Asking a rancher how many head of cattle he runs is like asking a woman her age; you are not likely to get an answer, or a smile. Questions about acreage, especially in South Texas, fall into the same category. If you get an answer at all, it is not apt to be a straight one.
Consider, for example, the McFaddin Ranch near Victoria, 120 miles southeast of San Antonio. According to Jess Womack, a fourth-generation member of the family that owns it, the McFaddin is smaller than the King Ranch and bigger than the LBJ. Because the size of the King is estimated at between 960,000 and 1,145,000 acres and the Johnson Ranch is a modest 438 acres, such information is less than enlightening. Outsiders familiar with the McFaddin Ranch are more helpful. They guess its size to be about 50,000 acres, give or take a few thousand, and although none is certain exactly how big it is, all agree that some of the best bird hunting in Texas is to be found there.
Every year hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks winter on the ranch, fattening themselves in fields of oats and stubble before beginning the long flight north in February. In late afternoon, vast concentrations of snows, blues and Canadas stretch to the distant horizons, blanketing the fields and filling the air with their chatter. When disturbed by a skunk or a dog or the occasional human who might wander into their rich reserve, they rise as one, forming a huge dark cloud that undulates over the countryside, before they settle again on the fields.
Sprigs, gadwalls and green-winged teal raft in comparable profusion on the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, which come together on the property. Thousands of mallards and mergansers feed and rest in its bayous and on its scattered swamps and ponds and water holes. At times the marshes are carpeted with wildfowl, a seemingly endless expanse of birds bobbing among the grasses.
But ducks and geese are not the only birds to quicken a hunter's pulse on the McFaddin Ranch. There are wild turkeys, prairie chickens, mourning doves and bobwhite quail. The quail are the pride and perpetual project of C. Kerry McCan, 47, the ranch's present manager and a great-grandson of its founder. For years McCan has been setting aside special quail cover—fenced eight-to-20-foot-square patches of land in which are piled railroad ties. Protected by the fences from grazing cattle, the natural grasses and range plants grow thick and tall, providing habitat, food and, along with the ties, protection for the birds. Sixty or 70 such patches are scattered throughout the ranch and more are added each year. They have helped foster an abundance of bobwhite that rivals any on the legendary quail plantations of Georgia and Alabama.
If the number of birds on the McFaddin Ranch is extraordinary—and it is—the number of hunters who have had the pleasure of shooting at them is even more so. With the exception of family members and occasional ranch hands poaching for food, only a few outsiders have been privileged to hunt birds on the ranch in its entire 100-year history, making it not only one of the best bird-shooting spreads in Texas but also one of the most exclusive.
Brahma cattle, not birds, were uppermost in James A. McFaddin's mind after he had founded the ranch in 1877. He saw his first Brahma bull at the Chicago Fair in 1893, where it was on exhibition principally as an exotic curiosity. McFaddin was so impressed by the creature's ability to handle the oppressive Chicago heat that he decided it had to be right for South Texas. He sold his interest in the Spindletop oil field before the great historic gusher came in, and with the money imported a herd of Brahmas, the first in Texas, and bought the land on which to raise them.
Early in this century, McFaddin's son Al and grandson C. K. McCan, who operated the ranch from 1924 until his death in 1974, began experimenting with Hereford-Brahma crosses to improve the quality of the beef. They eventually developed the Victoria breed, less famous than the King Ranch's Santa Gertrudis cattle (shorthorn-Brahma cross) but also a high-grade beef animal that is especially resistant to the heat, insects and diseases of the coastal plains. Lying at one point only 17 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, much of the ranch consists of reclaimed, richly vegetated lowlands on which the Victoria breed has thrived along with game birds.
"This is nothing like Texas hill country," says Lou Cariffe, an investment banker from San Antonio. "This ranch really has carrying capacity for everything. It's just wall-to-wall grass."
Much of the land was reclaimed around the turn of the century by Al McFaddin. "My great-uncle put in about half the dikes, using mules and wagons," says Jess Womack, 30, a private investor in San Antonio. "We reclaimed a lot more during the Depression, when we had what amounted to our own WPA here. Then in 1961 Hurricane Carla came through as strong as a Mexican plate lunch and reflooded a lot of those reclaimed acres. Rebuilding the dikes was so expensive that we decided to leave the land under water."