Rancho Caracol

Ranch in Mexico an excellent place to hunt quail

In foothills of Sierra Madre, Rancho Caracol worth the trip

Jan. 17, 2007, 10:02PM
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

A hard-running, high-flying dog named Ernie bounded past a stubble of brush then wheeled into a rigid point. It was the stylish display on open ground that defines the quality quail hunt.

We watched from the high rack of the hunting truck. Ernie was sincere.

"He means business," said Rancho Caracol guide/handler Jose Angel Silguero. "Go get them."

Jim Easterling and Charles McCord climbed from the high rack as helpers Carlos Molina and Humberto Roque handed down the unloaded 20-gauge over/unders. We broke the guns, dropping upland loads into the chambers and paced forward to salute Ernie's olfactory acumen.

I admired the scene as we approached. The white exclamation point stood amid a yellow field of knee-high grass. And, far to the south, the blue and gray rims of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains stood against the crisp sky. Upland bird hunting seldom has a more pleasing or promising moment.

McCord fanned to the left, Easterling took the middle, and I faded to the right. We stepped in a single rank past the straining dog and a covey of 12 or 15 bobwhites spewed from the grass — a picture-book rise.

Three birds dropped and Silguero nodded approval. The choreographed drill was typical of the two days of hunting during early January at Rancho Caracol.

North or south of the border, this has been a sub-par year for quail — the result of a drought during the spring/summer nesting season — but the vast expanses of grain and brush in northeastern Mexico hold the best wild-quail potential in North America.

The first day the dogs found 11 coveys, and our three guns bagged 33 quail. The second day, in different fields, we raised 15 coveys and put 32 birds in the basket — a dip in birds-per-covey production that cannot be blamed on the dogs or the handlers.

Plain and simple, we each missed close birds on open rises. Somehow, even armed with the best alibis and excuses, that seems to happen on quail hunts.

The covey counts were down from my 2005 Caracol trip (22-covey average per day) and way down from the 2004 expedition (33-covey average). Rancho Caracol runs a maximum of five quail rigs per day (two to four hunters per truck), and our returns were representative of those during the trip.

"Last season was better, no question," said Dean Putegnat, owner and manager of the lodge. "But I feel confident in saying that so far this season we've averaged about 15 coveys — and most of those are over pointing dogs.

"The quail season runs through February, and hunting should improve because late season tends to pull more birds out of the brush. But it will still be below average. You get cycles, and that's just the way it is with wild quail."

Rancho Caracol, in its eighth season, is situated in the scenic foothills of the Sierra Madre range north of Lake Guerrero and about 150 miles south of Brownsville. Guests for dove hunting (whitewings and mourners) or quail hunting meet at the Harlingen airport and either drive in lodge buses or fly in chartered planes to the ranch.

Quail counts aside, the service and facility are first class. This is not just my opinion; Rancho Caracol was named the 2005/2006 Orvis-Endorsed Lodge of the Year.

Moreover, in the real world of pursuing wild bobwhite (opposed to pen-raised birds), it is important to put things in perspective. A 30-covey day is an incredible bounty that Nash Buckingham would be proud to claim. A 15-covey average is solid, and many top leases in Texas are finding 10 or less coveys during this tough season.

"A big reason why we can provide good wild-quail hunting season after season is because we have access to more than 500,000 acres of farms and ranches," Putegnat said. "And about 80 percent of that is by exclusive lease. Because we have so much country, we don't have to pound the same fields day after day. We've constantly got scouts out looking for new areas.

"Another thing — we don't spread ourselves too thin. We don't offer duck hunting, goose hunting, deer hunting or bass fishing. We concentrate on doves and quail and put all our efforts into making those the best we can."

As an example of this commitment, the dogs are excellent — a rarity south of the border. During our two-day hunt, not one covey was "busted" by an overeager nose. And our retriever, a small yellow Lab named Candy, was perhaps the best I've seen in years of quail hunting. Her go-for-it determination and all-day stamina saved our guns at least six or eight birds each day.

On the subject of shotguns, Rancho Caracol maintained an armory of at least 60 Beretta over/unders and autoloaders. Both 12- and 20-gauge guns are available with different stock dimensions and screw-in choke options.

To minimize red-tape hassles at the border, using the camp guns and upland 7 1/2 shells is strongly recommended. You select a gun the first afternoon, test-fire it on the clays range, and it's cleaned and ready on the hunting rig for each session. All that remains is to point it with authority at the nearest quail sailing by — and that is no "gimme."

The bobwhites of Mexico, like the bobwhites of South Texas, are a diminutive subspecies. They must feed heavily on the small super-hot chiltepin peppers that infest the region because the birds explode like buzzing firecrackers from the grass. The shooter with tardy reflexes trained on plump pen-raised birds is in for a sobering reality check.

A 50-percent average is, in my opinion, a respectable showing. So, also, is a one-bird-per-shooter average on a covey. This sounds easy enough for the seasoned upland hunter commanding a cool swing and an open choke, but remember that one gun often is out of position. The birds flare to one side or a hunter is "brushed out." And, to be honest, sometimes you just stammer and choke.

As Easterling, McCord and I determined, the key to a decent average on the rise is for the open shooter to take up the slack forfeited by his tangled or flustered comrades. It becomes a team effort and great fun among good friends.

A top quail hunt, wherever you find it, is one of the great wingshooting experiences. Wild birds are the essence of the sport and the quality trips are becoming harder to locate. Like a good bird dog, I'm pointing south.

For additional information on Rancho Caracol, go to: www.ranchocaracol.com, or visit their booth at the Houston Safari Club's Expo on Friday through Sunday at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott.


"Rancho Caracol is, without a doubt, the best lodge I've ever stayed in."
Larry Brunson, DDS, The Woodlands, Texas
Toll free: 888-246-3164 : Outside U.S.: 956-542-3482 : Fax: 956-542-5765
Rancho Caracol : 2424 Village Drive : Brownsville, TX 78521