Birds of the Yucatan
Teal and quail in Mexico... there's nothing finer, says Jon Wongrey. The night sky was lucid, lit with moonlight, dazzling stars. Tepid.
Its only heavenly intruder an errant, transient meteor, burning hot. The only sounds were those of gentle wavelets against the bush-blinded aluminium jonboats 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 in a country where the land is flat, tropical and no above ground rivers run through it. A geographical location where winter's bleakness never casts a shadow. Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
This is the land of blue-winged teal and black-throated bobwhites. And it was here, near the coastal town of Celestun, that Fred Robbins and I waited for nightshade to capitulate to dawn and bring with it blue-winged teal. But for now this great mangrove swamp was canopied in lampblack.
This was the first day of a four-day shoot; two for teal and then a drive to the west side of the Yucatan to San Felipe, a small fishing village, where we would shoot black-throated bobwhites for two days in the nearby fields.
This shoot marked my third with Yucatan outfitter Galo Munõz. It was Fred Robbins' inaugural visit.
Fred and I remained quiet, as did our guides who have plied these swamps for years for teal. Their faces and hands scream hard work and they hate to disappoint.
With the blood of the ancient Mayan Indians coursing their veins, they navigate seemingly forbidden, secretive corridors spinning your suburban compass. The rhythmical composition of the well-muscled arms and backs are their engines of force. No outboard motors here. The push pole, sweat and grunts drive their power plants. To associate with them is perhaps one of the greatest shooting experiences.
The sharp-edged stars maintained their shine as teal came from under their slumber, took to wing and began plop....plop....plopping onto the water to mix with decoys that had no eyes to see, no tongues to converse. Fakes. And through strained eyes, Fred and I watched as the feathered dark silhouettes mingled with impostors as noiseless as shade.
Bluewings are the first waterfowl to leave the mixed prairie grasslands of the American states of North and South Dakota and the prairie potholes of Canada in early August en route to the Yucatan. Its tightly woven mangrove swamps suit them well, for here there are no nights or days raw with cold wind, sleet and snow.
Darkness was in exodus as the first weak light came from the east, creasing the horizon and importing a coalesce of colours, bringing a flock of small-bodied teal. A feathery flow in motion.
We rose. Fired. Teal fanning upwards to escape havoc. Shots taken, birds fall. Visuals we keep forever in the alcoves of our memories. And then there's the intoxicating scent of freshly burnt gunpowder.
The morning continued to fetch its rivulets of teal swarming into and over decoys as they would tomorrow. A gathering of fowl. Then it was over and we left the steamy mangrove swamps for San Felipe, where the verdigris of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are wed and you wake to crowing roosters long before roosters are supposed to crow. Stepping from the hotel onto the narrow deserted street you will find the air is heady like a rich distilled perfume. When we reached the shooting grounds, a misty cobweb of fog was suspended over the land with its short brush, palm trees and here and there uncultivated purple flowers.
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 north-eastern 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 was the lodestone that first brought me here to shoot. And these are wild birds.
When we stepped from the van, I saw head bird dog handler Arbe Chale. It was good to see Arbe again, with his two English pointers.
We fed our 20-bore semi-automatic shotguns, the same guns we used to shoot ducks, a diet of 7½s. Arbe released the dogs into the hanging mist. Their tails' whipping circular motion gave notice of their movements in the effluvium. The grass, soft and wet, matted nicely under booted feet.
Galo, who trains his own dogs, buys both American-bred 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, especially those in the United States, may not start a dog until it is a year old and sometimes a little older. I put the dog in the field several times just to let it flush and give chase to the birds with no regard as to its behaviour. The chase brings out the intensity that 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.
Our dogs don't really have to range very far to find quail because of our large numbers of birds. Sometimes we can go from covey to covey in a matter of minutes. We have some very fine dogs.
Our biggest problem on training dogs in the Yucatan is that fields get too high with grass during the summer and by the time the growing season has ended, it's time for the quail season to open. A lot of our training is done during our days off from shooting. You can use the necessary tools and training techniques, but there is a lot a dog must learn on its own, just as we all do. It's in a dog or it isn't. Some dogs don't turn out the way you want them to, no matter what you try. Some dogs are naturally smarter than others.
The ground here is quite rocky and can be hard on a dog's paws. We try to get their feet as conditioned as possible and to constantly switch the dogs off. This is also done because of the heat. It comes quickly. So we do not hunt all day. We don't have to, because we have plenty of birds.
Our dogs are constantly in need of water and we have to sometimes supplement their need with bottled water if the low-lying ponds and savannas are without water.
The nebula lifted, revealing the sun. The quartering dogs were as spicy as salsa and working swiftly when they struck the feathery redolence of moving quail and transitioned 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 reaching palm tree with its leafy green fronds, for we, like the dogs, were cemented with exhilaration. Slowing, we eased past the dogs, sending birds whirring upwards like a shattering plate. Shot swept the air bundling two birds. Then a third. Fred fingered his first black-throated bobwhite and handed it over to Arbe. The sun was higher, the dew-damp grass drying.
The next covey flushed ahead of the dogs. Elusive birds. Missed shots. Markers in a bird shooter's life. A passion sometimes met with failure... humiliation for both Gun and dog. And we are all the better for it.
YUCATAN FACT FILE
Blue-winged teal shooting in the Yucatan is dependable with a limit of 15 birds. Do not book a duck shoot on or around the full moon. The ducks feed at night, making for poor shooting.
The black-throated quail shooting is always good. However, some days you will find more birds than on other days afield. These quail receive little gunning pressure.
I had hoped to do the Yucatan Grand Slam. It was my intention to shoot quail, teal, and catch tarpon on one trip. The turquoise waters around San Felipe offers excellent baby tarpon angling during the winter months. But a front came storming in, bringing high winds. Fishing was impossible.
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. El Balam, unlike Chichen Itza, has not yet been found by throngs of tourists.
Midday winter temperature in the Yucatan can reach 80-85 degrees. Take along a swimsuit for a dip in the pool while staying at the modern Hotel Manglares in Celestun during your hunt. Or swim in the ocean. The beaches are the colour of ivory. The Poseidon Restaurant at the hotel serves up great food and tangy margaritas.
In San Felipe you will stay in the Hotel San Felipe de Jesus. No pool. The rooms are comfortable and the view from your room overlooking the bay and the boats is unsurpassed.
Fresh seafood caught by the village fishermen is featured on the menu at the restaurant Vaselina.
Clothes for the duck and teal shoot should be lightweight. A green camouflage pattern works well in the duck blind. Wear a long-sleeved shirt to ward off mosquitoes before the sun sees them off. Pack bug repellent. You will not need hip boots or waders as shooting is done from the boat. Lightweight field boots will work fine for the duck shoot. You could even wear tennis shoes.
For the quail shoot, you will need short-sleeved shirts, lightweight trousers, an orange cap or an orange vest. Beretta and Benelli 12 and 20-bore semi-automatics are provided by Galo. You will use Mexican manufactured shells, which are very reliable. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat if you plan to fish. Galo can provide fishing equipment unless you want to bring your own.
At the time of writing, a passport is all you will need to enter the country.
After you check-in at the Cancun Airport for your return flight home, stop by Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurant for a cheeseburger and, of course, a margarita. The best!