Brookings outdoors writer Jerry Toms is getting a lot of mileage out of his photo, “Weimaraner With Ringneck.” The picture in May won the color photo division of the Brookings Arts Council’s 32nd annual Open Photography Exhibition, and this month the same image appears on the cover of a national sporting magazine. Jerry Thoms photo
• Jerry Thoms has carved out a career writing about all things outdoors
BROOKINGS – These days, Jerry Thoms’ life seems to be going to the dogs.
For him, that’s not a bad thing.
That’s because Thoms is an outdoors writer, and he’s an expert on hunting dogs and dog training.
Just this month, the local outdoorsman has the cover story on Gun Dog Magazine, the nation’s premier sporting dog magazine.
The Weimaraner that graces the Gun Dog cover is the same animal whose portrait also won Thoms the top color photography award in the Brookings Arts Council’s annual Open Photography Exhibition.
The image is now on his business cards, too, and Thoms’ photo of the sleek gray dog, pheasant in mouth, will appear on several national wildlife calendars as well.
And – further evidence that he’s leading a dog’s life – Thoms just published another canine owner’s handbook: “Training Your Dog to Hunt for Shed Deer Antlers.” The simple methods the book teaches can sharpen the hunting skills of any dog, from pointer to poodle, Thoms claims.
Thoms is one of those rare birds who gets to live the life he loves – and dogs and hunting and fishing are part and parcel of it. He writes about those topics, and his field and stream adventures, in the dozens of publications for which he serves as a field editor or senior writer.
The longtime Brookings resident says he has the distinction of being “the only full-time outdoors writer in South Dakota not working for the government.”
He came by his love of the outdoors naturally. Like many South Dakotans, Thoms grew up hunting and fishing, thanks to two older brothers who were his key influences “for good or bad.”
Everyone in the Thoms family was passionate about the outdoors, he recalls. “My older brother, who turns 90 next March, still hunts every day of the season!”
With Thoms living the “Mark Trail” life of campfires and corn-stubble hunts, it would seem only natural that writing about it would be his career choice. It wasn’t.
No, Thoms took a major detour into academia before he found his true calling in the duck blinds and shelterbelts of the Dakotas. He spent the entire first part of his life at the university.
It’s “Dr. Thoms,” by the way – he earned a Ph.D. in English from Kansas State long before he earned a certificate of appreciation from Pheasants Forever. In fact, after graduating from Augustana, the Sioux Falls native completed two master’s degrees – one in English from USD and a second in American studies from the University of Minnesota.
He smiles when he tells other journalists, “Please don’t mention that I’ve got a doctorate – people expect so much more of you when they hear that!”
Fixture at SDSU
For many years – starting in 1972 – Professor Thoms was a fixture in the South Dakota State University English Department. After five or six years behind the lectern and several more working for the state Board of Regents, however, he took a sabbatical from education.
All the while he’d been teaching English and literature, Thoms said he kept hearing a little voice inside his head telling him he’d ought to try his hand writing hunting and fishing articles.
When he had the opportunity to leave the Ivory Towers for a while, he launched his career as an outdoors journalist.
“I wanted to see if I could make a living writing for outdoors magazines, he recalls, “and I wandered too far from the well.” He returned to the university at the end of his sabbatical, but he discovered “I was having a lot more fun as a freelance writer.”
That was in 1980, and for the past 32 years his reporting has been turning up not only in Gun Dog, but in Wildfowl magazine, Shotgun Sports, Bird Dog and Retriever News. He’s a contributor to Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
Most of his work – he writes for about 20 separate titles – appears in InterMedia Outdoors publications, the largest outdoors magazine group in the country. The company also owns The Sportsman Channel.
Thoms has written a handful of handbooks, too, from waterfowl flagging to the popular “Pheasant Hunter’s Cookbook,” and recently he’s edited a couple of volumes, on Minnesota decoys and historic Minnesota hunting photos, with friend Doug Lodermeier Sr.
10 national covers
He’s had 10 national magazine covers in his career, which continues to flourish at a time of life most writers – even born outdoorsmen – would’ve started slowing down.
While he wouldn’t have had it any other way, Thoms is no romantic about the path he chose. “I’ve enjoyed the life,” he says. “It’s a good way to have fun, but it’s no way to get rich.” Fortunately, he says, he “married a woman with a good job.”
“I’m a kept man,” he quips.
For would-be outdoors-writing freelancers, the veteran has some sobering advice: “Be prepared for disappointment.”
Almost all the major sporting magazines have their own staff writers and rarely buy outside material any more, he says. And he doesn’t write for state conservation magazines.
“They expect you to write for the honor of doing it,” he says, noting that the “free” in freelancer doesn’t mean you don’t get paid.
That’s why he works his regular network of editors, marketing his articles by suggesting an idea to an editor or publisher (in the business, it’s called a query). He’ll get an occasional assignment, too.
Thoms is an acknowledged hunting dog expert, having raised, trained and hunted over German shorthair pointers for more than 40 years. His current field companions include a pair of shorthairs and a Large Münsterländer.
He’s a retriever man, he claims – not so knowledgeable about pointers but still conversant with the breeds and basics. In fact, he’s written dozens of pieces on the various hunting breeds and the methods that the most effective trainers are using.
He was on assignment for Gun Dog – doing some pheasant hunting with an internationally known Weimaraner breeder – when he had an opportunity to photograph the “Gray Ghost” for the Gun Dog cover.
He insists he’s not a professional dog trainer: “They get paid for it, and I don’t.” Still, he’s trained all his own dogs and has helped dozens of hunting buddies over the years get their dogs in shape.
That’s one of the reasons he put out his latest handbook: “Training Your Dog to Hunt for Shed Deer Antlers.”
It gives a hunter another full season in the field with his dog, Thoms explains, and it’s an opportunity to sharpen the dog’s skills. It has the added benefit of keeping hunter and canine in good physical condition for all their outdoor pursuits.
Right now, Thoms is mentoring a young SDSU football player, Kyle Dykstra, nurturing a fledgling outdoors career and helping him train his 3-year-old German shorthair, a former rescue dog named Sam.
“Sam has all the right instincts,” Thoms says, “but we’ve yet to proceed to live birds.”
As for Dykstra, he’s dead-set on a career in outdoors reporting – print or broadcast – and despite the gloomy outlook for freelancers, Thoms says Dykstra’s future is bright. He’s happy to act as a mentor for a newcomer.
He’s talented, the professor explains. He pauses, and with a sly grin, adds, “And then there’s the fact that at 6-4, 260 pounds, Dykstra is just the right-sized companion for hauling around a duck boat.”
Thoms’ pheasant cookbook and his handbooks on shed antler collecting and waterfowl flagging can be purchased directly from the author. He can be reached at 692-5883.
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.