Rancho Caracol

Muchas Huilotas! - Many Mourning Dove

Jon Wongrey


A cold, windless late January rain beat down on the Columbia, South Carolina, Metropolitan Airport as the small commercial jet plane began its runway taxi, which would ferry me to Harlingen, Texas, and then by van to Rancho Caracol near the town of Abasolo, Mexico, for a three-day mourning dove shoot. But there was worry on my mind. Only moments earlier my wife had called me on my cell phone to tell me that she had taken our nine-year old female black lab, Belle, to the vet. She was suffering with a bad stomach and a sore throat, plus her right hip was riddled with arthritis. Such news disabled me, for she is my heart. A sad day on a dreary day.

We were airborne with wheels up and climbing. Houses became matchboxes and everything seemed in squares.

Three years had lapsed since I had hunted at Rancho Caracol, a place where memories are made. I had gone down to hunt quail…Mexican bobwhites.

I remembered there was no wind that warm December morning to scatter the iron-gray clouds. Below this suspended mass, three English pointers searched for birds moving though the cactus, thistles, thorns and the light blonde grass swishing about our knees.

The dogs were systematic, controlled and in full pursuit of their game. The tips of their tails had been worn thin and were red-tipped from contact with the dense Mexican brush. I recalled brothers, Phil and Stan Griffin, from Nashville, Tennessee, were there, as were dog handlers Simon and Ramon Martinez and Rancho Caracol’s owner, Dean Putegnat.

As we followed the dogs, I thought about my upbringing on bobwhites…Dixie bobwhites. Thunder came from the ground. The old men called them partridge. A bright and shining time when I romped in a wonderland of bobwhite hunting giddiness.

“Point!” Ramon yelled. We went to our tasks. Three birds “puffed” and fell into the light blonde grass.

This is what I recalled about my first hunt at Rancho Caracol, which sits high atop a mesa like an ancient Mayan city with its 11,000 acres bordered on the east by the Soto la Marina River Valley and its 380,000 acres of irrigated farmland. The ranch’s southern border is a 400,000-acre nature preserve, the nesting area for northern Mexico’s largest white-wing dove colony. In the jungle, the jaguar continues to thrive and lives off the cattle, deer and goats.

The rain continued to rake the plane as I drifted off to sleep. My next moment of cognitive awareness was when the plane’s wheels rolled down for its landing in Harlingen, Texas, in a cold downpour.

His last name was Heath, or perhaps his first name was Heath, I cannot remember, but he was the driver of the van which would take us 3 ½ hours south to the ranch. The same road you would take if you were heading to Guatemala.

I asked Heath when the rain was supposed to end.
“Maybe by Saturday,” he replied.
Today was Wednesday.
Then I asked him how the dove shooting had been. “Great,” he exclaimed.

This year would mark Dean’s second season of offering late season mourning dove shooting. His Whitewing dove shooting is well-recognized.

As we motored down the highway, the wind began to roar, and with its bluster, it seemed as if we were driving in a tropical storm.

I asked Heath if Jose Silguero was still at the ranch, to which he replied yes. I then began to tell him this story.

“It was my first hunt on the ranch. One day when we were coming in for lunch, Jose asked me if I would like to see Osama bin Laden. I laughed. Jose did not laugh.

“I will show you heem,” he said, without a smile flashing across his amber wide face. Again, I laughed.

“Just you wait,” he said

We came to a curve in the dirt road and to our left was a herd of goats. Beneath a tree was a tall, thin man with a long beard.

“That is heem,” Jose said. “That is Osama bin Laden. There he is with his herd of goats. Now your government can come and get heem.”

The resemblance was uncanny, and for a moment, I was almost convinced. “Can’t be” I finally said to Jose.

He said nothing, but I thought I detected a faint, mischievous grin on his amber, leather face.

It was a mid-afternoon when we turned off the highway onto an 11-mile dirt road that would take us to Rancho Caracol, which in English translates to “Snail Ranch,” so named because of the slow, winding road we were on.

Some four miles out from the ranch, Heath called out for drinks, then radioed the beverages to the ranch. When we pulled into the ranch to unload, there stood Victor, the bartender/waiter, with a tray full of drinks. Suddenly everything was once again familiar.

As I stepped out of the van, a voice called out to me, “Amigo!”

I turned to see Jose and right away he said, “Osama is still with us, but he is getting very old.” As I did before, I once again laughed.

We woke at reveille, and still the rain beat down upon the earth and with it was the wind. A cold wind. Everyone’s coats were buttoned to their throats. We would see no sun this day.

There was neither moon nor stars when we entered a cut sorghum field. The downpour had ceased, but the wind continued to scour the land. It was here that I met my bird boy, 26 year-old, Pablino.

Pablino’s English matched my Spanish. So we had very little to say over the next three days. But I would learn muchas huilotas – many doves!

Doves, small feathered profiles in the grayness of the early morning, were zipped into the field. Guns began pop, pop, popping. Bird boys began racing here and there. Then as suddenly as the morning flight had begun, it ended. The wind was more intense. The air was heavy with moisture.

On the ride back to the ranch, I thought about dove hunting in South Carolina – what it is now and what is used to be like, especially when I was in high school. Those times were long before dove clubs when dove shooting was somewhat of a communal affair. You would get the word out that, “So and so is having a dove shoot Saturday,” and you joined in for an afternoon of fun.

After school let out, the weekday hunts consisted of riding dirt roads until we found a field active with birds. Hardly ever did we have to get permission. Then, as the years went by, mechanical harvesters became more efficient, leaving little grain on the ground to attract and hold doves, especially the late season migratory birds. The biggest blow came when you could not longer seed the fields with wheat.

We lunched and rested and went to another field to shoot. The rain had stopped, except for a light mist. The sun tried several times during the afternoon to breach the heavy, low level clouds, and by this time, the wind had lost most of its power.

Pablino was waiting on the side of a narrow, wagon-like road, where he led me into the bush. The air was still with a wintry chill, so again I put on my heavy hunting coat.

I had hardly loaded the semi-automatic, 12-gaute shotgun when doves came for their afternoon feeding, coming in large numbers.

“Mucho huilotas!” Pablino shouted. Many mourning doves. Doves knotted in flight, and the wind caressed loosed feathers.

The afternoon wore on and the birds kept coming. Hundreds of them. Pablino’s infectious smile was as radiant as a spring day when winter has lost its frozen fight. My admiration for Pablino and the other bird boys only grew, as they raced here and there marking and finding downed doves.

The drive back to the ranch was different from the morning hunt, for it was lively and saturated with boasting. But the blowout dove shoot I had crossed the border to witness had yet to happen. No, I wasn’t looking for an Argentina dove shoot, but I knew that Mexico could produce high volume shooting.

Rain. That millstone around our necks remained with us the next morning as we traveled to a more arid area laced with mesquite and cactus of many kinds. Thirty minutes passed before the first shot echoed across the land. The numbers of birds were not many, but the flow, once it began, was steady. Soon I had four or five empty boxes at my feet and a nice number of doves. Yet my shooting, unlike the first day, had in some grievous way been injured. I was missing too many shots, but you must remember these are not the doves of September’s opening day. These are seasoned adult birds with savvy. Birds that can leave you spinning without popping the first cap. However, you cannot know good until you’ve experienced bad, and you cannot know bad until you’ve reached good.

The winter-like chill had passed by midmorning and a soft, warm breeze felt good on my bearded face. The land was filled with the song of birds and the faraway yipping of coyotes. It was good to be back in Mexico.

We returned to the ranch and lunched on dove and shrimp kabobs with bell peppers and sweet onions. While we rested, the scouts came in with wide-eyed reports of muchas huilotas in a large cut, sorghum field.

The afternoon sun was hot and the air much like a mid-September day back home. But no cicadas sang and there was no odor of sprayed cotton defoliate.

We waited in the heat, and then we waited some more under a sun whose shield of clouds had been removed, and we sweated.

“No huilotas!” Pablino sighed. “Maybe they will come later in the afternoon.” I said. Pablino smiled.

I pointed to the cooler for a cold soft drink. Pablino got up and retrieved a drink. I offered him one. At first he declined. I persisted. He took one. I knew that if I was thirsty, so was he. I was halfway through my drink when there came a great rush of wings from somewhere in the bowels of the thick woods not 50 yards in front of where I sat on my swivel chair dove stool. From that entanglement of trees, briars and thorns flushed hundreds of doves in a furious rush. My drink fell from my right hand as I removed my shotgun from my lap. Standing, I began firing. Doves spun out of control as lead shot rolled them into soft feathery bundles.

“Muchas huilotas!” Pablino shouted. We shot on and still they kept coming. Thousands of them, from every direction. Sometimes in flocks of well over 200. Maybe more.

Several times I had crippled doves to go down in the thick forest. Pablino did not hesitate. He did not falter. He did not look for an excuse not to go. He tore into the thickets, and each time he would return with the dove. While he was gone, I knocked several more birds down. He never failed to find them.

Shell hulls continued to spit from the semi-automatic as I continued to fire and cram more shells into the shotgun’s magazine. So fast and so often did I reload, that a blister rose on my right thumb, which was now blackened with gun powder residue. Many times there were so many doves in the air that I could not select any one bird to shoot. So I watched as they swirled about my head, leaving Pablino shaking his head. This was high volume dove shooting in Mexico.

Once while Pablino was off looking for a bird, I tried to help by retrieving my birds. When he would spot me doing this, it was if I was embarrassing him in front of the other bird boys. It was as if I had lost my trust in him by doing his job. I quickly quit looking for birds.

The incoming birds never slowed. No, not once did they quit. They did not stop even as we cased our guns. At this point, we stood on the side of the dirt road and watched them come in flight after flight. They would do this again for tomorrow’s final shoot. Muchas huilotas! Many mourning doves at Rancho Caracol

"I've hunted in Mexico for more than 30 years and I've never seen an operation as good. Nobody does it with the style and attention to detail as Rancho Caracol."
Ray Sasser, Dallas Morning News
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Rancho Caracol : 2424 Village Drive : Brownsville, TX 78521