T EXAS SPORTSMEN LOST a powerful and colorful friend on February 21 when veteran Dallas Morning News outdoor writer, Ray Sasser, passed away after a multi-year battle with lymphoma. He was 69.
Well known as “Sasser” among his friends and colleagues, Ray was a masterful storyteller. He could string words together in a vivid, meaningful way like no other. He also had a nose for news, didn’t mind asking the hard questions and had the tenacity of a pit bulldog when it came to chewing through the fat to get to the truth. He was pretty darned handy with a camera, too.
I always admired the guy, and so did a lot of others. It was not just because he was top-shelf journalist who loved his work and handled his influential post responsibly. Sasser was a straight shooter who didn’t mind voicing his opinion even if he wasn’t asked for it.
He always looked out for sportsmen and saw his job as more of a privilege than anything else. If he was wrong, he wasn’t too proud to admit it.
Hunting and fishing weren’t weekend hobbies or pastimes around Sasser’s household. They were his lifeblood, passions he shared afield with hundreds of partners from youths to blue-collar workers to billionaires.
Through it all, his wife, Emilie, was his favorite partner of all. She joined him in all sorts of hook and bullet adventures during their 48 years of marriage.
“Ray Sasser was the most wonderful man on the planet,” she told the DMN. “And nobody had a passion for the outdoors like him. He just loved it.”
Sasser and I shared numerous stories of our outdoor adventures over the years. One of the most fascinating and humorous he ever told me unfolded last April. He and Emilie shared a West Texas hunting blind in what would be one of their final spring turkey hunts together.
Not long after crawling into the blind, Sasser said his wife alerted him that a rattlesnake had crawled into the blind beside her. When Ray saw the snake, it was coiled beside a log near his Emilie’s feet. It looked to be about three feet long.
The snake wasn’t agitated, but it was well aware of their presence. Caught between a snake and hard place, Sasser reacted accordingly. Emilie had a loose sweater in the blind and he instructed her to slowly raise it to create a shield from the possible blow back of venom. Then he eased the shotgun barrel to within 18 inches of snake’s head and pulled the trigger.
“It was like the Wild, Wild West there for a minute,” Sasser said. “There wasn’t much else I could do. If we had tried to move there is a good chance the snake would have gotten agitated and possibly bitten Emile. I told her I wasn’t going to let that happen, and luckily it didn’t.”
What many may not know about Sasser is that his big city career was actually rooted to deep East Texas. He grew up in the rural community of Pineland in the 1950s and 60s. It was a time when squirrel camps ruled, and it was somewhat of a shock to run across a white-tailed deer in the woods of Sabine County.
“It stunned you when you did see one. It was almost like you’d seen Bigfoot or something,” Sasser said. “There probably weren’t 200 deer in the entire county at that time, and those were laying low for fear that somebody was fixing to fry them up.”
After graduating high school, Sasser attended Stephen F. Austin State University. He worked at the Lufkin Daily News before moving to Port Arthur where he wrote full-time about the outdoors for the local newspaper. He later joined The Dallas Times Herald.
In 1986, he started full-time at the DMN, where his Thursday/Sunday columns were destination reading for thousands for 29 years. When a retirement buy out took place in 2015, he continued writing part-time for the newspaper until Jan. 2018. His last column appeared on Jan. 21.
Additionally, Sasser authored hundreds of magazine articles and nearly a dozen books that are just as informational as they are enjoyable to read.
Sasser commanded strong respect within the outdoor industry across Texas and beyond. This became readily apparent as word of his death spread among friends, peers and acquaintances via social media and e-mail.
Dr. James Kroll, professor emeritus for Forest Wildlife Management and Director of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research at SFA made a Facebook post holding Sasser personally responsible for his “Dr. Deer” nickname.
“We had so many fine days afield, and I shall miss him!” Kroll wrote. “He was a scholar and a wordsmith. He once wrote an article about a bird hunt we had that opened with this phrase: “The German shorthair was locked tighter than the lug nuts on a junkyard Chevrolet!” The world will never again enjoy such prose.”
Dr. Dale Rollins, executive director of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, told about a spectacular quail hunt he and Sasser shared on a Coke County ranch. Rollins’ dogs pointed 28 different coveys of bobwhites in 3 1/2 hours that day. Sasser jokingly gave the hunt a 198 on a Boone and Crockett scale.
“Ray has been called the ‘Dean of Outdoor Editors’…and rightfully so,” Rollins said in his Facebook post. “He was also one of the few outdoor writers (in TX anyway) whose passion for quail and quail hunting was omni-evident. Rest in peace, Ray. We in the quail brotherhood will miss your insight and abilities to paint those vivid mental images. Thanks for being our champion to the masses.”
Sasser’s love for the sprightly little game bird led to his being named the recipient of the 2009 Park Cities Quail T. Boone Pickens Lifetime Sportsman Award. Not surprisingly, the wealthy Texas oil tycoon for whom the award is named had nothing but good things to say about his quail-hunting buddy from Meridian.
“Ray Sasser was not just one of the greatest outdoor writers in Texas, he was one of the most respected outdoor writers in the country,” Pickens said. “His success and following were rooted in the fact he didn’t just cover the outdoors, he loved all that it meant to hunters, fishermen and conservation as a whole. To me he was much more than a talented writer who cared about the outdoors, he was a good friend whom I will miss. We should all have such a passion for life and our chosen professions.”
Sasser’s contributions to the fishing world didn’t go unnoticed, either. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries director Craig Bonds called Sasser a “true icon of the Texas Outdoor industry.”
In June 2016, Sasser was inducted to the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Athens. Sadly, he was in the hospital and couldn’t be present for the ceremony, but his wife and two children, Jenny and Zach, were there on his behalf. His daughter read his acceptance speech.
TPWD put together a six-minute video about Sasser prior his HOF induction. It can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ujALABPmWwwe.
RIP, Sasser. Your eloquent style, words of wisdom and friendship will be dearly missed.
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]