John Sloan has spent a goodly part of his 75 years in the woods and on the water and perhaps almost that much time wrangling with words on paper.
He’s been writing for over 60 years and scribbled millions of words that have been set in ink between the pages of a slew of magazines and newspapers.
“I’ve written over 5,000 articles and some of ’em are actually true,” said Sloan, who terms his writing style as nostalgic fiction. “Writing is my No. 1 passion, but my hunting and fishing fuels that passion.
“For many years I made a decent living as a writer. I’ve written screenplays, books, videos and many newspaper and magazine articles. I have the longest continuously running outdoor column in the world — since 1978.”
The weatherworn wordsmith has churned out a lifetime’s worth of tales for most major hunting and fishing publications and his appropriately titled “Outdoors” column has been running in The Wilson Post since 1987. Along the paper trail he has captured over 150 awards including the 2002 President’s Award for best outdoor story of the year.
Teacher got his dander up
The hunting and fishing came first. The writing gene burst forth after he was challenged by a junior high school teacher.
“I had a dried-up old crone for an English teacher in 10th grade. She assigned us to read a story, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,’ one of those old English chronicles that made no sense to us at all. And we were to write down one or two sentences commenting on that story. This was about same time John Glenn was the first man orbiting the Earth. I wrote down that it was written by John Glenn in his spare time as he was orbiting a few miles above the Earth. I thought it was kind of funny but she didn’t think so.
“She blew a fuse and told me, ‘If you think you can write better then you just go write it.’ I went home and wrote a story called ‘The Blue Buck’ on a yellow pad with a No. 2 pencil. The next day she had me read it to the class, and when I got done, they gave me a standing ovation. And that really made her mad,” said Sloan with a grin.
The tale was inspired by Sloan’s first successful deer hunt when he slayed an eight-point buck at the age of 10 in Cocodrie Swamp in Louisiana.
“I sent the story to an editor, Bob Dennie, with an outdoor magazine called ‘The Louisiana Conservationist.’ He used it and paid me three cents a word and sent me a check for $66. It dawned on me that you could make a living doing this.”
Finding his voice
Over the years Sloan earned his pay in a variety of pursuits, from clinging to the backs of bucking broncos and playing in a country band to promoting a national rodeo and selling insurance before finding his sweet spot as an outdoor writer and hunting and fishing guide.
Wilson Post sports editor Tommy Bryan recollects the first time he met Sloan, saying, “He came into my office mad years ago. John had some kind of falling out with a publisher for a newspaper he had been writing for, and said, ‘This is who I am and this is what I can do. This is what I’d like to be paid.’ And I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot and try for six weeks or so, and it’s been in our newspaper ever since.
“As a writer he speaks to the serious outdoorsman in their own language because he’s out there. He’s traveled, camped, hunted and fished all over the world. He speaks from his heart through his keyboard to people just like himself in an entertaining way, and yet there are folks who don’t hunt and fish who turn to his column when they open up the pages of The Wilson Post,” said Bryan.
(Sloan, by the way, offered high praise for Bryan, saying, “I think Tommy Bryan is the best local sportswriter that I’ve ever known, and I worked with a bunch of ’em.”)
Rodeos and broncos
Born in Lincoln, Ill., in 1944, Sloan moved with his family to Pineville, La., when he was 4 after his father, Dr. William Sloan, became superintendent of the State Colony and Training School.
“I had a sister, Elizabeth, who became a professor at Penn State. She was brilliant and was a valedictorian so they always had these expectations for me. I didn’t live up to them. I always wanted to go fish. I lived my entire life outdoors,” recalled Sloan.
Feeling an itch to try college, he called a collegiate rodeo coach in Wyoming and asked if he had a spot for him on the team. The coach told him he had to have a high school diploma.
“I went back to high school for five months. I was 21. I took all the examinations for 11th grade. And I went back to high school for another five months and took the 12th-grade exams,” said Sloan.
Thus, in early September 1968, he entered Casper College as a member of its rodeo team.
“Those years were lean. I was primarily a bareback rider, but I also rode bulls, fought bulls and bulldogged and did a little announcing. I was NIRA (National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association) runner-up bareback rider of the year in 1969 (he has the belt buckle to prove it) and slowly began to make my way in rodeo.
After earning a degree in wildlife biology/communications from Wyoming, Sloan came to Nashville and went to work promoting the Loretta Lynn Longhorn World Championship Rodeo, owned by Lynn and her husband, Mooney Lynn, a former rodeo cowboy.
“Bruce Lehrke (Longhorn Rodeo manager) and I took the rodeo to places they said it couldn’t be done. We took it to Madison Square Garden and all the way down the East Coast. We made a lot of money for cowboys and for rodeo and rewrote the record books in promotion. In the early days of rodeo, you were not allowed to wear any advertising. Bruce and I changed that around. It changed the complexion of rodeo.”
While residing in Music City, the cowboy bumped into a lady named Jeannie while he was dropping off a garbage bag at a dumpster.
“After I met Jeannie, I knew if I married her, I would have to get off the road to make it work. I got completely out of rodeo and walked away, and today every joint in my body hurts. I was spending 280 days on the road and then I went into life insurance,” said Sloan.
The couple wed in 1976 and moved to Wilson County. Jeannie has worked for years as an ultrasound technologist at Women’s Health Center in Lebanon.
“I was good at selling insurance but hated every minute of it,” said Sloan. “One morning I looked at myself in the mirror in my three-piece monkey suit and that was the last time I put on a tie but for one other time. I took a week off and decided to become an outdoor writer. A year later I became editor of ‘Bow and Arrow Hunting Magazine’ and was with them for 17 years.”
In the 1980s he and a partner began operating Buckhorn Guide Service mostly in Tennessee, Illinois and Iowa, but he also took hunters on trips into the Rocky Mountains and three Canadian provinces. These days Sloan continues to take only a few of his favorite clients fishing on Percy Priest Lake and the Caney Fork River.
Fenced in with memories
Sitting in his man cave in a Lebanon subdivision, Sloan is surrounded by mementoes of his life in the rodeo arena and the great outdoors. Among the souvenirs on the wall are rodeo, hunting and fishing photographs, plaques and numerous writing awards including his favorite, the inaugural Frank Bear Golden Eagle Brave Award.
Mounted on one wall is an 8-pound and 14-ounce bass that he yanked out of Center Hill Lake. Near his desk a stuffed bobcat, frozen in time, about to pounce on a quail. A portion of the floor is covered with two bear rugs, one a grizzly and the other a brown. Several deer head mounts and batches of racks are sprinkled around the room.
Asked about his biggest thrill as a hunter, he answers, “That deer on the wall. I killed that deer in Louisiana in 1968 with a bow. He was in a dead run at 30 yards, and I hit him dead center in the heart.”
His second-biggest thrill?
“That bear rug on floor. That was the first bear I ever killed with a bow. Libby thinks that bear is her mother,” he says. referring to the 10-year-old canine in the room that he also fetched from a shelter. “I had dogs all my life. Libby was antisocial but in two minutes she was in my lap. Everywhere I go, she goes. I believe she can drive my truck better than I can.”
As for his favorite place to fish in Tennessee, Sloan says, “That has changed from Center Hill to Percy Priest. If you know what you’re doing, you can catch some pretty big fish on Priest. The key is the weather. You need a light southwest breeze, a cloudy day and a light drizzling rain.”
Sloan mentions that Dr. Jimmy Morris is the best fishing partner he’s ever had.
Morris, who has gone fishing with Sloan dozens of times, mostly on Percy Priest Lake, tells about his first expedition with him.
“Years ago, when John was still active as a fishing and hunting guide, Friendship Christian School had a fundraising event, an auction, and he donated a river trip for two to either Caney Fork River or Smith Fork Creek. So, I bid on that thing and got it, and the second person we took was Ken Snell. That was the first time I met John,” said Morris, a Lebanon physician.
“We went in a little flat-bottom boat and went in mid-morning and got out in mid-afternoon. We stopped on a little sandbar, and he cooked a lunch for us, hushpuppies and fried fish, on the side of the creek. It was a great trip, and Ken Snell talks about that to this day as one of the highlights of anything he’s done.”
A cook in the wild and indoors
Speaking of fried fish, when it comes to fresh fish, Sloan favors the flavor of crappie and walleye and as for his favorite wild game he likes nothing better than a caribou steak.
“I do most of the cooking here at home. A lot of Louisiana stuff,” he says, while confessing he’s addicted to V8 juice and recently gotten to like iced-cold green tea.
Forget trophy deer and monster bass. What Sloan is most proud of are his children. Son Jason teaches and coaches at Hendersonville High School, and daughter Rachael Wrye serves as a school psychologist for Rutherford County schools. And then there are four grandkids: Logan, Grayson, Haven and Charlotte.
As for his most hair-raising experience, that occurred in the late 1990s at the Archery Trade Association when Sloan had his head shaved by Dr. Arnold S. Leonard, a ceremony that raised $40,000 for the ASL Cancer Research Fund. Since then “The Baldy Awards” has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight cancer.
Although he is a man who has slain hundreds of deer, Sloan no longer goes after trophy bucks, and, recently, he admitted he doesn’t even enjoy shooting turkey any more.
“I grew up in a Jewish household,” reflected Sloan. “I didn’t have any religion for a long time. I knew there was a God. I just didn’t pay any attention to Him.”
Several years ago, a dear friend and fellow outdoors journalist, Wade Bourne, prayed fervently with him about a rough patch Sloan was having.
“I asked Wade to baptize me in Percy Priest about three years ago. I haven’t missed much church since,” said Sloan, adding that his friend died not long afterward.
Sloan is active as a member of Fellowship House in Lebanon where they hold “Chicken Church” every Sunday morning and emcees their annual fish fry fundraiser.
While his faith has surged in recent years, Sloan shared that his health has taken a serious downturn this winter. He’s not one to wallow in self-pity nor yearn for sympathy but simply describes things as they are.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever hunt again. I’m in a real quandary. I’m OK sitting down but just can’t stand up. Doctors don’t know what’s wrong with me. I fall down a lot. I been outdoors all my life and now can hardly walk to my bedroom. My wife has been a saint. I can’t even dress myself. This is tougher on her than me. I have no appetite. The neighbors watch over me,” said Sloan.
“I’m worried that I can’t read. I can hardly write. It’s killing me. I type one finger at a time. I’m normally four weeks ahead with my newspaper columns and now only one week ahead. I went through something 13 years ago and spent 10 days in coma at Vanderbilt Hospital. I had been at a Cumberland University basketball game and was not feeling good. I passed out. I never did find out what it was but it went away. I’m hoping that will happen again.”
Sloan’s legion of readers will be hoping and praying for the same.