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Down on the Farm

Destination: Sandia

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 12 hours /
  • Austin - 3 hours /
  • Brownsville - 3 hours /
  • Dallas - 9 hours /
  • El Paso - 10 hours /
  • Houston - 3.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 2 hours

I'll sleep tonight in a renovated dairy barn on Knolle Farm and Ranch, a bed-and-breakfast near Sandia that serves as the hub from which hunts for ducks and deer and quail depart.

When hunts are over, there will be good talk and good food and a good bed. As a bonus, good old cats and good old dogs roam the grounds and welcome being petted. "Sandia" means watermelon in Spanish, but this is not the watermelon farm where I labored as a youth; I'm here to have fun, not work.

The first order of business is to sharpen up my shotgunning skills for the duck hunt scheduled for the morrow. I'm hunting with a group of expert shotgunners who use antique double guns. Made in England before 1900, these guns still represent the zenith of the gunmaker's art. And these people know how to shoot, which they quickly demonstrate as clay targets zip through openings between live oaks and find convenient branches to hide behind just as I pull the trigger. Beth Knolle joins us for the fun, and even as we shoot in the golden glow of evening, ducks settle onto ponds almost within range. We've come to the right place for ducks.

Next day's predawn finds us sharing the bed of guide James Curtis' pickup truck with decoys and Dixie the retriever for a short ride. The pond where we'll shoot would be within walking distance, were we not wearing clumsy waders. A few dozen decoys soon bob on the surface of a large pond. We sit on a bench inside a brush blind on the pond's edge, the wind at our backs. It's a perfect setup. Ducks - like planes - land into the wind, and they will be coming right at us when they arrive.

Arrive they do. Gadwalls, wigeons, blue-winged and green-winged teal seem to find the pond irresistible. Shooting is steady, and by sunup the six hunters are all nearing limits. The practice the evening before pays off; I demonstrate that a newer gun can down ducks, too, though perhaps not with as much style.

That afternoon, some guests take advantage of Knolle Farms' location on the Nueces River bottom to go for a horseback ride. The farm maintains a stable of gentle horses and all the necessary tack for the use of guests. Guests' horses are welcome also, but be sure to bring your Coggins papers. Other guests head to nearby Lake Corpus Christi State Park for an afternoon of birding. I begin preparing for my next adventure, a doe hunt on a nearby ranch, by making sure my rifle is sighted in. Later I meet Steven D. Naiser, who manages the property. Most hunters are interested in taking home a quality buck, and my doe hunt will furnish some excellent meat as well as help keep the ratio of bucks to does in balance. Naiser advises me to take my time and be selective, assuring me I will see a lot of deer.

I'm barely settled into my blind overlooking a brush line bordering an irregularly shaped opening when deer begin to materialize. As usual, yearling bucks are the first to appear - like most teenage boys, they seem to be hungry all the time. As the sun nears the horizon, young does and then older, more wary does tiptoe cautiously into view. As dusk begins to fall, bucks begin their darkling parade. While I see only younger bucks, most sport impressive antlers. It's obvious Naiser's herd management and supplemental feeding programs are paying off.

One of the amazing things about South Texas is the variety of habitat and game that can be found within a relatively small area. The next morning finds us in pursuit of wild bobwhite quail on yet another nearby ranch. Loncito Cartwright meets us at the gate with a howdy and a truck full of dogs eager to bust some brush.

Donning shooting vests and filling pockets with shells, we spread out in a ragged line following Liz, a pointer, and Max, a Boykin. Keeping track of each other's whereabouts, much less that of the dogs, challenges our sight and hearing, but soon Loncito alerts us to a point. We close on Liz locked in a classic point, nose glued to a clump of grass at the base of a prickly pear. But as we draw near, she breaks the point and moves deeper into the brush, following a quail that would rather run than fly.

What follows is something I have never seen before and hardly expect ever to see again. As Liz nears another prickly pear, the quail bursts from hiding with a buzz of wings - and flies straight into the dog's mouth! Unfortunately, I'm the only one to see it, and I have some difficulty convincing my fellow hunters it happened.

Other points and flushes follow, and we get our chances to shoot. Quail hunting over dogs requires some knowledge of etiquette. On the sighting or announcing of a point, hunters converge on the dog from behind, forming as straight a line as thorny plants allow. During the approach, gun muzzles are pointed skyward for safety of hunters and dog. When all the hunters are in a safe position, the dog handler either gives the dog the command to flush the quail or does so personally. Each shooter restricts his or her zone of fire to a narrow wedge of sky directly in front. Safety is the main reason; the ire of hunters who have "their" quail shot out from in front of them may be secondary but carries a lot of weight as well. A quail that makes the mistake of flying directly down the line of hunters becomes fair game for everyone it passes; oddly, a fast-crossing bird often has a better chance of survival due to surprise and the fact that crossing shots require a longer lead than going-away shots. We prove this more than once.

As the morning warms, the air dries and the dogs have increasing difficulty picking up the scent of quail. We circle back to the trucks. Beth Knolle arrives promptly - cell phones can be wonderful - and spreads a tailgate lunch worthy of the finest dining room. Looking around at good friends old and new, and sampling roast tenderloin of feral hog with a sauce made from homemade jam, I wouldn't trade my spot by the tailgate for a seat in any restaurant on the globe. After lunch I head home with duck, venison and quail; memories of three excellent hunts; and a warm invitation to come back any time.

I intend to. I'll stay on this farm any time.

Savoring Sandia

The land around Sandia was granted by the King of Spain to Juan Montemayor in 1807, and his family occupied the land until 1852. The town itself was founded in 1907 and named for the numerous watermelons grown in the area.

Knolle Farm and Ranch once was a major dairy operation supplying Corpus Christi; for three generations it boasted the world's largest herd of Jersey cattle. Today beef cattle roam the range along with visitors using the peaceful country refuge as a hub from which to sample area attractions. For information call (361) 547-2546 or go to www.knolle.com.

Nearby is Lake Corpus Christi State Park, located on a 21,000-acre lake formed by damming the Nueces River. The mixture of brush, lake shore and river bottom makes the area attractive to a variety of birds, including black-bellied whistling ducks, purple gallinules, pauraques, long-billed thrashers, pyrrhuloxias and black-throated sparrows. Anglers can cast for blue, channel and yellow catfish, sunfish, bass and crappie. For information about the park call (361) 547-2635 or go to Lake Corpus Christi SP.

Slightly farther afield is Corpus Christi, the gateway to Baffin Bay and its fabled speckled seatrout and redfish along with other attractions such as the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens, which includes wetlands as well as a bird and butterfly trail. Padre Island National Seashore is at the city's southern end, not far from the Hans A. Suter Wildlife Park, one of the state's prime areas to view shorebirds and waterfowl.

For information on all area attractions, go to www.corpuschristicvb.org or call (800) 766-2322 or (361) 561-2000.

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