Rancho Caracol

Rancho Caracol - Palaoma Y Cazador Heaven

I sat beside Harold Inman at the July Dallas Safari Club monthly meeting. Harold was one of several DSC guests that night. As the evening progressed, I learned Harold is the sales representative for the popular bird-hunting operation, Rancho Caracol, in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico’s only Orvis endorsed wingshooting lodge.

Traditionally, I have refrained from sporting clay events and dove hunts. I know my way around a rifle, but my clay pigeon and bird shooting has been negligible.

Some weeks later, I received an invitation to hunt dove at Rancho Caracol.

Sally needed a vacation, and I wasn’t averse to the notion. So we accepted.

An ornithologist, I am intimately familiar with dove species, their speed and agility in flight. I knew the tiny, feathered avian critters were capable of uncanny aerial acrobatics, so I had no illusions about my ability to shoot very many of them on the wing.

Sally and I flew Southwest from Love Field to Harlingen. When we made our way to the baggage claims area, Harold and his son Charlie were waiting there for us.

The Rancho Caracol father-son team loaded a half dozen of us – including DSC Associate Member George (Butch) Ray and his son-in-law Dean Knight into the air-conditioned, custom Dodge van sitting at curbside.

Clearing customs was a breeze, and before we knew it, we were headed south on what turned out to be a modern, four lane highway. As we would soon learn, Mexican motorists are generally courteous, safe drivers – a welcome respite from Dallas traffic.

For perspective, Rancho Caracol is a straight, 150-mile shot south of Harlingen, off Highway 101, immediately south of the town of Abasolo. The lodge is 12 miles from Lake Guerrero and 50 miles west, as the crow flies, from the Gulf of Mexico.

Enroute to the lodge, we enjoyed the scenery, animated conversation and the contents of an ice chest filled with cold drinks. Three hours later, we exited paved highway for the last leg of the journey – a 10 mile, scenic stretch on a gravel road.

Along the way, Charlie made a call to the lodge and placed our drink orders.

Descending the road that meanders to the lodge, we feasted our eyes on the view. Undulating, verdant subtropical mesquite and ebony forests stretched to the horizon.

Below, the colorful, ever – placid Rancho Caracol compound glistened in the sun. In the distance, Caracol’s 430-hectare private lake, Las Alazanas, stocked with bass and catfish, shimmered, and to its right, the Soto de La Marina River coursed into infinity.
Charlie made his way through the archway and entered the graveled compound.

Landscaped gardens flashed shades of yellow, pink, orange, red, and white. Majestic Royal and Sable Palms lined the grounds. Mimosas and a host of other trees, many sporting flowers, filled the courtyard.

As I learned enroute, Rancho Caracol is an 11,000-acre ranch, and as far as the eye could see, lush subtropical foliage grew in abundance. There were night-blooming jasmine, yellow hibiscus, bougainvillea, banana, and Bird of Paradise. Radiant butterflies and flitting, iridescent hummingbirds, drawn by the abundance of nectar, were common.

A number of Rancho Caracol employees were there to greet us. So too were the margaritas, nachos and hors d’oeuvres – tiny dove breasts wrapped in bacon – umm.

After meeting lodge owner Dean Putegnat and members of his 70-person staff (his extended family), we made our way to the room to get settled in and freshen up.

As you walk to your room, the lodge embraces you – with its ornate stone patios, vine-covered trellises, aromatic flowers, intricate tile design and woodwork and its traditional thatched roofs (Palapas). Caracol provides an Old Mexico ambience without sacrificing the modern-day amenities we have all come to expect from a world-class lodge.

First impressions are important, and we were not disappointed.

What followed was a three-night, two-day hunting and culinary extravaganza that surpasses anything we have experienced. I have not been fed so much or so well, been waited on like royalty to such a degree or enjoyed myself so much, ever.

Rancho Caracol wrote the book on culinary delight – and customer service. The word pampered, a bit of an understatement, came to mind often. No doubt why Rancho Caracol is the 2005-2006 Orvis Lodge of the Year.

Curious about my weapon of choice, Dean volunteered to show me the armory, the repository of 100 automatics and over-and-unders. My loaner would be a Beretta 391 auto in 12 gauge. Others in our group of 40 would use Beretta – 686s, 390s, and 391s.

I don’t know much about quality shotguns, but by the end of the weekend, I was pleased with the way mine had performed, running 700-plus rounds through it, no matter that I only bagged 95 birds (I scared a helluva lot more, and I knocked the tail feather off even more).

I never claimed to be a shotgunner. But I am now; I’m hooked.

Our first day ended with a delightful meal of Cornish game hen cooked over a charcoal fire. This was not just any fire, mind you. The lodge produces its own fireplace fuel – carbon – 5 tons of the jet-black stuff each year. Carbon burns hot and long.

We went to bed later than I had hoped, and 4:30 came way too soon. After coffee and orange juice, I made my way to the No. 55 van parked in front of the gift store.

The night before, I had spoken with Lafayette, Louisiana businessman Joey Russo. We were in the gift shop, and Joey was trying on a pair of gloves. “Saves your thumb when you’re loading,” he had wisely advised. Joey is one of Caracol’s many repeat guests. Indeed, one of his pals, Bobby, has been a visitor there since the beginning.

I bought a pair of the gloves, and the rest is history. My digits are unbruised, and I am able to use my PC keyboard. Thanks, Joey! I had the forethought to buy a recoil pad before leaving home, and I was set.

Rancho Caracol has access to 500,000 acres of prime dove habitat. The property is adjacent to the largest white-winged dove nesting site in the world. Experts say there are eight million birds in that sanctuary; overall, the area holds more than 20 million dove.

Field, brush, and waterhole hunts are employed there. Field hunts are conducted around local corn, sunflower and sorghum fields – the area’s agricultural mainstay.

We did not hunt grain fields during my visit, but we did hunt brush, usually from a cleared road or sendero. Brush hunts are held in the denser scrub where birds congregate to feast on native seeds and berries. That was where I did my best shooting, when birds flew well above the dense foliage. My least successful hunt was when the birds flitted low, in and out of the thick brush.

Depending on scouting reports, we also hunted waterholes.

I did not practice before leaving Dallas, nor was I able to hone my skills, flurry shooting at Rancho Caracol. But I got plenty of practice afield – more than I expected.

Day One began slowly with my missing more birds than not. However, my meager 31 birds exceeded my expectations. With time, I developed the knack for leading birds and following through. Gauging range proved critical to my shooting success, too.

Mexico’s birds are evidently no different than the Texas version – they all fly fast, erratically and come at you from every imaginable angle. My favorite shot was when birds flew directly at me, overhead. When I finally got the pattern down, I began busting birds.

Another pattern I finally got the hang of was passing shots. Often, I would begin passing through a bird only to have it veer away at the last second. I quickly learned not to pull the trigger on such shots.

I seldom sat on the swivel seat provided rather, standing, I craned my neck and spun about in a 360-degree fashion, scanning the horizon for birds. Talk about whiplash!

I quickly discovered dove were not the only avian residents in the Mexican bush. There are blackbirds, yellow birds, swallows, beautiful orange orioles (Alta Mira), and red birds. Twice I yelled out – to no one’s benefit other than my own – mockingbird!

There are the ever-pervasive Inca and Ground doves, too small to merit my pulling the trigger. Often these smaller birds would camp out in the middle of a field of shooters, immune from the danger their mourning and white-winged cousins faces.

By the end of that first day, I had overcome my fear of embarrassment and bagged several Texas limits. Although this was nothing to brag about, and no one asked me for shooting tips, it was a milestone. I had a wonderful time, and I learned a thing or two.

We concluded the day by returning to the lodge for drinks (open bar) and hors d’oeuvres. That night, Sally and I had an incredible filet mignon dinner on the upstairs, outdoor veranda, socialized with fellow guests, enjoyed a spirited mariachi and marveled at a spectacular sunset.

The ritual was much the same for each of the full days spent at Rancho Caracol. Every morning, upon returning from the field, our beds and rooms had been made up and our dirty laundry cleaned. Many of us took advantage of a professional massage (at $1 per minute, it’s hard to beat), to relive our bruised shoulders after a hard day hunting.

Sally didn’t hunt. Instead she slept in late, shopped in the gift shop, toured the grounds, read two books, chatted with guests and lodge staff and lounged by the tiny pool. She also enjoyed two massages. Guests are welcome to explore the grounds or make jaunts to the private lake. One evening, we enjoyed visiting and making friends with some of the kennel’s 70 prized bird dogs.

The area is rich in exotic plant and wildlife – deer are common, and the Rio Grande turkey and javelina are familiar to the sprawling ranch. it is said the jungle holds the more secretive cats – bobcat, mountain lion, and jaguar, but they are rarely encountered.

Lake Alazanas teems with wildlife freshwater prawns (langostinas), bass catfish, alligator gar, carp – and reportedly, an alligator (just one?). two deep pools below the dam hold giant landlocked tarpon, put there 37 years ago. The tarpon, according to Dean, run four to six feet in length; six have been hooked over the years and three have been landed.

Rancho Caracol sits on the edge of no man’s land. There are no main roads, no noise and no congestion. Staring at an azure of star-laden night sky, I never saw a contrail or aircraft lights. There is no background traffic din. The only sounds one hears are those of myriad crickets and frogs.

Caracol accommodates 50 guests comfortably. Private parties are welcome. The only time of the year the lodge closes is between December 20 and December 26. Their least busy times are Thanksgiving and New Years.

Asked about their success after eight years of operation, after admittedly struggling in the early years, Dean proffered, “By far, word of mouth is our most valued marketing tool. Although we have no control over the weather and the effects it may have on hunting, we make certain we do the very best we can at making our guests’ hunting experiences successful. Otherwise, being pampered in an exotic locale is what impresses visitors most, that and our five-star accommodations. The hunting is an added bonus.”

The mood at Rancho Caracol is more familial than business-like and guests pick up on that sentiment. “We’re more like friends and family than staff,” Dean suggested.

He smiled and concluded, “And if for any reason a guests doesn’t feel he or she got their money’s worth, the next hunt is on us.”

The success of Rancho Caracol is evidenced by its repeat business: 92% of their guests leave a deposit for their next visit before leaving. And yes, we made plans to return.

If you love to hunt dove (and quail), eat fine food, relax in tranquil, exotic outdoor places – and socialize with the others who do – Rancho Caracol may be your kind of place. It is ideal for hunter and non-hunter alike, and Sally and I will attest to that. And if a novice wingshooter like me can drop 95 of the fastest, most evasive game birds in the world, anyone can.

I fared very well on the morning of my second day, dropping 52 birds. I have not had so much fun in a long while. The action was fast and furious, and I was often heard to yell, to my bird boys (palomeros), “Mas cartuchos, por favor! (More shells, please!)”

I am by no means a skilled dove hunter (cazador), but I am learning.

Give Rancho Caracol a try, and when you do, give them our best.

For more information about Rancho Caracol, visit their website at www.ranchocaracol.com.

"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