Bucky Owen: A Good Guide


By Mark McCollough

One of Bucky’s outgoing graduate students took me aside and confided, “Here is the secret of surviving as Bucky’s graduate student. Bucky will have 10 ideas. Your job is to figure out which one is the best!”

If you are fortunate, you will meet generous people in life who will take you under their wing and teach you a thing or two. Forty years ago, I was a wet-behind-the-ears student from Pennsylvania when I arrived to attend graduate school at the University of Maine. One of my wildlife professors at Penn State gave me parting advice, “Look up a professor named “Froggy” or “Bucky” or something like that…you will learn a lot from him.” Maine was all so big and new, and within the first week of arriving I met Bucky Owen at wildlife summer camp in Pittsfield. My life has been richer ever since.

Many of you know Bucky. Maybe he was your ecology instructor at UMaine. Or perhaps you know him as the chair of the Wildlife Department or later as Commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Bucky had a cyclonic career and took Maine by storm. Enthusiastic. Optimistic. Can-do-it attitude. Boundless energy. Bucky made work and learning fun. I learned much in Bucky’s classes, but even more outside the classroom.

Bucky asked me to join him as one of his graduate students to study bald eagles. I turned down a job offer at the new Gates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to stay in Maine another four years. As often happens, a relatively inconsequential decisions would not only change my career path, but my life forever. One of Bucky’s outgoing graduate students took me aside and confided, “Here is the secret of surviving as Bucky’s graduate student. Bucky will have 10 ideas. Your job is to figure out which one is the best!”

Bucky, Charlie Todd (another eagle grad student), and myself concocted many crazy schemes to help Maine’s ailing eagles. Gathering tons of trapped beavers, dead chickens, and road-killed deer and moose to feed eagles in the winter. Sitting under picnic table blind at Cobscook Bay State Park to read the band numbers on eagle’s legs with a telescope. Capturing eagles with padded foothold traps in Cathance Stream. Banding eagle chicks in nests from Debsconeag to Dennysville. Charlie and I swirled in the whirlwind of ideas. They all sounded good!

One of Bucky’s momentous notions was to send me to Pennsylvania to pick up a young eagle from Maine that was shot by a teenage delinquent and would never fly again. We kept the eagle in a University chicken coop, taught him a few manners, and took “Bart” to nearly every school and sportsman’s show in Maine.

Bucky made sure my graduate education went far beyond books, statistics, and how to write scientific papers. On numerous occasions in the 1980s, he took me Atlantic salmon fishing in his vintage wood-and-canvas peapod. I lost track of the salmon I hooked and lost before I finally landed my first on the banks of the Penobscot one memorable morning in October. I had a lightning bolt on the business end of my fly rod. My reverberating knees nearly buckled by the time Bucky netted the salmon.
Most notable was a late-September fishing trip that Bucky, Alder (a Brittany spaniel), and I made to the West Branch of Penobscot in pursuit of landlocked salmon. Bucky was a pioneer of the West Branch, long before it became the fabled fishing water that it is today. We departed near Lobster Lake in a 20-foot wood-and-canvas canoe and with a motor borrowed from Dr. Mal Coulter (bartered in exchange for valuable fishing reconnaisance). We camped on Big Island and visited fishing holes named The Big Pine, Fox Hole, and many other secret holes that Bucky knew. He had names for all of them.

The fishing was glorious, and the salmon were unusually feisty. Bucky and I kept score of how many missed strikes and salmon we landed and released. The person who landed the last fish lost their preference of which side of the canoe to fish from. I had never experienced such grand fishing. After cascading down numerous stretches of fast water and riffles we finished the day at the Fox Hole. Being the neophyte, I asked Bucky, “How do we get back to the campsite.” Nonchalantly he answered, “This is why I brought you along!”

We swapped places in the canoe while Bucky gave me a lecture in how to finesse a canoe upriver. At first the wobbly-legged apprentice wielding a 15-foot pole lost two canoe lengths for every one made forward. Easing the bow into the current from the shelter of a rock, the canoe would arc downriver and I would have to find a new purchase to plant the pole and get the canoe headed upstream. However, with further tutelage from the professor, I was soon struggling, then streaking up the rapids. Alder fell asleep, as did Bucky, so I guess I graduated with a passing grade from Canoe Poling 101.

I stayed in Maine and eventually led the endangered wildlife programs for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Bucky become Commissioner, and he took the Department by storm. I’m not sure what middle management thought of the man in the Commissioner’s chair. Charlie and I secretly shared our wisdom with our co-workers, “Bucky will have 10 ideas. Your job is to figure out which one is the best!” Two decades hence, Commissioner Owen’s legacy still persists. He petitioned the Legislature to auction a few moose permits each year, and the proceeds have sent hundreds of kids to conservation camp. His Quality Fishing Initiative of the early 1990’s made sweeping changes to the management of Maine’s wild brook trout and greatly improved the fishery.

In retrospect, all of Bucky’s idea were good. He nominated me as a board member to The American Chestnut Society. He was instrumental in the Penobscot Restoration Project and continues to be active in a dozen conservation programs. Fifteen years ago, he asked me to illustrate some of his articles for the Northwoods Sporting Journal, and eventually I took over his column. One of Bucky’s good ideas? I’ll let you be the judge…

Mark McCollough writes from his home in Hampden, Maine. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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