That disturbance you felt in the force a couple of weeks ago might have been the news that Murry Burnham, a legend in Texas hunting and fishing circles, died April 20.
Legend isn’t a strong enough word to describe the impact of Murry’s life on Texas. Throw in his brother Winston, who died many years ago, and you have crossed off a bloodline with roots that stretch back to the Texas Revolution and that brought the wonder of the outdoors to generations of Texas. Not to mention the two men who made varmint calling a sport in Texas when they developed their line of animal calls.
Murry was born in 1929, and 11 years later, using a homemade bow and arrow, he killed a bobwhite quail. He later won state archery contests and launched a career in the outdoors that stretched through into the first score of years in this century.
I got to know Murry in the late 1980s, after I moved to Central Texas to work at the American-Statesman. For some reason, maybe to help me improve my knowledge of guns and animals and such, he seemed to take a liking to me.
I visited him many times at the old family place down south of Marble Falls, where he and Jolene lived in the plantation-style home built on an Indian mound. Water from a spring that gushed out of a hill behind the house provided the family with all their needs, including the garden where they grew vegetables and turned up an occasional arrowhead.
Murry had an amazing understanding and affinity for animals and would regale me with stories of the ones he’d caught and seen during his life. Everybody who ever went into the store that the Burnham brothers had in Marble Falls stopped to check on the rattlesnakes that were in the window at the front.
On my first visit to the old place, he took me upstairs and walked me out on the balcony that circled that floor to show me the nest a mallard hen had built on the porch and a roadrunner he’d caught as a chick and tamed to live around the house. “He’d peck on the window when he was ready to come inside. He’d drink out of my tea glass,” Murry said.
He would go outside at night when he was a kid and walk down to an oat patch nearby and see how close he could get to the deer feeding there. “I got to where I could get pretty close to them,” he said.
One of his best stories was of the turkey gobbler he’d caught and trained to ride in the front seat of his pickup. “I’d go down the road and get some strange looks from people who saw him up in the front seat of that truck,” he said.
Even though it wasn’t strictly legal, Murry kept that gobbler and trained him to act as a kind of feathery decoy when he hunted turkeys. One day, Murry’s gobbler got to talking with a wild bird, which came up out of the woods and decided he needed to establish his dominance over the tame bird.
“Of course, he came to me for protection and brought that other gobbler right into my lap,” Murry said. “He almost beat me to death before I could get away from him.”
Murry loved to go out to the ranch he owned near Langtry. The Rio Grande ran along the southern border, and he’d drag me down there to suggest that we take his old johnboat upriver to spend the night on one of the islands. Just sleep out on the ground was his plan.
I always had a reason I couldn’t do it that night, but we’d still push through the cane stands on the bank of the river and drop a line down under the bank to catch catfish. Most people wouldn’t have eaten those fish, but Murry insisted they were safe and clean.
We’d go down at daylight and catch enough for breakfast and take them back to clean. Murry did something I’d never seen, which was to take a fillet off one side of the smaller fish and leave the skeleton to crisp up when the other side was fried. Those were some of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, really close to the ones we shared on the banks of the Sabine River during my younger days in Panola County.
Many times I’ve come back home after a day out to find a message on my machine. When I hit play I’d know it was Murry because it sounded as if he were 20 feet away from the phone, usually saying, barely audibly, “Mike, it’s Murry. I’m going up toward Hamilton to this place up there to fish and wanted to invite you along. Call me back. Murry.”
I kept one of those messages for years but lost it in the switchover from tape machines to cellphone messages.
I’ve known this was coming but had been dreading it terribly. Like so many people around Texas, I loved Murry and always admired his dedication to animals and the knowledge he carried with him.
He once offered me all his memorabilia because I expressed an interest in it. I just couldn’t agree to that — guns, a Civil War musket with bayonet, thousands of arrowheads, cameras and tapes from his many trips with legends such as Fred Bear and many more items — but I asked if he’d be willing to donate it to help start a state collection of sorts.
He agreed, and I tried for years to get someone to take it up at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. I envisioned rotating collections for mounted heads and such on the walls at TPWD’s headquarters. Nobody would bite, and now he’s gone, along with others of his time such as Big Roy Hindes, Graves Peeler and now Bill Carter, pioneers in hunting and management.
Maybe in the next generation, after I’m gone.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas hunting and fishing legend Murry Burnham dies at 93