Sporting Life in Mexico
All parts of the Mexican country present attractions to the hunter, and in time the sportsmen of the world will find a field for sport here to rival that of bear-hunting in the Rockies or wild-beast shooting in Africa and Asia. While game is found throughout the land, certain districts are peculiarly prolific in this direction, and of these especially we shall speak.
In regard to wild-fowl hunting, there is no country that surpasses Mexico. Here are to be found in multitudes such birds as the swan, goose, brant and duck of varied species, pelican, snipe and curlew by the millions, and many others. On Lake Chapala ducks are shot by hundreds of thousands yearly, sport being here so cheap and easy that the facilities are unsurpassed. The fowls breed so plentifully that so far no decrease in their numbers is observable. What will happen if the omnivorous sportsman from the American north or from England makes his way hither is another story.
A favorite way with Mexican sportsmen of hunting ducks and geese is to stalk them from a canoe. They can easily be approached in their feeding grounds under cover of the rushes, and are so tame and numerous that a day's stalking is sure to yield a full bag. Another prolific locality is that of a large swamp region in the State of San Luis Potosi, where aquatic birds flock in vast numbers in the winter season. They have multiplied so rapidly as to be almost a nuisance and the freest liberty is open to the sportsmen. Yet little avail is made of it and the ardent lover of sport of this kind could find here an ample field for his skill.
What some speak of as a sportsman's paradise exists in the tropical belt between the Sierra foot-hills and the Gulf of Mexico. This region is the home of almost every variety of feathered game, pheasants especially being here in abundance. There are five species of these, varying greatly in size, and the sportsman has the fullest opportunity to deal with them the year through, there being no close season for these birds in Mexico.
Quail are also numerous, there being six or seven species. The American quail, or "bob-white," is to be found abundantly along the Rio Grande, where it finds suitable cover and food. A shyer bird, and one that gives the gunner more trouble, is the blue Mexican quail, which avoids the vicinity of human habitations and lurks in the sage-bush thickets of the sheep and goat ranges. Here it displays an astuteness in keeping out of range of the hunter's shot-gun that makes its hunting a matter of difficulty, and thus adds to the attraction to sportsmen. Another species, the Massena partridge, is a beautiful but rather rare bird, its abiding place being the foot-hills bordering the valley of the Rio Grande, where it is apt to seek the most solitary localities. In other parts of the country several other species are to be found, one being the California valley quail, a handsome bird abundant in Lower California.
In the tropical foot-hill region on the Pacific side is a large species of quail, a beautiful bird known here by its scientific name of perdix. It has a round, plump body and scarcely any show of tail, seeks solitary places, and when frightened rises with the whirr of the ruffled grouse, but soon comes to earth again.
Snipe shooting may be enjoyed in marshy places all over the country, a favorite locality being a game preserve held by former President Diaz, on the shores of Lake Xochimilco, which is nowhere surpassed in its facilities for snipe shooting. Other game birds are the golden plover, doves and wild pigeons, which are found in abundance and afford excellent sport. A species of pigeon is found in the Sierra Nevada closely resembling the formerly abundant wild pigeon of the United States, and another species haunts the swamp region, a shy, wary bird that gives excellent sport to the patient hunter.
There are other species of the dove family, also swans, which come annually from the Arctic region, the Canada goose, with cranes, herons, storks and other aquatic birds. The geese frequent suitable localities in multitudes, and there are numerous varieties of ducks, which in some places are slaughtered in the most unsportsmanlike manner, even dynamite being used to kill them. It is said that on the shores of Lake Xochimilco more than 1,500 ducks were killed by a single discharge of a trap battery.
Among the ducks are the favorite canvas-back, the mallard, redhead, widgeon, both blue and green-winged teal, and other varieties. Parrots and other bright-plumaged birds exist in the lowlands in great numbers, and the turkey is found throughout the tropical region and the Sierras. The species include the bronze wild turkey of Texas and an equally large but lighter-colored variety which frequents the western Sierra Madre. In Southern Mexico the Honduras turkey and some smaller species are found.
Such is a rapid survey of the game birds of Mexico. They exist by the legion, and have hitherto as a rule been very inadequately hunted, so that their numbers have scarcely begun to diminish. For the hunters of wild fowl this field promises to furnish sport for generations to come.
While the woods of Mexico thus afford such varied and abundant sport, the same may be said of the waters. The fish supply is equally abundant. Unfortunately the same reckless methods of hunting the fish exist as have been mentioned in respect to duck slaughter. As yet no effort has been made to suppress the indiscriminate killing of fish and game in the localities where this prevails, there being no game laws in Mexico except in the case of a few States, and even in these they are little observed. Such protection as the game of Mexico has hitherto had comes from the high price of ammunition and the local restrictions to hunting made by the large landholders, but some general system of protective laws is needed, preventive at least of such cases of reckless slaughter as have been mentioned.
Among the game fish attractive to sportsmen is the tarpon, the most famous habitant of the Gulf waters. Florida 'has won the reputation of having the best tarpon-fishing waters in the world, but Mexico presents superior opportunities for sport in this special field. The fishing season here extends from November 1st to April 1st. The first rod-fishers for tarpon were two Englishmen, who caught the pioneer tarpon by rod at Tampico in 1899. Dr. Howe, an enthusiastic sportsman of Mexico City, has had the credit of taking the largest tarpon ever seen, it measuring 6 feet 8 inches long and weighing 223 pounds. Since then he has taken a 6 foot 10 inch fish, while Mr. Wilson, British Vice-consul at Tampico, has the honor of landing a 7 foot 22 inch fish, but of less weight than Dr. Howe's prize.
The tarpon, while among the largest of fish taken with the rod, is also one of the gamest. In proportionate size it is as gamy as a black bass, it taking often from one to three hours to land a fish, while its struggles to escape exhaust the fisherman as well as the fish. To the fisher, however, this is an added zest, as he has the glory of having won victory as a solace for his fatigue. Dr. Howe says that the best tarpon fishing in the world is found in the Panuco River, at Tampico, and this seems borne out by results. One American fisherman, in December, 1897, caught there in eleven days fish weighing in all 3,500 pounds, and in 1900 landed in one day six tarpon of an average length of 5 feet 81 inches.
The art of tarpon fishing is said to be that of keeping a steady strain upon the line. If this is intermitted long enough to give the fish a moment's breathing spell, he is freshened for another hard battle. Tarpon fishing is hard work, despite the splendid sport which it affords, this fish having more fight to the pound than any other animal taken with hook and line.
Big game hunting in the wilds is not wanting in Mexico. In fact the opportunities there are said to be better at present than anywhere else in North America, except, probably, Alaska and Canada, and some of the United States preserves where game of this kind is rigidly protected. In Mexico no effort has been made to protect such game, and, in fact, little to protect game of any kind. But the Mexicans are far from being enthusiastic sportsmen in this line of effort, and the wild animals have been little disturbed. The American eagerness in this special field of hunting has not developed in our neighbors beyond the border. As a result the wild beasts of Mexico roam the woods and wilds in comparative safety.
The Sierra Madre mountains, from the United States border southward, harbor several species of bear, including the ferocious grizzly, and the less dangerous cinnamon and brown bears. The puma or cougar is also fairly abundant, and in the plains and foot-hills on both sides of the country exists the jaguar, or spotted tiger. Here is also found the water-haunting tapir, while the small but fierce peccary is abundantly in evidence. On the plateau the coyote is never wanting.
Animals of less perilous character include antelopes and deer, one of the latter being a very large variety of the black-tailed species. Smaller forms embrace the beaver, armadillo, rabbit, marten, otter, etc. In the waters the alligator occurs abundantly on both ocean shores, as also large turtles and tortoises. Of noxious reptiles may be named the rattlesnake, and of poisonous insects the tarantula, centipede and scorpion. Among the insect pests the mosquitoes must be taken well into account, those of Mexico being especially fierce and poisonous. Ticks are also a great detriment to comfort in hunting, as they swarm in myriads on every tree and bulb.
Such is a rapid description of the wild game of Mexico and the opportunities for shooting and fishing offered by that country. As for animal sports of different character may be mentioned those of cock-fighting and the bull-ring, both favorite forms of sport to the Mexicans of all classes. It is a mode of excitement in which the Indian is especially enthusiastic, fighting-cocks being numerous in every Indian village, where they may be seen everywhere outside the tents, tied by the leg to a stake. Victorious birds are carried from village to village, and on their prowess the Indian stands ready to stake his last centavo.
Among those of better estate game-cocks value high, a good one often selling for as much as a horse, or even more. A fairly good saddle horse may be had for sixteen dollars or less, but a game-cock of high fame may bring as much as fifty dollars. The usual price, however, is from six to twelve dollars according to their pedigree and record. These figures refer to American currency, the Mexican dollar having but half the value of the American.
The United States supplies the best of these birds, large numbers being sent to Mexico yearly, for use during the very numerous fiestas or church holidays. Excellent ones, however, are bred in the republic, Japanese hens being used. Special trainers are employed to take care of the birds, feeding, cleaning and exercising them. Each cock has its own abiding place in the house set aside for the birds, its name being inscribed above its coop. These are such Spanish words as those for "Sparrow," "Tyrant," "Cat" and various other names given by their respective owners. Here the cocks eat, drink and sleep, a cord fastening each to a ring in the floor. They are taken out daily for a run, this separately to prevent encounters, and each has also half an hour to roll and dust himself in the dirt box.
When a fight is on, a small curved knife blade, slender and sharp as a razor, and three or four inches long, is tied to the right leg of the bird, as an artificial spur, one capable of inflicting deadly wounds. The birds are now patted on the back, pinched and poked at each other, and allowed to pick at some other bird so as to excite them. Then they are put down in a corner of the cock-pit, opposite one another, and in an instant fly at each other. Frequently one of the birds falls dead or badly wounded at the first stroke and a battle is usually over in one or two minutes. Birds are seldom fought until they are two years old, and some go through five or six battles. Where the wound is clean cut, it is easily healed. Among the gentry the betting is often high, as much as five hundred dollars being wagered on a single fight. With the peons the bet, while small, is apt to reach the narrow limit of their financial resources.
The great national form of sport in Mexico is that of the bull-fight, a favorite recreation in all Spanish and Spanish-American countries. The day chosen for such a fight is Sunday—in the afternoon. In Mexico City the fights are held on the Plaza de Toros, or Bull-ring, near Chapultepec. Here is a great round building with an immense amphitheater, large enough to seat thousands of spectators. The private boxes are at the top and below these are tiers of unroofed tents. They have one sunny and one shady side, seats in the latter costing five times as much as in the former.
Bull-fighting has often been described and is conducted in Mexico much as in Spain, though the Mexicans are less easily satisfied, not being content until several horses have been killed by the enraged bulls. The horses are worthless animals, selected as fit only for killing, and ridden by the picadors as if purposely in the way of the bull, which the rider meanwhile prods and torments with his spear. Gored terribly by the bull's horns, the horses are kept afoot as long as they can stand. When they fall dead, others of the same caliber are brought in to take their places. The bull are huge horned creatures of Spanish breed, some bred locally, some imported from Spain.
It may be said for the bulls that they are not always fierce and truculent, but have their special character as regards temperament. Some of them are mild creatures, that fall before the sword of the toreador with a poor show of fighting. But others have lion-like ferocity, and charge the tormenting horsemen with terrible fury, burying their long horns deep in the side of the helpless horse. At times as many as ten horses are killed or ruinously wounded by a single bull, which becomes so enraged by the lance pricks of the picadors as to rush at and thrust its horns again and again into the prostrate victim. Sometimes the tormentors of the bull become in turn his victim, being injured or killed by a sudden rush and fierce thrust of its terrible horns.
Finally, when the bull has been excited to the utmost, and has seen its gory victims dragged one by one from the blood-stained arena, there enters the espada, the chief of the toreadors, or sword fighters. He is the lord of them all, the favorite of the people, the applauded of gallants and ladies fair. His dress is gorgeous, being adorned with spangles of silver and gold. Taking the sword from an attendant, examining and bending its blade, he lifts his richly embroidered hat to the hand-clapping audience, bows low to the judges and dedicates to death the doomed bull in these words, "Al Querido Pueblo," "To the beloved people."
Slowly the bull and the swordsman come together, eyeing each other, the bull with furious glare, the man with keen and wary eyes. When near the animal the espada extends his shining blade; the bull charges forward with maddened fury; a swift thrust; the blade has touched that fatal spot known well to the expert; the seat of life is reached; the noble antagonist, which has fought its best and noblest, now totters, sways and falls, prone in the dust. The espada with all his strength draws out the deep sunken blade, a scarlet jet of blood follows it, and the animal rolls over—conquered—dead.
Then the audience goes wild in its shrieking and cheering plaudits. Hats, canes, bills, money are flung into the arena. Nothing they possess is too good for the hero of the day. The band breaks into its liveliest tune and the audience pours into the street, while the carcass of the dead bull is hauled from the arena by a team of horses. The sun is sinking, the long shadows of evening fall upon the scene and the gory Sabbath day's sport is at an end.