KNOWLEDGABLE, INTERESTING, CHARMING.
Yes, these three words pretty much sum up the essence of my visit with RONNIE HOWARD, who is beginning his 40th year as the Hunting Camp Manager of the San Tomas Camp on the Encino Division of the King Ranch in South Texas. He, and his lovely wife Beth, live in Falfurrias, Texas, but are building a new home in College Station where they will work toward a semi-retired lifestyle while cheering for the football team of their Alma Mater, Texas A&M University. He has one son who is a foreign missionary, a wonderful daughter-in-law, and 3 grandsons.
Now, don’t think for a minute Ronnie won’t be right in the middle of hunting season as usual. His roots in wildlife management are very deep.
So, tell us a little bit of how you got your start ….
While attending school at A&M my freshman year (I am the Class of 1976), I befriended an old high school football opponent, Jim Bob Mickler, whose father later invited me to come to the Tepeguaje Ranch in Brooks County to guide my very first hunt. I guided a deer hunt for Mr. John Blocker, who was with Dresser Industries at the time, and although it was a deer hunt, I remember that we spent most of our time talking about quail! Mr. Blocker started his own company in 1979, leased 10,000 acres from the King Ranch and hired me to set up and manage his hunting and wildlife operation! I was still at A&M working on my Masters degree when I accepted the job. So, from being a center on my high school football team and meeting the Dad of my opposing player, my path was mapped out for my career and future. I tell people all the time that you never know what’s going to happen in life that will lead you to where you’re going to go. That was my first year out of school and my first year on the Encino at San Tomas. Mr. Blocker had a “birds only” lease at that time. It’s a good story.
What is your job now?
I am still the manager of the San Tomas Hunting Camp for Freeport McMoRan, Inc. In 1984, they became partners on the camp and bought it out right in 1985. I’ve been working for them since then. I am beginning my 40th season.
Many people consider you a legendary person of Texas hunting and wildlife conservation. Of course, longevity in the business accounts for some of that, but there’s more to the story. Please share.
I was, maybe, one of the first people to say to landowners that, you have to start to make wildlife decisions. You can’t just make cattle related decisions and assume that everything will be fine. You have to make some sacrifices on both sides. When you manage cattle you always have to keep your wildlife in mind. They had great wildlife back then because they had so much country, but as more and more people bought land for recreation, as opposed to buying it for ranching, more and more people started understanding. Buyers have wildlife in mind and more of their management decisions are based on wildlife. Now there is a dual purpose. Cattle and wildlife can be managed to support both.
Can you describe some of the changes that you’ve seen?
When I grew up, there were people all over the state that had bird dogs in their back yard. They could take you quail hunting if you wanted to go. It was fairly easy to get a day lease for quail or dove. But now, there are fewer “mom & pop” hunting places. People who love to hunt need to be able to hire a quail truck, guide and try to find a lease. It is harder and harder to introduce our kids to hunting. I really hope we don’t loose the opportunity for young people to enjoy quail hunting.
What has had the biggest impact on wildlife management during your career?
Starting in 2000, the drought changed everything immensely. We had 12 to 14 years of drought. We started really conserving the quail population and people hunted more deer. Nilgai hunting became popular as well. But, around 2013-2014 things improved and we were able to start enjoying quail hunting more and more. We have had good to average quail hunting every year since then. In the old days the quail reacted differently from the way they do now. A dog could hold them on point, they would flush and fly and hold again. Now the learned response of the birds is so different. The birds run, fly and don’t stay put. People used to kill six or seven birds from a covey. Now we limit them to 3 per covey and average about 1.5. We limit hunters to three birds per covey, but now that’s hard to get because of the way the birds react. They don’t lend themselves to be shot as much. They scatter and it’s hard to find them a second or third time after the rise. But, hey, it’s the sport…. not the numbers. It’s not supposed to be a contest. No bets are allowed.
So, what do your clients/hunters mean to you?
I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve hunted with some of these people for over 30 years. I spend at least two hunting days with them every single year. They mean a lot to me. Their safety is as important as their enjoyment. We have rules. Everyone follows them and it’s a great relationship. Two years ago we killed our 100,000th wild quail. That’s a sustainable resource, and people are enjoying the hunt more than the numbers. You develop some real close friendships. I don’t want anybody to leave my camp dissatisfied or not feeling part of our program.
Quail hunting has been called a “Gentleman’s Sport.” Would you say that’s true?
Oh, yes. Even on the bad years, it’s fun. It’s not even necessary to kill birds. I remember one gentleman who, after he and his 50 year old son finished a near perfect hunt at San Tomas, put up his gun forever. He said he was content to just watch the dogs and birds. For the rest of his life, he’d just enjoy the hunt.
What are you predicting for the coming bird season?
This is a fairy tale season. We had a prediction of a dry year. But, then we had a 12 inch rain and then one other day of good rain. And that’s what I love about South Texas. Don’t ever count us out here. It makes an optimist of you. There is nothing I can do to change rainfall and if it rains, it does; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
The quail hatch is like Jello. You put it in the bowl but you have to put water on it to get Jello. Otherwise, it’s just powder. This year we’ve done all our management. We’ve put the quail in the bowl and this year we got rain to accompany our management, so we’ll have Jello - not powder. It should be a very good year. But, either way we just keep going through the steps and taking the measures we need to take to preserve the birds. I’ll be there for the hunts as long as I can.
One final question? How important are groups like Quail Coalition to the future of the quail hunting industry?
Very important in my mind! First I believe everyone should give something back to your profession. Quail and quail hunting have provided me with an extraordinary life that I would not trade. Quail Coalition (QC) is my channel for giving back to the sport. We are an all volunteer group that works hard at channeling all our fund-raising dollars to the bird. We are a conduit for long term quail research, scholarships, management education, habitat manipulation, and introduction of youth to the bird and sport. While we provide major funding for many projects, we are also the go-to guys when something special in the quail field pops up. We can often by-pass lengthy procedures associated with Government agencies and Universities and get things done that need immediate attention.
We raise awareness of quail among the people of South Texas and provide a platform for getting this community of people together through our annual banquet. Over the years, our banquet and our association with members has provided hundreds of introductions among the quail hunting community of this entire nation. People from all over the United States that enjoy quail hunting in South Texas are happy to help fund our banquet. Many of these people from outside of Texas have watched their own quail resource diminish and appreciate Quail Coalitions efforts to sustain the population in South Texas.
To learn more about Ronnie and the Quail Coalition, please visit their website. www.southtexasquailcoalition.org.