Rancho Caracol

Brush up on quail with classic hunt in Mexico

07:08 PM CST on Saturday, January 21, 2006

NUEVO PADILLA, Mexico – American bobwhite quail thrived in the middle of the 20th Century, when the southern United States consisted of small family farms. Each farm had a garden, a few head of livestock and a pond for a water source.

Farms were divided by fencerows grown up in brush, Johnson grass, plum trees and berry vines. It was the golden era of southern quail hunting. Bird hunters could locate a covey about every 20 acres. When flushed, the birds flew a short distance and pitched down into dense cover, often the grown-up fencerow. They hid until a bird dog pointed them.

Fast-forward half a century, and the southern farms have been replaced by subdivisions, cattle pastures and pine plantations. Whether in East Texas or East Georgia, quail cannot thrive without a place to live and food to eat.

Now move 150 miles south of the Texas border to the verdant farming region of Tamaulipas, Mexico. Nestled against the scenic backdrop of the Sierra Madres, this place is like family farms on steroids. Instead of 40-acre farms, the rich land is carved by community farming cooperatives that may sprawl across 40,000 acres.

Orange groves alternate with grain fields planted on a rotation that leaves them fallow for two years out of three. The fallow fields grow up in tall, golden grasses that produce seeds the quail love. Unlike the American practice of planting right up to the fence, Mexican farmers allow their fencerows to grow up in mesquite, prickly pear, guajillo, huisache and other thorny plants that create ideal overhead cover for bobwhites.

Dean Putegnat's quail-hunting truck cruises past a yucca plantation that covers a full section of land. The cultivated yuccas look like frightful pineapples. Putegnat says the tough fibers from the plant's leaves are woven into twine or rope.

Putegnat grew up in Brownsville, quail hunting on both sides of the Rio Grande when the river was no more of a barrier to international traffic than the speed bumps that slow Highway 101 traffic through Nuevo Padilla.

His Mexico wing shooting company, Rancho Caracol, stresses the region's excellent white-winged dove hunting, but Putegnat quickly recognized the potential for great bobwhite action, too. He keeps a kennel of well-trained dogs, and his four trucks, each capable of handling four hunters at a time, stay busy during quail season.

Plot the Texas quail cycle for the past seven years and it looks like the saw-toothed profile of the mountains visible through the distant haze. The hunting around Rancho Caracol for that same period has remained amazingly consistent. Like quail hunters everywhere, Putegnat maintains careful records of how many coveys his hunters find each day.

His worst season in seven years produced an average of 16 coveys a day. His best season was last year, a 33-covey average. In a normal year, hunters find 20 to 24 coveys a day. I took my son, Zach, and wife Emilie south of the border for a holiday-season vacation. Zach had never hunted wild quail, and Emilie had only hunted them a couple of times.

The Mexico birds are wild and fast. Very light hunting pressure makes them less likely to run from dogs or hunters, however. When flushed, they have a tendency to fly a short distance and hide in heavy cover. Hunting the singles is like reading Nash Buckingham's accounts of quail hunting in the old days, when gentlemanly birds stuck tight and flushed right under your feet.

"In the heat of the day, quail loaf in the shade of these fencerows," said Putegnat. "One of the most effective hunting techniques is to push the fencerows during the midday."

We did that with great success. If the wind was favorable, Putegnat would put a pointer on the ground, and the dog pinpointed coveys hiding in the fencerows. If the wind was unfavorable, the three of us would split up, two on one side of the cover, one on the other, and simply walk along, as if pushing pheasants along cornrows.

Our guides, None' Lerma and Simon Martinez, walked along with us to help in marking and finding fallen birds. A chocolate lab named Sugar was our insurance policy against lost birds.

Lerma and Martinez were uncanny in their knowledge of which fencerows would hold birds. Putegnat has access to 500,000 acres, and we hunted on some areas he had not seen since last year. On one memorable stretch, we played hide-and-seek with two coveys in a 400-yard stretch of fencerow. Birds that flew out of the cover landed in a grassy lane.

Lerma indicated that we should walk through the lane, a stroll that added eight birds to the bag. They stuck tight in the grass and rose underfoot. It was like picking grapes. Based on the classic tales, that's what quail hunting was like in the golden era.

For eastern Mexico, this is the golden era of quail hunting. Rancho Caracol will have a booth at the Dallas Safari Club Convention and Expo on Jan. 27-29 or you can find more information at www.ranchocaracol.com.

E-mail rsasser@dallasnews.com

"The ranch lies in the heart of the best wild quail country in Mexico."
Dr. Ron Haaland, in Quail Unlimited Magazine
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