A Career Guided by a Love for Texas Outdoors

The memory of bagging his first white-tailed deer at the tender age of 12 remains a vivid and cherished recollection of Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

“It was Christmas Eve, and I was sitting in a tree stand with my Dad,’’ Smith said during a break in his duties helping manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of the Texas wildlife wonderland since January 2008.

“About 5 p.m., a doe walked out of the brush and into the open, about 45 yards away,” he said. “I shot her with an open-sights .30-30 lever action, and my dad and I used a pocket guide he carried in his back pocket to field dress her.”

“We left her hanging in a big mesquite tree, and we rushed back to a family gathering where I must have told everyone a hundred times that I had shot my first deer,” Smith recalled. “They all had the same reaction – sharing the pride of a young boy harvesting his first deer. Looking back at that time of my life has inspired me to spend a lot of my time and effort giving back to kids and those interested in enjoying Texas wildlife.”

The 50-year-old Smith, who admittedly wished he had more free time dedicated to hunting and fishing as part of his lifelong outdoor passion, began his professional career in 1992 as a management intern at TP&WD, working as a biologist with the Private Lands and Public Hunting programs.

He worked on a variety of research projects ranging from studying moose in the boreal forests of Saskatchewan, to monitoring mule deer and pronghorn antelope in far West Texas, to compiling data on waterfowl in the Laguna Madre of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Smith likes to say he grew up with “one foot in the city and one in the country,” with the Austin native juggling his urban/rural schedule between the Texas Capitol and his family’s farm and ranch land in Gonzales, Williamson and Edwards counties.

He earned a wildlife management degree from Texas Tech University and a master’s degree in conservation biology from Yale University. Prior to his selection as TP&WD executive director, Smith was with The Nature Conservancy of Texas, serving as state director.

Smith is responsible for overseeing an agency of 3,100 professionals in 11 different divisions, including Wildlife, Law Enforcement, State Parks, Coastal Fisheries, and Inland Fisheries.

Concerning his formative years developing a respect and admiration of the outdoors, Smith said he is extremely grateful for the efforts of his parents, along with a family friend and still favorite hunting buddy, Lance Tompkins.

“My parents like to hunt, but they don’t love to hunt,” he said. “I love to hunt. They were very supportive and recognized that was my passion. I was blessed to have farms and ranches where I could go to hunt. I was always more interested in chasing hogs, or quail, or doves than I was in chasing cattle.’’

Smith said that Tompkins was like a young uncle or older brother who took him under his wing and taught him marksmanship, hunting safety, conservation, and how to prepare for a hunt, among many other necessary outdoor skills.

“It was such an extraordinary relationship – he took me hunting every chance we would get,” he said. “We still get together to hunt whenever we can.”

Despite his hectic schedule as executive director, Smith said he makes a point of setting aside outdoor time with family or friends several days a year, adding, “I get grumpy if I don’t.”

The veteran wingshooter said that as he has developed his shooting skills, he has selected a quick handling and lighter recoil 20 gauge over and under – a Beretta Silver Pigeon – as his bird and clay target shotgun of choice. However, the venerable Remington Model 870 12 gauge pump that he cradled in his arms during many hunting seasons in his younger days still holds a special place in his heart.

Whenever possible, Smith said he participates in events such as Operation Game Thief sporting clay benefits to help raise funds for the program and other wildlife management efforts. The annual Karnes City Lonesome Dove Fest, the largest family-oriented festival of its kind held on the opening day of the South Zone dove season, is another favorite of his.

“The Lonesome Dove Fest is at the top of my list because of the wonderful mix of people involved,” he said. “The entire community gets together to help raise funds for scholarships for local kids.”

The festival’s mission of helping families and friends enjoy the outdoors while supporting the younger generation helps inspire him to work as hard as he can to encourage everyone to support and experience the extraordinary wildlife wonderland of the Lone Star State, Smith added.

On a more personal note, Smith said he particularly enjoys sharing precious outdoor hours with his wife, Stacy, who has become quite skilled at thinning down the state’s feral hog population, and with their 5-year-old son, Ryland.

“My son is a little young, but he loves to get out to the ranch. I started tagging along with my Dad when I was six or seven and shot my first dove with a single-shot 410 when I was nine. I plan to start him out just like me – retrieving birds – until he is ready to shoot a shotgun,” he said. “My formative years were in the outdoors. I was blessed to be exposed to so much wildlife, nature and the land. That is something I wish everyone could share.”

By Ralph Winningham