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Traveling with Tinsley

Writer Russell Tinsley knew the meaning of a good hunt.

By Larry D. Hodge

I came to know Russell Tinsley late in his life, after he'd had a 30-year career as sportswriter and outdoor editor for the Austin American-Statesman and freelance writer for almost every outdoor magazine in the country at a time when they were in their heyday. I knew him by reputation, and with some trepidation I asked him to contribute a story to a little outdoor magazine I was publishing at the time.

I needn't have worried. An article came by return mail, with a note that whatever I could pay was fine. I sent him a check for $100 at a time when I was paying other writers $25, not knowing he would have taken the $25 and been satisfied.

Later Russell moved back to his hometown, where I then lived, and we became fast friends. It was then I learned that money had never been Russell's main reason for writing, or for doing anything else, for that matter. Writing about the outdoors was what let him be outdoors hunting and fishing, and that was what mattered. He told me once he sold his first article while still in journalism school at The University of Texas at Austin. When he got the $10 check, he said, "I felt like I'd been given a license to steal."

Russell continued "stealing" for a lifetime, writing several thousand outdoor articles, decades' worth of newspaper columns, and books on deer hunting, fishing and taxidermy, many of which are still available. He helped found a major Texas outdoor magazine and served as its hunting editor for years. He made legends of such people as Murry Burnham, a game caller and predator hunter extraordinaire. And he found time to hunt and fish and mentor younger writers like myself.

Russell grew up in the small Hill Country town of Mason, a contemporary of Old Yeller author Fred Gipson, also a local boy. He married his childhood sweetheart, Marjorie, and they moved back to Mason after he left the newspaper. He and Marjorie lie there in Gooch Cemetery, a simple pink granite stone at their heads. On his side is carved a white-tailed deer and the outline of a Longhorn - the mascot of his beloved UT - and on Marjorie's side are figures of two of the little yappy dogs she loved that were always underfoot.

After he developed Parkinson's disease and no longer drove, I became his designated driver on many hunting and fishing trips, and every 60 miles or so we had to stop so Russell could get another package of cheese crackers and a bottle of diet Sprite. Yet he never made a pit stop. I could never understand where he put it all until we were on a fly fishing expedition to Camp Wood, and one night he fell in the shower and I had to help him up. He appeared small, partly because of a slight stoop, but when I started to lift him, I discovered he was pure, hard muscle and felt like he weighed as much as a box of rocks. He was a heavyweight in every sense of the word.

We never spoke of that, and for sure we never told Marjorie.

On those trips Russell introduced me to many of his friends as well as to names that would be familiar to anyone reading outdoor magazines. He knew everybody, and everybody knew Russell. He'd been in the outdoor writing business longer than almost anybody else, and he told me stories about many big-name editors and writers that would make me a good living in blackmail if I were so inclined.

Russell told stories on himself as well as on others. While working at the newspaper in Austin, one of his duties during football season was to get the scores of area games. For entertainment he would sometimes insert scores for games between communities that didn't even have a team - Noack 7, Frame Switch 0, and the like. Then he'd chuckle over what the old guys at the feed store would say when they read it.

A lifetime of adventures and misadventures in the outdoors furnished plenty of material, and he was always willing to try something new if he could get a story out of it. He told me of a Colorado bowhunting trip with Murry Burnham during which he happened upon a huge mule deer buck standing broadside at 20 yards. It was Russell's first mule deer encounter, and he didn't know that muleys are not nearly as spooky as the white-tailed deer he was familiar with. Afraid the deer would run if he raised his bow to shoot, he froze, and the deer eventually wandered off unharmed. Only when he told Murry about it did he find out he could probably have shot the deer. It was the biggest mule deer he ever had a chance at.

Russell missed lots of other opportunities on trips we shared. He was always fussing with his pipe, and many a dove lived to die of old age as a result. Despite being an expert angler, Russell was the worst catfisher I've ever fished with. He was always so interested in whether I was getting a bite that he would watch my bobber instead of his own, and he missed many a fish by setting the hook too late. That was one of the most endearing things about him - he enjoyed seeing someone else have fun even more than having it himself.

Trips with Russell followed a pattern. He'd be waiting with gear ready when I pulled up to his house, eagerly looking forward to the trip. A day later he would be just as anxious to get home. It was a rare treat to get him to stay away from home two nights in a row. And no matter where we went, he always read the local newspaper from front to back, pulling it apart and scattering it all over the car. Newspapering was in his blood.

Russell sponsored me for membership in the Texas Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America; he was an honorary life member of both. After he stopped actively hunting, outfitter Clifton Tyler of Eagle Lake asked me to organize an annual goose and duck hunt for outdoor writers, the chief object of which was to decoy Russell into going to Eagle Lake so Clifton could see him. Russell had known Clifton since he was a kid working for his dad, Marvin Tyler, the originator of the rag spread for hunting geese. While the rest of us wallowed in muddy rice fields, Clifton and Russell would sit in the pickup, heater running, and visit until both felt the need for a nap. It is my sincere wish that some outfitter will someday like me so well he will invite a bunch of my friends to hunt for free just so he can listen to me repeat the same old stories and then start snoring.

Although Russell and I traveled quite a lot together and wrote stories about the same trips, we operated differently. I have to take extensive notes or else I will forget everything before I get home. Russell never took notes. Once while fishing with a guide, I asked if he knew Russell. "Yeah, I remember him," the guide said. "Funny little guy. All the while you were talking, he acted like he wasn't paying attention, and then when the story came out, there it all was, just like you said it."

Oh, for a memory like that.

But I have memories, too, of a friend who always said, when I dropped him off at his house, "Good hunt." It didn't matter if we had gotten a limit or not popped a cap. Russell knew that hunting is all about being outdoors with the people you like, not about how much game you bring home.

That lesson alone made him worth knowing.

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