My solo journey to Joshua Creek Ranch in Texas Hill Country was more reflective — the personal quest of a wing and clays shooter looking to amp up his games through shooting and quiet contemplation.
The Hill Country marked by San Antonio and Austin is a renowned oasis of cedar-scrub bluffs and Texas live oaks as resilient as the homegrown cowboys. But Joe and Ann Kercheville, owners of Joshua Creek Ranch, have spent the last quarter century cultivating the 1,200-acre spread into a pallet of habitats for upland birds, big-rack Axis deer and rainbow trout. Instead of paint brushes, the Kerchivelles used bulldozers and rototillers. The breezes through the switchgrass whispered secrets that inspired you to believe salvation could be found here. And that’s why I returned.
Amid the sweeping natural beauty, fields of grasses, milo, redtop and haygrazer provided cover for pheasant, grouse and chukar to the extent that the Beretta Trident Program awarded Joshua Creek Ranch two Tridents of a possible three for Upland Birds. The fragrances in the air and marches through the fields and cultivated rows in pursuit of birds would rejuvenate my body — the explosive flushes of game birds sharpening my reflexes.
Between upland hunts, I planned to grab a cart parked by the Pro Shop and drive into the hills for sporting clays. Days before, I had taken a lesson with champion shooter, Anthony Matarese, Jr., at his family’s M&M Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays in Pennsville, Township, New Jersey. Anthony simplifies sporting clays into bite-size moves that are easy to remember and execute.
Naturally, you have to practice them. The Kerchevilles have invested heavily in the sporting clays course of late, expanding the footprint and adding automated controllers. Using the delay function on the trap-machine controllers, I could shoot alone immersed in Anthony’s instructions; think the Zen of sporting clays.
The sensibility of a retreat also played out in my lodging at Joshua Creek Ranch. The Patio Suite was sequestered under a Texas live oak. Glass sliders presented vistas of the meadows and river with game birds cutting across low and fast. A sleek partition featuring a desk and closet separated the bedroom from living room, which was furnished in the fashion of an African safari abounding with plains-game hides — the vaulted ceiling evocative of a tent on the Serengeti. Crystal decanters with top-shelf vodka and single-malt scotch would accompany cigars savored on the back porch in the pastoral tranquility of evening.
Chefs Kay Read and Michael Davis displayed remarkable originality with the meals served in the lodge dining room and on the patio. Maybe my partiality for food from their native Louisiana prompted a bias, but the deep flavors and long finishes of their recipes for Texas fare and on-site game left a lasting impression inescapably Southern. Their sauces, seasonings and home-made desserts satiated with homey comfort after the rigors of the field.
More ephemeral, though, Providence smiled down by delivering gifted watercolorist Ric Dentinger who wanted to photograph the guides’ dogs. He had been busy with a series of bird-dog paintings and brought a camera to capture rare moments of inspired action for his highly acclaimed work. A San Antonio artist influenced by Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent, his paintings encompass a broad spectrum of subjects. Still, his bird-dog series has won widespread admiration as evident by the long list of commissions in the queue and avid collectors, including Joe Kerchivelle.
The artist, the birds and the sporting clays — a trinity of sorts — would combine to hopefully enhance my shooting skills both mentally and mechanically.
The first night started auspiciously in the hacienda-style dining room with a dinner of Axis Cherry Chipotle — a venison steak harvested on the ranch topped with a sweet and spicy cherry chipotle sauce. It was accompanied by pecan wild rice and grilled vegetables plus red wine.
The next morning, quail coveys flushed big — maybe 30 to 40 birds in all — as guide Brad Buell and me negotiated the fields and rows. The morning bag consisted of six quail, three chukar and two pheasants. Longer shots were presented in the prevailing winds as the quick birds cut their wings and buzzed the crops — not a place for gimme shots. Most demanded upland skills of the highest order and forced me to reach deep inside for focus, concentration and craft. We took a couple of breaks in the shade of Texas live oaks. Sitting in the folding chairs drinking bottled water, I replayed missed shots over in my head, recalling my reactions, gun mounts, foot placement and any other factor that could contribute to a lost bird. Ultimately, I concluded that a more deliberate response would far outweigh various poke-and-hope shots hardwired into my temperament. I resolved to improve after lunch.
On the patio, beneath an autumn sun, I sat at a table and savored pheasant enchiladas with all the fixin’s and the hearty tortilla soup. If you’re a key-lime pie lover like me (my wife and I had spent our honeymoon in Key West), prepare to be wowed by the buoyant texture and sweet/tart interplay under the dollop of fresh whipped cream. Several cups of coffee later Brad and I moved out again in his Chevy SUV to conquer Joshua Creek’s birds.
He had selected an entirely new expanse with tall grasses shimmering in the wind. Temperatures hovered in the 70s. Long shots abounded, with the exception of a few pheasant roosters that launched several feet away. The quail and chukar, in particular, remained challenging in the chin-high vegetation. The birds were screamers, with one lightning shot after another. As the sun declined, we called it a day with a bag similar to the morning’s take.
After a dinner on the patio that started with stuffed mushrooms, then an entrée of Trout Aldo (sautéed and over fettucini with a light tomato sauce), white wine followed by Bailey’s Irish Cream Tiramisu for dessert, I ambled back to the Patio Suite for a cigar and scotch under the stars. Relaxed, I was visualizing the day’s successful shots — as many shotgunning coaches advise — imprinting them onto my subconscious for the next morning.
The day started with excellent news. Joseph Kercheville, the son of Ann and Joe, would be my guide for the day. Joseph just about grew up on the property. As Ann had said in a previous story about Joshua Creek Ranch “The culture of Joshua Creek, of our sons, it all grew up here. They learned early on that we are a service company. The TV had to be tuned to what the guests enjoyed, not what two little boys would enjoy. They grew up with a mentality of guests first.”
With Joseph guiding, I made the best shots of the trip. We started in an area with more trees and lower grass than previously, offering unobstructed views that allowed long, fast crossing shots. The biggest problem was double-checking the dogs — flashing my eyes for a second away from the speedy game birds to make sure they were a safe height, especially if a dog jumped. More shots could have been taken, but I hesitated if a dog appeared in jeopardy.
Still, gun mounts were fast and anchored under the cheek bone. The gun swing moved as though my waist operated on ball bearings. Feet were planted shoulder-width apart. I saw the point of impact with utmost clarity and confidence. A few pheasants stayed low, quartering away as they gained speed: bang, bang, more meat for the pot. The morning tally reached 10 quail and three pheasants. Did the visualization exercises from the night before really work? The feeling was certainly different that morning — even on missed birds. Some people call it the groove, others the zone; regardless, I was there.
Joseph and I pulled up to the lodge among the oil guys — their camaraderie running high as the guides unloaded crates full of game birds shot by the group. It was a good day for everyone.
Lunch arrived as a loaded question: What’s a piroskis? Like an empanada (but bearing the name of the local German population), the homemade pastry was loaded with ground beef and venison, green chilies, cabbage and pepperjack cheese. Complemented by house-made tortilla chips with chipotle sauce, and the apple cake with caramel icing at the end, the feast was a cross-cultural extravaganza.
I spent the afternoon with Joseph hunting birds, making it an amiable day of successful shooting — wrapping it up as a job well-done.
After a dinner of Pheasant Royal (think Chicken Cordon Bleu) followed by succulent Kahlua pecan pie, I embarked the following morning on the final bird hunt of the trip with Brad serving as guide. By now, I was eager to hit the sporting clays course to practice the lesson from Anthony Mataresse, Jr.
Anthony’s impressive career victories in sporting clays and FITSAC include 16-time All American. Initially coached by Dan Carlisle, Anthony has developed the “Dynamic” approach to sporting clays, which is a base technique with a few core principles tailored to individual shooters. The most critical of his principles is visual clarity of the target; shoot the target where you see it clearest. Therefore, you need to determine an approach that lets you shoot the target where you see it best.
Other principles concentrate on correcting excessive gun speed, angle of target presentation and related gun mount. Yes, he recommends you pre-mount depending on the angle, although suggests some form of pull–away as your primary approach and maintained leads only when necessary.
Just about every culture has a parable about a seeker going to the mount in search of spiritual completion. Without sounding heavy-handed, that’s sort of how I felt driving the cart up to the sporting clays course at Joshua Creek Ranch. Many of the stations present spectacular vistas of Hill Country. From others, the horizon line undulates with the rolling contours of bare land. The prevailing ambiance is tranquility — a serene landscape conducive to noble thoughts.
The simplicity of Anthony’s technique is that it’s more a set of rules than a system. If the target does this, you do that. He doesn’t impose a strict regimen that could run entirely counter to your established way of shooting. Analyze the target, follow his recommendations and then look at the target as hard as possible.
Stepping into a station made from bark-covered branches, the atmosphere invites you to sort out things, remember what’s necessary before pulling the target. The white noise of our life is subdued. Anthony’s tips logically fall into place. My score is on the rise. Targets already appear hit before the shot stream intercepts them.
Next time I visit, my buddies are invited for a raucous good time of wing, clays and the extracurriculars. But every once in a while, it’s nice to get away on your own for a luxurious few days of doing what we love.