When Ed Zern got back from Yucatán last March, where he'd gone duck shooting, we asked him for a report. It read as follows:
Flew from New York to Havana, where camera was stolen. Flew from Havana to Mérida in Yucatán, where Mexican army confiscated my shotguns. Showed Mexican army officer my permit for shotguns issued by Mexican consul in New York. Officer studied permit carefully, locked shotguns in barred room and went away. While arranging with lawyer to get guns out of hock, learned that duck camp operator had broken up camp, dismissed Indian guides and sold decoys. After recovering guns, rode around northern Yucatán one full day with camp operator rounding up Indians and decoys. Went shooting next morning at 5:30 a.m., quit at 7:30 a.m. Too many ducks. Went to Uxmal and Kabah, ancient Mayan cities, and climbed around ruins. Went to a fiesta in Campeche, drank tequila to show Pan-American solidarity. Went to Champotón and up Champotón River in leaky launch. Drove fast back to Mérida to catch 4:35 airplane to Havana and New York. Arrived at airport at 3 p.m., found 4:35 airplane had left at 11 a.m. Was told not to worry, another left in two days. After speaking sharply to airline man, was told might get airplane next day to New Orleans. "This would entitle you to $16 refund," said airline man. "Good," I said. Before plane left next day airline man said he'd made a mistake—it was $1.60 not $16. "We'll send it to you," he said. Early in April got a letter from airline. "Enclosed find check for $1.60," it said. No check enclosed.
This seemed skimpy, and we asked him to elaborate a bit. For the edification of duck shooters, conservationists and other gringos we present this report on a paradise for wildfowl and wildfowlers.
Six hundred miles due south of Louisiana on the Mexican coast, the Yucatán peninsula stretches out into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a low, flat land, studded with the ruins of Mayan temple cities that were built a thousand years ago and abandoned to the jungle. Yucatán is inhabited now by descendants of the Indian temple builders and by white and mestizo Mexicans. Culturally it is almost an independent state, and even today there is no decent road and only one narrow-gauge railroad connecting Yucatán with the rest of Mexico.
The Mayan Indians, when found in their own villages, are poor, cheerful, intelligent, self-respecting and honest. The nourishment they scratch out of their state's thin limestone soil is so low in protein that a North American could scarcely survive on it.
Capping the northern tip of Yucatán is a 300-mile stretch of lagoons along the Río Lagartos (Alligator River). These mangrove-choked, brackish waters, from which almost all of the alligators have been killed off, are the winter home of millions of ducks that come down the flyways from the U.S., Canada and Alaska.
The rich forage plants in the shallows of the lagoons attract pintail, teal (mostly bluewing), widgeon, lesser scaup, gadwall, shoveler and an occasional redhead and mallard. The first ducks, generally teal, arrive at the end of August; by the first of April they have all gone back north. Between November 15 and March 15 the ducks are so abundant that the shooting is almost invariably excellent and sometimes fabulously so.
I had heard about Yucatán's wild-fowling from an acquaintance, whose recommendation was almost hysterical; accordingly I jumped at a chance to try it last year. The Mexican consulate in New York City gave me a permit to take in two shotguns (a Browning 12-gauge over-and-under, choked full and modified, and a Winchester 21 bored fairly open for quail) and 500 rounds of ammunition (which is difficult and expensive to buy there, except for reloads of doubtful reliability). The consulate failed to tell me that a permit from the Mexican army might be required so the firearms could be taken directly through customs in Mérida. (The hunter who follows me should inquire about this military permit. It costs about $8 U.S.)
Thus when we arrived at Mérida Airport I discovered that 1) a Contax camera had been taken from a duffel bag somewhere between my hotel in Havana and the Mérida customs office, 2) the army refused despite the consular permit to let my shotguns go through, although they admitted the ammunition, and 3) my letter to the camp operator had gone astray and he had closed down for the season—dismissed the Indians who worked for him and even sold his decoys to a local sportsman. It took two days to get the shotguns released and then, while my wife went off to visit the ruins at Chichén Itzá, I went by hired car 22 miles due north to the state's leading seaport, Progreso, then a few miles east along the coast to the tiny but pleasant seaside resort, Bahia Bonita. There I was met by Shaun Viguerie of Metairie, Louisiana, a young but competent sportsman who had just finished his first season as a hunting camp operator. With his assistant, Ted Joanen, we piled into a truck and drove through the coastal jungle to an Indian village where we picked up three native hunters.
On the way, Shaun explained something about the hunting. The three Indians were market hunters; they kept a careful check on the movements of ducks along the lagoon, but when Viguerie engaged them they refrained from gunning in the area to be hunted so as not to drive the flocks away. Instead they helped plan the best location for the blinds; then, when the hunters were posted, two of the Indians and their canoes were trucked to points about a mile on either side of the blinds. At daybreak they would start slowly poling their canoes between the myriad islands of the lagoon toward the gunners, pushing the ducks ahead of them in short flights. Without this stirring-up there would be no shooting, since with the abundance of food and the mildness of weather there would be no reason for ducks to fly. The third Indian would act as a retriever.