Millions of dollars will be spent in coming weeks on hunting and fishing licenses as hundreds of thousands of Texans and nonresidents ante up with huge expectations for their small slices of free time looking for paradise.
And while there will be standard questions about previous hunting activity and how many game birds you may have harvested this past season, there won’t be any inquiries about your ethical approach to outdoor pursuits or about your willingness to hunt and fish with others.
Perhaps there should be.
We Texans love our outdoors. There’s no question about that. However, even in the massive reaches of what no doubt is the best locale in the country for myriad pursuits, we’re running out of room. There are millions of acres of land and water open to public hunting and fishing if you can get there, but I’m telling you right now, if you don’t like sharing, don’t even pack the truck. You’re almost guaranteed to find people before you find redfish or bass. If you doubt it, try spending any summer Saturday in one of our sparkling bay systems or the same day in the spring on any number of lunker largemouth lairs. And if you really want company, plan an outing for the weekends that include Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Sadly, some outdoor encounters can turn sour at the drop of a hat and escalate into dangerous territory. I recently fished on the notable Kenai River during what turned out to be a historic run of sockeyes and word got out pretty fast about fish staging in saltwater prior to the record dash. I think everyone in Alaska and every angler they knew or were related to from the Lower 48 was there. It was combat fishing in all its congested glory with people packed along shorelines flinging weighted lines in every conceivable way. However, during the trip I never once saw anyone get upset or irate about having to stop fishing while someone fought a surging salmon right in front of them. It likely was because there were so many fish it was only a matter of time until each angler bagged their limit and left, leaving space for others.
However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen or heard disheartening tales of people getting violent over actions they perceived to be disrespectful. I recall an account on a similar day at a cleaning table that ended with someone getting the wrong end of a fillet knife over a dispute involving angling turf even though any area open to fishing is public once you’re in the river.
I hate to say it, but I’ve seen quarrels locally, too. A friend invited me on a May excursion to Lake Alan Henry about five years ago and it started out as a fantastic trip. We hit a number of shallow coves and found some good spotted bass in addition to respectable largemouths, but in one particular area accessible to anyone by boat we met an incensed gentleman who ran right up on us and had some choice words. Apparently that was his honey hole and we were wrong for even thinking of dipping a lure there. It wasn’t even worth arguing a variety of valid points so we decided to simply move and hit another spot. The best part was we caught fish there, too.
To be totally honest, I’m not beyond reproach in having “this is my water” thoughts along public access tracts. It’s downright discouraging to rise before dawn with all your stowed gear ready and waiting only to discover that someone else beat you to your favorite bend in the river where you’ve caught numerous brown trout or your idyllic saltwater flat that has produced solid redfish each and every time.
The best thing you can do is chalk it up and wish that person or their group luck.
However, I’ve also been in a boat and happened upon other anglers who were trespassing or bumped into hunters doing the same. In those cases, there is no excuse for that behavior even if someone claims they didn’t realize what they were doing. Nowhere is this reasoning used more often than during December pheasant hunts in the Panhandle. It’s tough to keep track of how many times I’ve seen or heard about a group of folks departing a field they absolutely knew was private, their vests brimming with colorful quarry. In a couple of instances, they met game wardens.
I know there also are many hunters and landowners who are afflicted with “that is my deer” syndrome when in fact even wildlife under a high fence neither belongs to nor are owned by anyone. I remember as a youngster we had a family lease in Central Texas where we spent as much time as possible during deer season. We never had occasion to meet hunters on neighboring pieces of land, but after erecting a tower tripod stand within sight of a fence line, something that is as common a practice as using deer feeders, we learned that sometimes you don’t want to know your neighbors. On a preseason trip to make sure everything was up and running, we discovered that the seat on the stand had been perforated with what looked like a couple of accurately placed shotgun slugs.
We got the meaning in the message, but we also replaced the seat and found out exactly who owned the neighboring tract and who was leasing it, and there were no more issues after that even though a box blind was erected nearby on the other side of the fence.
During the next few months from east to west and north to south we’ll be sharing some of our favorite places that we find most dear with more than a million others, who may or may not be our future friends. My advice is to celebrate all that we have to legally enjoy, take in the beauty of nature and never leave your manners at home. I know you may still get an awkward glance every once in a while with a “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” but it never hurts to be courteous.
And that civility may just get you access to your own private paradise.