Reflections on Texas, the outdoors and 40 years of writing and photography (with podcast interview)
September’s arrival marks a time of transition for Texas’ natural world and those whose hearts and actions are tied to the rhythms of land, water, sky and the life in, on and over it.
This makes the month special for all Texans, but especially those of us who fish or hunt or otherwise spend time engaged with the natural world. For many of us, it’s the de facto start of our new year, with the first day of the month marking the start of the state’s hunting/fishing license year, the opening of the first of fall’s many hunting seasons, the first major waves of migratory birds arriving from the north and the first surges of the annual autumn bull redfish “run” along the beachfront.
September has always been a benchmark month of personal transition, too. It’s the month I arrived, born a seventh-generation native Texan blessed to become part of a family deeply connected to this singular land, its culture and history and natural world.
Those connections, nurtured and encouraged, led (inevitably, it seems) to a life, academic track and professional career revolving around them. For the past 40 years, I have made a living as a newspaper journalist, almost all that time — the last 30 of them on the staff of the Houston Chronicle — reporting, photographing and writing about outdoor recreation, the natural resources on which those activities depend and the issues and public policy surrounding them.
But as this September dawns, that changes. After four decades, I’m retiring from the newspaper profession. This is the final piece I’ll offer as the Chronicle’s “outdoors” writer.
The long road to this day has been, at its heart, a journey of discovery. It has offered me the chance to be in the front row, backstage and right there in the middle of the stage of Texas’ outdoors, an observer, participant and chronicler of that world. And through it all a voice somewhere deep always whispered a reminder that this is a rare and precious opportunity to be treated as an honor and a responsibility.
I’ve tried to follow that voice, and to find my own.
Along the way, I’ve witnessed and wondered at much. Far too much for anything approaching a fitting cataloging. But some things — some transitions and changes — beg to be noted. So, I will, randomly and with some personal perspectives shaped over the decades.
The past 40 years or so have been a mixed bag for outdoor recreation and Texas natural resources, with some tremendous highs and heartbreaking lows and, in too many cases, an uncertain and challenging future.
When I began my career, Texas management of its wildlife and fisheries was much different, mostly focused, in too many instances, on maximum exploitation instead of sustainability, with little thought given to wildlife and fisheries resources without sporting value.
There were no bag limits on many saltwater fish and a commercial finfish fishery plundered those resources. Most freshwater species had laughably liberal limits and no limits in many cases.
I watched and chronicled as Texas, led by a coalition of enlightened scientist/managers, public policy makers and a public that demanded action, dramatically changed that.
Today, Texas’ fisheries — inland and marine — are some of the most well-managed and robust in the nation. Texas’ largemouth bass fishery — and its management of those fisheries — is the envy of every other state. The same applies to the state's coastal fisheries which has maintained and even enhanced most inshore fisheries. It is not coincidental that Sept. 1 sees a rule reducing bag limits on speckled trout to five fish per day take effect on the entire Texas coast.
Such changes — using hard science and the hardnosed policy decisions that science supported — have so far succeeded despite the tremendous pressure placed on those fisheries by a Texas population that has doubled over my career and promises to double again before midcentury.
That booming human population and the ceaseless changes it has wrought, and continues at a startlingly mindless pace, on the landscape and the life on it have been profound. Quail are a good example.
When I was a young adult, a quarter-million Texans hunted quail each autumn and winter. Today, that number struggles to hit 50,000 during increasingly rare “good” quail years when environmental conditions — mainly the amount and timing of rainfall — helps the beleaguered birds. Changes in the Texas landscape have resulted in quail populations blinking out or reduced to remnant numbers in regions the iconic game birds (and many of their fellow ground-nesting relatives) once thrived.
I grew up hunting quail in East Texas, following my grandfather and father and great-uncles along overgrown fencerows and pastures wooly with bluestem grass where coveys of bobwhites would explode in a roar like so many feathered rockets. Today, a person would be hard pressed to hear a quail’s signature call anywhere in the eastern half of the state or anywhere outside the Brush Country of South Texas, the Rolling Plain of north Central Texas and the ever-shrinking patches of native grasslands on what’s left of the coastal prairie.
East Texas still holds a strong population of squirrels. But participation in pursuing these classic small-game animals has faded as much or more so than participation in quail hunting. During autumns and winters in the late 1970s, more than a quarter-million hunters pursued squirrels in the Pineywoods. Today, fewer than a third of that number slip into the hardwood bottoms to learn what hunting is really all about while gaining the main ingredients of a pot of squirrel and dumplings. The loss, culturally as well as well recreationally, is acute if almost unrecognized outside of a few who know the true value of time spent in the squirrel woods on a cool, still November morning.
Many Texans — 700,000 or so — still spend November (and December and January) mornings afield pursuing the state’s most popular and populous game animal, white-tailed deer. But the changes in Texas’ deer and deer hunting have been a very mixed bag.
White-tailed deer have boomed in Texas over the past 40 years, wildlife managers, hunters and landowners have learned how to manage land and harvest to best benefit those deer as well as the other wildlife. Hunting season lengths and bag limits are liberal — much more liberal than 40 years ago — and deer are thriving in areas from which they were absent barely a generation ago.
But a dark side to deer and deer hunting has emerged over the past couple of decades. The rise of the “deer industry” and its practices of pen-raising deer, manipulating their genetics and nutrition to produce large antlers, transporting and releasing them, too often into fenced tracts for “kick and shoot” transactions, has diminished the animals, their status as wild and almost magical creatures and, by association all of deer hunting. That spread of chronic wasting disease, the highly contagious, invariably fatal disease is exacerbated if not almost wholly facilitated by the “deer industry” is even more damning and cause for serious reassessment of the practice.
There’s been so much more change witnessed over the years, good and bad.
The explosion of feral hogs across Texas, and the extreme ecological and economic damage those and an ever-increasing scourge of invasive species level on land, water and the native plants and wildlife.
A significant increase in public hunting lands in Texas and access to those lands. Many of Texas’ state wildlife management areas as well as federal wildlife refuges were created over the past half-century, and public hunting programs have commensurately expanded.
Tremendous changes over the past 40 years in the number and distribution of waterfowl wintering in Texas, and the waterfowlers who hunt them. Most obvious and heartbreaking is the abandonment of the Texas coastal marshes and prairies by winter geese. Barely a generation ago, more than a million geese — snow, Ross’s, white-fronted and Canadas — wintered on the Texas coast. Recent numbers have struggled to reach 200,000. The paintings of geese on the water tower over Katy, once the center of wintering geese in Texas and the heart of the once-wetland rich Katy Prairie, are the only such glimpses of the birds Houston-area residents are likely to see.
Those birds aren’t gone, they have just shifted traditional wintering areas and now stop in states north of Texas. But their absence leaves a hole in the hearts of Texas waterfowlers and those to whom the voices of geese passing overhead provide some solace to the soul.
Hunting and boating in Texas have become much safer over the past four decades, almost certainly a result of increased education and awareness of safety, new laws and imposition of mandatory education in both activities. As late as the 1970s, Texas saw 50-80 hunting-related fatalities a year. In the wake of mandatory hunter education requirements for those born after Sept. 2, 1971, those numbers began plummeting, falling to fewer than five most years.
Boating safety also has much improved and for many of the same reasons. When I began my career, boating-while-intoxicated cases were seldom if ever filed. It wasn’t because drunk boating didn’t occur, but because getting a conviction was impossible; the state statute making it a violation to boat while intoxicated didn’t define “intoxicated.” The Legislature finally corrected that oversight a couple of decades ago and public waters are much safer for it. Boaters are safer, too, because of rules mandating boater education courses, wearing of PFDs and kill switches on personal watercraft, and, beginning today, mandatory use of kill switches on powered boats less than 26 feet in length.
Covering issues has been satisfying and important, but the time spent afield has been the most personally rewarding.
I have caught a lot of fish, hunted a lot of covers, paddled magnificent places such as the Devils River. But I’ve also held live ocelots and Attwater prairie chickens in my arms, placed my hands upon red wolves and tried to tell their stories. And the stories of the people who worked in service to those creatures and so many others. Spending time with and learning from the scores of scientists, guides, field technicians and other sources has been a highlight. I could never have done my job without their time, knowledge, patience and trust.
More important have been readers. Their — your — support, ideas, comments, criticism, feedback have been crucial to showing me the way and pointing me to what’s important. Through it all, I’ve tried to offer readers something worthy of the investment they make.
I’ve worked with hundreds of coworkers. Almost to a person, they have been bright intellects, smart, sharp, creative, informed, honest, honorable and talented. I learned from every one of them.
It is telling, I think, to note that the closest, strongest, longest and most important relationships in my life were forged with people I met traveling the paths of this profession.
Now, at the end of what was a long and eventful journey, answers to a question I’ve had for decades seems perhaps within reach. It involves a photograph.
The 115-year old photo is a bit blurry and so under exposed it is more silhouette than anything else. But the image’s meaning and message — a combination of allegory and elegy — have been unmistakable and everlastingly burned to crystalline sharpness in my mind since I first saw and was smitten at least a half-century or so ago.
Six figures astride horses, five in single file and one slightly to the left, slowly move away from the camera lens and along a well-trod trail through an austere landscape. To the side and ahead of them down the trail looms the high, black walls of a mountain, its features amorphous but rimmed with a thin strip of halo-like light.
Five of the six riders look ahead as their tired mounts resignedly shuffle along.
He appears raised in the saddle and twisted sideways, right arm extended with hand braced on his mount’s croup. He looks back, down the trail he’s traveled.
The photograph was taken in 1904 by Edward S. Curtis, who spent several years bracketing the turn of the past century photographing and chronicling Native Americans as they and their cultures navigated a world wholly and rapidly transformed from the one into which many had been born. His work is singular.
Curtis’ photograph of the six Navajos on their horses, long on the trail and headed toward an indistinct destination, is perhaps his most famous and certainly his most iconic. Its symbolism is undeniable. It has haunted me since the first time I saw it.
I have always wondered what that horseman looking back down the trail he’d traveled was seeing, thinking and feeling.
Now, I think I know. And maybe understand. At least a little and in my own way.
It has been quite the ride.
Bless all of you who have shared any part of it.
Shannon Tompkins covers outdoor recreation and natural resource issues for the Chronicle. He is a seventh-generation Texan.
Published on: January 24, 2019 at 9:43 PM
On the inaugural episode of the Catch Curve, host Robert Jones sits down with legendary outdoor writer Shannon Tompkins to discuss the environmental, political, and policy changes he has observed over his 40-year career with the Houston Chronicle. Tompkins is a past president of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association and his reporting has won national and state awards to include the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Environmental Reporting Award, multiple Excellence in Craft awards from the Texas Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and an award from the Texas bureau of The Associated Press.