Things might have been worse except for Glenn Biggs, who set up the hunt and who managed to get us through most hijackings with minimum scars. Biggs, president of National Western Life Insurance in Austin, has influential friends (the President of Mexico, LBJ and the current governors of the states of Tamaulipas and Texas, to name a few). He used their names often during our various unplanned stops along the road to San Fernando.
No hunting, it would seem, could be worth such trouble. Most hunting is not. But for all the trouble—the bribes, the delays, the back-bruising drive from Matamoros south, the scorching temperatures and voracious insects—the white-wing shooting at San Fernando is worth it all and then some.
The shooting has not always been so good. Until the 1950s there was little food to attract the birds to the area. Instead they flew farther north to the cultivated lands across the border. But when the Falcon Dam opened the upper Gulf area of Mexico to irrigation, the birds found a more inviting summering ground closer to home. The main crop, once cotton, is sorghum. Water is plentiful. It is ideal white-wing country.
A dirt road goes east from the center of San Fernando toward the Gulf. It is rutted and pocked and runs through a tangled jungle. We hunted about two miles down this road. It did not look like a shooting place, but most white-wing shooting places do not. There were seven of us, and as many guides, plus two cars and a pickup truck. We left the vehicles out in the open and stationed ourselves, each with a guide, at 50-yard intervals along the road. There were no blinds, and we made no particular effort at concealment. I simply stood alongside a bush and shot for the rest of the day.
At first the birds flew mainly in singles, appearing suddenly above the horizon of brush on the other side of the road, quartering as they came to the opening, then dipping and darting as they winged past. They are tiny targets, deceptively fast and frustratingly erratic, making no sound as they fly, which is most disconcerting of all. Most other birds give some audible warning of their approach. The white-wing gives none, and so the hunter must be alert every instant for sight of an approaching bird. Invariably as I studied one part of the horizon, a bird barreled by from another. Most of these feathered apparitions traveled in one direction but now and then a few flew the other way, adding to the confusion.
Periodically Mario, the head guide, drove the pickup along the firing line, stopping at each stand to drop off more shells, pick up birds and distribute cold soda. A herd of goats emerged from the thickets behind me, stared briefly and then moved on. None of the activity seemed to bother the doves.
By 5 o'clock the birds were flying in larger and larger flocks, 20 and 30 appearing on the horizon at a time. Suddenly there were white-wings everywhere, flying in a dozen different directions at once. They came in waves, strung out from one end of the horizon to the other. They flew to the left, to the right, over my head and from behind. Up and down the road the guns banged away. The steady staccato rhythm filled the afternoon.
I did not even try for crossing shots. There were too many easier ones at doves flying straight at me. Twice I dropped birds at my feet. Nor did I try to lead and swing as I would on other birds. This was strictly point-and-fire snap shooting. The birds were too fast for any other technique.
They are so fast, in fact, that the Mexicans claim the white-wing does not start dodging until the shell leaves the gun. This is wrong. The white-wing does not really start dodging until it sees the pellets, and the ones you hit have made the mistake of waiting to count the pieces of lead that are flying toward them.