Passing The Torch: A Hunt Is More Than A Hunt At The Hixon Ranch

Sometimes an event has a meaning, a quality, that makes it a metaphor that illustrates truths that soar beyond its physical experience. The 2017 Heritage Hunt this past November 9-12 at the Hixon Land and Cattle Ranch in Cotulla, Texas was such an event. This hunt was the fourth the Hixon family has hosted on its ranch, but the Heritage Hunt has a rich tradition preceding the Hixon family’s participation.

An Inspiring Idea

Twenty-six years ago, Focus Group, Inc. started to publish two magazines, The Hunter’s Handbook, which became the official student magazine of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA-USA) and the companion instructor publication, The Hunter and Shooting Sports Education Journal. These two influential publications are distributed annually to about seven-hundred-thousand students who take the mandated hunter education course and to about fifty-five thousand volunteer instructors throughout North America.

Fourteen years ago, Brian Thurston, president and owner of Focus Group, conceptualized and implemented the first Heritage Hunt. Thurston was motivated by the unarguable truth that, in his words, “Education is a key factor in preserving our hunting heritage.” In an Aristotelean sense, Thurston understood that education is imparted most effectively by doing, by participating, as opposed to wishing or philosophizing.

Commencing with the first hunt, each year three students and a parent and two instructors are drawn in a lottery system from thousands of entries to win what is termed The Heritage Hunt. Focus Group covers 100 percent of the costs from airfare to taxidermy for successful hunters. For the past four years, the Hixon Ranch has hosted the Heritage Hunt.

The 2017 Heritage Hunt student winners were Blake Anderson from Idaho, Michael Fraley from Michigan and Damion Byers from North Carolina. The winning instructors were Michael McDonald from Washington and John Pezzi, from Florida. Brief uplifting footnote: John participated by the grace of his wife, Dorothy. She actually won the lottery but gave the trip to John, a cancer survivor, saying that he doesn’t get out in the woods as much as he should. Classy act, yes?

The Hixon Family Sustains the Hunting Ethic

Tim Hixon and Karen, his wife, own the twelve-thousand-acre Hixon Ranch. They began buying ranch properties in 1964 in the Valley of South Texas. Their roots in Texas hunting are deep and passionate. In 1996 they helped start the Texas Youth Hunting Program (TYHP), spearheaded by their friend, Dr. Wallace Klussman, retired Dean of Wildlife, Texas A&M University. For the past ten years, the Hixon Ranch hosted many hunters in the TYHP and, for the past eight years, has also hosted hunts for the wounded veterans.

Appointed by the governor, Tim and Karen Hixon have each served six-year terms as commissioner for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and are the first husband and wife team to serve twelve years as commissioners.

“We’ve hosted lot of hunts over ten years,” Karen said, “and hope to keep providing more opportunities for groups that promote safe hunting!” When Tim Hixon was asked what he likes the most about hosting hunts on his ranch, he exclaimed, “Watching the kids light up!” Timo, son of Karen and Tim, explained the value of the Heritage Hunt. “Young people are the future of hunting and without these experiences, hunting, and its heritage will be lost.” Timo is proud his family plays a crucial role in preserving the hunting legacy. “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.”

Three years ago, Steve Hall, then Executive Director of the IHEA-USA and now Hunter Education Coordinator for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, asked Timo and his parents to host the Heritage Hunt. 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 the Youth Hunting Program. Steve exulted, “We wouldn’t have youth hunting on private lands in Texas without folks like the Hixons. This is awesome!”

Hunting on the Hixon Ranch

Timo Hixon observes and treasures the bonding between a young hunter and his or her parent or mentor. “They smile together. They work together. They succeed and fail together.” Timo offered this jewel-like insight: “These experiences have worth beyond hunting.” Timo’s words came to life with Blake Anderson’s description of his experience. Upon seeing his buck, Blake said he was nervous at first, but seeing it drop “was something I will never forget.”

During a telephone conversation, I asked why he would never forget that moment. Blake’s uplifting reply affirmed Timo’s observations and the virtue of the Heritage Hunt. “It was the first big game animal I’d ever shot. I was full of adrenaline. I realized I am killing something beautiful. I was proud I made an ethical shot and the deer didn’t suffer.” Blake added, “My dad was also proud of me. He said, “I love ya, son!” The moment was special.” Blake’s exuberance and achievement were illustrative of the sentiments shared by each of the young hunters. Each young hunter harvested a buck.

Brian Thurston described for me the beneficial consequences of the Heritage Hunts. “When these new winners come back home they literally become ambassadors for our sport. We have been doing the Heritage Hunt for fourteen years and I still get letters and photos from previous winners sharing their hunting experiences. It has truly been an honor to be a part of this endeavor.” Not to be overlooked, no hunter would have been successful without ranch manager and guide, Mike Hehman, and the rest of his knowledgeable and patient guides, Blake Martin, Eddie Price, Landon Gulick, Doss Summers and Dale Herrington.

A Community Effort

Not to belabor the obvious, but hunting cannot survive in a vacuum. It needs support. Many dedicated sponsors brought the Heritage Hunt to reality, as they have done for years. The 2017 sponsors were Birchwood Casey, Buck Knives, Cabela’s, Careco TV, Federal Premium/Vista Outdoor, La Crosse Boots, Lansky, Milwaukee Tool, Otis Firearm Cleaning Equipment, Vortex Optics, YETI and EZ Gutter Tools. Each sponsor is committed to safe hunting and to molding hunting’s legacy.

Jon Zinnel, Education Specialist for Federal Premium, reflects the character of every sponsor. He said: “We have been a longtime supporter of many youth shooting sports and mentoring programs across the country including the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA). We are on the front lines with organizations like IHEA that support the National Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation Plan.” Every sponsor advances the noblest of all human activity: Doing good for others. It is a community effort; and the Heritage Hunt community is large.

Venison and Chili and Dove, Oh My!

The participants dined in the main room of the ranch house under a majestic vaulted ceiling. A 180-degree expanse of towering windows seamlessly brought the magnificent acreage to the viewers’ eyes. Indian and cowboy art and artifacts populated the array of book shelves and, along with several animal trophies, decorated the walls. Signed photographs of notables such as John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were tucked away in smaller rooms radiating from the main salon and dining room.

The cuisine was dazzling, which, to me, is one of hunting’s greatest rewards. Chefs Siboney Chapa and the appropriately named Bubba Laughinghouse were culinary titans, serving up fabulous meals every lunch and dinner. The baked ziti pasta with spinach, cheese, sausage, tomatoes and enough garlic, detectable to the Long Island Expressway, was a triumph. A chili and potato au gratin stirred the soul and the dove stuffed with jalapeño peppers and cream cheese wrapped in bacon titillated the palate.

The culinary masterpiece was the fried backstrap of venison. Soft as butter, the venison possessed a layered game flavor and, prudently, was not masked by strong sauces. It reminded me of a rich Cabernet wine. My cut, when I was there two years ago, done rare to medium, was a banquet for the senses. Who needs to go to Michelin-rated restaurants in Paris when you can have Bubba’s and Siboney’s cooking in South Texas? As part of the community on the ranch, other family members, Gabe, Trey, AJ and Biancha Chapa, and friend, Robert Vasquez, also made sure the overall experiences, such as processing game and grilling steaks, were all part of their “dream hunts.”

A Triumph of Game Management

The high quality of the animals on the Hixon Ranch, including what some knowledgeable folks refer to as “monster bucks,” is the consequence of hard work and sophisticated game management by Mike Hehman, hunt manager at the ranch for the past ten years.  Mike explained, “It is important to look at deer numbers, age and genetics when managing the herd –along with continually improving the habitat through various practices.”

Paul Fraley, Michael’s dad, pointedly commented on the size of some of the bucks. “Huge,” he said emphatically. Not only has the deer quality increased but they are also seeing healthy numbers of other species, such as bobcats, rabbit and large quail populations. The Friday evening before the first hunt, Mike gave the new hunters a big-picture perspective: “Have great time but know you also are helping with the ranch’s management goals!”

Passing the Torch: Providing the “Why”

Steve Hall immediately grasped the symbolism of the torch referenced in this article’s title. “The torch,” Steve noted, “is a light, a fire, and as such, it can be a beacon, give direction and provide protection. But it can also be extinguished. It can be smothered and put out. It can be passed on to others, even for generations, but passing the torch requires will and the skill to do so.”

The anti-hunter and organizations like the Orwellian-named Humane Society of the United States are not the greatest threats to hunting. The greatest threats can be of our own making: failing to pass on the legacy; failing to define the “why” of hunting in a persuasive and powerful way. The virtues of hunting are jeopardized when we, as hunters, parents and instructors, do not see hunting’s value and, even when we see it, when we lack the ability to articulate its value.

Whenever I write an article or give a lecture, one foundational question I ask, and try to answer, is “Why is this important?” As with a society, hunting will not survive if it does not have a reason to survive; if there is no meaning achieved by its survival. Hunting goes beyond the act of killing or harvesting an animal. Hunting represents a character; an ethos, a relationship between the individual and the land; of free-born spirits entitled to enjoy Nature’s bounty, accept risks and failure and commit to conserving something larger than themselves.

Hunting is a complex process that calls upon many skills and traits to do it honorably. My friend, Melissa Bachman, writes in her illuminating essay, What Kids Can Learn From Hunting, “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.

Hunting is, thus, more than an economic issue; more than a conservation goal, more than experiencing the outdoors. It is all of those characteristics, of course, but hunting is, above all, a profoundly moral issue. The American hunter is the greatest source of good on the planet for habitat reclamation; educating about hunting and conserving animals. Without honorable hunters, hunting will not survive in the world of public opinion or in the political arena.

There is no guarantee that what we hunters had yesterday and have today will exist in the future. Even great legacies can disappear quickly like smoke at a campfire, “not with a bang,” in T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase in The Hollow Men, “but with a whimper.” Folks such as the Hixons, Steve Hall, Brian Thurston, the many sponsors and the innumerable volunteers understand several truths.

A heritage does not advance itself. It needs advocates. It needs people to persuasively articulate the value of the heritage. If the hunting heritage is to resonate like a violin string across generations, linking them with an enriching tone and passion, skill and will are required. Borrowing a phrase from the laws of trusts and wills, the hunter is both a beneficiary and a trustee of hunting’s legacy. It’s a battle and every hunter on every hunt is crucial in that battle. The Hixon family and the other Heritage Hunt supporters understand this and, more critically, they take action to advance the truths they understand.

Brad Heidel, Executive Director of the IHEA-USA, states the organization’s mission is “to teach safe, responsible, knowledgeable and involved hunting and shooting practices.” The golden nugget in his phrase is “involved hunting.” You don’t travel to the Hixon Ranch, shoot a deer, have a great meal or two, then go home, post photos on your wall and allow life’s currents to carry you far from the hunting experience. Brad encourages students to get involved; to read, to continue to learn, to understand the “why” of hunting and thereby become an advocate for it and its noble culture.

Steve Hall sees another level in the IHEA’s mission: beyond creating responsible ethical hunters, strong confident competent hunters must be nurtured who will defend and advance hunting as advocates, without apology or hesitation. If the new students lack virtuous character and honor, each will aid and abet the demise of hunting and its culture. The hunting culture is US! Either we fortify it, or we lose it. There is no third way.

The Hixon Family, Steve Hall, Brian Thurston and thousands of volunteers provide not only the “why” for hunting, the meaning of hunting, but they provide the “how,” without which, hunting would not exist. For that, every person in the hunting community should be grateful—and proud. As Ira Gershwin wrote in I’ve Got Rhythm, “Who could ask for anything more?”– Michael G. Sabbeth

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