The problem with getting older is that your friends, in my case hunting and fishing partners, do as well. And, over time, some of them fall off the trail.
That happened a few weeks ago with the death of my friend -- hunting and fishing partner and fellow outdoor writer Ray Sasser.
I first met Ray in 1983 in Tyler where he had come for a fundraising banquet to help push a movement that moved statewide wildlife and fisheries rule-making away from county commissioners and state legislators to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and its commissioners.
Ray was no stranger to East Texas. He was raised in Pineland and graduated from West Sabine High School (“If it was East Sabine, it would have been in Louisiana,” he once told me). He went from there to Stephen F. Austin State University and a professional career that took him to Lufkin, Port Arthur and Dallas where he worked at both major papers. His stories and pictures could also be found in outdoor magazines nationwide.
He was an award-winning writer, most recently awarded with induction into the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens and with the T. Boone Pickens Lifetime Sportsman Award from Park Cities Quail. Ray was both humbled and amused by the honors, but those who knew him know they were just honors.
But Ray wrote for his readers, not awards.
There is no telling how many miles I traveled with Ray hunting or fishing in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico and Mexico, or how many hours we spent on the phone talking about the outdoors, outdoor issues and just life in general. We did not always agree on issues and that helped keep one or the other from going off the ledge on an issue more than once.
One of the perks of our friendship and job is that it got us inside the gates of some pretty remarkable ranches around the state and onto some great fishing lakes.
To say Ray loved the outdoors would be a gross understatement. I never knew of him taking a family vacation unless it included hunting or fishing.
But anything outdoors, especially in Texas, was of interest to him. For us, that often meant side trips to watch birds or see a natural site or park.
On one occasion, we were on the Texas coast and he wanted to make a run through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just to see if any whooping cranes had arrived yet. As I stepped out of the truck in the parking lot, there was a 10-foot alligator that was taking up half the parking space next to us. We both grabbed our camera and started taking pictures of it and of each other as the not-so-wise tourist getting too close to an alligator to take pictures.
As we climbed the observation tour to look for birds, we heard a woman’s voice coming from the parking lot. “Excuse me, is this a real alligator.” In Ray’s typical dry humor, he responded, “This isn’t Wally World, lady. They don’t have fake ones.”
I never heard Ray tell an actual joke, but it was that type of humor that kept me laughing for years. Nothing was too sacred to be joked about in one fashion or another. In fact, when he was first diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma about six years ago, we immediately began the Texas Cancer Tour taking as many hunts and fishing trips as we could -- not knowing which might be the last. Fortunately, it did not come too soon.
As a writer, Ray was one of the two best I have known. Much better than me. He was able to say more with fewer words, putting you in the deer blind, behind the pointer in the field or fighting a bass from the front seat.
He was old-school, writing about where to and how to in a fashion that made his readers want to whether fly fishing for bream or hunting cape buffalo in Africa.
He was also an advocate for hunters, fishermen and everyone else who enjoyed the outdoors, sometimes with the power of the pen and sometimes behind the scenes with a well-placed phone call or two.
Despite failing health, our last trip was to Mexico’s Lake Picachos with Ron Speed Jr. a year ago. Ray was working as hard as ever, at least as much as his body would allow, but we spent time a lot of time just talking as we always had and taking in the world around us. It was the kind of last trip two old partners should take together. The kind the last man standing wants to remember forever.