By Mark S. McDonald
Thing is, 20 years have a way of sneaking past middle-aged men who have stocked too many bluegill and snorted too much filamentous algae. In this passage of time, truth tends to take a beating. Such is the case with the hatching of Pond Boss magazine, I fear. Thus, it will be up to you pond managers to sort fact from fiction. Examples: PB was conceived in the back of a Greyhound bus. False. Any historian worth his Aqua Max knows the idea sprang to life in a back booth at Whataburger, some time in 1991, somewhere between Dallas and the Oklahoma state line. At least I think it was. PB was an immediate hit, a vibrant, four-color, prize-winner driven by a stable of knowledgeable pond professionals sharing their experience with an audience that spans North America. False.
It is true, however, that PB was printed on absorbent paper in case of field emergencies. Early issues were loaded with valuable information. Pearls of wisdom included the following:
- If your pond goes dry, your fish will die of thirst.
- If you stick your finger in the mouth of a walleye, you are dumber than a U.S. Senator.
- If you fillet a 4-pound bass, it is unlikely to reach 5 pounds.
Overcoming its modest roots, PB now presents more good stuff in one place than Raquel Welch’s shower scene in “100 Rifles.” It has been said current publisher Bob Lusk and your first editor here were thrown out of the Whataburger for loitering. False. Actually, we were seated by the breakfast staff, worked through the day-shift and didn’t give up our back booth until the night shift clocked in. By then, we were finishing each other’s sentences. I had sworn off coffee and Bob and I had come up with a brilliant way to lose our collective arse. First, though, we needed something we didn’t have. That would be readily identified as money. Unlike the federal government, we cannot print ours. To raise start-up funds, I took to selling pencils on street corners and collecting cans on the roadside. Bob had a better idea. He would go to one of his regular pond clients, and ask for an advance against future work. Eureka, Bob. When all else fails, beg! Bob must have scratched an entrepreneurial itch with one Ray A. Murski. Or maybe Texas Aggies have a secret pact … I won’t spit on your business ideas, if you don’t spit on mine. Gig ‘em.
As if by magic, Ray paid it forward, Bob was on the hook and I had $1,500 to launch a newsletter that did not exist. Yes, a certain fish farmer had gained new respect. Debut issue was a case of laborious journalistic constipation — grip-and-grin fishing photos and with stories of general interest in 12 forgettable pages. Somehow, we were overlooked by the Pulitzer committee. I say “general interest” because, they had to be. We didn’t have any readers. Thus, we didn’t have any first-person accounts to deliver. Today, each of us gains benefit from the shared practical field experience of all. Not so in the early 1990s. Website? Surely you jest.
Advertising/marketing budget? Ho-ho, aren’t you the comedian. Office staff? Another good one. Staff? Layout designer? Circulation manager? Ad sales director? Okay, no more caffeine for you. We closed your tab at the coffee bar. Six months into the start-up, Pond Boss was the tree that fell in the Northwoods of Minnesota. If nobody heard the crash, did it actually make a noise? In desperate need of expanding scope and readership while strapped for cash, we could not hit on the Chinese for a loan.
Instead, Pond Boss did what you ponders have done in your own businesses and personal finances: We scratched and clawed, and made do with we earned. One day, I was elated to acquire the names and addresses of pond owners in Arkansas. Ah-ha! A marketing coup. Pep rally time. Understand, Pond Boss was not the central forum for recreation pond owners in North America, as it is today. In the day, PB was a well-kept secret, a private joke with a circulation of perhaps 32, mostly members of select fishing club lakes in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Or was it 31? In any case, this was our big break. Move over, Donald Trump. Pond Boss, powered by a boost from our neighbors in Arkansas, was about to have a seat at the adult table.
As a reward for my entrepreneurial brilliance, The Matriarch and our two sons were confronted with a den floor littered with copies of Pond Boss. Football coaches once called going without water breaks and running wind sprints “growth opportunities.” This was ours. On hands and knees, the crew stuck mailing labels on 504 Pond Boss magazines, organized them by zip codes, delivered them in bundles to the local post office in DeSoto, Texas. While the crew nursed carpet burns, I developed tennis elbow from patting myself on the back. I couldn’t pass a mirror without brushing my eyebrows and checking my teeth for stuck spinach. You know, just in case of a quickie press conference. The magazines went out and, like an expectant father, I waited for a tidal wave of subscription checks from Arkansas. Only thing missing was the cheap cigars. I waited. And waited some more.
Weeks later, when the silence became deafening, I asked a friend with the Arkansas Game and Fish to explain the underwhelming response. He clued me in. “These are good people but tight, tight, tight with a dollar (emphasis on the tight), “ he said with a knee-slap at my expense. “They can order fish from the State. No charge. “You think Arkansans will pay for information on fish they got for free? “ Hard-knock Lesson in Life Number 468: What is cheap, you will not value. Bonk. Palm to forehead. Trial and error marked the earliest days of Pond Boss, but too dumb to quit, we stubbornly plunged ever onward into the fog. Nobody was better at this cash-and-carry, no-work no-eat ethic than our Bob. Get this: There were times when he had a fisheries management business, a wife, her kids, his kids, their kids, a mortgage and fish in his ponds just itching to die on him. On top of all that, there was this tar baby called Pond Boss. Work never scares Bob Lusk, but I don’t know when he slept.
Not since the advent of the push-up bra has so much been supported by so little. Bob and I were later joined in partnership with veteran dirt contractor Mike Otto and Sherman Wyman, a Dallas CPA with more good will than good sense. We agonized over every nickel. Can we afford a layout designer? Can we pay ourselves? We rarely agreed, but as an august body we did reach full accord on one discussion item: We’re lost but, hey, we’re making good time. Sherman and I have since pulled the ripcord, bailing out to chase other white elephants. Otto, who’s a trip in his own right, and Bob have stayed the course. A deep bow at the waist to you two lost souls. Under your direction, a skinny little newsletter has become a magazine which has begot a stout website, which has begot an annual convention, held last spring in Missouri. I mean who knew?
All grown up now, PB is stronger than morning breath. Indeed, since that fateful day in a burger joint, PB has blossomed with the speed of a runaway glacier, becoming what we always thought it could be — the nation’s leading source of pond management info. Every day, at www.pondboss.com hundreds of ponders from across North America share their experiences in an open forum. I salute Bob and his supporters for building on a concept whose time had come. This organic growth has been a joy to watch, especially when somebody else foots the print bill. Looking back, I now realize Pond Boss must have been a good idea. Readers and web cruisers seem to like it, and even though we tried to kill it with bad business decisions, it would not die.