Rancho Caracol


Kansas university lecturer professor Robert Robel leaves his seat of learning and heads to Mexico for some challenging dove and quail shooting.

The freezing drizzle and four inches of fluffy snow made the 120 – mile journey to Kansas City airport a treacherous and nerve – wracking one. Rancho Caracol in northeastern Mexico was my destination, approximately 200 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, for my first bird hunt in Mexico.

I had been invited to join a group of five friends who had been there previously so I was the novice of the party. Rancho Caracol is famous for its white-winged dove shooting in September and October so our visit in January was during their slack time. Rancho Caracol translates to ‘snail ranch’ because of the slow, winding dirt road that leads up to the Hacienda. This building, on a mesa, overlooks a vast landscape and is surrounded by a series of cabanas to accommodate hunting parties. Tile floors, stone paths around the grounds and thatched roofs on the buildings five the entire complex a warm Spanish flavour.

Upon arriving at the ranch we were served margaritas and nachos topped with hot jalapeno peppers and then received a briefing from the ranch owner, Dean Putegnat. We were advised to follow the suggested tipping guidelines in the hunting brochure, and reminded that is was our responsibility to practice safe gun handling at all times.

After dinner we visited the gun vault. Taking guns of any kind into Mexico is very difficult because of the red tape and the outlandish fees, so we had chosen to lease shotguns from the ranch. Once inside the vault, my eyes widened in disbelief as I scanned over 100 shotguns in the racks on the wall. It was an incredible collection of 12 and 20 bore Beretta over-unders and semi-automatics with barrels of various lengths. I selected a 20 bore over-under with 28 inch barrels, while my friends preferred semi autos.

The leader of our group had booked a combination dove and quail hunt and we were divided into two groups of three for three days. An optional fourth day was booked for all of us to shoot doves. On the first day I rose two hours before sunrise for an early breakfast and a one hour drive to our dove field.

Mexico is the primary wintering are for millions of mourning doves produced in the western parts of Canada and the United States. There, hunting seasons for mourning doves generally open on the first day of September, and the birds are hunted widely on their breeding areas and along their migratory routes. Approximately 40 to 50 million mourning doves are shot before they reach Mexico so the doves that we would be shooting would be educated.

We were taken to our shooting positions surrounding a harvested grain sorghum field just as dawn began to brighten the eastern horizon. We were each assigned a bird boy who would help spot the birds, supply cartridges and retrieve the birds we shot. My bird boy already had a shooting seat in place and my shotgun out of its slip when I arrived. He spoke fluent Spanish but little English so we communicated with gestures, smiles and a few broken phrases.

After screwing improved cylinder and modified choke tubes into the barrels of my gun and stuffing cartridges into its chambers, I began searching the sky for doves. “On the right, sir” my bird boy said as two doves streaked by. They were out of range before I could shoulder my gun. “Behind, sir” he said, and again the dove was gone before I could turn around. The more experienced shooters on my right and left were banging away and I had yet to fire my first shot.

Perplexed, I gritted my teeth and readied myself for the next bird to show itself. A quick shot at an overhead bird was a miss, followed by another missed shot at a bird passing on the left. A flock of eight or 10 doves flew by as I was reloading. Exciting, but frustrating. The doves were also extremely skiddish. Any movement would cause approaching birds to flair, sometimes almost stopping in midair and reversing their course of flight. Because of my slow reaction time, I missed many opportunities to shoot at passing birds.

My bird boy was patient. His young spotted approaching birds long before I could see them and his ability to accurately mark the location of a downed bird amazed me. No dogs were used to find dead birds, and very few downed birds were not recovered. At lunch I had expended over 50 cartridges but only had 11 birds to show for my efforts. “More shells, more paloma,” by bird boy said as we waited for the vehicle to collect me. He was correct and the morning had indeed been a learning experience. I needed to quicken my reaction time in order to shoot more birds.

After lunch and a siesta it was time for the bobwhites in the afternoon. Our quail rig was a modified flatbed truck with cages for dogs on the back and space for three people on top just behind the cab. Shooters and dogs wore fluorescent orange clothing for safety because of the difficulties in keeping track of those who enter brush thickets. The English pointers we had could find coveys of bobwhites, but coveys seldom held when pointed. Such a situation frustrated the dogs and made shooting difficult for us.

We covered a large amount of ground in the afternoon, mostly following the dogs on foot through brushy areas near harvested grain sorghum fields. The dogs were rotated throughout the afternoon, with only two hunting at one time. In this way, we always had a pair of fresh dogs searching the cover for bobwhites. The dogs found seven bobwhite coveys in the afternoon, none of which held for them. We walked past the pointing dogs in vain effort to flush coveys in front of them. More often the dogs broke point as we approached from behind and moved ahead trailing running birds. We commonly followed moving pointers for 50 to 200 yards before flushing one to three birds of the covey.

We did not have any traditional pointed covey flushes in the afternoon, i.e. a pointed covey that held tight in front of a dog while we walked in and flushed the birds. Even so, we shot nine pointed singles or wild flushing bobwhites in the afternoon and had a great time doing so.

My second day consisted of doves in the morning and again in the afternoon. The morning shoot was not too productive. I was trying to shoot doves flying in all directions over an expansive stand of tall mesquite but the birds were high and very unpredictable. I fired only seven cartridges and felt fortunate to shoot one dove. The afternoon was a totally different story, however. The three of us were combined with nine other shooters and driven for an hour to a new area. We were placed along a fence line separating a vast harvested grain field from a large stand of trees that served as a roosting area for doves.

From mid-afternoon until dusk large numbers of doves moved from the roosting area to the feed field and vice versa. My bird boy quickened my reaction time by facing me in the most advantageous direction and alerting me early to incoming birds. His “on the right, sir” became “on the right, shoot it”. This quicken my shooting considerably. I was pleased with firing just under 100 cartridges and shooting 21 doves in the afternoon. My elation was short lived when I discovered that my two hunting companions had shot 42 and 71 birds that afternoon. They each used more cartridges than I, but that was no great consolation for me.

Day three had me scheduled for bobwhite hunting. We left Rancho Caracol very early and drove for over 90 minutes to a new area, arriving at dawn. The lushness of the vegetation indicated that the area received a fair amount of moisture, and the soil appeared noticeably more fertile than where we had been hunting previously.

A feeling of optimism spread through us as we took our guns out of their slips.

The dogs were excited and seemed to share our optimism when released from their cages. The dogs found the first covey of the day within 20 minutes of leaving the quail rig. The doges pointed, the covey ran and the doges moved forward. We shot three birds that flushed wild in front of moving dogs. A very good start for the day. Four more coveys were found in the next two hours, and we added 17 birds to the bag. One covey of bobwhites held for the dogs and the three of us had shooting on the covey rise. Things were going well for us.

Just before breaking for lunch, we hunted a strip of grassy cover bordering an unharvested grain sorghum field. The dogs bumped a covey that escaped unscathed into the shoulder high sorghum. The dogs became birdy as we approached the end of the grassy cover and finally locked up. We quickly moved forward but no birds flushed. The dogs broke point and frantically circled the area in search of birds. As we were about to give up, one of the dogs slid to a halt 50 yards to our left, pointing into a small plump thicket. We hurried to the dog and just got there when bobwhites boiled out in all directions. The shooter on my left shot two birds on the rise, as did I. Then a late bird flushed wild and a long shot brought it down. The bird fluttered into a grassy area with the dogs in hot pursuit. One dog pointed the crippled bird but it escaped when our guide tried to pick it up.

The afternoon hunt was not as eventful as the one in the morning. We hunted scrubby areas on poor agricultural land. Empty cartridges and human footprints on the ground told us that the area had been hunted heavily. The dogs located four small coveys and the birds resembled marathon runners as they fled. We had shooting at only six birds in the afternoon, and killed four of them. The margaritas on the waiter’s tray were a welcome sight when we returned to the Hacienda at Rancho Caracol.

Doves were our quarry on the last day and it proved to be a super day of sport. I was finally getting the hang of shooting mourning doves. I wore a face mask to lessen the chances of birds seeing me s they approached and pushed myself to be alert and shoot more. I went through six boxes of cartridges during the day and shot approximately 50 doves. I was pleased with my day as it put me almost on a par with my shooting companions. A great way to finish four days of sport.

Bobwhite hunting in Mexico was quite different than that in my home state of Kansas. I thoroughly enjoyed operating from the quail rig and seeing good pointing dogs in action. During dinner on our last night at Rancho Caracol we made plans to repeat the trip. Why not? Life is too uncertain not to take advantage of good hunting and shooting opportunities.

"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