Rancho Caracol

Understanding Wild Quail

David Foster

Letty’s hands are firm and aggressive, exorcising the weariness of a day’s walking with each touch of the fingers. First the top of the spine, then down the back. I lay naked except for a towel across the buttocks, nose down in the table extension, listening to the gentle pulsations of a CD entitled Relaxation. As Letty rubs, probes and kneads, my mind wanders to another hardworking almost perfectly formed female named Ginger.

She is a pointer, delicate, pink-nosed, skinny and calm. She is moving through the sharp and rocky coppice of a large weedy field on a cattle ranch in the Tamaulipas Valley of northeastern Mexico, unmindful of the ubiquitous thorns and stickers, looking for quail. Her head bobs high and low, searching for scent. Suddenly the head drops, the neck extends, her tail straightens, her gait slows, she twists this way and that and then stops, her long flowing white tail rising above the brush. The lithe little pointer is sure. She is solid. The birds, she says, are there.

Centavo approaches her directly while Richie and Chris move too slowly through the brush and past her. Both are expecting a flush, but nothing comes of it. They move on ahead; Centavo releases Ginger who moves forward as well. Somebody says “false point,” but they are new to this. There are few false points; there are lots of slow, over cautious hunters. This is no time to tread gingerly, especially when this dog goes on point on these birds. She’s the one down there in the scent, the veteran player, the one that’s hunted quail more times than either of the hunters have made love. She had the birds, and had the hunters just moved up more quickly they might have gotten a shot.

Chris stops to watch Ginger regain her bearings. The little dog is working to his right when a covey of bobs flushes to his left. He turns toward the whirring wings, but too late. They are gone, settling into a skinny line of trees some 500 yards distant. Chris shrugs. Centavo says we should find another covey. And the train moves forward.

“That was another covey,” Chris says, more question than statement. We are almost a hundred yards ahead of where Ginger first pointed. Surely those birds had disappeared long before now.

The young Mexican, a veteran wild quail guides shakes his head. “No, same one. Go anywhere.”

The advertising for Rancho Caracol is short but full of irony and interpretation: ALL WILD BIRDS. Just the thought makes the average bird hunter’s blood pressure leap. Wild birds is what quail hunting is all about. Everything else is a substitute. Visit any quail preserve’s dinner table any day during the season. The hunters will normally remark on how well the birds flew and then lament that there are “no more quail.” Of course, they were shooting quail that day, but birds raised in a pen, released anytime from last month to an hour before the “hunt” began. When a quail hunter says there are “no more quail,” he means wild quail, born wild, made wilder avoiding every manner of predator from snakes to bobcats, the kind of quail that knows instinctively just how much most of its neighbors want it for dinner.

A wild quail’s life, like a bandito’s life, is naturally nervous. Survival depends on fast moves and a savvy mind.

When Ginger made her first point that morning, the breeze was strong to her nose, bird scent intense enough to put on those mental brakes and raise that tail. If she had scented liberated birds, they would most likely have been no more than five to 15 ahead, moving slowly away, not much alarmed. But wild quail don’t do anything slowly. They heard our party walking on the rocks and crashing through the northern Mexico brush for at least five minutes, moving inexorably to where they were feeding. They could easily slip away form the humans, but Ginger was another obstacle altogether. There is no slipping her nose. The cover looks thick from the human perspective, but from the quail’s it’s too thin. The birds stand tall, heads thrust forward, rushing ahead of the dog, skittering this way and that along the ground. Finally one stops to take a bearing, perhaps the other six or eight do as well, perhaps in or near a thicket of grass or island of cactus. That’s when Ginger pointed and the hunters ambled past her, their adrenalin rising in anticipation of the rattle of wings and the classic cover rise. But the birds had already moved on, beating feet, unwilling to accommodate these slow-moving predators. Last thing quail want to do is fly. By the time Chris and Richie passed Ginger’s quivering nose, the birds were some 40 yards ahead and moving to the left, spread out as much as 10 feet, maybe 20, laying as little scent as possible. When Ginger was released, the hunters were standing instead of walking, watching the dog. Ginger ran past Richie on the right, and Chris began walking again – perhaps the last movement the birds could stand, for to wing they took.

Both shrugged a young man’s frustration when the veteran suggested that they might move it up a bit. Centavo nodded at the advice, but said nothing. His job is to find birds and let the hunters do what they wish, not offer advice.

Ten minutes later Ginger pointed again. This time Chris and Richie moved quickly past the dog, looking left and right, tensed this time for whatever might happen. The quail were running but one got too nervous, decided to make a flying break; the others flushed as well. Six or eight little brown blurs blasted across the coppice, left to right. Richie got one shot, but a small tree stood between him and other birds. Within a second the action was over. Two coveys in 10 minutes. ALL WILD BIRDS. Not a feather cut. “Plenty more birds,” Centavo said, and sent Ginger ahead.

It was the advertisement that spurred me to give Rancho Caracol a try. Wild quail are a passion of mine, and many times I’ve been invited to hunt wild bobs and the bobs weren’t wild at all. It doesn’t take much experience to learn the difference between the behaviors of recently released birds (say an hour before the hunt begins), birds liberated before the season began and truly wild bobs. Each behaves in a different way. While bird hunters lament “no more quail,” there’s actually some pretty good wild-quail hunting left in the U.S., almost all of it on private lands from southern Texas up through central Nebraska. Few if any shooting preserves can maintain a harvestable wild quail population, as it doesn’t take much hunting pressure to move wild birds along to other locales. So here’s this advertisement, which has appeared in various magazines for several years, that claims ALL WILD BIRDS! I decided to make them prove it.

OK, these birds are wild. And they’re locally numerous. On our first day we flushed 26 coveys, some containing up to 15 birds. On our second day we flushed – and this is the Lord’s truth – 24 coveys and two flocks.

Hold on, Foster, you say. Overdoing the praise for the sake of an advertiser? Not true. It’s an intriguing ad, but it’s a little ad. As a business we appreciate the cash, but it doesn’t make or break this magazine. But: 26 coveys the first day; 24 and two flocks the second.

Flocks? Yep, flocks. We were hunting a ranch an hour so southeast of the lodge. a recently harvested sorghum field bisected a ranch road, and our first turn of the morning would be to follow the pointers up that fencerow. We quickly flushed two or three coveys along the fencerow, one of them flying into and landing in the harvested field. Richie followed, figuring he would flush them again, get another shot. The remainder of the party came along, but the field looked far too thin to hold quail. Songbirds and field larks flushed, and we could see the quail that had set this hunt in motion running along some 50 or 60 yards ahead. Centavo said the cover was so thin that they’ll most likely run until they get out of the field and disappear into the thicker chaparral. Suddenly one of the pointers came up short off to our right. We turned to honor the point, and the ground seemed to erupt quail, an explosion of wild quail rising – one, two, a dozen, a hundred, a by-God flock of quail arcing toward a hill at the end of the field. We all stood in shock. Neither I nor, any else in the party including Centavo, had ever witnessed such a thing.

A flock of wild quail. At first we thought they were field larks, but the short wings, short bodies and arcing flight quickly confirmed the reality of the issue. I was so shocked I didn’t take the first photograph; just stood there agog. A flock of wild quail. In all my bird hunting, I’ve never flushed more than 20 birds, normally two coveys feeding together. But 200 birds, feeding together? Never. We all just watched as the birds flew to the far end of the field, where they pitched into the brush. “They will hold there,” Centavo said with a huge smile. This was one happy hunting guide.

Ginger, on the other hand, had other ideas. She moved on off into the sorghum field, hunting to our right. She pointed again. We all hoofed it to the dog. We could see another dozen or so quail heads bobbing through the stubble. Centavo released the doge, and she moved ahead for a few yards and then pointed again. We could see the birds some 40 yards off and running like hell, but Centavo said we had to honor the point. This time the covey waited until we got there, made a short run and then launched. Both Richie and Chris connected, but the reports of their guns moved another flock of birds into the air. Not the number we had flushed coming into the field, but a good 50 or 60 birds, all them pitching into the brush near where the first flock settled in.

Chris turned and smiled. “This is gonna be like a turkey shoot for quail.”

It takes a while to understand wild quail. They don’t’ just fly to the brush, settle in and wait to see what happens. Once their feet touch ground, they run in the opposite direction of whatever sent them flying in the first place. While humans with shotguns aren’t much on their mind, avian predators are their worst enemies, one of the reasons they don’t like to fly. If they stayed put on landing there wouldn’t be a hungry raptor in the world. And most likely there wouldn’t be many quail.

Needless to say, we found a plethora of birds and shot our limit, but we didn’t see again the massive flocks that had been feeding in that field. It was as if they had been absorbed by the Earth itself.

Unlikely many quail programs, especially in the Southeast, intense agricultural management isn’t part of the Rancho Caracol program. While the lodge owns 11,000 acres of primarily brush lands, most hunting land is leased, and the full-time staff spends much of the spring and summer seeking out new hunting grounds, visiting with ranchers and farmers and running dogs. When a good population of quail is found, “the guides are authorized to do a lease for the hunting season,” says manager and owner Dean Putegnat. Also, very few people, except for a handful of market hunters, seek quail in this part of Mexico, maybe 6,000 hunters a year over an area the size of New England. Not much pressure. But even with all that in their favor, finding new populations of birds and then leasing the land for hunting is a major part of the Rancho Caracol operation, one reason you often drive as much as an hour and a half for a day’s hunting.

Quail season runs from November until mid-February, the daily limit is 25 birds per hunter and the lodge accommodates 20 hunters for each three-day booking.

And while there have been good populations of birds available since Rancho Caracol opened in 1998, when it comes to the vagaries of wildlife populations, Putegnat has some of the same issues any wild bird cultivator faces: his bird population is only as good as the kindness of the weather. A hot dry spring can decimate a hatch; ditto for a cold wet one. Therefore, he is conservative in what to expect from his operation, saying that 15 to 25 coveys is a more realistic expectation. On the other hand, where else in North America can one regularly find up to 20 coveys in one day and have the opportunity to shoot 25 birds?

Mixed with the bob hunting is white-winged and mourning-dove shooting, mainly mourning doves after January. It’s the hunter’s choice. Many shooters enjoy five half-day bob hunts and one afternoon of dove shooting.

While the hunting, food and hospitality are the upsides of the Caracol experience, the three-hour ride from the airport in Corpus Christi or Harlingen is a downside, but not a sever one, as is the often long drive to the hunting field. But you soon forget the tediousness of Mexican roads once the dog goes on point. The ride home, however, is filled with conversation about points made, birds shot – and missed – and the expectation of a good meal, a cocktail and a massage.

Letty says I’m done. She’s not kidding. I feel like a lump of lead. I limp off to my room, take a shower, lay down “for a few minutes,” only to awaken in time for breakfast the next morning. Rancho Caracol lived up to its claim of ALL WILD BIRDS and an excellent lodge experience. The best time to take advantage of this wonderland of game birds? Now. Reservations are required, and don’t assume there’s always a place waiting. But if you can get one or two, it’s worth it.

Say hello to Ginger for me. That is one fine bird dog.

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