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Original Issue

Settling down in Texas

The McFaddin Ranch may not be the biggest spread around, but each year it finds room for 600,000 clamorous visitors—geese that drop in for the winter

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."

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.

A goose set on the McFaddin, like just about everything else on the property, is unique. Neither decoys, at least not conventional ones, nor blinds were used on the Sunday morning shoot. Instead the hunters were divided into groups of four, given huge burlap bags and dropped off at three different locations out on the plains. A strong wind was blowing and there was no sign of daylight. The fields were ankle-deep in mud, and nobody knew exactly where he was going or what he was supposed to do when he got there, which lent a certain challenge to the morning.

Slogging through the fields behind a single flashlight beam, our group came finally to what looked like 30 or 40 big white dinner napkins scattered among the stubble, simulating snow geese. These constituted the nucleus of the "set." hi the burlap bag were several hundred more white squares, which were added to those already down. They were made of plastic the thickness and texture of Kleenex. Originally, the Womacks used baby diapers, but plastic proved lighter and easier to clean.

When the squares were out, the hunters positioned themselves in the dark about 15 yards from one end of the spread, tucking a few extra squares into the hoods of parkas, on shell cases and wherever else they could be attached as camouflage.

At 7:10 the first thin shafts of morning light pushed through the low-hanging clouds. On the horizon great strings of geese began to rise. They flew overhead in long elegant Vs, scanning the spread from a safe distance but showing no inclination to drop into it. By 7:30 two things were clear: 1) there were more geese overhead than some hunters will see in a lifetime, and 2) we were apparently as visible to them as they were to us. All those loud cackles were probably jokes about the stupidity of hunters.

Looking around for better cover, we discovered a ditch nearby that we had missed in the dark. When we were hidden by brush in the ditch, our luck rapidly changed. The next flight that came over circled back for another look and began to drop in among the plastic squares. For the rest of the morning, geese continued to be lured to the unorthodox set, arriving singly, in small bunches and sometimes in whole flocks.

Those that did not come in gathered in a nearby field. By 9:30 an area one-quarter-mile square was solidly white with geese. Drifting on the wind, their conversation sounded like the end of a particularly raucous cocktail party. Then in the distance Walter's truck appeared, a speck upon the horizon. With a rumble that began like the revving of many jet engines, then increased to a tremendous roar that made the ground vibrate, 100,000 geese rose into the air at once, almost blocking out the sky with their beating wings. It was an awesome and fitting finale to a unique shoot.