As a cold rain fell yesterday morning, the gloom of melting ice in the North Texas treetops and leaden skies suddenly matched my mood perfectly as a Facebook post brought sudden tears.
Because a day after the passing of the greatly admired Rev. Billy Graham, I learned that yet another one of my longtime heroes was also gone.
“The dean of Texas outdoor writers, Ray Sasser, passed away last night. RIP my friend,” wrote Texas Parks and Wildlife Department communications guru Steve Lightfoot in his social media post.
RIP indeed I thought as the somber news began to sink in that the 69-year-old Sasser, the longtime outdoors writer for the Dallas Morning News, had succumbed to a long battle with lymphoma.
Despite only meeting Ray once or twice down through the years, he became one of the primary inspirations for my own feeble attempts at this profession, thanks to his Morning News outdoors stories printed every Thursday and Sunday morning for 34 years. And that's not to mention scores of magazine articles, as well as the 11 books he authored, several that sit only inches away as I write this column.
In those writings, Sasser became a trusted voice as someone who was able to strike a phrase and capture the very essence of what it meant to be a Texas outdoorsman.
A native of East Texas, Sasser got his start fishing and chasing wild game — and writing about it all — in the dense Pineywoods and coastal regions near the Louisiana border.
But when a move came to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the entire Lone Star State became Sasser's word-filled canvas, from the redfish and speckled trout of the Gulf Coast to the deer, turkeys, and quail of the South Texas Brush Country to the lunker largemouths of East Texas to the ducks, geese, and pheasants of the Panhandle. Add in the pronghorns and mule deer of the Trans Pecos region and Sasser covered it all.
Along the way, Sasser's weekly newspaper words impacted many, including some of the nation's most well known and respected outdoorsmen.
Consider these words from Dr. James Kroll, professor emeritus of Forest Wildlife Management at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, a regular on North American Whitetail Television, a magazine columnist, and a deer hunting expert known to millions as “Dr. Deer” thanks to a story that Sasser once wrote about Kroll.
“We had so many fine days afield and I shall miss him!,” Kroll wrote on his “Dr. Deer” Facebook page on Thursday. “He was a scholar and a word smith. He once wrote an article about a bird hunt we had, he opened with this phrase: 'The German shorthair was locked tighter than the lug nuts on a junk yard Chevrolet!' The world will never again enjoy such prose.”
Sasser loved many things about the Texas outdoors experience, most notably - from my limited reader's perspective, at least - the state's bass fishing, dove hunting, deer hunting, quail hunting, and duck hunting.
“He was certainly a friend to the ducks and to Ducks Unlimited, particularly when there was an upcoming banquet or something like the national DU Convention in Grapevine a few years ago,” said Jim Lillis, the retired Ducks Unlimited senior regional director who resides in Sherman.
“People certainly picked up the Dallas paper a couple of times a week to see what was happening in the outdoors world here in North Texas and to see what Ray had to say about it all.”
One topic that was near and dear to Sasser's heart was the hunting of wild quail in Texas, a love that saw him be named the recipient of the 2009 Park Cities Quail “T. Boone Pickens Lifetime Sportsman Award.”
“Ray represented the best qualities to which we all aspire,” a Park Cities Quail news release indicated on Thursday. “He was an expert hunter and fisherman, and a great family man who shared many adventures with his constant companion and wife Emilie.
“He could articulate the grandeur in the habitat, game, dogs and the gentlemen and women who pursue this noble pastime,” the news release added.
“He was concerned about the future and encouraged conservation and youth participation. He was also not afraid to voice an opinion on policies and practices that he believed were detrimental to every sportsman having access to the vast resources of Texas.”
Until his declining health demanded otherwise, Sasser briefly served as the media director for Dr. Dale Rollins' well known Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch.
Rollins took to Facebook on Thursday to express his own sadness over Sasser's death along with memories of a 2005 quail hunt in Coke County where the pointers moved 28 coveys that amazing day in only 3.5 hours.
“Rest in peace Ray…we in the quail brotherhood will miss your insight and abilities to paint those vivid mental images,” wrote Rollins. “Thanks for being our champion to the masses.”
If ducks and quail were two subjects that saw plenty of Sasser's work, deer certainly saw plenty more ink from the Meridian, Texas resident. So much so that Sasser penned scores of articles and four books about the subject matter, the latter including a collection of deer hunting essays entitled “View From a Tower Blind” along with a coffee table collaboration with official Texas state photographer Wyman Meinzer entitled appropriately enough Texas Whitetails.
Sasser also had an abiding interest in the work of the state's wildlife artists, painters who captured the magic of days spent afield and on the water. In fact, one of Sasser's most notable works was John P. Cowan: A Texas Treasure, a collaboration of Sasser's words detailing the life and artwork of the legendary Texas sporting artist.
Fishing was another subject where Sasser's byline was familiar. So much so that in 2016, the writer was inducted into the Texas Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
“I'm amazed to think that doing a job I've loved for 42 years now would earn this honor,” said Sasser in a 2016 Dallas Morning News story by DMN media writer Barry Horn.
“I remember the first largemouth bass that I caught,” he continued. “I was about nine, and the fish was no bigger than 10 inches, but it was a different fishing experience than the small perch I'd caught and I was hooked for life.
“I'm glad my career has allowed me to play a role in both entertaining and informing multiple generations of Texas anglers, including my own kids and grandkids.”
It was apparent to anyone that read Sasser's work that he dearly loved his family, including his wife Emilie, and their children Jenny and Zach, the latter who is reportedly getting married this very night.
In his later years, Sasser often wrote about the joy he got in hunting and fishing with his wife of 48 years, serving as Emilie's unofficial guide for everything from whitetails to mule deer to doves to Rio Grande turkeys.
In fact, one such story — entitled “Hunting with Your Spouse” — appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters.
As tributes filled social media on Thursday, there's little doubt that Ray Sasser touched a lot of lives with his words about the outdoors world that lies within the vast borders of Texas.
Words like those that Sasser once penned in a quail hunting story, starting the piece off with a quote from his good friend M.F. “Bubba” Wood, the founder of Collector's Covey.
“The best proof for the creation theory of intelligent design lies in this irrefutable chain of facts — there is a bobwhite quail, there is a dog that points quail and there is a 20-gauge shotgun. It's too perfect to be random,” Sasser quoted his friend as saying.
Sasser finished the story off with his own take on Woods' statement: “What makes a dog point birds when its predatory instinct must dictate that it chase the birds? What makes a bird hold tight to cover when threatened by what must seem like a different-colored coyote?
“You may as well ask why planet Earth is a perfect distance from the sun and rotates on its axis in such a way that spring follows winter. It's too perfect to be random.”
Thanks so much for such poignant reminders Ray Sasser. Your wit, wisdom, and words about the Creator's grand outdoors canvas across Texas will be greatly missed.
And that's far more than two times a week.