by Michael G. Sabbeth
Sometimes an event is infused with a meaning, a character, that goes beyond the details of the event itself. The experience has a message and an ethos that inspire the participants to pursue a higher virtuous purpose. The Heritage Hunt at the Hixon Ranch was such an event.
This past November 7th through the 9th, the Hixon Land and Cattle Ranch near Cotulla, Texas hosted the winners of the 2015 IHEA-USA Heritage Hunt. The hunt is sponsored by Focus Group, Inc. in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA-USA). Hunter education students Bailey Maier from New York, Tim Coe from Kentucky and Madi DeGarmo from Idaho won an all-expense paid ‘hunt of a lifetime’ when their entries were drawn from those submitted to the IHEA Heritage Hunt contest in the Hunter’s Handbook, (www.huntershandbook.com) the official student publication of the IHEA-USA.
To qualify to win, all students must have successfully passed a sanctioned IHEA course in North America. Rick Webber from Washington and Theodore Loftis, Sr. from Tennessee were the winning volunteer hunter education instructors invited to join this special event.
Focus Group pays for and sponsors The Heritage Hunt along with a generous grant from the SCI Sables. Additionally, Focus Group partners including Buck Knives, Cabela’s, Federal Ammunition, Under Armour, Mossberg, HIVIZ Sights and GrovTec, made in-kind contributions. All filming was done by videographer Cody Prather with CarecoTV based in San Antonio, Texas.
The transcendent themes of the Heritage Hunt are captured in Focus Group President Brian Thurston’s eloquent statement: “This hunt allows Hunter’s Handbook and its partners to not only award instructors for their hard work and dedication in the field, but also offers young hunters a unique experience that will keep them engaged in hunting while learning hands-on field safety and hunting success.”
The Hixon Land and Cattle Ranch
The ranch is owned by Karen and Tim Hixon, two gracious and charitably-disposed people steeped for decades in Texas conservation programs and organizations. The Hixons began buying ranch properties in 1964 in the Texas Valley of South Texas and now have acquired approximately 13,000 acres. The main ranch house has a high vaulted ceiling of massive timber and a 180-degree expanse of towering windows that seamlessly bring the magnificent acreage to the viewers’ eyes. Rough-hewn wood tables and comfortable plush leather chairs and sofas create a welcoming atmosphere. Dozens of shelves are populated with Indian and cowboy art and artifacts; animal trophies decorate the walls. Signed photographs of notables such as John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are tucked away in smaller rooms radiating from the main salon and dining room.
Timo, Karen and Tim’s son, participated in every facet of the program. Two years ago Steve Hall, then Executive Director of the IHEA-USA and now TPWD’s Texas Hunter Education Coordinator, asked Tim and his parents to host the program. Timo agreed because he and his family recognized the role of youth hunting in game management, conservation and protecting hunting’s future. The Heritage Hunt was another extension of their past involvement in programs such as TPWD and Texas Wildlife Association’s Youth Hunting Program (www.tyhp.org). Steve pointed out “We wouldn’t have youth hunting on private lands in Texas without folks like the Hixons. This is awesome!” Events such as the Heritage Hunt punch into the solar plexus of what Steve Hall laments as the current status of modern youth: a Nature Deficit Disorder.
Timo explained that the Heritage Hunt is important to him and his family because young people are the future of hunting and without these experiences, hunting, and its heritage will be lost. “These hunts are a way for my family to advance a culture, instill respect for the land and the animals and pass those values to the next generation.” Particularly meaningful to Timo was seeing the bonding between a young hunter and his or her parent or mentor. “They smile together. They work together. They succeed and fail together. These experiences have worth beyond hunting.”
Hunting at the Hixon Ranch
The first full day we were up at five in the morning, not my favored time for opening the aging eyes and greeting the birds and rising sun. Hot breakfast, hot coffee and a selection of snacks were available to the gathering hunters and guides. Our experienced guides, Landon Guilick; Brad Detmore; Gabe Chapa, Doss Summers, Mike Hehman and Eddie Price, exhibiting more energy than I could muster, were assigned to the young hunters and the instructors. The weather was cool and wind minimal. The intermittent rain from the previous day seemed to have left town. The day was perfect for hunting.
I went into the field mid-afternoon. Doss deposited me and Rick Webber at a well-crafted metal blind with plenty of room to move around and slots in all walls for observing and placing a rifle. Many qualities are required to increase the odds for a successful hunt. Patience is one of them; and it is not my strong suit. I opened a slot and looked at the magnificent scenery; magnificent in the sense that it was bathed in tranquility and silence, at least for me. For some of the animals, life is drenched in the unrelenting tensions of self-preservation.
What appeared to be a large doe ambled into our shooting lane perhaps 300 yards away. I maneuvered my CZ 6.5 x 55 Swedish rifle into position. Rick glassed it and concluded it was very young. I brought the rifle back to an upright position and opened the bolt. A chorus line of javelina (collared peccary) traipsed into our line of sight. A few looked large but when they marched right in front of the blind, their mass seemed to diminish like a melting snowman. A coyote appeared on a road several hundred yards away. We glassed it through the binoculars like dogs eyeing a distant bone. It never came into range. I thought of Oscar Wilde’s statement: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.” Not having a legitimate shot, we didn’t take one.
The reality of hunting is strikingly different from watching hunting highlights on hunting TV shows—magnificent animals wandering by or being tracked, then the perfect shot from bow or rifle, the clean kill and the congratulatory satisfaction of a job well done. Then a break for a commercial. More realistically, hunting is tedium; waiting for hours, days or weeks to pull the trigger or release an arrow. Steve Hall opined that as a consequence of that distortion of reality, we tend to become spectators rather than participants in the hunt.
The hours ticked away, as time tends to do, until a rich pastel red and pink sunset bathed the west. As the starlit sky began to darken, Doss returned to take us to the ranch. Although neither Rick nor I took an animal, by the end of the program, Tim and Madi got lovely bucks and Bailey got a doe and a spike.
Panning for Gold
Talking with Tim and Kem Coe
I spent a lot of time talking with the participants and organizers. I talk with people as a prospector pans for gold: I look for gleaming nuggets of information, stories, experiences and arguments that enable me to be a better thinker, a more impacting writer and a more skilled instructor. I struck gold at the Hixon Ranch.
Tim Coe and his father, Kem, happened to be sitting at the table where I was chatting with Leaha Wirth, National Sales Manager for The Hunter’s Handbook and the driving force orchestrating this event. I struck up a conversation with Tim. I sought insights into the thinking and concerns of young hunters, which is important because about 50% of hunter education students are eighteen years old or younger. Tim thinks a lot before answering questions, and sometimes his words come out as slowly as drizzling chilled honey. They were worth the wait.
Tim’s grandfather encouraged him to take a hunter education course. Tim began hunting small game in Kentucky with an aged single shot rifle and advanced to a .308 for big game. Everyone in his family hunts, including his mother and his sister. Hunting, Tim told me, teaches many virtuous traits, such as valuing the outdoors as well as life skills such as self-reliance, self-discipline, and, above all, respect for the lives of the animals.
Pride motivates Tim to be a responsible hunter “A key issue is safety,” Tim said. “You see what a firearm can do.” Tim’s next words dazzled me. “Hunting is the best way to teach ethics. You see animals wounded or killed. You owe the animal to be a good hunter.” From such a young man, is this not a golden nugget?
Tim pointed out that the best instructors teach him to think of honor and character as he considers doing something. He added, “They make me feel I can make a difference in protecting wildlife. They make me think I can do something good for future hunters.”
We changed topics and talked about hunters being condemned by their peers. Since most of his friends hunt, Tim has not found this to be an issue. He brushes off negative comments. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t pay attention to them.”
I asked if Tim if he had ever been called a murderer because he hunted. As he began to answer, his dad interrupted. “Let me tell you about one of my experiences,” Kem said. He was about twenty years old, a student at Lindsey Wilson College, a small college in south central Kentucky, taking pre-pharmacy courses. A new professor from New York City asked if he hunted. “Yes,” Kem replied. The professor then vilified him. “You are no different from a person that kills a family!” Many people, perhaps most, in Kem’s position would have lashed out at the professor with the savagery of a momma bear protecting her cubs. Kem maintained a stunning poise although he confided he fought an impulse to slap her.
With dignity and restraint, he made the professor an offer she, evidently, couldn’t refuse. “Why don’t you and your son stay for a weekend with me and my family at our farm?” She accepted his offer. Kem’s farm was in Turkey Neck Bend, Monroe County, Kentucky. When the professor saw her first deer, she exclaimed, “I didn’t realize you had deer here!” Kem chuckled.
The professor admitted she had no insight into the conservation component of hunting or game management. She learned how hunters work to preserve animals. In a remark that most of us would find to be less than an extraordinary epiphany, she said: “I now see that every hunter is not a mindless blood thirsty killer!” Apparently that’s a major insight for many folks from big cities who only know of guns in the context of crime and know of animals only from zoos, a few TV programs and Walt Disney. She returned to Kem’s farm. They became friends. That’s a powerful story, a real chunk of gold with practical application for educators and hunters.
Speaking with Leaha Wirth
Leaha was taking notes as I chatted with Tim and Kem. After Kem shared his professor story, she stopped writing and added some of her perspectives to the conversation. “When the topic is firearms, people will engage in a conversation more quickly and intensely,” she said. “It’s a good topic to learn about responsibility. An informed hunter then has an opportunity to reach and persuade people in a non-threatening way.”
Leaha continued. “Hunting experiences are a vital part of who I am.” It is a forum for communicating values, wisdom and knowledge. “Whether in the field with friends, family or students,” Leaha said, “I can share a one-of-a-kind opportunity. It’s not the kill; it’s the people and the experience; and an intimacy with the amazing Earth, the wildlife.”
Her experience affirmed that the young hunter will come away with a thirst for more experience and knowledge. “That is the emotional foundation for what I do. I can produce positive results.” Her next comment penetrated to the core of the honorable hunter’s character. “There’s an experience you have to own that comes with taking a life.” No excuses. No blaming others. You are accountable. Echoing some of Tim Coe’s comments, Leaha added, “taking a life demands that a respect for life be acknowledged.”
Inherent in hunting are matters of honor, of ethics, of integrity. These traits determine the moral timber of one’s soul. Speaking with increased intensity, Leaha added, “I can make a difference. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s absolutely true. Look at these young hunters! They are the future, and they are marvelous!”
Venison and Chili and Dove, Oh My!
Nutritious delicious cuisine is one of the great rewards from hunting. The chefs at Hixon Ranch were masters, serving up fabulous meals every lunch and dinner. We had baked ziti pasta with spinach, cheese, sausage, tomatoes and enough garlic to be noticeable all the way to downtown Denver. We had dove stuffed with jalapeño peppers and cream cheese wrapped in bacon. But the culinary triumph of the visit was Chef Siboney Chapa’s fried backstrap of venison. Soft as butter, the venison possessed a layered game flavor and was not masked by strong sauces. It reminded me of a rich Cabernet wine. My cut, done rare to medium, was a banquet for the senses. Who needs to go to Michelin-rated restaurants in Paris when you can have Siboney’s cooking in South Texas?
Siboney’s recipe was so marvelous I asked her permission to share it. Here it is:
Fried Back Strap of Venison
Slice venison into 1/4 in. Slices and tenderize.
(To take out any gaminess)
Soak back strap in milk or butter milk for about 10-15min. Some people also use vinegar. I’ve never used it-
While the venison is soaking grab two mixing bowls and a skillet with some oil to fry. In one bowl fill about half way of flour or Panko crumbs, whichever you prefer. Salt & pepper or any seasoning to your liking. – I use Lawerys or Johnnys
Next grab about 5- 7 eggs or more if needed and mix.
By now the back strap is ready to coat with egg and flour.
Time to fry!
Fry about two minutes on each side or until done.
Hunting is a complex process that calls upon many skills and traits to do it honorably. In her illuminating essay, What Kids Can Learn From Hunting, http://blog.winchester.com/2015/what-kids-can-learn-from-hunting/ Melissa Bachman writes: “Spending quality time in the field with kids is priceless, but there are a lot of things that hunting teaches them above and beyond the hunt….. such as physical labor, disappointment, patience, preparation, mental toughness and personal responsibility.” Hunting can provide meaningful lessons for those who have the character and wisdom to learn them.
“Let’s be frank,” as Vito ‘Don’ Corleone said in a different context to Bonasera in The Godfather. One aspect of hunting is taking the life of an animal. There is no joy in watching an animal die. Yet hunting has value and can accomplish noble goals. Without hunting, animals have no value, and without value, the animals will die. That’s reality. Preserving animals means preserving hunting. A lot of people do not like reality. And a lot of people prefer the soothing fantasy world of feeling good rather than doing good. Unfortunately, only the animals suffer in the fantasy world, not the smug anti-hunters.
The informed hunter knows that hunting’s past does not pass on genetically. The past does not guarantee present or future acceptance and support. Hunting must be defended and advanced every day. Steve Hall, Leaha Wirth and the marvelous Hixon family understand the big picture, and part of that picture is encouraging young hunters to accept the duty to keep hunting and the animals sacred and protected. That’s the reality. Honorable people deal with reality, not with wishing and hoping the world would be some other way.
The Heritage Hunt at the Hixon Ranch gave substance to hunting by transforming the idea, the abstraction of hunting, into reality. The young hunters learned that the ideal of hunting cannot materialize without the real world effort. I was enriched by the Heritage Hunt. Meeting dedicated people pursuing a noble cause; spending days under clear skies, breathing air scented more deliciously than the finest perfumes and sharing great food with vibrant young hunters and instructors; well, as Ira Gershwin wrote in the musical I’ve Got Rhythm, Who could ask for anything more?