This past October, on the way back to Houston from San Antonio, I made a deliberate, serpentine detour through much of the prairie on which I hunted waterfowl through the final quarter of the past century.
From the first turn off I-10 around Brookshire, it was obvious that something was missing. The farther I drove, the clearer it became that, in fact, most of that prairie was gone.
Not that long ago, the region supported vast farms that grew hundreds of square miles of mostly rice with the occasional quarter or half section of soybeans, corn, peanuts, and maybe a little winter wheat when weather turned too cold to grow much else.
Today, for a variety of reasons, most of those farms have been divided and subdivided and dissected into lots, which is an oxymoronic term; if you own a lot, as real estate, you dont really own a lot.
Primary crops along those same back roads now are concrete, shingles, cedar fences and swing sets. Oh, and the farmers arent really farmers. Theyre just people who dragged the city to the country.
Theyre not to blame any more than was I for moving to the suburbs. They, too, wanted to breathe fresh(er) air in the morning-- which is farcical, really, if you also measure air quality along the highway between anywhere out there and a downtown office. They wanted to see the occasional wild animal, which I still do despite the sprawl because I know when and where to look.
The drives a beast, as it is from any quadrant of this swelling city in which the population has tripled since I draped my last plastic rag over rice stubble, but its worth every minute of every commute to live where there are still more trees than homes.
Thats the case on the prairie west of Houston, too, where I hunted, but make no mistake that much was sacrificed so that those tens of thousands of people could live out there.
Gone, forever, are tens of thousands of acres of premier waterfowl habitat that supported a couple million ducks and geese and as many or more other birds, plus some better-than-average whitetails, loads of doves, a few decent pockets of quail, and beaucoup rabbits, possums and enough rodents to support some of the fattest red-tailed hawks on the planet.
Gone are pre-dawn drives up a memorable county road along which the first electric light bulb - on the front porch of a farm workers trailer--was a good six miles north of the main highway.
Gone are the caravans of hunters following guides from a half-dozen character-filled starting points to "birdy" fields scouted the previous afternoon.
Gone are the sky-blacking flocks of geese that, on the right morning, might lift off six or eight roosts simultaneously as you wallowed in cold mud and wondered how many of those birds might come your way.
Personally, I recall fields in which there might be 30,000, 40,000, or more snow geese shoulder-to-shoulder in aggressive competition for waste grain. And ducks spooking off their rest ponds at the sight of a hungry bald eagle, then fleeing in synchronized flight like schools of sardines dodging tuna.
And isolated prairie flats--places we guides kept to and for ourselves--where two or three of us could hunt (without clients) and strap a couple of greenheads each.
Not that we didnt have fantastic hunts with those paying customers. I was out there when mallard hens were valued at 100 points toward a 100-point daily bag (which wasnt much fun), and I was there when pintails (drakes or hens) were 10-point ducks against the same tab.
Goose limits varied over the years, as well, but we could always take plenty. My personal best, all over decoys at close range, was 72. Most of us had plenty 20- and 30-goose shoots each season, and my 6-dozen wasnt the most ever hauled to town by the men with whom I hunted.
We worked under different limits almost every year, too. A lot of those guys would swear off waterfowl hunting when they read a new seasons rules then be first to the breakfast buffet on opening day.
Hunting was great fun whatever the limits, which are necessary and fluid to maintain healthy populations and rebuild the ones that need help. That has not changed, and it should not.
How we hunt has changed. There were no ATVs while I guided. If you wanted something in the middle of a muddy field, you threw it over your back (or that of a client) and walked. Now, everything and everyone goes onto a trailer and gets hauled to the sweet spot, then we hide the machine in a corner just before shooting time. I like this way much better.
Where we hunt has changed more than how. Weve moved south and west and east and, to intercept short-stopping geese, far north. The birds go where they must to find food and escape winter, and hunters follow the birds. Same as always.
Progress happens. The older I get, the more I wish it didnt happen so quickly.