I warily skirted around the border crossing checkpoint, the clock on the dash displayed that I still had two and a half hours before sunrise. The headlights found the only relief in a tightly woven pattern of thick steel wire fence towering over the desert floor stretching as far as I could make out in either direction. I anticipated the blue and red flashing lights of a border patrol agent as I nervously tapped the steering wheel. The truck crept through the gate and made wide berth past the small SUV stationed just beyond. In a final attempt at retaining any innocence I may still have possessed, I rolled my window down and inquired into the darkness.
“Hi, sir? Good morning. I’m here to hunt ducks?”
To my relief, the border patrol agent stuck his arm out of his window, waving me off and gesturing for me to make my way under the bridge. A bridge across which thousands of people internationally traversed each day. I drove on top of the levee even as my truck communicated to me that it hadn’t been graded since Pancho Villa himself had crossed this very same tract. After a while and after having passed four different border agents, my nerves were calming and my confidence in the expedition began to simmer.
I pulled off of the high levee bank road and parked my truck just beyond the sign that had finally affirmed that I was indeed able to hunt there. I donned my waders, grabbed my Browning and shouldered my bag of garage sale decoys—satisfied to hunt, at least today at the very beginning of the huntable zone. I made my way south across the sandy brush covered levee floor. The outline of what would be the great Rio Grande that I had read about in textbooks, not sixty yards ahead.
I slid my way down the bank and set my gear in a neat pile before grabbing a stick to prove the depth of the river. I picked my way across the slow but powerful current and in the gaining light the Rio Grande revealed itself. It was not so much Grande, nor Rio. It was in that particular section, about ten to twenty yards wide and anywhere from shin high to hip deep. I nestled into the bank and pulled tumbleweeds around myself for concealment. The decoys danced in the current as other hunting parties barrelled down the levee road and border agents methodically patrolled behind. A group of blue wing teal buzzed past me, NAP-of-the-earth and river bank high—I never had a chance.
Over the course of the next three years I spent many mornings in a similar fashion. The crew that hunts the Rio Grande near El Paso are a dedicated lot and can be grouped into two categories: those that are willing to arrive in the early hours and secure the best spots along the banks—this is often the wider portions of the river or where the reeds grow thick along the bank— and those that usually arrive at the gate an hour or so after shooting time. This probably inspires you to think less of them, if so it’s possible that you’ve never hunted this particular section of the Rio Grande. On most mornings this latter lot is a welcome sight. On the Rio, the action begins to stagnate after the first hour as the birds begin setting down where they aren’t getting shot at. The breakfast filled, well rested group of hunters begin the jump shooting and the birds take flight once again.
On one particular blue bird hunt, I had set up in a homemade PVC framed blind atop the bank. The morning action had settled down and I still had a couple of ducks left for my bag limit, so I waited it out. My curiosity, as it often does got the better of me and I decided to take a walk down the bank. This entailed walking back up to the levee road and paralleling the river for about a hundred yards before making a perpendicular stalk toward the river. Upon my second attempt at the river, a Mexican Duck and of all things, a Shoveler, flushed from their loafing waters. I trained my barrell and swung through as the birds approached the far bank—a twenty and thirty yard shot respectively. The birds’ momentums and my misunderstanding of flight path physics resulted in the close cousin of the mallard and then the spoonie to both fall with a thump on sovereign Mexican dirt. My heart sank and I contemplated a quick southern raid into the host nation of my downed birds in order to recover them. It was in this moment that I heard the hooves of a horse and the whistle of a Vaquero, or Mexican cowboy. He pulled on his reigns, his horse coming to a quick halt spewing sand and dust in front of him as he shored up across the bank from my location. We made eye contact.
“Pato?” The Vaquero inquired in his native tongue as to the species of my prey.
“Si, uhhh… por favor?” I half guessed, half responded.
The Vaquero dismounted, searched for a moment and emerged from the brush holding the two ducks. He packed one away into his saddle pack and tossed the other to me. Fortunately enough, the Vaquero either preferred the taste of Shovelers or had limited knowledge in the subject matter.
When my wife and I moved to El Paso, many people offered apologies or a sincere good luck with how dangerous of an area it was. Though it is true that just across the border the city of Juarez struggles with crime and Cartel activity—El Paso is a relatively safe border town thriving with commerce and inviting people. During our time there, my wife and I became enamored with the local culture, food and the people. The Mexican food there is predictably awesome and if you’re ever in town you must stop by KiKi’s (just ask a local and they’ll point you in the right direction). We fell in love with places like Las Cruces, and the mountain and skiing town of Ruidoso, the Lincoln National Forest and the Mesilla Valley wine country. When you picture El Paso and the Chihuahuan Desert it doesn’t conjure scenes of lush and fertile farmland and vineyards with several mountain ranges as the backdrop, but that is indeed the reality. However, there is another side to that reality.
To understand the current state of the watersheds in the Chihuahuan Desert, I think it is acceptable to delve into the deep history of the region and work our way forward. During the Paleozoic and much of the Mesozoic eras the entire region went through a cycle of existence as either a shallow ocean or lush marshland. Eventually, the mountains emerged and the entire area was raised to first, a large lake and then, a sandy desert environment traced with riparian zones. In its wake, this uplift created large fertile wetlands known as bosques and the historic Rio Grande. Many of these bosques exist to this day, arguably the most popular and important being the Bosque Del Apache which is now a National Wildlife Refuge. These Bosques, the riparian zones associated with the Rio Grande in addition to the playas or small seasonal ponds that dot the desert were, and still are, critical wintering habitat for millions of waterfowl each year.
The short order version of the truth is this. The Chihuahuan Desert, and Greater El Paso area which includes Juarez to the south and Alamogordo and Las Cruces to the north in New Mexico, is home to over three million people. In order to support this amount of life, associated commerce, agriculture and international water usage treaties, the Rio Grande was dammed to the north at Elephant Butte. The Elephant Butte Dam and Reservoir is situated near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico about one hundred miles to the north of El Paso. This damming which supports the water consumption requirements of the area has had a lasting impact on wetlands and riparian zones below it.
“In arid places like the Chihuahuan Desert, water availability is the critical element. We work with state and federal agencies to enhance public lands for waterfowl and those who pursue them. In particular, we have a burgeoning partnership with New Mexico Game and Fish Department as they seek to increase the quality and quantity of wetland habitat and waterfowl hunting opportunities in their state,” said DU Director of Conservation Programs Dr. Todd Merendino. The key take-away being that water availability in this region is the main problem local and national conservation efforts face.
Without increased awareness and conservation efforts in the area, I’m afraid as the human encroachment and water requirements become greater we will simply let this gem of desert waterfowl habitat and hunting opportunity slip into the past. The conduit of this loss comes in the form of environmentally unsound political agendas surrounding border protection and limited knowledge, and misconceptions by the masses of the resource in jeopardy. Southern states and wintering habitat are often second thought when it comes to conservation discussions amongst the public, while we focus more on breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole region and wintering habitat in the Southern Plains Region. I struggled with writing this piece as I felt the need to protect my sacred little duck paradise with limited hunting pressure from more. In the end, I felt it necessary to raise awareness and to trust my experiences with you—knowing that you would do the right thing. Visit, spend money, respectfully utilize the resource, investigate and unpack your own feelings regarding current political rhetoric and add your voice to the quiet murmur of pleas for increased conservation and expanded access for public hunting opportunity.