Wandering a Native Shore
Conservation writer George Reiger’s persistent view from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
By Bill Sterling
George Reiger stands in the middle of his impossibly cluttered office and gives his secret for writing. “It’s not about the files, it’s about the piles,” he says, motioning to the towers of books scattered about, stacks of files precariously perched on his desk and assorted equipment arranged around the room like battlements. This method has been highly successful for the 79-year-old author of 15 books, including Wanderer on My Native Shore, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; over a thousand magazine and newspaper articles; and chapters and forewords for more than 30 other books. His most recent book, Striped Bass Chronicles, was published in 1997 and was illustrated by his son Christopher, a freelance photographer and illustrator. ¶ Much of this work has come from his overstuffed office in Locustville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore where he is surrounded by nature. “I don’t think I could live now where there’s no merger of the sea, the marsh and farmland,” he says as he stands on his second-story deck overlooking Finney’s Creek in one direction and open farmland in the other.
Before that, he had a whirlwind childhood as the son of an avid sportsman, followed by degrees from Princeton and Columbia, a bit of law school and then a tour in Vietnam, where he became fluent in the language, received a Purple Heart and eventually found himself in Paris as an interpreter and part of the negotiation effort to end the Vietnam War.
Reiger was born in Brooklyn, the son of a doctor. By the time he turned eight he had lived in Palm Beach, Atlanta, Augusta, and back to New York City in Queens where he kept a boat on Long Island for hunting and fishing expeditions. “The Long Island of my youth closely resembled the Eastern Shore as I found it in the 1970s,” he says.
He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a writer. “A teacher found me catching insects when I was just a boy and asked me if I wanted to be a scientist. I said, ‘No. Scientists have to specialize. A writer is free to write on so many topics.’”
Another moment helped to set the course of his life. “I caught a sailfish with my father when I was eight years old,” He recalls. “From that moment, I knew I loved fishing and wanted to write about it.”
He spent his prep-school years at the venerable Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he ran a trap-line and collected muskrats, coons and other animals before dawn while his classmates slept, getting back to the dorm in time to don a tie and attend morning mass. He kept the pelts in the basement and sold them for spending money. He managed to keep the operation going for years before a tipster gave him up, bringing a school administrator to the basement who thought the skins were bats. “I got 10 demerits when 15 would get you expelled, and I had to sell everything and donate the funds to a school club,” remembered Reiger. “I wasn’t happy about it because I was the one who did all the work.”
About his father, Reiger recalls, “He skipped more grades than he passed and was a fully practicing doctor by the time he was 21. He grew a mustache to try to look older to his patients. When none of his three sons had a degree by their 21st birthday, he thought we were slightly deficient,” he says with a hearty laugh. None of the three boys chose to follow in medicine, although his two brothers have doctorate degrees. Reiger went on to Princeton and then the University of Virginia Law School for a year but decided that was not what he wanted. Then he met Barbara, whom he would eventually marry, but the timing was wrong. She couldn’t follow him to New York for his grad-school adventure at Columbia without the ring.
After achieving a master’s degree in literature, and as he began working on a PhD, JFK was assassinated, which inspired him to do something immediately productive. He left school, joined the Navy, landed in the language program and was assigned to a translation unit headed to Vietnam. Barbara was still very much in the picture, but he knew he was headed into harm’s way. “I didn’t want to run the risk of leaving a young widow,” he says. He was serving as an interpreter in Saigon when the building was attacked. Several of Reiger’s comrades were killed. He was wounded in the back and neck. “I’ve always felt ambiguous about having a Purple Heart for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were others going home in body bags that day,” he says. “You have the feeling you should be on the front line facing the enemy to receive a Purple Heart. But as time goes on, I realize that the day of knights facing each other in an open field are gone forever.”
In 1968, at the age of 29 and full of hope for finding solutions, Reiger was tapped to be a translator at the Paris Peace Accords. “I was fairly fluent in French and had even studied some Mandarin Chinese in college, so the ability to speak Vietnamese got me the nod over some other candidates, although I was only a junior officer at the time.” Reiger left frustrated after five months into the talks, which were stalled while the parties deliberated over the shape of the table and how everyone would be seated. “I knew the talks would not be completed the year I left, but I never dreamed they would go on for another four years,” recalls Reiger.
He returned to the United States to teach English and boat-handling at the Naval Academy and to work at the Pentagon. He also taught Vietnamese to future officers about to be deployed overseas. Never far from the outdoors, he fished and trapped near Annapolis when not in the classroom.
He left the service in ‘69, married Barbara and got an editor/writer job with Popular Mechanics, mainly on the strength of the fact that the publisher and editor were respectively WWI and WWII veterans who wanted to give a young soldier a job. This provided him opportunities to write for other titles under the Popular Mechanics umbrella such as Rod & Gun, Motorboating, Science Digest, and even Cosmopolitan.
In the early 1970s, the Reigers escaped from Washington to restore a 200-year-old clapboard farmhouse in Locustville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he could write, fish and hunt. In 1977, Christopher was born, raising the stakes a bit. “One is all we could afford,” he says.
“My goal was to be gainfully unemployed,” he said. His assignments and writing projects took him all over the world on fishing and hunting expeditions, many chronicled in his books.
He became a field editor for Audubon Magazine and associate editor for the National Wildlife Federation’s National Wildlife magazine. Reiger was the conservation editor and columnist for Field & Stream magazine for more than 30 years, and he remains on the masthead as conservation editor emeritus.
His range of published submissions include diverse outlets— from the Evergreen Literary Review to The Foreign Service Journal to Cosmopolitan. “I saw [Cosmopolitan editor] Helen Gurley Brown in the elevator and pitched a story about a honeymoon on a houseboat. She bought it but told me no one on the boat could be married,” he recalls.
His first hardback effort, Zane Grey, Outdoorsman: Zane Grey’s Best Hunting and Fishing Tales, which he curated and edited, was published in 1972, and it opened doors for ensuing books. “Grey was a dentist who had a passion for fishing and hunting,” he explained. “He saw writing outdoors stories as a portal to a better life, much like I was looking for a portal to a better place to live.”
Reiger is best known as a writer who led the conservation movement, primarily through his monthly column in Field & Stream. “I was on the cutting edge of a wave with conservation just becoming the hot topic when I started writing the column in the 1970s,” he recalls.
Reiger was sometimes regarded as an irritant to major conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society and Ducks Unlimited as he pushed, prodded, or even railed when their focus seemed to drift from their primary mission. He wrote, “Conservation leaders are so busy catering to corporate chiefs and protecting their charitable cash flows, they have little time, money or expertise left to send to frontline troops fighting important conservation battles.” At least one conservation leader tried to get him fired from the magazine. He feels that conservation organizations have become more prudent about their methods and finances. “Hopefully, my efforts led to some generic improvement in the awareness of conservation and the need for education,” he says.
He has done more than write about conservation. He worked as a presidential appointee to the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin for 11 years. Today, he is a member and former president of the Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper organization, which works to protect Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic waters.
Asked about the current state of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Reiger says, “It isn’t what it was,” and adds, “I don’t want to sound like an alarmist or an elitist; I am just trying to be realistic. But how are we going to deal with this burgeoning population? There are 10,000 people born every hour. That’s almost a quarter of a million people a day. We are racing just to stay neutral on conserving our resources. More and more people want to live on the water. Something has to give. Let’s talk about what we can do.”
As a boy, Reiger and his brothers would venture in a small boat far beyond their parents’ approved zone to find bigger fish in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. When he moved to the Eastern Shore, he often fished from a 17-foot Boston Whaler in the Atlantic above the 21-Mile Hill east of Wachapreague for tuna and dolphin. As the food source for those fish moved offshore, he followed, carrying extra gas cans to reach the Norfolk Canyon, some 50 to 60 miles offshore where he might also land billfish. “The sights I used to see on the way out to the fishing grounds, the vast variety of birds and all sorts of turtles. Now it’s barren,” says Reiger. As a concession to age, Reiger now stays closer to home, preferring to ply the waters of the seaside creeks and the Chesapeake Bay. “I love to poke around looking for redfish and striped bass,” he says.
Reiger recalls Rocky, his Golden retriever that once graced the cover of Field & Stream. “I was invited to hunt at Dupont’s Remington Farms. I asked them if I could bring Rocky. They said they had hunting dogs and preferred I would not bring him. I told them I would put Rocky in a crate if he didn’t work out. He performed so well I got more invitations over the years on the condition I bring Rocky. I became Rocky’s chauffeur. They say every man should have one great woman and one great dog in his life. I have been fortunate to have both.”
Reiger loves waterfowl hunting and field research, and he carefully controls the terms and conditions of the hunt. He created and maintains a wetland impoundment with the help of friends by planting millet in a pond and pumping water in during the season. From blinds reachable by vehicle, he and his friends restrain themselves to stricter limits than the game regulations allow. “Everyone understands there is a two-bird limit, with no black ducks allowed. We take only drake mallards. If you shoot a hen mallard, there’s a $50 contribution coming to Locustville Academy. The bonus this year was we had pintails using the impoundment, so we took only the drakes. Of course, the limit is one per person, so that worked out well.” For Reiger, the real fun starts after the season when he works with biologists and volunteers to trap and band black ducks. “I told the researchers from the Division of Game and Inland Fisheries that we might have as many as 100 black ducks at a time using the impoundment. I am not sure they believed me, because the first time they came, they said, ‘Next time we need to bring a bigger net.’”
When asked about his memoir and when it might be completed, Reiger shakes his head and says, “I have no idea. I spend a few hours each day working on that and other projects. I can be somewhat of a perfectionist. They say don’t worry about getting it right. Just get it written. And then get it right. Living the life I’ve wanted to live and being able to write about has been a wonderful thing."
Bill Sterling is a retired editor of the Eastern Shore News and outdoor editor for the Eastern Shore Post who enjoys hunting and fishing on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.