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Just another day in paradise

8/21/2007

TUCUMÁN, Argentina — I have found the Holy Land of wingshooting. It's located near Tucumán in northwestern Argentina.

Accompanied by my son Mike, along with friends Bobby Harris, Ray Clark, Mark Dockery, and Jamie Osborne, our group of Georgia hunters spent what could only be described as a wingshooters' dream week, hunting ducks, pigeons and doves.

Our trip began with a nonstop overnight Delta flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires where Trek Safaris had a representative meet us at the international airport with a small shuttle bus and transferred us across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport.

We had a longer layover than normal when Aerolineas Argentinas cancelled our scheduled flight and put us on a later flight. (Airlines the world over will invent any excuse to cancel flights until they have a full load of passengers).

Finally arriving at Tucumán, the 40 degree temperatures were quite a change from mid-summer Georgia heat and humidity. We are met by Diego Guerineau of Tucumán Wingshooting and Juan Segova of Safaris and Dove Outfitters for the approximate hour drive south to the Marina del Faro Lodge on Río Hondo Lake.

Our plans call for us to shoot ducks and pigeons with Diego the first two and half days, then dove for three and half days at Gustavo Olsen's Rodeo de los Bueyes Lodge northwest of Tucumán.

Morning comes too soon after a long flight and layover, but as all hunters know, anticipation and adrenalin overcomes a great deal of fatigue.

After a quick breakfast, we drive 20 minutes on dirt roads through terrain similar to South Texas brush country, coming to a stop near a flooded field. Our bird boys have a fire built in a small clearing at the edge of the road with plastic chairs set out for us to sit in while putting on our waders.

Temps are in mid-30s and the waders furnished are not insulated, but the water temperature only makes our feet get cool, not cold.

Accompanied by two bird boys, Mike and I wade approximately 50 yards out into a flooded field to a box blind (no top). We are standing in water about a foot deep, but the blind has a hard floor, so it's secure footing.

It's not quite daylight, but we can already hear the whistle of wings over us (is there a more magical moment in a duck hunter's life?)

Finally, it's light enough to shoot, and a flock of 8-10 lesser pintails swings over us, then banks out in front before flying over the decoys. Typical of duck hunters, we both shoot at the first bird, which gets thoroughly killed, then drop one each as the ducks climb out.

We are congratulating each other when my bird boy touches my shoulder, indicating three more ducks are trying to do the same thing. I'm fumbling around trying to get reloaded when these ducks whiz over the decoys. Fortunately, they give us another chance by coming back for another look.

This time it was easy. Mike crumples the first bird, I get the second, and we double up on the last bird climbing out. At this point, I'm thinking the bird boys are probably impressed by the fine shooting of the gringos they are guiding this morning. If they were impressed, we changed all that a few minutes later, as two ducks sailed nonchalantly across the decoys, leaving unscathed despite fives loads of duck shot whizzing around them.

In the next hour, we would have flocks of different varieties: teal, rosy bill pochards (similar to our mallard) and lesser pintails, all circling and decoying, almost nonstop.

Like most duck hunters, we did some world-class shooting, and some world-class missing. It was too soon that our bird boy informed us we could kill one more bird each to reach our 25-bird limit. That took about five minutes (remember, this is Argentina) and our hunt for the morning was over.

Duck hunting near Tucumán is different from our duck hunting in several ways, one difference being there aren't many ducks treading high overhead. Instead, the ducks tend to fly up and down the flooded fields/marsh along the edge of the lake at medium altitudes.

The ducks are not as wary, probably because they haven't been shot at all along their migration route as ducks in the U.S. have. These marshes and fields stretch for miles along the lake and as far I could determine, the six of us were the only ones duck hunting in the entire province.

You can get by with a chest-high box blind and no top as long as you duck down and stay still. Try that in Arkansas, Mississippi or Louisiana in a flooded open field, and you might not ever kill a duck.

The bird boys and guides use a Yentzen duck call (just like my 40-year-old call) but make a continuous purring sound with it. I did haul mine out and called a few times, but the ducks didn't pay much attention one way or another (apparently my duck call ain't bilingual either).

The most noticeable difference was that we were shooting ducks with lead shot. I was using a 20-gauge Beretta Urika automatic with high brass 5s, and with an improved modified choke, which would kill ducks cleanly out to 50-60 yards.

Mike was shooting a 12-gauge Weatherby over-and-under, and was killing them equally clean, maybe even better.

As an old duck hunter, I remember the days of lead shot, when ducks fell dead instead of fluttering down or flying away wounded (and getting away). Seeing these ducks fall cleanly (and with few cripples), we reaffirmed my belief that steel shot is the worst thing we have ever done — and continue to do — to our duck population.

Our bird boys gathered up the ducks while we waded back to the fire and got out of our waders. Our bag included yellow billed and white faced pintails, silver teal — a particularly beautiful bird — Brazilian and greenwing teal, and rosy bill pochards, the latter being about same size as mallards.

Back to the lodge and a much-deserved nap before lunch. We are staying at the Marina del Faro lodge, a beautiful and modern vacation resort located on the shores
of Río Hondo Lake, in small wing off the main lodge, with our rooms grouped together.
At 1 p.m., we loaded up and headed out for a pigeon hunt, driving south from the lake about 30 minutes on a paved road before turning off into the brush on a dirt road, heading toward a waterhole.

The land is very similar to the brush country in southern Texas: small hills, rocky, lot of cactus and brush — dry because of the recent drought in Argentina. They put us out two to a brush blind around a small waterhole about a half-acre in size.

Visualizing barnyard pigeons, I'd been somewhat skeptical about pigeon hunting. It took about two wild pigeons diving into that waterhole with a 15-20 mph wind to educate me.

The limit is 50, and I finally filled mine over the next two hours and eight boxes of shells. It made me gain a whole new respect for pigeon hunting.

Of amusing note were the semi-wild pigs in the area. A couple of brave ones would dash out of the brush trying to grab the dead pigeons as they fell near the waterhole. As the pigs would dash out, so would one of the bird boys, armed with a stick, giving them a couple of whacks to run them off.

The pigs were successful in grabbing a few pigeons; once they grabbed one, they didn't turn loose, either. We kidded Diego that being cooked over wooden coals after being pigeon-fed was why Argentine sausage tasted so great.

The next morning, our duck hunt was a repeat of the previous days in a different flooded field — but we learned to pace ourselves, making the hunt last a little longer. I didn't time it, but would estimate we never went over five minutes without shooting or having ducks working the decoys. Afterward it was back to the lodge for a short siesta before the asada (Argentine Spanish for barbeque or cooking outdoors).

The food in Argentina may be better than the hunting — certainly it's at least equal. They cook almost everything over wood coals, and today it was steak, sausage, duck breast and peppers shish kebab-style, along with an onions/peppers/vegetable dish elegantly served outdoors with a white table cloth at edge of the lake.

(In my 50-plus years of duck hunting, I've never eaten this good at a duck camp.)

Shortly after lunch, we head south again for more pigeon shooting at a different waterhole. We split the group and go to different waterholes since they are smaller, which was a blessing, because the whole group didn't get to witness my comeuppance as a wingshooter.

The wind had increased to at least 20-30 mph. I did manage 40 pigeons, but had I not wised up and started shooting at them after they turned upwind, I might still be there trying to fill out my limit.

Third morning was just another morning in duck hunting paradise. Ducks almost continually overhead, working the decoys. A little less than two hours and we've reached our limit. I'm convinced whoever coined the term "time flies when you're having fun" clearly must have done so after an Argentine duck hunt.

We load up back at the lodge, and head north to dove hunt next three days. As we travel north, the country transitions from semiarid brush to vast acreages of corn and wheat, much like Nebraska or Kansas. A little over an hour later, we pull off the road northeast of Tucumán to a ranch for our next afternoon of hunting.

Most of the ranchers in this area live in the city of Tucumán, but have very nice guest houses with outdoor pavilions complete with cooking areas, which is where we eat our noon meal: more great sausage,beef and chicken cooked over wood coals.

After a brief digestive rest consisting of a short siesta in a hammock, we load up and are put out about 75 yards apart along a dirt road near a wooded roosting area. Our bird boys have hacked us out an open area in the low trees a few yards off the road, and the doves are streaming nonstop 30-60 yards overhead. The shooting is challenging because the birds are flying fast, and you've got a short distance to track the bird and shoot.

Two and half hours later, I've shot 500 times and killed 365 doves (an average of 73 percent), which I thought was pretty good until we compared notes on the bus ride back to the lodge — most of the guys had killed more doves.

(I do take a little comfort in knowing that even after having 67 birthdays, a dove is not completely safe flying over me.)

It's a short ride back to Rodeo de los Bueyes lodge, and being our third year in a row to return, we are eager to renew acquaintances with Gustavo, Maria and her staff.
Sure enough, they have my pitcher of iced tea and a hug waiting for me.

We think there is no better place on this earth to hunt doves from than this little lodge — nor people to hunt with — than you'll find nestled in this valley at the edge of the Andes.

The next morning we hunt a huge harvested corn field. I asked if Mike and I could hunt together, so they dropped us off under a large solitary tree in the middle of the field, and our bird boy quickly constructed a brush blind with his machete to break up our outline.

It's a clear morning, high blue skies and a cool breeze, with temperatures likely in mid 40s. The sun starts coming up, and I point out to Mike a dark smudge on the horizon which I knew were doves approaching. In just a few minutes that smudge transforms into hundreds of thousands of doves circling and landing in the field.

Describing the numbers or spectacle of these birds is like trying to put into words precisely how awesome the view is of the Grand Canyon — neither words nor a camera can adequately capture the sight.

The prior afternoon's hunt had taken the edge off our eagerness to shoot, so we shoot at a much more leisurely pace, leaving plenty of time to compliment (or needle) each other about our shooting, plus frequent breaks to video and photos.

The next two afternoons are a repeat of the previous day, shooting secondary roosts — Gustavo never shoots the birds' primary roost — which were usually harvested corn fields in the mornings.

Morning hunts typically last three to four hours, and afternoon shooting is about two and a half hours. There are always birds overhead, so how much you care to shoot is strictly up to you.

Gustavo has a fine arsenal of guns for rent at a nominal charge, so we stopped carrying our guns into Argentina a couple of years ago — it just makes going through customs much easier.

For dove shooting,I shot a Beretta Silver Pigeon 20-gauge over-and-under, as did my son, and most of remainder of our group shot either Beretta or Bennelli 20-gauge automatics. Typically I shoot a case of shells in the morning and another case in the afternoon, but the younger guys often shoot more.

The families who live and work on these ranches welcome the birds as table fare, so none are wasted.

This is the fifth year in a row that Bobby, Ray and I have hunted dove in South America — and last three years have been with Gustavo at Rodeo de los Bueyes. We had heard of the great duck hunting in Argentina, so last year we asked Gustavo about the possibility of hunting ducks in this same general vicinity. He assured us he could put a trip together in cooperation with Diego Guerineau of Tucumán Wingshooting that we would thoroughly enjoy. Our confidence in Gustavo and his assistant Juan Segova was rewarded with the best wingshooting week one could ever hope for.

And our reservations are already made for next year.

NOTE: While I receive no compensation or discounts in any form (past, current or future) from Gustavo, Diego or Trek Safaris, I will, however, expect my pitcher of iced tea and hug upon arrival next July.