San Fernando—a clutch of shabby adobe shops—squats on the dirt road between Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria, some 93 miles south of the Mexican border. The only hotel, if it can be called that, is inhabited mainly by cockroaches, and there is not a single souvenir stand in town. This last makes sense, because there is seldom a tourist to be seen. But, for all its shortcomings, San Fernando has one attraction that—for hunters—puts it ahead of any other place in Mexico: it is the center of the best white-wing dove shooting in North America.
The white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica)—for those who have never seen one, and this includes most Americans, because the bird never gets farther north each year than the border portions of our Southwestern states—is a slightly larger cousin of the mourning dove. Weighing between four and 4� ounces, its plumage ranges from milk-chocolate brown to steel gray with white on the underbelly and a flashy white stripe, which accounts for its name, on its black-tipped wings. The bird is delectable eating—broiled or baked—although each one provides only two mouthfuls.
The white-wing travels in vast flights of from 40,000 to 60,000 birds, wintering in Central and South America and spending its summers in northern Mexico and along the Rio Grande, where in a day it has been known to strip more than two tons of sorghum from a single plantation. With the mourning dove, the white-wing shares the distinction of being the most difficult to bring down of all the migratory birds.
On the U.S. side of the border a typical white-wing shoot along the lower Rio Grande, where the total season this year was two half-days and the estimated number of hunters who crowded the valley border towns topped 200,000, is a combination carnival, convention and Chicago riot.
But south of the border, on the other side of the Rio Grande, Mexican white-wing shooting is as different from that in the U.S. as a Tequila Mar�a is from tomato juice. Instead of two half-days, the season is two months long. Instead of a 10-bird limit, the daily limit is 15 and the possession limit 45, and the only problem is knowing when to stop shooting.
This can be a problem when the late afternoon skies are literally clouded with birds. In spite of such a surfeit of doves, about the biggest crowd a white-wing hunter may happen upon in the course of a weekend shoot is a couple of San Fernando natives on the way to the local water hole.
Why, then, do white-wing hunters travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to battle a mob scene only slightly removed from mass hysteria and greatly removed from any semblance of sport, when by traveling less than 100 miles farther south they could find what must surely approach the ultimate in bird shooting? Why? Because, alas, there are a few hitches to hunting in Mexico.
It is one thing to cross into Mexico as a tourist with all those friendly green U.S. dollars to be spent and all those friendly border merchants ready to offer their wares and friendly advice. But to come into Mexico as a bona fide hunter carrying a gun is another story. Pancho Villa gave a warmer welcome to the Texas Rangers.
There is something about the sight of a gun—sporting firearm though it may be—that has the same effect upon even the most timid Mexican official as the wave of a cape has on a brave bull. A smart hunter puts his money on the table and mumbles gracias to everything. There is the usual long roll of red tape strung behind you from the border all the way to the hunting grounds—permits and payoffs ad nauseam.
You expect it all to end when you have nearly reached your destination but on a deserted road 50 miles into the interior of a foreign country with soldiers waving guns, one does not argue, one pays. We did: four times, to four different officials, for four different reasons. The Mexicans call it la mordida—the bite.