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News Articles

14
Quail hunting paradise found
Mexican lodge features birds in large numbers, first-rate amenities
By JOE DOGGETT
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Quality quail hunting is hard to find. This is a long-standing axiom of upland wingshooting. We are, of course, talking about wild bobwhite quail, opposed to the pen-raised, or "liberated" birds used by increasing numbers of hunting operations across the country.

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The bastions of wild-quail hunting remain the brushy grasslands of South Texas, North Texas, and portions of Oklahoma. Here, large ranches of suitable habitat are available, and during wet years the hunting can be extraordinary.

Oh, yes. There's one other legitimate venue: northeastern Mexico.

The expanses of brush and grain in the San Fernando region of Tamaulipas, three hours south of the Rio Grande border, can support astounding populations of bobwhite quail. Most serious bird hunters know this.

But what many may not realize is that full-service, top-quality quail hunts in Mexico are an obtainable and hassle-free goal.


Exceptional potential

I recently hunted at Rancho Caracol, located near the foothills of the Sierra Madres south of San Fernando and east of Lake Guerrero. If you dream of grassy fields, pointing dogs and coveys of wild quail fanning against blue sky, remember that name.

In two days, fellow hunters Gary Kramer, Alan Sand and I walked past staunch points into approximately 70 coveys of wild birds. Most were large bevies of 15 or 20 birds each.

The first day yielded 34 coveys in approximately eight hours of actual hunting — an unprecedented bounty in my experience. I felt a bit awkward back at the lodge that evening, figuring that maybe co-owner Dean Putegnat put us in a select "honey hole." Over nachos and drinks, I asked another hunter, Jidge Verity of Oklahoma City about his day.

"It was unbelievable; my son Matt and I lost count at 40 coveys," he said.

Rancho Caracol runs five quail hunting trucks per day (two to four hunters per rig, depending on party), and all recorded similar success. The quail season in Tamaulipas opened Nov. 1 and runs through Feb. 20.

"I hate to advertise 30 or 40 coveys per day, because that can lead to false expectations during a long season," stressed Putegnat. "You've got to remember that this is an exceptional year for quail — not typical. I feel comfortable saying year in, year out we av-erage 15 to 25 coveys per day."

Putegnat, of Brownsville, opened Rancho Caracol with his father, Barry Putegnat, six years ago. He is to be commended for putting the overall quail hunting potential in perspective, rather than harping on the high note. The most amazing circumstance is that, for once, I coincided with peak success.


Top endorsement

More significant than my impression is the fact that Rancho Caracol was rated the top Orvis-endorsed wingshooting operation last year. Orvis, of Manchester, Vt., is a major player in wingshooting and fly fishing circles and does not issue such titles without justification.

Several factors must be considered when evaluating a quality quail-hunting program:

First, significant acreages of suitable habitat must be available to support wild-bird hunting. Rancho Caracol comprises 11,000 acres, and much of the land is being intensely managed for quail.

And, as a huge trump, the hunting operation has exclusive lease access to approximately 500,000 additional acres within the region. Many prime off-ranch hunting sites are within an hour on gravel or paved roads from the lodge.

Second, the operation must be well-run — especially south of the border. Most of Rancho Caracol's hunters are met at the Harlingen airport by uniformed staff. Once luggage is secured, the groups load into large vans for the 3 1/2 -hour drive down Mexico 101 to the ranch. All paperwork is prepared in advance. The process is streamlined by using camp guns.

"We have about 70 shotguns in our gun vault," Putegnat said. "We've got 20-gauge Beretta 626 over/unders and 20- and 12-gauge Beretta autoloaders. All are equipped with screw-in chokes. You select the gun with the chokes you want, and it's cleaned and ready on your hunting truck each day."


Superb staff

The lodge and grounds were groomed and spacious, and the meals were excellent. Most important, the staff was outstanding. I hunted with veteran dog handlers None Lerma and Emilio Perez, both from the nearby village of Nuevo Padilla, and both were capable and courteous companions.

Third, support equipment must be reliable. Rancho Caracol maintains new Ford crew-cab trucks rigged with high seats and dog boxes. The operation commands approximately 70 trained dogs in an on-site kennel. Most are English pointers backed by Labs for retrieving. Our two strings were outstanding.

"We typically put six or eight dogs with each rig," Putegnat said. "That way you can rest them at regular intervals and keep a fresh dog on the ground most of the time."

The typical package provides three nights and two full days of hunting (longer trips are available). Hunters may return to the lodge for lunch and siesta or make a day of it in the field.

Each truck is backed by a driver, a dog handler, and an assistant. Hunting is done by riding and/or walking, depending on the nature of the terrain and the preference of the party. As a big plus, much of the country is suitable for easy rambling; you can hike either across grassy fields or along open edges of brushy fence lines. Because of the user-friendly conditions, we usually got a solid whack at the flushing birds.

Of course, on either side of the border, that does not always translate into success. Wild brush country quail spewing across a gusting south wind have a knack of making a tardy swing look bad. And in a perverse way, I suppose the tough shooting is another plus. This is the real deal.

Are there any negatives to Rancho Caracol? Yes — one big one. The place is booked almost solid for the remainder of the 2004-05 quail season.

I just hope we have another wet year for next season.

Rancho Caracol will have a booth at the Houston Safari Club's Hunting Expo Friday through Sunday at the Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center. For additional information on quail and dove hunting in Mexico, call 888-246-3164 or go to www.ranchocaracol.com.

joe.doggett@chron.com.

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