It’s only natural that one of this year’s recipients to join the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, exemplifies the theme of an acorn that grew into a mighty oak—the idea of coming from simple beginnings to achieve greatness through the mastery of learning to be humble, practicing the basics and applying the Golden Rule.

It’s only natural that one of this year’s recipients to join the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, exemplifies the theme of an acorn that grew into a mighty oak—the idea of coming from simple beginnings to achieve greatness through the mastery of learning to be humble, practicing the basics and applying the Golden Rule.

Being humble comes easy to Bill Cooper, the hall of fame inductee and resident of St. James. He would rather talk about his mentors and their qualities—qualities he wanted to emulate at an early age and the needs of others that need to be met. To an outsider, any greatness Bill has achieved in his career as an outdoor writer and teacher has been because of his focus on others. In his case, it’s all about getting young people excited about the outdoors and taking them further by helping them learn the values that the outdoor experience can offer them—helping them grow into mighty oaks, as people of character with a healthy reverence of the outdoors.
To top it all off, he does it by sharing a fishing rod, shotgun, rifle or bow. And he uses his word processor to write all about it, hoping to fan the flames of youth imagination about the mysteries of our natural world.

Those humble beginnings started in what many would describe as a sharecropper’s house in the cotton flats of the Bootheel, just outside of East Prairie, Mo. The forty acre farm was near the Black Bayou, where he learned how to catch bowfin (or dogfish), a scary prehistoric-looking fish.
“We had a huge cane patch on the north side of the place, so we had a constant supply of fishing poles,” said Bill. “I had a great interest in the outdoors at a very early age.” He credits his father, a farmer, as his early teacher and probably the “best fisherman in Mississippi County.”

He loved his visits to Big Oak State Park. His father worked there at times and even Bill got in on the action and found an early mentor in Park Superintendent Johnson.
His bayou and Big Oak experiences stuck, because he wound up at the University of Mo-Columbia to obtain undergraduate and Masters degrees in Parks and Recreation Management.
“My first job out of college in the early 70’s was Superintendent of Maramec Spring Park,” he noted. “That’s what brought me here.” On weekends he would take graduate classes and was even a company commander for the university ROTC program. “I drilled the Mizzou football players that were in ROTC,” he said, grinning.

He was with the James Foundation for about five years and then took a job at Bennett Springs State Park as the chief naturalist, where he supervised the naturalists at Montauk State Park. While at the trout parks it was only a matter of time before he befriended the trout biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Spence Turner.

“The clearwater streams of the Ozarks is what attracted me here—I’d wade out in these streams, and I could see the bottom!” he marveled. “I’d never seen anything like that with the muddy water I was raised with. I was just mesmerized.”  He thought he’d died and gone to heaven—which can be advantageous at the right place and time.
“I almost had a minor in religion at the university, so I tried to bring religion and outdoor education together,” he explained. “It works.”
He has written hundreds of articles promoting the values of the outdoors, such as awareness of the natural world, respect for God’s creations and man’s place in the hiearchy of nature, which ties into hunting and fishing.
“I’ve worked with several national organizations as avenues to carry those messages to people,” explained Bill. He’s been involved with outdoor education efforts and has been around long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. He’s a huge proponent of teaching small groups as opposed to large outdoor gatherings.
“A study showed that all these organizations teaching outdoor skills to large groups of people just wasn’t working,” he said. “They’re not retaining the kids, because strangers are teaching them. To retain them as hunters, you need to have mom, dad, uncles, cousins, brothers—someone in the family to take them into the outdoors with some kind of consistency.”
He said it doesn’t mean we drop all of the other programs that are going on, but those programs need to adjust and adapt to what does work.

Bill didn’t stay employed by state agencies for long. He had a growing family to feed so he took a job as a United Parcel Post driver for 34 years with routes throughout the Ozarks. He smiles when he says it is how he learned the best fishing and hunting spots in the southern part of the state.  

But during holidays and weekends,  Bill continued his outdoor writing. He joined the Outdoor Writers Association and had a television show called ‘Outdoors with Bill Cooper.’ He was on the radio with an outdoors show, while all the time, preaching the values to be learned in the outdoors. And it has paid off. He is sharing this honor with those that went before him—names like Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Curt Gowdy, Izaak Walton, Johnny Morris, Homer Circle, Ray Scott, Ted Williams, Lefty Krey and Denny Brauer.

Bill Cooper doesn’t need any awards, but to be an inductee into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame  is an expression of the culmination of a life’s work in outdoor writing and education. It’s an honor he can savor in his old age when his bones may not take to the cold water of an Ozark stream. He’s hunted and fished all over North America and parts of the world and he’s not through—but he considers St. James home and he’s having a good time.

He overlooks some of the qualities that made him a choice for this prestigious award because it all comes so natural to him. He does share one thing, as he did recently with a high school graduate who wants to work in the field of outdoor education.
“Remember this—you’ve got to have the [relatable] personality and you’ve got to have fun.”

Sounds like a secret to success that could be taken well into the next generation.