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Drinking in Spring

White bass head upstream in early spring, pursued by an angler with a lifetime of memories and a zeal for creating new ones.

By Larry D. Hodge

Destination: San Angelo

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 5.5 hours / AUSTIN - 4 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 9 hours / DALLAS - 4.5 hours / EL PASO - 7.5 hours / HOUSTON - 6.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 4 hours

If you want to enjoy the beauty of water, go where it’s plentiful. If you want to know the importance of water, go someplace it’s scarce.

San Angelo owes its existence to both the beneficial and destructive aspects of water. The town grew up across the Concho River from Fort Concho, a U.S. military post established in 1867 to protect the frontier. Another settlement a few miles away, Ben Ficklin, won an early election for county seat, and San Angelo was poised to dry up and blow away when a flood wiped out its rival. The county seat moved to San Angelo, assuring its existence.

The Concho River flows through the middle of town, and parks along its banks offer many opportunities for birding, picnicking, walking, jogging and even golfing. Civic League Park (at West Beauregard Avenue and South Park Road) perfectly illustrates what the addition of water can do to an arid landscape. The International Water Lily Collection contains specimens of every lily native to Texas (including threatened and endangered species) as well as a variety of lilies from around the world. The star of the show is the Victoria, a mammoth Amazonian species whose pads grow up to 8 feet across. Its single basketball-sized blossom heats up to attract the scarab beetles that pollinate it, then morphs overnight from female to male, changing color from white to pink in the process. “August and September are the best time to visit the collection,” says Kenneth Landon, director. “That’s when the Victoria reaches its full size and blooms.” If you want to try to catch the Victoria in flower, call the San Angelo Parks Department at (325) 657-4279 for a status report.

San Angelo State Park on the northwestern edge of the city sprawls along the shore of O.C. Fisher Reservoir, formed by damming the North Concho River. The lake is low when I visit, but superintendent John Culbertson tells me the catfishing is hot. “People have been catching blue catfish up to 30 pounds on rod and reel in deep holes in the river channel,” he says. “Earlier in the spring we also had runs on crappie and sand bass up into the river.”

As I tour the park I see a pair of mockingbirds harassing a hawk at one of the park’s two prairie dog towns. Later I see a roadrunner, canyon towhees, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals and a pair of black-bellied whistling ducks. Wild turkeys by the hundreds roost along the river in the park and wildlife management area just across FM 2288; the north campground and compartments 6 and 7 of the west side of the WMA offer the best chances to spot a strutting gobbler in spring.

Bison and part of the official longhorn herd of Texas roam the park. The grazing animals are moved to different pastures within the park and wildlife management area as needed; ask a ranger where to go to see them.

About 25 miles south of San Angelo, hummingbirds by the thousands visit Dan and Joann Brown’s ranch along the South Concho River outside Christoval. They come here because of water. A shallow water table allows big trees and lots of weeds to grow, and the vegetation attracts insects vital to the hummingbirds’ survival. Once they can fly, young hummers head straight for the Browns’ house, where feeders dispense sugar water.

The first migrating birds arrive from the south about mid-March, and sugar water consumption builds as thousands arrive, nest and raise their young. “Each of the last two years we’ve fed about 680 pounds of sugar,” Brown says. At the standard mix of one cup of sugar to four cups of water, that adds up to 340 gallons — about six 55-gallon drums!

Even that pales in comparison to Brown’s deer and turkey feeding program. About 600 Rio Grande turkeys winter on the ranch. “In January and February 2003 I fed 11 tons of corn,” Brown says. “We feed about 30 tons of corn a year to the deer and turkeys. I’m a patsy. When there are turkeys out there, I feed them. I think it prepares them to be more successful when nesting.”

Nesting success for turkeys all over the Edwards Plateau was good in spring 2001, and lots of 2- and 3-year-old gobblers roam the limestone hills and draws around San Angelo. Bidding the Browns and their hummers adieu, I head for the X-Bar Ranch west of Eldorado. The ranch offers mountain biking and birding, but I’m here to meet members of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) for a spring turkey hunt. Outfitter Gerald Altman has scouted the ranch and assures us we will all see plenty of turkeys. As ranchers moved into this arid country and drilled wells for livestock, turkeys followed, and today the western part of the Edwards Plateau is major habitat for Rio Grandes.

At 5:30 the next morning I’m standing in a pipeline right-of-way making whispered plans with Tammy Bristow Sapp, vice-president of communications for the NWTF, who will be my hunting partner. We agree to split up, hunt separate parts of the pasture and meet at the pickup point at 11 a.m. Gobblers begin sounding off from several roosts as we slip into the darkness. It’s a sound that never fails to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, my heart race and my palms moisten.

Soft yelping and blind luck bring five hens to within six feet of me, and right behind them is a 2-year-old gobbler in full strut. I’m caught in the classic turkey hunting dilemma: a gobbler within easy range and 10 beady hen eyes ready to spot my slightest movement. I wait until all five hens have their heads down in the grass and the gobbler’s head is behind a tree before slowly raising my shotgun.

Five hens leave the ground almost simultaneously. The gobbler freezes, his head still behind the tree, while he tries to figure out what frightened them. I aim at the tree and wait. He can run straight away, keeping the tree trunk between us, or take a step to one side or the other. A red, white and blue head pops out to the left of the tree trunk, and before he finishes the step I’ve pulled the trigger. Later I discover I’ve also made a great shot on a mesquite limb halfway between us.

One of the best parts of spring turkey hunting is the armed birding you do while waiting for a gobbler to respond. After I take my gobbler, I’m treated to the sight of a black-chinned hummingbird seeking nectar from a claret-cup cactus a few feet away. During the remainder of the hunt, Sapp and I share not only turkey hunting tips (she gets her gobbler, too) but also bird sightings. We spend part of each day sitting over waterholes more for the birdwatching than the hunting. Every cattle trough attracts a dedicated following. Between us we spot vermilion flycatchers, scissor-tailed flycatchers, mourning doves, Bullock’s orioles and painted buntings, but I am most intrigued by the black vulture that comes in to drink one morning. For each of nine sips, he hunkers down, scoops up the water in his beak, then stretches to his full height to swallow. For the first time I realize that vultures need to drink water, too.

My route home takes me through Fort McKavett, another powerful example of the importance of water in dry country. This frontier fort, now a Texas state historic site, owes its location to the flow from Government Spring, one of the sources of the San Saba River. A short hike takes me to the spring, where large pecan, black walnut, live oak and willow trees shade a narrow glade. The watercress prettily covering the stream served a more important purpose in the 1850s, when soldiers ate it to help prevent scurvy. Prisoners from the guardhouse carried water to the fort for drinking and cooking.

Throughout the 1870s, black troopers under white commanders garrisoned Fort McKavett, and it was they who fought the battles that wrested control of the area from the Indians. In one of these fights, 1st Sgt. Emanuel Stance of the 9th Cavalry became the first black soldier to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. In keeping with the role water played in the history of West Texas, the battle took place at Kickapoo Springs, about 20 miles away. Exhibits in the restored post hospital building tell the story of the fort and the surrounding area.

As I drive home through the Hill Country I am treated to one other precious legacy of water in this rocky, hilly land. Spring wildflowers, sprouted by fall showers, carpet the roadside and spread into pastures beyond, legions of blooms in yellow, gold, orange, purple and red.

Aldo Leopold wrote that some people can live without wild places and wild things, and others cannot. I’m with those who cannot. For me, their beauty is every bit as essential for life as water.

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