Rancho Caracol

Fine hunting for wild quail awaits south of the border

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 25, 2006, 9:37PM

A white-and-brown exclamation point stood in the grassy field. The rigid dog faced upwind and stared bug-eyed into the yellow and green canopy. Far beyond, rising in gray ridges, were the Sierra Madres of Tamaulipas, Mexico.

The Rancho Caracol hunting vehicle stopped, and Jose Angel Silguero nodded. "Bueno," he said.

Jim Easterling and I, riding in the high rack seats, needed no interpreter as we pulled 20-gauge over/under shotguns from the scabbards. On either side of the Rio Grande, the thrilling sight of the pointer meant only one thing: a bevy of bobwhite quail was waiting.

Getting to the point
Easterling fanned left, and I swung right. We stepped through the knee-high grass and pressed past the point. The abrupt rise of 12 or 15 quail was somehow unexpected. You know the birds are there, skulking and huddling just beyond the straining dog — but your heart jumps every time the whirring wings roar from seemingly nowhere.

Easterling pop-popped to the left. I muffed the first barrel, then, with the second shot, folded a fast-departing bird.

"Excellent," Silguero said. "Three birds down — and a beautiful covey."

It was, indeed, a beautiful covey, a beautiful day in the field.

"Quail hunting doesn't get any better," Easterling said, shouldering the gun.

I'm inclined to agree.

Rancho Caracol, located about 150 miles south of Brownsville/Matamoros, is rated by Orvis as the top wingshooting operation in Mexico. Of the various wingshooting options, none are more difficult to consistently deliver than wild quail (opposed to pen-raised or "liberated" quail).

Rancho Caracol offers productive hunts for wild bobwhites on a regular basis during the Tamaulipas season (Nov. 15 to Feb. 20).

Chasing the coveys
"We're averaging 21 coveys per day this season," said owner Dean Putegnat of Brownsville. "The hunting usually is best in January and February because it's cooler and the brush is knocked back — better dog work.

"We like to be conservative and advertise 15 to 20 coveys per day; that way, hunters don't have false expectations. Last season was exceptional, with many 30- and 35-covey days, but remember that we got really good spring and summer rains — great quail hatches.

"This year, we feel very good about a 21-covey average, especially with some of the poor reports coming out of South Texas."

And the covey numbers are not the whole issue. The typically open terrain of grain fields, fence lines, and broken brush near Nuevo Padilla, Jimenez and Abasolo allow dogs and hunters to effectively work most of the chances. Many rises occur under classic upland conditions in grassy fields, rather than the thick tangles that confound so many South Texas hunters.

Easterling and I hunted two days. The first day we "put up" 19 coveys and bagged 46 quail. Significantly, we were able to shoot over 18 of the 19 bunches and follow up with numerous opportunities on singles scattered in the grass.

The second day, we shot over 23 of 25 coveys and bagged 52 birds. Most veteran quail hunters will agree we had an exceptional return for two guns — a reflection of the high percentage of clean shots over pointing dogs.

Nothing like a siesta
We hunted two areas. The first day we drove a long hour and spent the day in the field, enjoying a fajita lunch and hammock siesta at a shaded outcamp.

The second day we hunted 30 minutes from the lodge and returned for a midday break.

"We have permission to hunt about 500,000 acres in this region," Putegnat said. "We have scouts looking for birds and try not to put too much pressure on any one area; that way, our parties almost always find good numbers of coveys that haven't been hit too hard."

During the quail season, Rancho Caracol runs five quail vehicles and can handle 20 quail hunters (the lodge can accommodate twice the number of dove hunters). Each quail rig is outfitted with a driver/dog handler and two helpers. Our helpers, Nan Lerma and Humberto Roque, were hard workers with exceptional eyes for marking birds.

The lodge maintains a kennel of approximately 60 dogs, and each rig typically uses six to eight pointers and a Lab. The trained retriever is a big ally in recovering birds; each day, the yellow Lab in our string collected six or eight quail that otherwise would have been lost.

Hunters willing to deal with the paperwork can bring personal shotguns, but Rancho Caracol has an armory of 12- and 20-gauge guns.

"We use Beretta over/unders and autoloaders," Putegnat said. "All the guns are equipped with screw-in chokes and each one is cleaned at night and placed on your truck for the next day's hunt."

The view's great
Rancho Caracol offers manicured grounds overlooking an impressive backdrop of green hills and valleys near Las Alazanas Dam. Clients for two- or three-day hunts either arrive by camp vans or air charter from Harlingen.

The two-level lodge is clean and well-appointed, with expanded game room and dining areas. Meals and service are first-academy, and single-occupancy and double-occupancy air-conditioned rooms are available. Groups might consider separate cabanas.

"I've hunted in Mexico for 25 years," Easterling said. "Whitewings, ducks, quail — I've been all over with seven or eight outfitters, and this is without a doubt the best operation that I've seen."

Rancho Caracol will have a booth at the Houston Safari Club's Worldwide Hunting Expo Feb. 3-5 at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott. For additional information on quail or dove hunts, call 1-888-246-364, or go to ranchocaracol.com.

Joe Doggett covers outdoors for the Chronicle.


"Far and away the best whitewing shoot I've ever had!"
Fred Pauling, MD, Houston, Texas
Toll free: 888-246-3164 : Outside U.S.: 956-542-3482 : Fax: 956-542-5765
Rancho Caracol : 2424 Village Drive : Brownsville, TX 78521