The decision was probably not all that difficult to make because there are sizable deposits of oil and natural gas beneath the floodwater. Wet or dry, Texaco and Pennzoil pumps keep right on pumping. But the floods brought with them an unexpected bonus: wildfowl winging south discovered a great new place to spend the winter. Within a couple of seasons the McFaddin Ranch was the In place for several hundred thousand wintering waterfowl. The birds knew a good deal when they found one. There was plenty of food, plenty of water and nobody to disturb them. Neither the late C. K. McCan nor his son Kerry had much interest in shooting ducks and geese—they preferred to watch and listen to them—which was just fine with the birds.
Then five years ago Jess happened to visit the ranch during the fall. "I had come out once or twice when I was growing up to hunt the Russian boars that are all over the place," he says, "but I didn't even know there were ducks and geese on the ranch. I couldn't believe the concentrations of birds. The next year my brother Walter and I built some blinds on the river and invited a few friends out for a shoot. We've done that each year since. But we like having the birds around too much to take a chance of driving them away, so we limit the hunting to just one shoot a season."
Which is, of course, another reason why the shooting on the McFaddin Ranch is so spectacular. Except for Kerry's quail hunting, which he mostly does with his wife and children, all other hunting for both upland and migratory birds is generally limited to this single weekend each season.
There were eight guests and four members of the family on the hunt in which I took part last January. The weekend started with a 5 a.m. breakfast at La Casita, the ranch's poolhouse. Several of the hunters took predawn dips to test the watertightness of their waders, appearing, in their cocoons of rubber, down and Dacron, like extraterrestrial creatures in the eerie underwater pool lights.
The sky was starless, with no suggestion yet of the dawn that would arrive within the hour, when Jess, Walter and their guests were deposited by truck somewhere out in the darkness. Gray outlines of fence posts protruded from what seemed to be water. Record rains—70 inches as compared with a normal 15—had swollen the river and inundated the duck blinds, forcing the party to hunt along a bar ditch that ran beneath the levee.
The men put some decoys in the water and separated along the bank. Almost immediately ducks zoomed in from all angles, whistling, chirping, beating the air with their wings. With a splash, first one, then another and another dropped into the water. Unaware of the audience—it was still dark—they paddled only yards from shore. Soon their shadowy figures began to take form. Somewhere down the line a gun went off. The morning hunt had begun.
For the next 20 minutes, as the first light filtered through the overcast sky, ducks moved like phantoms up and down the bar ditch, swooping, dipping, veering, flaring off as they spotted a hunter on the naked bank. In less than an hour most limits were filled. Even without blinds it was a great duck shoot.
As was that afternoon's quail hunt. There were fewer people shooting than in the morning, and the hunting party was split into two groups, alternating coveys. Jaime Adames, the Mexican handler, used eight dogs, principally pointers, with a couple of setters and a Brittany. They ran in pairs, each birdier and more eager than their predecessors. In just under four hours they flushed 35 coveys of bobwhite, several of which contained upwards of 40 birds. Each new covey was seldom more than a few hundred-yards from the last. Between flushing a covey and walking up the singles, there were never more than five minutes between shots.
"We were afraid populations would be down because of the rain," said Walter, 29, who lives and works on the ranch, "but I think we have more birds than ever. Fortunately, they were off the nests before the rains began. With the amount of quail cover we have, all this water didn't bother them."
The largest concentration of geese in the U.S. is in the Eagle Lake-El Campo area near Houston, where as many as 1.6 million birds are believed to winter. Although no official counts have been made of the number of wintering geese on the McFaddin Ranch, each year their numbers increase and educated guesses are that there are around 600,000 birds, mostly snows. This is about as many geese as normally winter along the entire Eastern shore of Maryland.