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Dove hunters' wish list

9/9/2008

Most of us have a wish list of things we would like to do in our lifetime. If you are a dove hunter, hunting in Argentina is likely on that list.

I'm fortunate, as I've been able to go for the past six years.

During that time, Luke Smith, also an avid dove hunter, would always ask about our trip and comment, "I'm going with you guys one of these days."

Smith underwent a serious bout with cancer last year, and when I called to check on him this spring, he told me he was going this year and wanted to take his 10-year-old son, Alex.

He later confided taking Alex dove hunting in Argentina had been at the top of his wish list, and his recent illness had made him very aware of the importance of that list.

There were seven of us on this trip to Tucumán in northwest Argentina. We have hunted there the past three years with Gustavo Olsen at his lodge, about 30 minutes outside Tucumán.


Day One is all about the travel.

As usual, Ray Clark comes by to pick me up 30 minutes earlier than agreed upon, but I'm ready. We head west to Sasser, Ga., for Smith and Alex.

Alex is a pretty cool little guy and I can see the excitement in his eyes when he tells me this will be his first trip in a big jet.

Clark's Town Car, with its cavernous trunk, swallows up our luggage and we head to Atlanta, where we will meet Bobby Harris, Harry Malcom and his nephew, John Malcom, at the airport.

We opted a few years ago not to carry our own guns and instead rent from Gustavo's arsenal of Berrettas and Bennellis (autos and over/unders). It makes going through customs and security much quicker, but it still takes about an hour to check your baggage with Delta and get through customs and security.

We all meet up near the gate for our flight, and, after a quick snack and drink, it's time to board. This year, we chose to take a midweek flight, in hopes the plane wouldn't be as full. (When taking an overnight flight, having an empty seat next to you makes sleeping a lot easier.)

We get lucky, as the plane is about two-thirds full, allowing us move around and find an empty seat.

The smart ones (not me) grab a middle aisle seat, where they can stretch out across three seats. About an hour after take-off, they serve a typical airlines meal, which I am convinced was designed to please an elderly ladies' garden club concerned about their cholesterol intake, and is why we always eat something prior to the flight.

Around midnight, the lights dim and I try to get some sleep ... with only limited success. Usually I can take an Ambien and sleep 4 to 5 hours.

This year, my pharmacist substituted a generic brand, on orders from the insurance company, and it doesn't work; I doze a little but never really go to sleep. I pay the price for this the next day.


Day Two: Around 6:30 a.m., the plane descends through fog and overcast skies into Buenos Aires. I finally (and nervously) see the runway around the same time the plane touches down.

Trek Safaris, through whom we book our hunt, has a guide to lead us through customs and accompany us on a shuttle bus across Buenos Aires to the domestic airport for our Aerolinas Argentinas flight to Tucumán.

Because we are arriving during morning rush hour, our bus takes us on a route I hadn't seen before, through city surface streets to avoid the traffic on the freeway. I marvel at the huge numbers of medium- and high-rise apartment buildings.

After about an hour, we arrive at the domestic airport and get our check our luggage checked in for the domestic flight to Tucumán. After a two-hour flight with a short stop in Santiago del Estero, we arrive in Tucumán.

Gustavo is there to meet us with the lodge shuttle, and soon we're off to Rodeo de los bueyes, the lodge which will serve as our home for the next several days.

Rodeo de los bueyes, roughly translated, means "corral of the oxen," and the picturesque little valley the lodge sits in was once used to corral oxen used for harvesting sugar cane.

Maria and her staff meet us, and I get my hug around the neck, and, as usual, she has a pitcher of iced tea waiting, along with a delicious lunch of empanadas (wonderful mix of sausage, beef and peppers inside a breaded crust).

We all try to grab a quick (and much-needed) nap before heading out to hunt.

I wasn't ready to quit napping when they called for us to get on the little bus for the trip into the field. After 20 minutes of riding, we start getting out at 100-yard intervals along a dirt road at the edge of a line of trees.

My bird boy has hacked out a small clearing a few yards back in the trees, and the birds are swarming 20 to 40 yards up, heading for their primary roost in the woods behind us.

I'm shooting my favorite gun, a Berreta 20-gauge over/under with improved cylinder and modified chokes. Shells are high brass 7s made by R.D. Caza, a local manufacturer in Tucumán.

The shells are high quality, as evidenced by my shooting 1,000-1,500 rounds per day and never having a dud the entire week. My gun also stayed remarkably clean.

I wish No. 7 shot were more widely available in this country for dove hunting, since it provides ample pellets for close shots and the larger 7s enable you to kill birds cleanly at 50-70 yards.

Because of fatigue, my shooting suffers this first afternoon — I just can't get into the right rhythm.

Although I kill a lot of birds due to their numbers, my shooting percentage (47 percent) was terrible for Argentina. A couple hours later, the birds start to slow and the bus picks us up.

Luke Smith tells us he has never seen this many birds and we all tell him, "because of the woods, you were limited in what you could see. Just wait until the morning, when you can see them coming across a harvested corn field."

Alex has killed 245 birds and we all congratulate him on his shooting. He tries to be nonchalant about it, but we can tell he's pleased at the compliments.

Back at the lodge, it's a quick hors d'oeuvre, then dinner is ready and we are ready to tuck into a fine Argentine steak.

The long trip has taken its toll, and it doesn't take long for heads to start nodding.


Day Three: The morning dawns clear and cool, probably mid- to upper-40s. Quite a change from the mid 90s we left in south Georgia. A light jacket feels good.

Another 20-minute ride and we turn into a cornfield. They drop us off along a fence row with scattered brush that separates two cornfields of at least 100 acres each. Our birds boys have worked their magic with machetes and built us each camouflaged blinds just behind the fence line. Birds are starting to stream into the fields nonstop.

Ideal weather — deep blue sky with a beautiful view of the Andes in the background — a perfect day for hunting and my shooting has vastly improved over the previous day.

After about an hour, I decide to take a break and walk over and to take some pictures of Luke and Alex. They are dropping birds regularly, and I'm surprised at how well Alex is shooting.

He really could have done better with a youth model gun, since the shortest stock gun they had available is still a little long for him, making him shoot with the gun almost tucked under his shoulder.

After 30 minutes or so of taking pictures, I resume shooting, and the birds are trading back and forth between the fields, so there are always birds over top of me within shooting range.

A little after 11 a.m., I see the bus start picking up guys on far side of field. I check the bird boy's clicker they use to keep count of the birds downed. It shows 504, and that I had shot 775 times (making a 65 percent accuracy rate).

Not a real good percentage for Argentina, but as I remind my younger hunting buddies, even after 68 birthdays, the birds aren't completely safe flying over me yet.

Maria keeps several horses on the property, and when she learned Luke and Alex own and ride horses, she has one of her horses saddled for them, and they take turns riding after lunch.

The afternoon hunt takes place in another wooded area, near a roost where our bird boys have made a small clearing for us, just inside the line of woods.

In my previous trips to both Bolivia and Argentina, I'd never killed 1,000 birds a day and had decided to do so one day this trip. Since I was halfway there after the morning hunt, I decided I'd go for it this afternoon.

I switch to a Bennelli auto and the birds are coming over by the thousands, but the wind is picking up, and the shooting is becoming more and more challenging. I manage to kill a few birds coming with the wind, but it's taking the third or fourth shot to get out in front of them far enough.

I have found that subconscious lead computer wingshooters use ceases to work when the wind gets high enough. Fortunately enough, birds are turning upwind and when I reach 501 birds, I am exhausted, handing my gun to my bird boy and telling him to shoot awhile.


Days Four, Five and Six: These days are almost a carbon copy of the first two days' hunts, except instead of returning to the lodge for lunch, we go to a nearby ranch for an asado, Spanish for "barbeque."

(It's kind of a misnomer, since almost everything they cook is over wood coals.)

Most of the ranchers live in nearby Tucumán but have really nice guest houses on their ranches with a sheltered outdoor eating area. The sausage, steak and salad is served on a wooden plate and is simply delicious.

There's a couple of soccer goals in a grassy area and our bird boys get a soccer game going.

I don't know much about soccer, but I can tell these guys are good, and they are out for blood. with several good licks passed that would have made a football coach proud.

At the end of the fourth day, we are joined by Bill Stokely and his son, Bill Jr. They are from east Tennessee and since I was born and raised in that area, Stokely and I were able to swap some remembrances of years past.

Stokely and his son have hunted and fished in many parts of the world, so it was extremely interesting to listen to the exchange of hunting experiences at dinner each evening. To say Stokely is an avid dove hunter is an understatement: He admitted to installing fake telephone poles and wires to enhance his dove field, located on his farm in Tennessee.

One hunt, located along a wood line with an acre water hole at one end, was memorable, as hundreds of thousands of doves poured in over the course of one afternoon.

I've witnessed this before in Argentina. Birds come in from one direction, land, flutter up to water's edge, then drink and leave so quickly as others arrive, it almost looks like a tornado.

The next day, Argentina is playing Brazil in the Olympic semifinals at 10 a.m.
Knowing a soccer match with Brazil is more important to the Argentinians than our Super Bowl is to us, I suggest to the guys we end our hunting a little earlier, so the bird boys can watch the game.


Day Seven: All too soon it's the last morning and the last hunt.

Gustavo has promised us a little different scenario and lots of birds. It's a small tract of woods (probably 5 acres) with farm buildings and three waterholes, surrounded by a huge wheat field and harvested cornfield.

Typical of each place we hunted in Argentina, birds are coming across, wave after wave — and there are far more than you can shoot.

I'm a little tired from several days of hunting, so I shoot at a leisurely pace and take several breaks to take pictures and video the birds.

Our schedule calls for us to catch a mid-afternoon Aerolinas Argentinas flight back to Buenos Aires before connecting with our overnight flight back to Atlanta.

As the hunt is winding down, Gustavo drives up and tells us Aerolinas Argentinas has canceled our mid-afternoon flight, leaving us two options: either stay another day, or charter a flight to Salta, some 180 miles northwest of Tucumán, and catch an Aerolinas Argentinas flight from there to Buenos Aires.

Since a couple of guys have obligations back home the next day, we opt for the charter flight.

We make a hurried trip back to the lodge, take a quick shower and throw our stuff in suitcases, just in time for the bus to take us to a landing strip, where a large single-engine plane is waiting on us.

Being a reluctant air traveler, the plane caused me a little concern. But one of our guys commented the land is so flat here, the plane could easily land in one of the numerous cornfields, if necessary. Plus the plane appears brand new, so I climb aboard.

(I later learn the plane is a Swiss-made Pilatus and has an excellent safety record.)

We lift off the strip and fly northwest, soon flying over small hills, then big hills that become small mountains, then big mountains. And we are still climbing.

I can see snow-capped peaks in the distance and instead of flat cornfields you could land a plane in, we are crossing over terrain so rugged a mountain goat would be hard-pressed to find a level place to lie down.

FYI

For more information about a trip like ours, contact:

Trek Safaris
1503 The Greens Way
Jacksonville, FL 32250
(800) 654-9915
www.treksafaris.com

Gustavo Olsen
Rodeo de los bueyes Lodge
Tucumán, Argentina
www.safarisdove-outfitters.com

Salta is located in the northwest corner of Argentina, near the Bolivian and Chilean borders, and it was necessary to cross a part of the Andes to get there. The scenery was absolutely beautiful on the trip over the mountains, but I would have enjoyed it more with two engines instead of one.

We land at Salta around 1:30 p.m. and our flight leaves at 2:30 for the two-hour flight to Buenos Aires. So far, so good.

Making the flight to the capital, we land at the domestic airport and board the shuttle bus for the international airport, arriving with just enough time to make it through customs and board our flight home.

Alex is my seatmate, with his Dad just across the aisle. I have a window seat which I offer him, but he declines and is soon deeply engrossed in battle with various monsters on his Gameboy.

For the remainder of the flight, he is either sound asleep or battling monsters. The generic sleeping pill didn't work again and I'd read awhile then doze. Though it was a long night for me, the lights of Atlanta at dawn were a welcome sight.

We made our way through the long lines at customs and claim our bags. Then four tired but happy hunters load up for the final 2 1/2-hour drive home.


Postscript

This was our fourth consecutive year to hunt with Gustavo, and we will return again next year, simply because we cannot imagine a better or more enjoyable place to hunt. Nor finer people to hunt with.

And I never cease to be amazed at the amount of doves there.

There just aren't words to describe seeing such waves of birds — from horizon to horizon — nor can photos properly capture the sight.

Many people have commented they saw more birds in the first 30 minutes than they had seen in their entire life.

But likely the best description I've heard is, "until you see it, you can't believe it."