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PUBLISHED: 9:12 AM on Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Bird Hunting Way Down South: Mexico Bobwhites Great Winter Break
On The Hunt

"Pepe!"

"Here!"

The white pointer followed orders, swerving from his run across the open grass field, through the barbed wire fence and slammed onto a rigid point.

"Of course, over the fence," we chuckled, passing open shotguns and quick-stepping through the waist-high weeds to reach the quivering dog.

Golden dawn sunlight painted the scene a rich tone prettier than any John Cowan painting, exploding into life as a cloud of bobwhites whirred out of the brush.

My son Will's 20 gauge barked and I saw quail falling, even as I was tracking others with my 12. Two quick shots and two bobwhites tumbled from the sky in front of me.


  Will Leschper with his first Mexican bobwhites, taken from a covey of more than 50 birds.
It was perfection. And it was just the beginning of what likely will remain the best quail hunting day of my life, made all the more special by sharing it with my son.

We were hunting on Rancho Caracol, a sprawling hunting operation and lodge in the San Fernando Valley, about 150 miles south of the Texas border in the eastern Mexico state of Tamaulipas, where owners Dean and Barry Putegnat have 500,000 acres of prime quail country to hunt.

From August through October the lodge offers hunts for white wing doves, for which the Tamaulipas region is especially famous as the nesting ground for the largest white wing colony in Mexico.

November through February the focus shifts to bobwhites, in what is arguably the best quail country on earth.

While we "only" ended this day with 17 big coveys, everything clicked-the pointers worked well, the birds were in the open, the coveys were huge and Will and I both shot way over our heads.


  Mexican quail are the same northern species found throughout the U.S., although slightly smaller and faster.
On one big covey rise, I snapped three shots-and four quail dropped. It was my only "two for one" on quail-until the next covey. On the flush, I shot twice and three quail dropped. Two more stragglers flushed late and I rolled both. Five from one covey.

While it would be difficult for an individual to recover so many quail from one covey, the Mexican guides and retriever mark each fall and seldom lose one.

We found covey after covey until midday heat encouraged us to break for lunch.

Our Mexican guides Sergio and Ramon cleared an area under a huge old ebony tree, fired up a grill with ebony charcoal and grilled kabobs of the best shrimp I've ever eaten. And served it on a table with white tablecloth, with fresh guacamole and vegetables on the side and a cold Sol beer to wash it down. After a nap in the shade, in a foldout recliner, we were refreshed and ready for the afternoon hunt.

We had to work harder to find the coveys, but returned to the lodge with 52 bobwhites-which would have been several seasons of quail for me in Texas.


  The view of Lake Las Alazanas from one of the casitas at Rancho Caracol.
Why travel all the way to Mexico to shoot quail? Is it really worth it?

You bet!

Especially if you appreciate unique and rugged country, populated with friendly and hardworking people and with absolutely the best wild bobwhite quail hunting on earth.

How good?

Dean says this year's parties have averaged 30 coveys per day. That's coveys of pointed, flushed and shot into, not those flushing wild.

Our best day was 32 coveys-16 in the morning and 16 in the afternoon-and we could have found a few more if we'd really pushed it.

All the quail hunts are from modern quail hunting Ford or Dodge pickup rigs, with seating up top for up to four hunters, and boxes below for lots of dogs, shotguns and well-stocked coolers.


  Guide J.J. Penny enjoys a midday lunch in the quail fields.
The hunt actually starts the day before, with spotters touring fields to find where coveys are feeding. At dawn the spotters return and the pointers get to work.

Each group of quail hunters is accompanied by a guide, an assistant guide and two helpers.

Our group of guides was among the best I've hunted with.

Jason Penny, a 24-year-old south Texas native from San Benito, was our "gringo guide" who loves the hunting lifestyle.

Sergio, our assistant guide, is nicknamed "Caballo" (Horse) by his fellow guides because he's built like an NFL linebacker and is just about as quick on his feet.

Ramon, a jack of all trades, has more energy than the Energizer Bunny and is quick with a smile. He has the sharpest eyes I've ever seen. Throughout our days hunting, Ramon would chime in with "codorniz" when he'd spotted a bobwhite darting into the grass. Without fail, we'd flush a covey of birds.

Six or seven English pointers and a retriever complete the team. Sugar, a petite year-old chocolate Lab that did all our retrieving, is the hardest working member of the team and recovers dozens of birds each day, all with a huge dog grin on her face.


  Hunting lunch safari style - guide Sergio grills shrimp over a ebony wood fire.
Mexico can be dry in winter. That plus midday temperatures into the 80s made it difficult for the dogs to work for long, or to scent many coveys when they did.

We found as many coveys without the dogs as with them-an impossibility anyplace except such a quail rich environment.

The region offers a full range of terrain, from fallow fields bordering orange groves, to stubble, to brushy hedgerows. All this within sight of the Sierra Madres throwing a majestic backdrop on our hunt. On this trip we hunted country ranging from open pastures broken with brushy fence lines, to weedy irrigation canals, to mixed mesquite brush.

One of the joys of hunting Mexico with a full service lodge like Rancho Caracol is that you really don't have to do anything except show up. Dean's staff handles visas, licenses, logistics and everything else from the time you arrive in south Texas' Harlingen airport until you return. There's less aggravation than going through security at most U.S. airports.

It's easier to use the lodge's excellent Beretta over-and-under or semi-auto shotguns, than to bring your own guns into Mexico.

I've fallen in love with the Beretta 391 semi-auto 12 gauge that makes me look far better than I really am. Lots of hunters opt for 20 gauges to start, but switch to 12s after experiencing the wild, and fast, Mexican bobwhites.

The lodge also provides very good Mexican-made shells equal to American field loads.

Even without incredible hunting, the lodge would be a world class destination.

Rancho Caracol is the only Orvis-endorsed hunting lodge in Mexico. The Rancho headquarters is a sprawling and gorgeous tile-and-rock hacienda on a lush mountaintop, overlooking Lake Las Alazanas wrapped in green mountains. Just beyond is legendary bass hotspot Lake Guerrero.

The country is an incredible blend of brush and near-tropical jungle, cattle ranches, citrus groves, row crops and tiny villages. The brush is alive with birds of every size and shape, from big brown Mexican eagles, to roadrunners and chachalacas, to a rainbow of songbirds.

The 11,000-acre headquarters ranch had been a working cattle operation. When it folded, the brush quickly reclaimed the land. Dean and Barry purchased the ranch in 1998 and opened the lodge the next year.

The Lodge's staff is energetic, eager to please and very good at what they do, from the first margarita handed to you when you drive up, to quality equipment, guides and dogs, to world-class food. They are a real joy to be around.

There's also plenty for non-hunting family members to do. My wife Beth and daughter Mary Catherine didn't hunt, but spent one day shopping in Ciudad Victoria, the region's largest city, an hour south of the lodge.

Other afternoons they rode along on our hunts, to watch the dogs work and savor the ruggedly beautiful country.

But Beth preferred sitting on the porch of our casita (little house) with a good book, looking down on the lake, smelling the blooming flowers, listening to the brown pheasant-sized chachalacas cackle as they hopped through the trees overhead.

Bird hunting in Mexico is an experience every bird hunter owes himself, at least once. But you're likely to find, as I have, that once will never be enough.

For more information on Rancho Caracol and hunting in Mexico, go online to www.ranchocaracol.com, send an e-mail to info@ranchocaracol.com or call 888-246-3164.

Leschper is an award-winning outdoor writer and general manager of the Capital City Weekly. Send him an e-mail at lee.leschper@juneauempire.com.


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