting, attendees are able to fish with a local guide. Not surprisingly, this is something I always look forward to. The resort has a marina with direct access to the Kissimmee River. We gathered at the marina on a beautiful morning. An interesting aspect of the trip was that many of the boats went through locks that control the water level in Lake Kissimmee, something we don’t see on the coasts.
Charles Wright and I got to fish with Arnie Lane (http://www.flwoutdoors.com/ap/bio.cfm?mid=151269), a professional bass angler on the FLW tour and one of the famous Lane Brothers. It was a tough time of year with pretty oppressive heat but we managed four or five fish, with Arnie nailing this really fine four pounder while Charles looked on from the front of the boat.
The break-out session Thursday afternoon provides an opportunity for sponsors to show their new products and for us to try them out. Hobie representatives Ingrid Niehaus and Frank Stapleton presented two of their new offerings, the Hobie Sport Mirage and the Pro Angler 14.
At the awards banquet, along with some excellent food (oysters, stone crab claws and shrimp as a warm-up), there were a number of presentations. FOWA provides scholarships each year to students who have shown an interest and productivity in outdoor writing or communications. This year we were shown an excellent film from the University of Miami team (http://waterlust.org/Waterlust.html). Patrick Rynne, from the team, submitted the film and took home a scholarship. Devon Caffaro from the UCF School of Journalism was also presented with a scholarship. Both are shown with FOWA president Ron Presley and Sea Grant Director of Communications Dorothy Zimmerman.
One of the true highlights of the conference was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Flip Pallot, long-time host of the award-winning television show “Walker’s Cay Chronicles”. Flip has been in outdoor communications for many years, and it was great to see him honored in this way. Watching two legends of fishing sharing stories was a great experience as Flip noted that Mark Sosin actually gave him his start in television many decades before. Flip with his wife Diane is shown with Ray Presley and FOWA Executive Director Tommy Thompson.
There were plenty of other activities….hiking, mechanical bull riding, kayak demonstrations and a Saturday night rodeo. Many took advantage of the skeet shooting range and there were several shooting competitions. Jill Borski took on some clays on the skeet range.
This year’s meeting was another great experience and as always, I learned a lot from the experts. If you are interested in learning about writing, or have done some writing, you can join FOWA as an associate member. I’d strongly recommend it, for both the enjoyment and educational aspects of the meetings. The next meeting will be located closer to home for me, in Homosassa/Crystal River next August. You can find out more on the FOWA website, http://www.fowa.org/.