HALF A CENTURY AGO, the waterfowl hunting opportunities within an easy hour of the outskirts of Houston were remarkable. I know. I was there.
I can’t say “world class,” as measured against the phenomenal concentrations in regions of Mexico and South America, but the close-range potential during the ‘60s and ‘70 was very good—and the variety of waterfowl hunting options was world class indeed.
A Houston-area hunter could spin the compass and choose from rice prairies, coastal marshes, bay flats, flooded river bottoms, ponds and reservoirs.
The list of available species was also world class. Goose hunters using “white spreads” had legitimate chances at huge concentrations of snows and blues, as well as impressive numbers of specklebellies and several subspecies of Canadas.
Virtually every legal duck native to the Central Flyway might see the distant glow from the city. Some species, of course, were more plentiful than others, but the full muster was present. Depending on location, the individual “mixed bag” might consist of three or four species.
Lists can be subjective, but here are the prized ducks that were available around Houston (assuming all were drakes):
The “big ducks” were northern mallards (greenheads), pintails (bull sprigs), canvasbacks (rare), black mallards (native mottled ducks), redheads (bays and big lakes), wood ducks (flooded timber and sloughs), widgeons and gadwalls. A limit strap consisting of any mix of these was as good as duck hunting can get.
The lesser ducks that helped fill out limits included teal (blue-winged and green-winged), scaup, shovelers (spoonbills), and legal hens of any of the top-tier species.
Poor hunts certainly occurred close to town, but the abundance and variety on the right days in the right places was astounding. This bounty was even more impressive when you consider that even back then, Houston was the fourth largest city in the nation.
Compare this cornucopia to the limited resources available within a short drive of New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago—or all three combined.
Southeast Texas was the mother lode for waterfowl migrating down the Central Flyway. The upper coast had it all—abundant forage, plentiful water and temperate weather—to hold concentrations of waterfowl through most of the winter.
To stress again, this potential was an easy predawn drive away. Hunters on the west side, for example, had tens of thousands of geese on the Katy Prairie within reach of a single go cup of hot coffee.
Maybe it was hundreds of thousands; I lose track.
Add 30 or 40 minutes to the drive and toss Brookshire/Cypress/Hockley or Eagle Lake/Altair/Lissie into the mix—or Anahuac and Winnie to the east and the tally of wintering snows and blues was ridiculous.
The close hunting was so productive that a growing day-hunt industry flourished. At one point, almost 100 full-time operations were scattered around Houston (based on the Houston Chronicle’s Day-Hunt Directory, an annual listing free to the professionals that yours truly laboriously compiled each October).
Various unguided walk-in hunts also were available—the huge Barrow Ranch Hunting Preserve near Anahuac is an excellent example of this inexpensive option. The urban hunter making the right call could wing it solo or book with a pro and be back in Houston with a strap of birds well before lunch.
Because of this quick-draw abundance, the original Houston Chapter of Ducks Unlimited became the largest and richest fundraiser for DU in the nation during the ’70s. The annual dinner held in the old Shamrock Hotel’s Emerald Ballroom was a monster gathering. The event raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for waterfowl habitat and wetlands conservation.
Of course, pockets of excellent waterfowl hunting within a reasonable drive from Houston still are available, but the overall abundance is a shadow of the glory years. The change occurred gradually, like the graying and thinning of an aging gunner’s hair, but it was inevitable.
So, what happened?
Shooting pressure had little to do with the decline. For starters, federal guidelines carefully restrict the bag limits (as determined each year by nesting surveys).
Also important, both the day-hunt operators and seasonal lease members usually stop waterfowl hunting at noon. This self-imposed policy allows flocks to settle back in to feed or roost. The primary areas maintain no-hunting sanctuaries.
No, three other factors dwindled the waterfowl populations: First was the ongoing loss of habitat. Greater Houston continues to spread, destroying more acreage for wintering birds each year. For example, as a teen during the ’60s I hunted with school friends on prairies and ponds near Clear Lake, Alvin, Pearland, Almeda, Stafford, Sugarland, and Richmond/Rosenberg. These fledgling forays usually produced at least a few ducks, and no spot was more than 30 or 40 minutes from the then-new 610 Loop.
Safe to say, most of that open country has been erased by subdivisions, strip centers, office parks and industrial complexes.
Second were the changes in agricultural practices. Fifty years ago, Houston was surrounded by vast prairies cultivated for rice and soybeans. Mile after mile of flooded fields attracted and held multitudes of waterfowl. Now, not so much—a grain or bean field here and there beyond the expanding suburbs.
Finally, the traditional Central Flyway migration to southeast Texas is reduced—or at least stalled. Birds are being “short stopped” by favorable habitat being maintained in regions farther north. Some flocks move grudgingly, only after several brutal ice storms. Some apparently don’t arrive at all.
But solid numbers of waterfowl still do funnel onto the upper Texas coast. Good quality hunting does remain, especially for the established outfitters with access to scouted fields and marshes.
But the bounty once within easy reach of a major metropolis is gone, a casualty to the inexorable passage of time. Younger hunters should understand and appreciate that Houston has an unmatched big-city legacy in the annals of waterfowl hunting.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]