Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Looking both ways

The Sabine River in East Texas.

By Chris Hunt

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, on a campaign stop through Idaho during the 2016 presidential primary process, boasted to head-scratching supporters in the Gem State that only 2 percent of Texas is public land owned by the federal government.

“In Texas,” he said, “we think that’s 2 percent too much.”

While I cut my fly fishing teeth on the high-country trout of the Colorado Rockies, I spent my formative years in Texas. I learned to drive in Texas. I graduated from high school 30 years ago in Texas. And I learned to chase bass, panfish and catfish in Texas, despite the fact that so little of it was actually legally available to me.

I matured in East Texas, where my junior-high buddies and I would spend our summer weekends wandering the Big Thicket along the Sabine River, avoiding copperheads and cottonmouths while casting spinning tackle to bream or bouncing stinkbait along the bottom of the river for blue cats and mud cats. We owned frog gigs and those cheesey snake-bite kits. We commandeered an abandoned canoe one summer, and fixed it up, making it somewhat navigable.

Virtually every acre of ground in Texas, as Cruz pointed out to an Idaho audience (which enjoys a vast oasis of public lands—about 60 percent) last summer, is privately owned.

So, as kids, we were forced into a criminal existence (this confession comes, I assume, well after the statute of limitations on low-grade trespassing has expired). My mom would drop us off along the side of Highway 259, right along the railroad tracks, and we’d look both ways for the county sheriff before we melted off into the woods, amid the heat, the humidity and the chiggers. There, we’d spend days. We’d camp in the sand along the red-mud river, swing from vines hanging from the sweet gum trees into the water and generally devolve into filthy creatures that grunted and burped and farted all the time.

We loved it. And, we were fond of saying, we never got caught, even though it was certain that we were among Gregg County’s most wanted for our clandestine hijinks at the river that usually resulted in nothing more than an excessive exposure to the wild, a few dozen bug bites and maybe an ill-place cut or bruise.

When I left Texas and returned home to Colorado for college, I remember those first few fishing outings on the Gunnison National Forest, and how I made sure to look both ways for the cops before I stepped off the pavement into the trees. It didn’t take me long to realize that the central Colorado mountains largely belonged to everyone, and that the fishing, the hunting and the camping were resources to be treasured, not disdained. Now, living in Idaho, I simply can’t imagine my existence without free and clear access to public lands, and to the trout that swim in the rivers and streams that have some 330 million owners, including Sen. Cruz, whether he likes it or not

This weekend, I’m reconnecting with my high-school graduating class for our 30th reunion—we’ve all grown older and gone on to decidedly grown-up pursuits. But the memories I share with a handful of my classmates wandering somebody else’s land along a muddy Southern river are still vivid. The time we spent as teenage boys around a campfire practicing our woodsmanship was well-spent time, and each and every one of us would testify to that today, more than three decades later.

I wish Sen. Cruz had some real experience on public lands. It’s as if he believes that because no one single person or entity holds title to our public lands that these places have no owner. The opposite is true. These lands aren’t “owned” by the government. They’re held in trust for every single American. They are swaths of God-blessed real estate that can’t be exploited without our blessing (although there is an element that tries, every damned year).

And, whether the senator likes it or not, I’m proof that those with a wandering spirit will find their wild places, even if it means, as kids, we had to be scofflaws to do it. I’m looking forward to seeing my classmates and reconnecting and sharing stories, both old and new. I’ll see pictures, I’m sure, of kids and grandkids, and we’ll laugh and reminisce about parties out at “Big Woods” where the trespassing was likely the least of the misdemeanors we accrued. We’ll talk about the river, the fish and the great times we spent at the deer lease all those years ago.

But when I get home, I’ve got a cast-and-blast planned on my own little “deer lease” that, if he chose, Sen. Cruz could enjoy, too, because he’s a “landowner” in these parts. I’ve got the duck decoys out. The 5-weight is ready. The streamer box is full. The camper is full of water and sporting a fresh propane tank. My dad’s old 12-banger is cleaned and ready.

And I’m not looking both ways anymore.

Chris Hunt is the national digital director for Trout Media. He lives and works in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

By Chris Hunt.