Some dozen guns had arrived at the field here on the edge of San Antonio, settling down until evening would deliver the high-flying acrobats from the west. Some of us clustered to chitchat, a few preferred solitude, along a perimeter corner on the 175 acres cleared for unobstructed panoramic shots — save for the lone shade tree mid-field that concealed three hunters and their pick-up trucks. The declining sun marked the imminent roost migration expected at around 4 o`clock and continuing a few hours until we finally returned to Joshua Creek Ranch for a dinner of medium-rare axis venison steaks with peppercorn sauce.
My visit to Joshua Creek Ranch had actually started 24 hours earlier when the Southwest flight landed. I hopped on a shuttle bus, and soon behind the wheel of a rental SUV, I punched into the GPS a side trip to the new headquarters of Zoli USA on Highway 281 in Bulverde, Texas.
Norbert Haussmann, past president of Blaser USA and 20-year Krieghoff veteran, recently assumed leadership of a new joint venture with Antonio Zoli of Brescia Italy called Zoli USA. (see Shotgun Life story). Although Zoli had established deep roots in America for its shotguns and rifles, the effort had been led by marketing guru Steven Lamboy, who is now President of Negrini International Case Co. The new arrangement between Mr. Haussmann and Zoli, however, designated Zoli USA something akin to a subsidiary for a bigger pipeline of cash and greater influence going forward.
Expectations run high for Mr. Haussmann. His 4½ year tenure at Blaser catapulted the premium German shotgun and rifle manufacturer into a success story largely based on tournament wins, innovative engineering and value. Now he was ready to execute a similar strategy with Zoli USA to spur shotgun sales.
Geographically, Mr. Haussmann hasn’t strayed far from Blaser’s San Antonio facilities. Leaving the airport, you navigate the congested suburbs of Highway 281 that eventually dissipate into a rolling rural terrain. Turn right into a steep driveway, through security gates and a tranquil, leafy atmosphere unfolds. Zig-zag through the trees and you’ll see the barn-like building among others in the shady grove. Buzz the front door to discover a top-floor loft that houses offices and a conference room. The inventory and gunsmith’s bench are downstairs where we sifted through the boxed shotguns, opting for the 20-gauge Zoli Expedition EL.
A sunset infused with pastels graced Hill Country as I drove west on Texas 46, which eventually intersected with the storybook town of Boerne. In the mid-1800s, Boerne’s European citizens embraced utopian principles on the arts, sciences and human rights. Today, Boerne has preserved its historic Western architecture while presenting fashionable shops, epicurean restaurants and family attractions.
Pass through Boerne and soon a snaky lane dips to cross a creek and on the other side of the narrow bridge rises to the entrance of Joshua Creek Ranch. Guests are received by an expansive up-lit oak tree and hacienda-inspired Cypress Lodge. Step outside and you hear acorns roll down metal roofs and fall to the ground — tuning your mindset to the natural harmony of Joshua Creek Ranch. The evening lights and earthy aromatics punctuate the trip with an airy, soothing wash.
I unpacked in the Patio Suite — a sumptuous bungalow with Safari decor. A rear deck overlooked the creek and fields. An ancient oak conveyed the feeling you inhabited a tree house.
In the dining room, a big party of go-getter real-estate executives bandied about stories of business and hunting — their revelry enduring into the night around a blazing fire pit. Over the next 48 hours I’d enjoy their big-hearted Texas cordiality as we hunted birds together and ate under the same roof.
Come morning, the Joshua Creek Ranch sporting clays course provided the occasion to evaluate Zoli’s 20-gauge Expedition EL before hunting doves and pheasants. Reaching the course involves driving a sporting clays cart up a rocky trail to a necklace of 20 stations integrated into the foothills — the progression revealing spectacular views of rich valleys and highland meadows.
Italian gunmaker Zoli isn’t prominent on the shelves of many dealers, and that’s unfortunate. With prices starting at around $4,200, Zoli shotguns are a relative value in workmanship and performance for field, sporting and trap. Zoli wins tournaments largely outside the U.S., with notable victories here by sporting clays champ Brad Kidd, Jr. and Ashley Hafley in FITASC. Most recently, at the World FITASC Sporting Championship 2013 held in Spain, Zoli shooters walked away with nine medals.
The Expedition EL showed Zoli’s competition pedigree in a field gun.
Zoli’s Boss action contributes to greater reliability and slightly lower profile. A central locking bite is located directly under the ejectors rather than the underside of the monoblock, facilitating a shallow action. Wide indentations underneath the barrels accept curved slabs machined into the sides of the receiver, again shifting the locking points to the receiver walls while also delivering a secure lock-up. While the Boss action is appreciated for resilience, the lower profile contributes to superior handling and better sight pictures.
A drop-out trigger group also distinguishes Zoli for the price. The Expedition EL I used at Joshua Creek Ranch featured a drop-out, inertia trigger finished with titanium nitrite impervious to rust and corrosion. The shotgun’s French gray receiver was highlighted with gold game birds surrounded by high-quality, full-coverage engraving. The Prince of Wales grip and field forend were shaped from hand-oiled fancy Turkish walnut. The checkered butt was a nice touch. Seamless wood-to-metal fit would enhance pride of ownership. This particular Expedition EL carried a price of $5,640.
Since the Joshua Creek sporting clays stations don’t use man-made platforms, you’re shooting from rough ground akin to actual game hunting. In part, that’s because owner Joe Kercheville is an avid bird hunter who sets extremely high standards for authenticity in the sporting clays course. Combined with targets specifically configured to simulate upland scenarios, the clays of Joshua Creek Ranch can easily outwit a mediocre shotgun. Better yet, I used the solo delay on the automated controllers to ratchet-up the challenge a bit.
I fitted the 28-inch barrels with improved cylinder and light modified screw-in chokes. Weighing about 6¼ pounds, the Zoli Expedition EL proved vividly fast, complemented by neutral control across a range of presentations. For its weight, the Expedition EL felt substantial (as an attribute of quality) and overall it demonstrated excellent field dynamics.
Zoli’s Expedition EL shot flat —cutting precious seconds typically associated with floating a target that would quickly appear from behind a full tree or launched with the thrust of an F-15 leaving the flight deck. Zoli’s competition-grade trigger also helped in hammering clays.
After finishing my six boxes of shells, I decided to take a slow ride around the course rather than hurry back down the hill for lunch. The vistas deserved easygoing admiration as I paused along the way to admire the scenery.
For lunch on the patio, Chef Kay Read served piroskis. Never heard of piroskis? They’re a traditional German dish harking back to the founding of Boerne, but Chef Read perfected a Tex-Mex twist on the hand-made beef pies by adding green chilis and pepperjack cheese to the customary cabbage and onion filling. And for dessert, she just might prepare the best key-lime pie in Texas.
Fortified, we climbed into the van for the 40-minute drive west to the dove field. Upon arrival, gear was unloaded and spread of snacks and beverages became available. We settled in to wait.
The doves appeared on schedule. Mostly flocks of whitewings. Hundreds appeared in spurts, flying high, straight and fast but occasionally flaring away from us. A pair of whitewings that zoomed in low was taken as a double with a single, impressive round. Shooting into the wind, a few of the real-estate guys made spectacular shots, inspiring hoots and hollers that got everyone smiling. At about 7:30, we finally conceded that the evening migration ended, and returned to Joshua Creek Ranch for our superb venison dinner.
Afterwards, I crossed the expansive limestone patio to the bungalow, poured a scotch from the decanter and fired up a cigar on the deck. The sky was charged with stars. Water sounds rose from the adjacent creek below. My smoke diffused into the restful night.
As a Beretta Trident Lodge, the list of activities at Joshua Creek Ranch includes wingshooting as well as hunts for axis deer and turkey in addition to clays shooting. You can fly fish, kayak and go tubing down the river. The most dramatic, though, are Joshua Creek Ranch’s driven continental pheasant shoots.
We participated in three drives on the Joshua Creek Ranch property under a brilliant, Texas sky. In the first, a creek separated the pegs from the wooded cliff beyond where the pheasants burst forth. The plump birds bolted into view, often quartering toward the meadow behind us with wings cut, soaring further out of range. Other pheasants traveled directly overhead, dropping either into the water or with a deadly thud as dogs criss-crossed full throttle in search of the fallen.
That drive depleted, we caravanned to an expansive pasture. Breakfast sandwiches, pastries and coffee were laid out, the sun deliciously warm as it ascended toward afternoon. We trekked about 40 yards toward a tree-lined bluff. Unless the pheasants cooperated by flying directly at us, the shots would be long. A whistle blew and we impatiently eyeballed the escarpment. A bulk offensive of pheasants ensued from the timbers to the extent of releasing a near-overwhelming volume of birds —shooters whirling around to down the fast-moving getaways.
Our last venue of the day was a smaller theater, a narrow ravine. This time, the appointed hilltop was closer, returning easier shots as the pheasants sprinted to the other embankment. The guns made easy work of them, as though reparation for the previous drive.
Don’t we all appreciate how especially enjoyable an outdoor ranch lunch tastes after a morning of spirited wingshooting? The beautiful birds are fresh in our mind, grand shots still glowing in our memories as body and soul gradually succumb to a pleasing weariness.