By Casey Hatcher
Abilene families share their passion for hunting.
September arrives on cue each fall heralding the start of a new school year, the first bite into a funnel cake from the fair, the tense excitement of the first Cowboys game. But for many Texans, September means one thing and one thing only – hunting season has arrived.
For centuries, Texas has been known as a hunting paradise, even to early pioneers and explorers. Today it is even more – a multimillion dollar economic force, as hundreds of thousands of Texans take to the fields each fall to bag their limit in birds and deer. And with conservation always in mind, 100 percent of hunting license fees go to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for wildlife management and habitat restoration.
Events and Traditions
Here in the Big Country, families gather together each year for a time of hunting and feasting. These aren’t just quiet mornings or casual afternoons. No, for these families, hunting is a time-honored tradition. It’s intrinsic. Most of them cannot remember a time in their lives when they weren’t proudly marching into the fields, gun in hand.
Stephen Dennis, an insurance salesman with Perry Hunter Hall, is part of that club.
“Abilene has some of the best bird hunting around,” said Stephen, who has been hunting on various leases around the Big Country for decades. “There is a subdivision just west of Beltway Park Baptist Church. The year before that construction began, I bet there were 10,000, maybe 20,000 dove in that sunflower field. It was just incredible.”
His daughter, Brooke Dennis, will tell you with a smile breaking out on her face what her favorite month is: “September!”
Brooke is a professional tennis instructor at the Fairway Oaks Country Club and an avid hunter who soaks up the outdoors every chance she gets. Her enthusiasm for the sport and for the tradition is evident and began as early as age 7.
“September became, in my mind, better than Christmas, because I knew that it was dove season,” she says “And if dove season was happening, then all of my cousins came into town, and if the cousins came into town, then I got to miss school because we were dove hunting. It just became a tradition.”
That tradition has been a part of their family for the last quarter century. Close family friends who also had children of similar ages to Brooke and her brother Chase would travel from Dallas every fall and eventually bring more friends with them, Stephen recalls.
“Around the first of August, the phone calls would start coming,” he says. “And when the season got here we’d end up with a party at our house with maybe 40 or 50 people – the wives, the kids – it was more than just a dove hunt, it was an event.”
Stephen said he considers himself fortunate to have married Denise, a hunting enthusiast herself. From the time they were married, outdoor trips and hunting excursions were normal family outings. Chase and Brooke would tag along until they were old enough to hunt themselves.
Some girls might not be bothered to miss an invitation to wake up at 4 a.m. to hunt, but Brooke certainly did.
“I would get so mad if they didn’t wake me to go hunt,” she says. “I wouldn’t talk to them the rest of the day!”
To say that the Dennises are seasoned marksman would be a smooth understatement. They are members of the Abilene Gun Club and have even had family reunions there. Chase trained for several years to make the Olympic Trap team. And even now Brooke is looking to purchase a new shotgun for her collection.
“Some of my best childhood memories are when my dad would get me out of school to go hunting,” she said. “It’s something I hope to pass onto my own children.”
Her dad agrees. “We would like to do this and will try to do this for as long as we can, with as many people as we can.”
For Luke McSherry, dove hunting is a journey. This fall marks 10 years he has made a nearly 500-mile trek to the tiny South Texas town of Progreso. Not to be confused with Nuevo Progreso of Mexico, this border town is considered a gateway into the Texas Rio Grande Valley via the international bridge for travelers arriving from Mexico.
Luke, the landscape manager at Abilene Christian University, and his father, Kevin, a banker at First Bank of Texas, have been meeting family and friends there since 2004. The location is a familiar one for Luke and his family. His mother, Connie McSherry, was born and raised between Edinburg and McAllen and still has family there.
Luke bought his first shotgun when he was 7 years old and can remember hunting with his father and uncle as early as the age of 10. Currently Luke carries a 12-gauge Beretta shotgun as his bird-hunting companion.
A special season on white-winged dove in South Texas sets specific restrictions for hunters. For several weeks, the birds may only be hunted on the weekends and at certain times during the day.
“The last time we went, we hunted on 40 acres of sunflowers and the birds just dive-bombed those fields,” Luke said.
The McSherrys and their fellow hunters generally do a large hunt on a Saturday, then spend most of Sunday grilling and enjoying the day. With multiple travel trailers set up, coolers scattered about, and barbecue pits fired up, it’s basically a big party, Luke says.
Though 10 family members may be in attendance, their group has had anywhere from 60-70 people at the hunt and cookout. Perhaps the biggest irony of their hunting tradition would be that the group does not actually cook their dove after the big kill.
“Normally we don’t eat them when we do our barbecue,” he said. “We typically have steaks or seafood and everyone just keeps their own dove.”
Progreso may be another town, in another region, within miles of another country, but for Luke McSherry, “it’s a long drive, but it’s worth it.”
A Land and Family Operation
Those looking for a shorter drive can make their way over to Baird where they will find the X Bar Ranch. Family ties to this area run deep with history. Sprawled across multiple counties, this ranch has belonged to Jim Snyder’s family since the end of the Civil War. Not only were the first eight sections purchased after the war ended, but the X Bar brand has been registered since 1875. Part of his ranch was the original Callahan County Poor Farm while another section will soon be receiving a historical marker to designate Callahan County’s first official airport.
The X Bar bunkhouse is located just two miles off I-20. Visitors can expect to be first greeted by a chocolate lab named Patsy Cline, followed by Jim himself. The bunkhouse is filled with artifacts and heirlooms from as far back as the 19th century. Jim proudly displays old guns, a 130-year-old bag his great-grandfather brought here, and even a pair of Indian moccasins from another era. Just outside the family makeshift museum, a ’99 Chevy pickup sits ready to roam the fields, carrying hunters perched atop the blue hunting rig. Don’t be surprised to find Aretha Franklin or Patsy Cline competing for a turn in the cd player.
Jim, along with his wife, Kim, and his brother, Byron Snyder of Houston, have managed the cow and calf operation as well as the lease for close to three decades now. But it is the hunting lease that excites Jim and his visitors most.
“The most important aspect in making a hunting lease work is the family members getting along and working together. I owe 99.9 percent of the success of our lease to my wife, Kim, in helping me,” says Jim.
Hunter safety, respect for your fellow man, and a no-alcohol policy are just a few of the requirements when signing a lease agreement.
“The hunters really do like the rules,” Jim says. “In all the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had an accident and no one has ever been hurt. When everyone understands the rules, it just works.”
Unlike other leases who may hire out guides or employees, the X Bar is a strictly family-run operation. When a hunter calls or arrives at the ranch, they deal directly with a Snyder family member. This is something Jim takes pride in.
“It’s the eye to eye contact of who you are dealing with. Kim, Byron, and me – you’re dealing with the ground crew.”
After 30 years, Jim and his family are well aware of the key to their hunting operation success, as well as success in other areas of life.
“It all goes back to communication,” he says. “Whether it is hunting, a marriage, or a family operation, if you don’t have communication then you don’t have much of anything.”
The Snyders’ love of family and hunting are always evident on Labor Day weekend. A hunt and a cookout occur every year with anywhere from 15-50 people gathered together.
Outdoor Fun and Family
Opening weekend is equally important and exciting for Jason and Katie Alford. Jason, the sales manager for Corley-Wetsel Freightliner, and Katie, president/CEO of the Community Foundation of Abilene, have been hunting together since they were first married.
Jason’s family has owned land in Rising Star for more than 60 years, and that land is where he shares his love of deer hunting with his family. He and Katie frequently spend weekends hunting and enjoying the outdoors with their two daughters, Leighton and Kindall.
“The girls have been with us, really since they were born,” Katie said. “I can remember being in the middle of a field with the girls playing in their car seats.”
The Alfords have continued to instill their love of hunting into their daughters.
“When they turned 9, that was the first year they could shoot a doe, and they’ve both done that,” says Katie. This past year, Leighton, at 11 years old, got her first buck.
The Alfords know the value of family and time spent together and see hunting as a means to that end.
“I’m more into the outdoors than the indoors, so I think it’s just natural that it’s what our family does. I don’t think the girls have ever second-guessed hunting or thinking that wasn’t what they wanted to do. We were very excited when they each got their own deer,” says Katie.
Passing Down a Passion
Like the Alfords, Adam Thompson is anxiously awaiting the day his 4-year-old son, Caiden, starts hunting. Adam, the marketing development manager for Coca-Cola, has been hunting with his family since before he could read. That passion has not only grown over the years, but it has spilled over into his own son’s interest.
“This past year was the first year my son was really interested in dove hunting. The next few years will be really fun because now I can teach him all of the stuff I learned from my family—to bring it full circle,” Adam says.
Sept. 1 is not just the first day of dove season of Adam and his family.
“It’s a holiday for us. No matter what you are doing or where you are, we make sure that we take off work or plan to be at the ranch on that first day of dove season,” he says.
Their group of 10-15 friends and family members will spend the weekend hunting, cooking, and enjoying their time together. Seven years ago, Adam’s father-in-law, David Gililland, and his wife purchased a ranch just east of Highway 36. A hunter’s utopia, one can easily spot dove, quail, deer, turkey, and ducks on the property. The family will occasionally do guided hunts for individuals looking for a place to hunt deer. Traditionally, the deer stand you pick is yours the entire time. However, if someone gets a nice buck first, they will open up their spot for someone else to try.
As a father, Adam is simply enjoying the enthusiasm his oldest son has for the outdoors. Caiden already prefers Carhartt clothing, cowboy boots, and Ted Nugent’s hunting show to cartoons.
“He’s kind of like my bird dog right now. He likes to go out and pick up the dove and bring it back to me. He also just enjoys sitting with me. It’s some good father and son time,“ Adam says smiling.
When he isn’t hunting with his father, his in-laws or other family members, Adam’s wife, Hali, will join him. Adam won’t hesitate to tell you about his lucky charm.
“We have been together for 14 years, and the two biggest deer I have ever shot were when she was with me,” Adam said. “She definitely has the magic touch. Hali loves to dove hunt, and now that we have kids, it’s a family affair for us. It’s nice to have someone who likes to do that kind of stuff with me.”
Family sentiments run strong for Adam. Like most hunters, he has two guns that are especially meaningful to him. Adam’s Remington 742 .30-06 rifle was originally his great-grandfather’s. The deer rifle was passed down to Adam from his father, Donny, and now rests comfortably in a safe.
“The gun that I love the most was the first gun I ever received from my mom and step-dad when I started hunting on my own,” he said. “It’s a Remington 788 .22-250 caliber. I’ve had that gun for over 20 years, and I still hunt with it. When my son gets old enough, it’ll be his first gun too.”
For now they are just glad to have a place where their family can come together and spend time outdoors.
“That’s why my father-in-law wanted to buy a place like this – a place where he can watch his grandkids play as well as hunt and fish. We are very fortunate to have something that we can enjoy and have for generations to come.”