Lynn Burkhead — A knock at the door and a lifetime spent outdoors

Herald Democrat

Nearly 30 years ago, a young teacher here in North Texas heard a knock on her apartment door one cloudy and cool autumn afternoon.

When she opened the door, her fiancé stood outside, wearing a blaze orange bird hunter’s vest, holding a plastic bag, and wearing a silly grin that she would grow increasingly familiar with.

When the 20-something year old upland bird hunter told the 20-something year old middle school teacher that he was late for work and needed to borrow her refrigerator for a few hours, she asked the obvious question.

“What’s in the bag?”

When she was told — by yours truly, as you might have guessed by now — that the bag contained several bobwhite quail that needed to be chilled for a few hours, my future bride was introduced to what her world would look like for the next several decades.

What’s that look, you might ask? A schedule that could change by the moment, depending on what was in season or whether the fish were biting somewhere. True to form, my impromptu quail hunting adventure that day had begun with a late evening phone call the night before, a pre-dawn trek west to chase a bird dog around for a few hours, and then a mad dash back east to slide into the front door of work just in the nick of time.

What I didn’t factor into my equation was what I was going to do if my crew struck wingshooting gold and put a few bobwhites into the game vest. When that happened, my wife-to-be got a clear look at what life would be like living with an outdoorsman who had trouble saying no when opportunity came calling.

Thankfully, after a late night feather picking session that got the quail out of Charissa’s refrigerator and into my freezer, my future bride decided to go ahead with the idea of marrying me a few months later. And today, as she celebrates another birthday where she looks even younger still, I’m thankful that she didn’t shut that apartment door in my face so many years ago.

I might note here that my wife grew up on a farm and was active in FFA and showing farm animals. Even so, she really had no idea what she was getting into when she said, “I Do!” to the minister on that warm summer evening years ago when we got married.

But it wouldn’t take long since she awoke one Saturday morning not too many days later—as she was trying to sleep in, no less—and heard some woeful noise coming from the TV set.

“What on earth is that?” my lovely bride inquired as she wiped sleep from her eyes.

“Caribou hunting…on ESPN Outdoors!” was my enthusiastic reply along with that familiar, sheepish grin.

A few weeks later, she decided to commemorate the moment with a leather bookmark. It’s tucked away in some book in my study even now, bearing a painted image of the Alaskan big game animal and a simple inscription that reads “Caribou Man.”

In fact, as I look throughout my study, in our house, and out in the garage, I see ample evidence of how my wife has lovingly tolerated my outdoors passion down through the years, and at times, even encouraged it. Christmas, my birthday, our anniversary, and a lot of “just because” moments have given her opportunities to increase the wildlife art on our walls, the outdoor books on my shelves, and the new camouflage clothes, duck calls, waterfowl decoys, fly reels, and other outdoors gear that makes me a Cabela’s catalog maker’s dream.

As our family has grown into “Burkhead, party of five!” down through the years, my beautiful bride has also encouraged our kids in their own pursuits of hunting, fishing, and sports. Christmas morning has brought new gear, vacations have delivered tournament trips and outdoors adventure, and family gatherings over the holidays have often seen us roll in a few minutes late because of another fishing trip, a morning in the duck bind, or a desperate visit to a treestand since a good whitetail buck might come cruising by.

The irony of all of this is the outdoors world isn’t just some place where the Burkhead clan has spent its leisure time over the years, it’s also the way that yours truly has made his living. After a chance meeting with former Sherman Democrat sports editor Rusty Hall at a Ducks Unlimited dinner in the early 1990s, I started writing in this spot nearly 30 years ago. That led to additional opportunities to eventually earn my living from outdoor media companies with paychecks coming from ESPN Outdoors, Major League Fishing, and now Outdoor Sportsman Group, down through the years.

Such employment — my wife still rolls her eyes when I gather up my bags, head for the door, and announce that “I’m going to work!” — has caused me to be at trade shows, covering fishing tournaments, or going on writer’s trips at key moments in life. That’s caused a bit of anguish, a need for her careful planning, and even a few extra dollars being spent to make sure that I was back home in time for a family gathering, a softball or football game, and holidays and special occasions.

In fact, I once got a speeding ticket one autumn morning because of a mad dash home, on Halloween no less. After a week-long ill-fated bowhunt in the big buck woods of Pike County, Illinois, I had hunted all the way to the trip’s closing bell, packed up my truck, and grabbed a couple of hours of shuteye. So, it’s easy to understand why I missed the speed limit sign — or lack thereof — as I pulled away from a sleepy Missouri town a few hours before dawn.

The officer wasn’t buying my explanation that there were three costumed Burkhead kids waiting at home, nor the fact that I had strict instructions from my beautiful bride to be back in Denison before dark. As the officer handed me the ticket, I could only ruefully guess that he wasn’t married, didn’t like deer hunting, or had had some sort of bad experience years earlier with a Snicker’s bar.

I was thinking about all of this recently as I arose in the pre-dawn hours to get ready for a spring bass fishing trip to a good lake near Nacogdoches. As I dressed in the dark and tried not to wake CB, as I call her, I smiled thinking about where life has taken us since I knocked on her apartment door after an impromptu quail hunt so many years ago.

The recent day in early April was a big one, no doubt, since our family had gathered in Texas’ oldest town to see my youngest son Will get married to his beautiful new bride, Ashley, whom he met shortly after arriving on campus at Stephen F. Austin State University a few years ago.

In some ways, much has changed in the months since then, even before the pandemic forced our society to hit the pause button.

My daughter Katie and her husband Tim are counting down the days to his law school graduation down in Waco. My son Zach is heading towards an aviation career and the world’s biggest duck decoy collection. And Will—who has his own decoy collection that rivals his older brother’s—is a new Quail Forever biologist and someone who just spent his honeymoon in Montana. And true to form, rumor has it that his wedding trip to Big Sky Country included a couple of fly fishing trips with his bride as they landed cutthroat trout on five-weights and dry flies. Yup, he’s my son.

Reflecting on all of this, and with Ashley’s dad, Jim Spitzmiller, waiting down below with his new bass rig in front of the hotel, I leaned over a couple of Saturday mornings ago and kissed my wife goodbye as I whispered, “I’ll see you this afternoon honey, I’m going fishing!”

As she stirred slightly and pulled the covers over her head even more, I grinned knowing that she expected nothing less than a fishing trip on the day of our son’s wedding.

After all, that’s life in the Burkhead family, for better or for worse. Happy birthday CB, you’re the best wife that an outdoors nut like me could ever hope for.