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Sweet Sixteen And Never Been South

Celebrating three teal and a 16th birthday in a sinaloa marsh.

Warming the engine, ready for the morning's hunt.

Nowadays, it's hard to raise kids to hunt. As the father of three teens, I can attest the competing interests of school activities, friends and the ever-present-it-seems computer game, makes finding time for the outdoors especially tough. But if we are to continue on as a nation with healthy wildlife populations and the hunting tradition that sustains them, we must make an effort to involve young people in the sport.

With 16 year-old Austin Pile, an interest in hunting wasn't a problem. His father Mike had introduced the boy to duck hunting at an early age and he had taken to it like, well, a duck to water. I saw Austin demonstrated his skill and safe sportsmanship, as he expertly dropped a drake gadwall that swung over the decoys in the shallow saltwater and mangrove, almost tropical, laguna we were hunting. Mike had arranged the hunt as a surprise trip to reward Austin for excellent grades (he was also playing first-string football) and his 16th birthday. Imagine the surprise and cheers that went up on the retrieve of that gadwall, the first-duck of the trip, when it turned out to be banded! It had a special connection for me later too, as the bird had been banded as a duckling in Summer Lake, Oregon, a place I know and not too far from my Idaho digs.

I first met the father-and-son team at dinner in the Mexican state of Sinaloa on a combined waterfowl/dove hunt. They had just arrived from their home in Dallas and the Piles, myself, and another father/son and brother-in-law team, from Sacramento, were getting to know one another around the dinner table. We were staying at the Plaza Inn Hotel in Los Mochis, where our outfitter Sinalopato Duck and Dove, was located. As we enjoyed the fine evening meal, we made those tentative introductions that strangers traveling usually offer. Then tired, everyone headed off to the rooms to get some much needed rest after a long travel day and an upcoming early start.

It seemed only minutes of sleep had passed before the alarm went off, rattling like a kingfisher. I groped into my clothes and stumbled off for breakfast, and more importantly, coffee, in the deserted hotel restaurant. At 4 a.m., food was not high on my list but it would take at least two cups to get the motor started and the oil circulating.

The rest of the hunting party drifted into the dining room and we made an attempt at the fresh tropical fruits, croissants, eggs and bacon set before us. The tussle-headed teenage boys sat next to their fathers, rubbing their eyes, tying to let enthusiasm win out over sleep.

Out in the hotel plaza under breezy palm trees and starry skies, we loaded into vans for the 45 minute drive north along the coast bordering the east side of the Sea of Cortez. Here, wintering waterfowl find the many sheltered coastal wetlands much to their liking. As the boys dozed cramp-necked on the drive, I could just see a hint of light silhouetting the rugged Sierra Madre mountains in the east. With the sky growing now lighter every mile, large fields of corn could be seen on each side of the highway as we headed north. At an unmarked intersection, the van turned hard left on a gravel road heading west toward the sea.


Action in the shallow saltwater.

It was obviously big farm country, the largest in Mexico, and we drove parallel to a huge, ramrod-straight, drainage ditch the likes of which you might see in the central valley of California. After five miles or so, we left the gravel and bounced over a packed dirt two-track, traversing alkali flats surrounded by saltbush scrub. Then we hit a tiny Mexican fishing village on the shore of a wide laguna just as the roosters were crowing and the women were cooking breakfast tortillas over smoky wood fires for their baymen. It was a glorious setting and the orange sky anticipated the sunrise as we did the hunt!

We loaded into two groups of three in each airboat, as the water mirrored the boats and mountains in the calm water. I had drawn Austin and Mike in my boat and began to like them both immediately as we unloaded our gear on a mangrove island after the 15 minute ride. It was obvious they were workers and gentlemen as we carried duffle and they offered to help me with my camera gear and gave me the best spot to sit.

Then the hunt began in earnest with the banded gadwall shot by Austin mentioned earlier. Soon we had green-winged teal streaking by and Mike made an excellent swing-shot on a fine full-color drake. There were scattered flocks of pintails, redheads and widgeon cruising about and we took several of these birds, as well as more gadwall. There was also considerable excitement when we would see the occasional black brant flying up the coastline behind us.

There, a barrier island of sand held back the surf of the Cortez from the sheltered lagoon. It was a fast-paced morning hunt but ended quickly when the sun started to warm things up around 10 a.m. We had a nice bag, but it was all overshadowed by the thrill of the banded bird. In true Mexican style, we drove back to the hotel for a siesta before the 2 p.m. afternoon hunt call. When we pulled into the spacious palm-lined parking lot, we were met at the van by waiters carrying delicious trays of nachos, salsa and cold drinks. I only finished part of mine before crashing in on my bed, lights-out.

A polite knock came to the too-comfortable room promptly at two, and I awoke and gathered up the minimal gear required for dove shooting. It was now sunny and 78 degrees outside; t-shirt weather in late December!

We drove a half-hour, south this time, and stopped at a low grove of palo verde trees backed up against a sorghum field. The doves were just trickling in when we arrived, but it was not long before super fast action commenced on the grey ghosts screaming downwind. And the bird flight was as warm as the weather for the rest of the afternoon.

I used my side-by-side 20-gauge at my-favorite mourning doves until the barrels were literally hot. Many of the doves would dodge just when the trigger was pulled, too late to stop the shot, and the yellow empties were stacking up on the ground.

Never-the-less, there was a growing pile of the birds too, picked up by my excellent bird man, Edgar (who has possibly the finest eye for game I have ever seen). The day was again punctuated by an amazing Sinaloa sunset, this time in the western sky. We made the short ride back to the hotel, talking all the way about our great shots and spectacular misse


Full-plume teal are common in these parts.
Austin's banded grey duck...all the way from Oregeon.

Dinner was served at 7, and what a treat it was. A starter of gourmet tortilla soup (I asked for recipe), then grilled mourning and white-winged dove breasts wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese and jalapeño pepper--bracketed by onion, tomato and green pepper slices. All the boys, big and small, gobbled them up.

Austin and his father had not hunted morning doves with me, but had gone an hour north to partake in some white-winged dove shooting. I asked Mike later how Austin had done on the slightly slower and less dodgy than mourning dove white-wings--perhaps the perfect bird for starting shooters. A proud dad told me the young man had done very well indeed. He had plenty of chances at the hordes of birds and was able to fine-tune his already good marksmanship. What a confidence builder for the novice to be able to consistently hit flying doves.

I was sad my own 13 year old son had not been able to make the trip, but he and I were making plans for fishing the following summer and some bird shooting that fall.

My hunt time on the trip had rapidly come to an end, but the last duck day would bring a special surprise. Because of my flight time, I couldn't make the coastal lagoon airboat hunt; instead, I was set-up on a large shallow pond close to town. We arrived just before dawn and threw out a dozen decoys to wait for the patos. Because the birds had been out field feeding at night, we expected them to filter back in at first light.

Right on schedule, as the sun began to show, a flight of piciguilla, or black-bellied whistling ducks, flew over 150 yards up. Even at that distance, their wheezy, high-pitched whistles carried down to us on the still morning air. I shivered more from excitement than cold as they crossed over.

Then in answer to my silent plea, they circled back and dropped down into gun range on another pass. My partner and I took them on the swing, and three of the big birds came falling like puppets with their strings cut, long legs dangling behind.

This was a first for me, a new species to tally. It wouldn't be the only "first" of the day, however, one of my boyhood dreams came to pass. I have long wanted to shoot a drake of each teal species in the same day. Well, I did it on the Sinalopato hunt! Early in day, several nice flocks of green-wings worked over the blind, and I had put several drakes in the bag. Then, one of the summer and early fall residents of Idaho flew by; a pair of cinnamons with a full-plumed drake. I picked the color male on the approach and was well satisfied with my teal to go with the Mexican duck and shovler and whistling duck. Then, just as we were picking up the decoys, I spotted a rarity in the Pacific flyway where I normally hunt; a picture-book drake blue-winged teal.

I whistled to Edgar my guide and he hunched down in the water. Then by the best of good luck, the drake crossed in range and I was able to calm down enough to fold him. What a morning it had been; my three drake teal, a new species the whistling duck, not the mention another half dozen birds in the bag.

The sun sets, concluding a memorable trip and many firsts.

As the new Aerocalifornia RJ-700 jet lifted off the tarmac heading north over the Sea of Cortez, I looked down at the many coastal wetlands and croplands that the doves and ducks of Sinaloa are so fond of.

What a perfect place for the wingshooter, young and not-so.

I knew someday when the wind blew cold up north, I would fly back again to the warm waters of Sinalopato, just like the ducks.

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