Talking about pitayos, choyas and other things
Fernando Ortiz Gómez, México, D. F.

How nice it is to include again in your language – when you speak or listen – those terms that are commonly used in the Mexican Desert. I’ve been lucky enough to be a hunter since I was a very young kid. It has been maybe forty years since I heard for the first time, in a trip with my uncle Pablo, someone speaks about pitayos and some other cactus varieties present throughout our national territory. Along with the impressive saguaros, the pitayos, choyas, palo verdes and palo fierros, constitute the essential points of reference in many areas, but, especially, in the Sonoran Desert. He who doesn’t learn to differentiate them will very probably be incapable to interpret the voice of his guide, who, most certainly, will use as a reference the plants he finds near the target, and the most typical expressions will be: “Under the palo verde” or “By the pitayo”.

I’m telling you all this because, some months ago, in mid January (2009), I was lucky enough to go back hunting in the Sonoran Desert. This is the fourth time I’ve visited the zone, and the second time I’ve stayed at our good friend Germán Rivas’ ranch “El Carbón”. We visited the ranch three years ago (in January 2006), with the same group that came this time. Gabriel, my brother, who was then an inexperienced hunter, had been Germán’s classmate and friend since they were in primary school, at the Instituto Patria, and introduced us to him back then, and, with little more said, we decided to try our luck in his ranch.

We could very well write another story about that first trip. We all hunted good trophies on that occasion. I was lucky enough to be the first one to hunt on the first day. It’s possible that, trying to obtain a trophy so early is not so advisable, but that time I had the opportunity to go up and down the hills looking for a Coues deer which, unfortunately, I couldn’t hunt. My dear friend, and respectable banker, Carlos Soto, was lucky enough to hunt a much sought after Coues, after he had shot his first mule deer. On that occasion, Carlos Creel, my dear friend and illustrious lawyer, placed the cherry on the cake when he shot an enormous mule deer buck with 14 tips (with a triple fork on each side!!). To celebrate the event, our group of four friends, and Germán,  made a happy toast with a bottle of Vega Sicilia which my brother Gabriel brought for the occasion, and which was given to him by one of his clients.

With these happy memories, we agreed to go back to El Carbón in January 2009. In spite of the economic crisis that was to come, came, and is still here… the four of us insisted in going hunting. Knowing that the 2006 and 2007 droughts had prevented the trophies from the 2008 mule deer season from being good, we were a little worried about the success of our adventure on this occasion. We discussed the subject a lot with Germán, and he told us that the forecasts for this year seemed good, as there had been an unusual amount of rain since the end of the year 2007 and during all of the year 2008. Of note, the rain season did not improve the quality of the trophies obtained during January 2008, but they definitively helped those obtained in January 2009. Furthermore, a few days before we got to the ranch, it rained heavily, and, even now, months later, it has kept raining, which makes me think the 2010 season is also going to be excellent.

In the afternoon of January 16th, 2009, we arrived at Hermosillo, but we’d still  have to travel for a few more hours before we could reach the ranch. The weather was rather warm: the temperature reached 27°C at 5:00 pm, so all our winter gear never came out of the luggage.

The first night wasn’t good for me. My brother’s and roommate’s terrible snoring, as well as the ghosts of unfinished work I had left at the office, added up and casually state of mind to be far from optimal when we got up at dawn. Early in that morning, we joined Germán and the guides (we already were well acquainted with some of them from our previous hunt), and initiated our tour. Gabriel, my brother, and I, rode in the same car with Chacho and Jaime, who were our guides. I must confess I wasn’t quite enjoying myself those initial hours. I was still thinking about the office and some other aspects of my job. The surroundings seemed so different on this occasion, and it was different: so much rain had turned it unusually green, and, due to the same thing, vegetation was thicker. We were worried we wouldn’t be able to spot the animals among the trees and shrubs. However, it wasn’t long before we were able to see the first signs that reminded us we were hunting. A group of mule deer does was watching us from the wilderness. There was a buck among them, but his characteristics were such, that I’m sure I’ll never find something similar again. We all saw this buck, I think, and I remember the animal even to the point of regretting not having hunted him. His body was a little smaller than the mule deer’s, his ears were smaller with one side of his antlers short, like a whitetail’s, and the other long, like a mule deer’s. Maybe this was the proof of the mix between both subspecies. Without realizing it, the excitement of seeing something “huntable” dissipated any clouds in my state of mind. Suddenly, I was focused and happy of being in this environment, surrounded by choyas, saguaros, pitayos and so forth.

It wasn’t long before Chacho’s signal to stop the vehicle (that consists only of slightly pulling a string tied to the driver’s arm) was produced. Chacho told me: “The doesare by the pitaya, and I think the buck is behind them.” It was a little shorter than 100 meters. As someone with a great curiosity, the buck started to show himself very calmly and little by little. I must confess I was only able to see one of his antlers. That was enough. He appeared to have a good size and was very dark colored. The rifle I was using (which I borrowed from Germán), a Remington 700 in 30.06 with a Zeiss sight, did the job without too mucho trouble. The buck gave a jump and ran no more than 10 meters. There I was, for the second consecutive time, hunting my mule deer in the morning of the first day in Rancho El Carbón. I’d chosen right. It’s a very good animal, symmetrical, mature, very thick and better than the one I shot the previous time (which wasn’t bad at all).

Fernando Ortiz.

Maybe only a hunter can understand the unique peaceful feeling you experience after the adrenaline discharge the hunt produces. Right at that moment, everything is worth it and, if you add to it the coexistence with friends and family, and the overwhelming beauty of the Sonoran desert, you can hardly ask for more. Maybe the only thing that was lacking was the presence of my son, Fernando, my dear adventure companion, who wasn’t able to come with me this time, because of his school work.

I enjoyed the rest of the day just as much. We had a very good lunch by a water pond, and ate some real wheat tortillas and grilled machaca (dried meat) and eggs, using palo fierro to light a campfire, and drank two small beers just before a nice siesta (nap). As I had already shot my buck, y was glad to accompany my brother in his hunt. In the afternoon, we saw two good mule deer in the scrubland, the second one was excellent, but was very far away, and it was almost dark, the prudence made my brother not to risk such a difficult shot.

Carlos Soto.

When we got to the ranch, in the night, we found out that Carlos Soto had got his mule deer: a very old ten tip, full of scars, so many, that he hadn’t got  any hair on part of his forehead, just some kind of callus, as a result of the many battles he had fought. It was definitively a very nice trophy.

Early in the morning, Carlos Creel and Gabriel went out again searching for a mule deer, each one with his respective guide and car. Carlos Soto and I took it easy, woke up late, took a bath, had breakfast and went out with Germán, who took us to see some blinds he had placed near the high hills, in order to try and hunt the whitetail (coues). We left Carlos in the first blind, and, when we came to the second one, where I was going to stay, something moved at the end of the dirt road. A moment later, a good coues came out. As I opened the vehicle’s door and took out my rifle, I made more noise than I should, and the deer ran into the bushes. We approached the site very slowly. Fortunately, I was able to see him again and, although he was deep among the shrubs, I trusted the power of the .06 and, fortunately, I wasn’t wrong! It was the second morning of the hunt, and I already had my mule deer and my Coues (which also turned out to be of the finest quality)!!

Fernando Ortíz con su Coues.

Later on, after the photo session, we went to pick up Carlos Soto from his blind, in order to go to the ranch for lunch. We were going by one of the many food plots that Germán has built in the ranch, when a magnificent muley came across. After asking for Germán’s OK, Carlos shot at him a couple of times, but, unfortunately, missed him. As Carlos wasn’t going to just give up like that, we came back after lunch to look for the buck and, fortunately, for Carlos, not for the mule deer, we found him again. On this occasion, Carlos made an excellent shot that stopped the muley cold on its tracks. A great buck, thick, with 10 tips.

Carlos Soto con su segundo buro.

Later that day, I experienced again one of the most agreeable sensations the ranch, and, generally speaking, the Sonoran desert have: the ranch’s house is built on top of a hill. You have a panoramic view from that spot. You can see a couple of Sierras which, according to our estimates, are more than 50 km away. In addition to the spatial magnitude, a little before dark you can “hear” an impressive silence. When you close your eyes, you realize there’s no sound at all. It’s the rare combination of an awesome landscape and absolute silence. This lasts for a few minutes, but has a really relaxing effect, the more so if you add the impressive colors of sunset in the desert. A moment later, the night brings with it the sounds of crickets, and the first stars appear in he sky announcing the appearance of a pale moon and of thousands of bright stars. Far in the distance, you can see the weak glitter of Caborca and Puerto Libertad, which reminds us why we haven’t got these special starry nights back in the city. Even if a lot of our detractors can’t believe it, we hunters also enjoy this bright starry skies a lot.

On the third day of the hunt, I got up early, as I had the intention of accompanying my brother in his quest for a good trophy. At noon, we were told that Carlos Creel had shot his mule deer. In accordance to his style, he got a good new trophy. Carlos is a hunter with an enviable patience and is also a very good shot. We’ve hunted together for more than 30 years and I’ve seen him make excellent shots. The guides confirm this for me: Carlos shot his muley without using a rest at more than 150 meters.

Carlos Creel.

No matter how hard we try to avoid it, we can feel some pressure in the air. We’ve “scanned” a great piece of the ranch with in the car. We’ve taken long walks tracking or following a buck we spotted  in the distance, but, nothing. The afternoon hours have come too fast. Suddenly, when we least imagine it, Germán sends for us. He has spotted a, seemingly, very good buck and asks for us to catch up with him. We ride the van at a great speed (maybe too fast), in order to meet with Germán. Gabriel rapidly gets off of the vehicle and takes his rifle (a beautiful Mannlicher in 30.06). I climb to the upper part of the vehicle we came in and I’m able to spot the animal with my binoculars. Although he is standing deep among the bushes, he seems enormous. His antlers – high, thick and dark – get stuck and move the branches as he walks. He’s concentrated in keeping his group of does together and doesn’t notice that Gabriel, Germán, and “the Foxes”, as they fondly call two of the guides, father and son, both named Adán Celaya, get into the bushes and go after him. We lose sight of both, prey and hunters. We can’t hear a thing. About, maybe, 15 minutes have passed and, when I’m beginning to think maybe it’s too late, I hear the sharp sound of a shot and the characteristic dull thud that follows.

After a while, we can hear some voices and we all join the search for Gabriel’s buck. There are a lot of voices, and thus, lots of instructions, but there’s also too little light left. Two small flashlights are not capable of doing the work we need.

Fortunately, someone finds a small track of blood that allows us to find a small puddle of blood, but no buck. Wisely, Germán stops the search – in order to let the buck get cold during the night – and decides we must go on the following day.

Early in the morning, the whole group – hunters, guides, drivers, helpers and, even Raúl Méndez, the ranch’s manager – participates in the search, everybody except the cook (Muñeca)  who, we insisted, must stay to go on with her “sacred work”.

Watching the ranch’s staff at work was very exciting, they know their jobs perfectly. They are very experienced and it shows. When they are searching for a trophy, and have lost the track, they find the track again, follow it for several kilometers until they find the place where the animal stopped to rest when it felt he had no more strength. They found another puddle of blood, this one was huge, so we know he has lost a lot of it. We could’ve found the buck there, but, unfortunately, other bucks that passed by “rescued” him and he left with them. The abundance of mule deer also has a negative side to it. The guides can interpret all this information as if they were reading from a book. They explain this to us – in a very detailed fashion. How the animal, before laying there to rest, was wandering with no fixed direction, as if he were dizzy.  “His belly is wounded,” they say, “that’s why he doesn’t drag any of his legs and just spills blood when he stops; his wound gets blocked up when he walks, that’s why the blood track is irregular.” Another interesting explanation is the one that accounts for the great quantity of blood he lost while he was laying down, as the blood had accumulated in his belly. Unfortunately, now that there are many other tracks covering the ones from the wounded animal, it’s going to be much more difficult to follow his track. It’s almost noon, and Gabriel decides, wisely, to leave the search in the guides’ hands and go back to Mexico City with us. We all take our trophies with us, except Gabriel, who has to go back worried about the fate of his mule deer. Germán promises to find it, but honestly, we all have our serious doubts.

This was the last week that Germán admitted hunters in his ranch. A couple of days after we left, they stopped the search. They had to wait a couple of days more in order for the “Air Force” (vultures) to indicate the exact situation of the buck. A few days of uncertainty went by and, at last, one of “the Foxes”, after scanning on horseback that part of the ranch, and, evidently, after an exceptional work, found the buck. Fortunately, the antlers were intact. The skin is completely lost, only the face has some of it left, but, in fact, it won’t be very hard to find a good taxidermist to have the trophy mounted. The buck turns out to be the best of the mule deer we hunted. I’d dare say he’s exceptional. We’ll take the measurements soon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it scored over 200 B&C points.

Our second visit to Rancho El Carbón finished with this unexpected, but “happy ending”. This contradicts the saying that “no sequel is better than the first part”. Four hunters, in two visits, have hunted nine muleys and two Coues; all of them good and some exceptional. I want to think that it’s not just a question of luck. I know our grandfather came hunting to this area a long time ago, and we were also hunting on our father’s birthday date. Maybe they sent us their good “vibes” from some faraway place in order for us, together with our good fiends, the Carlos, succeeded even in finding an exceptional trophy which we would’ve lost if it were not for those exceptional trackers.

Last, but not least, I want to congratulate Germán. The ranch is a wonderful place: the quantity and quality of the animals is really one of its kind. Food and drink are the best, and the ranch’s staff is of the utmost quality. They are always willing to help, to give you support and to share all their knowledge about the place. A lot of the nice things of the ranch also happen during the conversations in the ranch’s terrace.

Maybe the only regret we have is that Garbiel had another bottle of Vega Sicilia which wasn’t touched because we didn’t want to impose on his uncertainty. Now that his muley was found, we’ll find the optimal place and time to sit down and remember those great experiences, and we’ll talk about pitayos, choyas  and other things.

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