Rancho Caracol

Quail South of the Border

by John Taylor
October 2005

Mexico is the place to go for quail hunting the way it used to be. It sounded like a sputtering fuse when the brush in front of the dogs burst into a myriad of whirring wings. Twelve, fifteen, twenty – it was hard to count the number of bobwhites in the covey, but it was a big one, and the birds were fast and fleeting, presenting me with some of the most challenging targets I’d ever faced. Using the cover, which their dark-brown plumage uncannily matched, they were gone in a flash.

With the decrease in good bobwhite cover and few wild birds to hunt north of the border, I’d developed a false sense of confidence from shooting at game-farm quail. No matter how well game-farm birds are established, wild quail are different birds altogether.

The Tamaulipas region of northeast Mexico has long been legendary for its fine quail hunting. Abundant cover and water and good management has made this a must-go destination for diehard quail hunters.

Flying into Harlingen, Texas, I was met by Rancho Caracol’s van and U.S. staff. Heading south, we cleared the U.S. Mexican border, and then passed through several military and civil police check points. Although the checkpoints appear intimidating, the van makes weekly trips from mid-November through January as it ferries hunters back and forth, and with just a brief exchange of greetings, we easily passed through all of them.

Greeted at the lodge with margaritas, cold cerveza and delicious hors d’oeuvres, we were made comfortable in our spacious rooms, and then assembled in the lodge’s great room for a safety briefing by Dean Putegnat, the omnipresent, hands-on manager of Rancho Caracol, which he co-owns with his father. Putegnat issued each of us an orange vest and admonished us to be extremely careful shooting around the dogs. Each had a high pedigree and accompanying high price tag, and should a careless shot fell one, Putegnat assured us that it would be added to our bill. In the same serious vein, we were cautioned to use water only from the enormous jug sitting on the floor of our rooms. “Be careful when you get up at night that you don’t take a quick drink from the faucet,” was a line that stuck with me.

As is typical of southwestern quail hunting, we were to hunt from high Texas-rigged trucks. Framing the bed of a pickup truck was a seat, and beneath it the dog boxes. Each morning we set off with six dogs, plenty of water, ammunition, spare shotguns, two handlers, and the guide, who drove. Hardy guys, those dog handlers. There was not room in the king cab for them, so they bundled themselves in heavy coats and rode on the rig in the mid-December predawn chill.

Setting off just as deep night was fading into gray dawn, we often traveled forty-five minutes to an hour to reach the hunt location. Rancho Caracol owns eleven thousand acres and leases thousands more. Each guide scouts his particular hunting areas for birds and good hunting cover. In addition, other resident game spotters report hunting conditions and bird sightings to the lodge daily. For the most part, we hunted areas that had been hunted only once in the season, some not at all.

The terrain was slightly rolling to flat and the cover ran from native grasses to sorghum, maize, and other field grains. There seemed to be abundant water for the quail due to the wide use of ditch-style irrigation. Regulated by a system of gates that release water from rivers and reservoirs, even the ditches that weren’t full of water held some puddles. The cover varied from nearly bare ground to cover so heavy it was impossible to push through. That kind of tight cover is wonderful for quail, giving them protection from predators, of which there were plenty: we saw abundant Mexican eagles, locally called caracaras, and a variety of hawks, all searching for prey.

The common tree was the thorn-acacia, seen throughout south Texas. These trees provide good cover for quail. Some of the cover bordered stands of oaks, and the plentiful large cacti took some delicate footwork for the lightly clad hunter to negotiate successfully. It seemed that each farm we hunted offered another kind of cover, differing topography, and a new adventure. Some were milo fields that had been allowed to go fallow, which made them a mix of heavy, coarse grasses and unharvested milo. I wasn’t sure if this was part of a management plan or just a failed crop gone fallow. Either way, it worked very well, as we found some of the biggest coveys in this mixed cover.

Of course, one of the seldom-discussed keys to the great hunting nearly everywhere south of the border is the lack of hunting pressure. Due to stringent firearm ownership laws, poverty, and the lack of interest in hunting by the general public, game is abundant. Add to this plentiful food and water for the birds and, most importantly, protection from predators, it’s no wonder the hunting is so good.

Quail Guns

Although a hunter can take his own shotgun with him to Mexico, because of the recent increase in the price of import licenses – over $300 – and the added hassle at the checkpoints, most visiting hunters choose to use shotguns provided by the lodge. In our case the choice was 12- and 20-gauge Beretta 391 semiautos and 686 over/unders. The over/unders were available in the European configuration, with 26-inch, fixed-choke improved cylinder and modified barrels; good for stick-up men, but not for shooting quail. I opted for one of the 391s because of its better handling.

Over the years, I’ve found that most bird hunting south of the border can be nicely handled with the 20-gauge. The recoil is light and the ballistics more than enough for doves and quail. Even Argentine ducks folded cleanly when shot with a modified-choked 20-gauge Beretta 391. The gas-operated action of the Beretta 391 spreads out the recoil. On this quail hunt, because of the abundance of the birds we shot a lot of shells, but it was nothing like a Whitewing or mourning-dove shoot, when recoil becomes a big issue. Twenty-eight-gauge ammo isn’t prevalent, although this would be an ideal gauge for anything I shoot on this trip.

Frequently, under heavy use, shotguns will have problems with malfunctions. Before locally loaded Mexican ammunition began using cleaner-burning powders, it used to be tough to keep a semiauto shooting, but the modern components and cleaner-burning powders now used in the homegrown shells leave little residue, and I experienced absolutely no malfunction problems. To further ensure that our guns always worked, each day, following the hunt, the guns were thoroughly cleaned, and extra guns are always available in the fields. I’d far rather have taken my own guns, since memorable hunts are made all the more unforgettable with a favorite shotgun, but the system worked well.

Hunting from the high Texas rigs provided an excellent vantage point to watch the far-ranging pointers work. So often we try to hunt with long-ranging doges on foot, and it’s frequently frustrating, but not here. We were able to easily keep track of the dogs as they vacuumed the ground. The dogs were highly trained so they did not lose track of why they were there. Once they got birdy or locked on a point, we hurriedly drove to within about twenty yards, dismounted, and walked. The quail were wily, and most ran ahead of the dogs. Once stopped, the handlers made sure everyone had their shotguns, which were carried in Kolpin scabbard-style plastic cases mounted on the rig. Ammo supplies were checked, and the handlers took their positions with the dogs, and we marched forward at a rapid pace. The cover varied from knee-high to three feet tall. I can’t recall a single flush when the quail didn’t hug the tip-top of the cover, making them very difficult to see, much less shoot.

They were easier to spot during the bright, sunny periods that when the clouds provided overcast conditions, making the quail seem to disappear into the cover. Nevertheless, with the abundance of birds there were plenty brought to bag, easy shots muffed, and difficult shots made-all part of quail hunting. For hunters used to shooting slow moving game-farm birds, the first two or three flushes seemed like rockets. After that the number of birds taken from each flush steadily increased.

Unlike traditional quail hunting where the covey is flushed and then the singles hunted, only in a few cases did we pursue singles. Often, most of a covey would flush and then land together, and in those cases we continued hunting that covey for one more flush. However, there were so many coveys – fifteen to twenty every morning – that it was unnecessary to harry the singles. In addition, part of the management plan is to not press the singles, but rather allow the covey to reassemble and continue the day unmolested.

Doves in the Afternoon

Although the dove season was past its prime, on two afternoons we hunted doves and had a good shoot by American standards. There were numerous birds, but nothing like the numbers seen at the peak of the season. Still it was a fun and challenging way to spend the afternoon.

Spinning-wing Mojo dove decoys have seemingly caught on big time in Mexico. It was amusing that although the shooters were spaced only about thirty yards aparat, every hunter had a spinning-wing decoy in front of his position. It looked like a roadside whirligig display, and was, frankly, overkill. A few Mojo spinners, which seemed to really work, throughout the area would have probably been sufficient. The doves came to them, but because there was literally one on every street corner, the birds seemed confused. Both afternoons were very windy, and the shooting extremely difficult, making for great fun and lots of misses.

The country in which we hunted varied from mountains majestically rising in the west to the deep canyon with its switchback road leading to the lodge. the lodge is named for this road that seems to follow the coils of a snail shell, so it seemed that Caracol, Spanish for snail, was appropriate. Sitting atop Mesa Las Alazans, the lodge is the original 1960s staging site for the construction of the Las Alazanas Dam. Sitting fight on the edge of the mesa is the clay flurry setup. Not only is the view breathtaking, but the clay flurry is great fun, and a good warmup for rusty shooters.

During the time I hunted, I was enduring sever back problems that often made walking extremely painful. The ground was generally level to slightly rolling, and the walking for the most part was not so difficult that I could not fully participate. I took an occasional covey off-there were so many it didn’t seem to matter-to shoot photos from the truck, and occasionally drove the truck to pick up the shooters at the end of a particularly long walk. Still, I got more than enough quality shooting, so no one should be discouraged from hunting there. I wore a pair of Red Head’s lightweight snake boots, although the majority of the other hunters and guides chose snake chaps or gaiters. I find chaps make my legs seat, so I prefer the lightweight boots. The lodge’s pro shop stocks excellent chaps and gaiters, so if you’re planning a trip there and don’t have snake protection, just pick it up there. Putegnat said that in all the years he’s been hunting in Tamaulipas – he I is the third generation of his family to hunt this area – they’ve never had a serious encounter with a snake, but there’s always a first time, and medical care is a long way away, so it’s better to be safe.

In the evenings hunters from all the parties gathered in the lodge’s well-stocked bar to swap stories of the day and to meet new friends. I met a distinguished attorney from Dallas who shares my love of fine double guns, and we spent a good deal of time comparing notes. And so great hunting goes. From the lamp-lit stories of Nash Buckingham’s club-room dinners to the modern lodge at Rancho Caracol where hunters gather to pursue Mr. Bob and swap stories of days afield, the tradition lives on.

"I have hunted the world over, including Russia, Scotland, Argentina and more. Rancho Caracol offered the best hunt I've been on..."
James Hulbert, Longview, Washington
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