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Birds Of The Yucatan

he night sky was lit with moonlight and dazzling stars, its only heavenly intruder an errant transient meteor, burning hot. The only sounds were gentle wavelets against the aluminum jon boats berthed against a grove of shallow–water mangrove trees, the heavy hum of mosquitoes and the murmur of men’s voices in English and Spanish. The country was flat, tropical and no above–ground rivers ran through it. In this geographical location, winter’s bleakness never casts a shadow.

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a land of blue–winged teal and black–throated bobwhites. It was there, near the coastal town of Celestun, that Fred Robbins and I waited for night to capitulate to dawn so we could gun blue–winged teal. But for now, this great mangrove swamp was canopied in lampblack.

This was the first day of a four–day hunt — two for teal and then a drive to the west side of the Yucatan to San Felipe, a small fishing village, where we would hunt black–throated bobwhite for two days. I met Fred in 2007 while shooting perdiz and eared doves in Uruguay (see my article in the December 2008 issue of Shotgun Sports). Fred, born in Virginia and schooled at Wofford College in South Carolina, would later move to Illinois, where he taught American Literature at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville for 30–odd years before retiring to shoot upland birds and fish for trout with the same gusto he brought to the classroom. This hunt marked my third trip with Yucatan outfitter Galo Munoz, but it was Fred’s inaugural hunt for the Yucatan’s black–throated bobwhites.

Black-throated bobwhite

Another black–throat goes into the bag. These birds weigh about 2 ounces less than southern bobwhites, which tip the scales at around 6 ounces.

Fred and I remained quiet, as did our guides. These men were industrious and as attendant as sentinels. They have plied these swamps for years searching for teal; their faces and hands screamed hard work, and they hated to disappoint. With the blood of the ancient Mayan Indians coarsing their veins, they navigate secretive corridors that spin our suburban compasses. Their well–muscled arms and backs are our engines; no outboard motors here. Push poles, sweat and grunts drive these power plants.

Their olive–black eyes have seen many waterfowl seasons in this torrid climate that has corroded and stamped their faces. They are skillful in searching out downed ducks. Their work is arduous, yet it is done with zeal and there is much poetry in their endeavors. To hunt with them is perhaps one of the greatest hunting experiences I have had. Waterfowling is a sport of exhilaration and inaction, which is the foundation of fortitude. They have this quality in abundance.

The sharp–edged stars maintained their shine as teal came from their slumber and took to wing. They began to plop… plop… plop onto the water to mix with decoys that had no eyes to see, no tongues to converse. Fakes. Through strained eyes, Fred and I watched as the dark silhouettes mingled with the impostors as noiseless as shade.

Bluewings are the first waterfowl to head south from the prairie grasslands of the Dakotas and Canada in early August, en route to the Yucatan, where the tightly woven mangrove swamps suit them. Here there are no days raw with wind, snow and sleet. Darkness was in exodus and the first weak light came from the east, creasing the horizon and importing the colors of a flock of small–bodied teal. On bowed, silky wings, they were a rhythmical composition, a feathery flow in motion.

We rose and fired. Scorching lead pellets raced forward from the cold throats of our barrels, belching flames in the morning’s dimness. Wings in disorderly dress. Discipline in shambles. Teal were fanning upwards to escape the havoc. The air was filled with the intoxicating scent of freshly burnt gunpowder.

The morning continued to provide rivulets of teal swarming into and over the decoys. A glorious gathering of fowl. Then it was over and we left the steamy mangrove swamp for San Felipe, where the verdigris waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea wed and you wake to crowing roosters long before roosters are supposed to crow.

Stepping from the hotel onto the narrow, deserted street, we found the air heady like a rich distilled perfume… an odor similar to the flush of spring sweeping the countryside. When we reached the shooting grounds near San Felipe, a misty cobweb of fog was suspended over the land with its short brush, palm trees and, here and there, uncultivated purple flowers that offered some color. Limestone rocks, large and tiny, lay scattered as if a great fulmination had once seeded the ground with stone shrapnel.

While black–throated bobwhites, also known as Yucatan quail, are indigenous to this land, lesser and widely scattered populations are found in the Lake Peten district of Guatemala, the coastal portions of British Honduras and extreme northeastern Nicaragua. But nowhere are they more numerous than in the Yucatan, where it is possible to have 20 or more pointed coveys in a two or three–hour hunt. Sometimes more. This is the lodestone that first brought me here to hunt.

These are wild birds! Wild birds like I, and perhaps you, were reared on. I grew up in the 1950s in the South, and bobwhites in my home state of South Carolina were called “pat’ridge” by the old men. There were many bird dogs back then. Some were good and some not–so–good. And birds were plentiful. Much of the South was still tilled by sharecroppers, men who worked for a share of the crop raised on the owner’s land. The soil was turned by the pull of a lean mule and rough hands on a handheld plow. Unlike much of today’s farming, where usually nothing is left but a narrow hedgerow or ditch bank, sharecropping left good cover and a surplus of food good for the quail, for bird hunters and for the dogs. Today, there are few bird dogs and even fewer bobwhites in America’s South.

When we stepped from the van, I saw head dog handler Arbe Chale straining to keep two English pointers in check. They rebelled against their worn leather leashes in the layered skeins of fog, waiting for release to apply breeding, instinct and training to their life’s work and inhale the sharpness of fresh spoor. The nearness of the scent accelerating their passion and energy.

Even before I first hunted black–throated bobwhites, I had a connection — a vague one, but nevertheless a link. My parents were in the restaurant business and there was an elderly gentleman (old to me at the time) who came from his home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the middle of January to hunt quail. He would stay until the season ended in mid–February. His name was Vaughn Ahl.

Arbe Chalo

Head dog handler Arbe Chale prepares to put out a fresh dog.

Vaughn kept quarters in a local motel, and each morning he went out to hunt, returning after dark, and then had dinner at the restaurant. I would hunt with him on Saturdays. I had a young, solid–white, female English pointer who was somewhat unruly. Vaughn gave me a book written by a famous Spanish bird–dog trainer named Jose Sanchez. When I told Galo that story, he corrected me: “His full name was Jose Sanchez Antonio. He trained here in the Yucatan because of the abundance of quail.” He asked me if I still had the book. I told him I didn’t. “Too bad,” he said. “The book is now very rare and might be worth some money if in good condition.”

We fed our 20–gauge semiautomatic shotguns (the same guns we used to shoot ducks) a morning diet of 7½s. The sharp, metallic ring of the bolts charging forward echoed across the fields. Arbe released the dogs into the wizened fog. Their whipping tails gave notice of their movements in the effluvium. The grass, soft and wet, matted nicely under our booted feet.

Galo, who trains his own dogs, buys both American and Mexican–bred English pointers and breeds the two. His dogs have the style of the American pointers and the smallness of the Mexican pointers. “I, unlike most trainers in the United States, may not start a dog until it is a year old, sometimes a little older,” he told me. “I put the dog in the field several times just to let them flush and give chase to the birds, with no regard as to their behavior. The chase brings out the intensity I believe is in all bird dogs. It is necessary to first build the desire before training them steady to wing and shot. Then I start turning them into productive bird dogs.”

The fog lifted, revealing the sun. The quartering dogs were as spicy as salsa and hunting swiftly when they struck the feathery redolence of moving quail and stood on point. That moment of perfection — the first covey of the morning.

We scrambled forward over limestone rocks and through the short brush past a single palm tree with its leafy green fronds. We, like the dogs, were cemented with exhilaration, for bird hunting is a sport of deep attachments by which we are stimulated. Slowing, we eased past the dogs, sending birds whirring upwards like a shattering clay target. Scorching lead swept the air, bundling two birds. Then a third. Fred fingered his first black–throated bobwhite, then handed it over to Arbe. The sun was higher, and the dew–damp grass was drying.

The next covey flushed wild. Elusive birds. Missed shots — markers in a bird hunter’s life. Our passion sometimes met with failure… humiliation for both hunter and dog.

Blue–winged teal hunting in the Yucatan is dependable. But you must remember these are migratory birds, and the wintering numbers in the mangrove swamps depend on the success of the spring and early summer nesting. The black–throated quail hunting is always superb. Some days you will find more birds than on other days in the field, but these birds receive very little gunning pressure. Quail season opens on the fifth of December and closes April 15th; duck season also opens December 5 and closes on the last day of March. The Yucatan, unlike parts of Texas and western Mexico that depend on spring rains for high–yield quail production, receives lavish rainfall to promote excellent hatches.

Fred

Fred moves in for the flush.

I had hoped to do the Yucatan Grand Slam on this trip, intending to shoot quail and teal and catch tarpon. The turquoise waters around San Felipe offer excellent baby tarpon angling during the winter months. A front came through, however, bringing high winds, and fishing was impossible on this trip.

While in the Yucatan, you might want to visit the Mayan ruins. Chichen Itza, the largest and most visited city, was cited as the eighth wonder of the world in 2007. Go early to avoid the crowds and the heat. On an earlier trip, I visited Ek Balam. This site was considered to be a minor ruin until 1999, when archaeologists unearthed the Acropolis pyramid. Ek Balam, unlike Chichen Itza, has not yet been found by throngs of tourists. Galo can provide side trips to both ruins.

Mid–day winter temperatures in the Yucatan can reach 80–85 degrees. Take along a swimsuit for a dip in the pool while staying at the modern hotels in Celestun, or swim in the ocean. The beaches are the color of ivory. I can recommend the Poseidon Restaurant at the Hotel Manglares, which serves up great food and tangy margaritas. Fresh seafood caught by the village fishermen in San Felipe is featured on the menu at the Restaurant Vaselina. In San Felipe, we stayed at the Hotel San Felipe de Jesus. No pool, but the rooms were comfortable and the view from my room overlooking the bay and boats was unsurpassed.

Clothes for both the duck and quail hunts should be lightweight. A green camouflage pattern works well for the duck hunts. Wear long–sleeved shirts to ward off the mosquitoes before the sun scatters the pesky critters. Pack bug repellent! You will not need hip boots or waders, as you will most likely never step out of the boat. Shooting is done from the boat, so your lightweight upland boots should work fine for the duck hunts. You could even wear tennis shoes.

I recommend short–sleeved shirts for the quail hunt and lightweight pants. Bring along an orange hunting cap or orange shooting vest, both if you have them. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide–brimmed hat if you plan to fish. Galo can provide fishing equipment, or you might want to bring your own.

Beretta and Benelli 12 and 20–gauge semiautomatics were provided by Galo. High–brass 7½s were used for both quail and teal.

If you have to take daily medication, make sure it is in a prescription bottle with the name of the medicine and doctor clearly marked. Bottled water is provided in the hotels. The exchange rate for the U.S. dollar, at this writing, was 13.50 in Mexican currency.

After you check in at the Cancun Airport for your flight home, stop by Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville for a cheeseburger and, of course, a margarita. The best!

We used Chris Adams at Trek International Safaris in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, for our trip. Our guide, Galo Munoz, can be reached at 011–521999–947–0510 (Merida, Yucatan, Mexico) or via e–mail at galomunoz@hotmail.com. Trek does not handle fishing, but it can be arranged through Galo. Any company that books hunting trips to Mexico should provide you with information on papers and vaccinations needed, the laws regarding guns and ammo and what you might want to take along. Enjoy your Yucatan adventure!

Jon Wongrey writes for many magazines and has been an avid hunter most of his life. Jon and his wife also do photography. They can be contacted at rwongrey@yahoo.com.