A couple of weeks ago I returned from a dove shoot in Argentina. It had been organized through the NRA, and I was invited to participate in it courtesy of an acquaintance in their fund-raising hierarchy. The NRA has a greatly inflated estimate of my net worth, based on a couple of donations to the National Firearms Museum, and quite without meaning to do so, I seem to have sneaked under their radar and got an invitation to come along.
The hunt was held at and near Estancia Posta Del Norte, one of the shooting lodges maintained by Cordoba Outfitters. The estancia is in rural Cordoba Province, in a very lovely and private setting, recreating the privileged life of the rural nobility of the 19th Century. Cordoba Province is a major agricultural area, producing huge amounts of corn, soybeans, sunflowers, and other grains. Argentina is justly famous for its beef, and much of this is fodder for cattle. Endless miles of cornfields and other crops line the roads: there isn’t much in the way of population in the immediate area of the estancia. Most of the land is huge corporate farms with the only people in evidence being farm workers. The local population seemed to be centered in small towns or the provincial capital.
Although Cordoba city is Argentina’s second largest (population 1,000,000) the estancia is about an hour north of it, and very, very rural. We drove miles and miles of roads that were maintained but dirt-surfaced; the only paved road I saw was Route No. 9, the Pan-American Highway (above, a bit of it). Pedestrians were non-existent, a situation totally unlike that in, say, Egypt or South Africa. Most people travel from place to place by bus, as there were many bus stops and very few private cars. Most of the vehicles we saw were small pickups, agricultural machinery, or buses.
The estancia as such is about 25 years old but it was built on the site of a 19th Century postal depot, hence the name “Posta del Norte.” The original part of the building is well over 100 years old, but most of it is not. It was built as and opened as a shooting ranch in the early 80’s.
The price of the hunt package included accommodations, three meals a day, with very fine food and very formal service; an open bar, and all the amenities you expect from a top-flight establishment. Except, unfortunately, air conditioning, but the evenings were cool and we had electric fans. As a convenience for the guests, all the tips for the staff and the shell charges were summed up at the end of the shoot and we were able to write a check for the full amount. I'd not encountered this before, and in my opinion it takes a lot of the stress out of the process. I wish every hunt organizer and provider would adopt a practice like this. We knew in advance what the "add ons" to the basic cost would be, there were no surprises, and we knew that the staff would be getting a suitable reward for their very fine service. If we wished to, we were encouraged to tip additionally or to provide small gifts.
There were seven shooters in all. Colonel Dennis Beherens, USAF (Ret.) who's wearing the Stetson in the picture above, was the hunt organizer and booking agent. The Outdoorsman, an obscure university professor who was totally out of his league both in terms of money and shooting prowess, is the tubby bald guy at far right above.
I never thought it would be needed when I was making initial arrangements but I had to twist my wife's arm to get her to come along. Normally she is an eager traveler, but dragged her feet a bit on this trip for some reason. The bribe that worked was that we would bring her beautiful niece, Natalie (at that time age 23) as her traveling “companion," in part because she can speak some Spanish.
The eared dove (Zenaida auriculata) is very similar to the mourning dove of North America. In Argentina it’s a major pest: I was told that at any given moment there is about $1.5 million dollars worth of grain in the crops of these birds, they’re present in such colossal numbers. There must literally be billions of them, and the farmers and ranchers hate them without reservations and without exception.
In the USA when we have problem critters we just poison them, but apparently this was tried in Argentina with dubious results, and unhappy side effects in terms of affecting the local scavenger populations. About a quarter century ago some people realized that lemons are needed to make lemonade, and turned the doves into a lucrative cash crop, thus making back that $1.5 million and then some, by selling them to rich gringos as what amount to live, edible skeet. You can’t imagine how numerous they are until you’ve seen them fly. I can sum it up by saying, “HOLY S***T, LOOK AT ALL THOSE F*****G BIRDS!” The picture below shows what I mean.
We were in the field for a total of three shooting days, and never in that time did they stop flying. We put up one flock in a feed lot that had to consist of at least 10,000 individual birds, probably more. Flights of 20 to 100 birds came in constantly while we were out in the fields and on the hills: there was never a moment from dawn to dusk that there wasn’t a flock flying nearby wherever we happened to be stationed. I had been told before I left that it’s typical to shoot 1000 rounds a day on these hunts: I was scarcely able to believe it then but I sure do now. Three people in our group killed 1000 or more birds in a single day. Several went through 3 or 4 500-round cases of shotshells in a day.
It was a leisurely affair: we’d get out about 7:30 and drive to a site where the birds were flying, take stations in a long line spaced about 100 yards apart, and start blazing away. We shot from stations on ridges, either overlooking feeding areas or roosting sites, depending on whether it was a morning or afternoon session. The hill stations were reached via paths cut through some of the densest, nastiest, and thorniest scrub I’ve ever seen. It was so thick a rabbit would have had trouble penetrating it. Any bird that fell into it was completely irretrievable. I’d never have sent a dog into it, he’d have been cut to ribbons by the 2-inch-long thorns.
Each of us was assigned a “bird boy,” who did the grunt work of hauling ammunition and water, setting up the shooting stools, etc., to and from the shooting stations. They were shocked when one of the clients tried to do anything, even pick up a downed bird. My bird boy was Walter, a handsome lad in his late 20’s with a startling resemblance to Chef Emeril Lagasse. Walter spoke no English beyond the words “Daid!” and “Good Shot!” He was also assigned the responsibility of keeping track of hits, shells consumed, and of making sure my ammunition pouch was full. We got along pretty well, despite his limited English and my more or less non-existent Spanish.
The first day and a half I shot a Beretta over-under double, and I am now prepared to bear witness that I no longer regard the single-selective-trigger O/U as the Spawn of the Devil; there is something to be said for it after all. That Beretta was one fine shotgun. It was bored Improved Cylinder in the lower barrel and Improved/Modified in the upper, so I used the lower barrel first. Once I got the hang of it, I started hitting birds, though I was (and am) by far the worst wingshot in the group. One issue with a double is that it has greater recoil than other action types in the same gauge, so for the last three sessions I used a Beretta Urika autoloader, and that was one sweet gun, too. We all shot 20 gauges, except Ron's wife Ann, who tried one and switched to a 28 gauge due to recoil issues. Despite using a 20 and an autoloader I did develop a dandy bruise and a callus on my right shoulder.
The shells were made by Orbea, which I think is in Spain, but I'm not sure. They were marked as having 25 grams (7/8 ounce) of “#7” shot, but I think that’s the European size that's equivalent to the US #8. In the US #8 is pretty much the standard for doves. I did notice that on the last two days we were issued shells marked #8, but I believe this to be the same as our #9. The stuff was utterly reliable; I never had a single misfire. At $12 for a box of 25, no doubt the estancia made a tidy profit, because they buy it by the pallet and get it cheap.
Nobody had brought a gun of his own except the Colonel. The rest of us shot the estancia’s guns. That’s pretty typical, considering the wear and tear that guns used in this kind of high-volume shooting get. Only Berettas and Benellis will stand up to that kind of abuse. An estate gun will fire as many rounds in a couple of days as most privately owned guns shoot in a lifetime: I suppose in the course of their service life they must go through at least 500,000 rounds each, and I don’t know if they get sent in for overhaul now and then. Both the guns I shot were tight and I had no function failures at all. An ordinary autoloader like a Remington 1100 would have been shaken to pieces in a short time. After each shooting session the bird boys relieved us of the gun we’d selected (it was their job to carry it down the hill) and back at the estancia stripped them down, cleaned them with gasoline and reassembled them for the next day’s sessions.
The first afternoon we went to a ridge in the hills and I saw for myself what numbers of birds there were. I’ve never seen anything like it: like the Indians at Custer’s Last Stand, they just kept coming and coming. The bird boys had hacked out paths in the scrubland and cut it down on one side to about shoulder height, and set up a stool made of a 5-gallon bucket with a swiveling seat. If you stand up the birds can see you more easily, and will flare away while still out of range, but sitting down they seemed not to notice anything until they were right on top of you. The birds were not very wary: they would flare off if they saw you but if they didn’t—and if you stayed still and behind your minimal screen of brush, they didn’t—they would come in dumb, from any angle you liked. We were of course wearing dark clothing. If I'd had a face veil, they'd probably have been bouncing off my head.
We were strung out along the ridgelines and screened by brush with the birds rising up and front of us, anywhere from 15 to 50 yards out. Sometimes they came from behind, sometimes from the side, but they never stopped coming. I have never before had the luxury of being choosy about shots and passing up ones I didn’t like, but by the end of the first day I finally grasped that if I didn’t like a bird’s presentation, I could just wait a few seconds, another flock would come in, and I could wait till I got one I thought I could hit.
As I say, I’m not a very good wingshot, and it had been, conservatively, 10 years since I’d done any bird shooting at all. About the only thing to hunt with shotguns here in southwestern Virginia is squirrels. It took me a while to figure the guns out but overall I managed to hit 40% of what I shot at: the lowest percentage in the group but still, a bit above the average for all shooters the estancia gets. The owner said 32-34% was about average, so I don’t feel too bad. The Colonel hit 85+% but he was using his own gun—a side-by-side double—and was vastly experienced in this sort of high-volume stuff. I was satisfied with my total kill of 800 birds, but the aggregate kill was staggering: the group shot 15,500 birds, and there’s no doubt in my mind that by the time I left their replacements had already been hatched.
Most of the ones we hit fell into and were lost in the scrub, but they weren’t wasted. There are amazing numbers of scavengers roaming the hills: along the trails we’d see the scattered remnants of doves, the wings and maybe a few bones. The dead birds feed the local variety of fox and some smallish eagles, as well as buzzards, and most especially free-roaming domestic pigs. One afternoon two huge pigs came sauntering in and wandered among the shooters, scarfing up fallen birds and grunting contentedly to themselves. They paid no attention to us at all. Pigs being what they are, they're smart enough to know that gunshots meant food, so whenever they heard the pop-pop-pop they’d scurry to the sound. If a bird did fall within sight, and in the open, Walter would retrieve it out of deference to the Yanqui dislike for waste, and at the end of a session, any birds collected were brought down off the hill. We did eat some, as breaded fried dove breast appetizers on the veranda every evening before dinner. But I was told that most of the birds that were picked up were given to hogs in the feedlots.
I mentioned that three members of the group bagged 1000+ birds in a day. One of them did it twice: his total kill was 4000+. Shooting 1000 birds in a day got you inducted into the “Royal Order of La Paloma,” a mock honor society whose only benefit seemed to be the “right” to be addressed as “Sir.” Since both new members of the ROP were named Dave, we called them “Sir Dave 1” and Sir Dave 2.”
It was an interesting experience, and Susan had a much better time than she thought she would. The estancia has an English-speaking tour guide who took the ladies (Susan, Natalie, Ron's wife Ann, and Ray's wife Gail) into Cordoba one day, and to some local shops and silversmiths the next. Natalie got to practice her Spanish on the guide, and from what I understand everything they saw and did was very interesting. I had hoped they’d come out to see the shoot for one session, but it’s probably just as well they didn’t: it was hotter than Hades on those hills, because of course it’s summer in Argentina in February. I got a fair sunburn on my arms and my head. My scalp has been peeling off in the shower ever since I came back. I have become Super Dandruff Man.
We’d come down off the hills drenched in sweat, get back to the estancia at dusk, and an hour after returning we’d have drinks and dinner. This was usually about 8:45 or 9:00, which seems to be the very earliest when you can get dinner in Argentina at all. The estancia has an open bar, and wine came with every meal, of course.
The meals were terrific. It was Argentine style cooking, very heavy on meat (mainly beef, but we also had chicken and some pork), but with interesting side dishes. Our wineglasses were kept filled by the very attentive white-jacketed staff; we actually had to shoo them away when we didn’t want any more wine. One evening we had a gaucho-style barbecue, with a whole young pig roasted in front of a fire. The estancia has a permanent fire pit, and the picture at left (swiped from an old Life magazine article) shows how it's done.
A very large fire is built and the pig carcass is basically "crucified" in front of it, with periodic turning to roast it evenly. This produced a very crisp skin and succulent meat. As good as Argentine beef is, the pork is even better. A pigs is like a poet: nobody appreciates either one during his lifetime.
Natalie had never been outside the US before, and were privileged to have her along. When we rolled up at the estancia on the first day, to be met by the owner and his staff all standing at attention and dressed in their uniforms, her eyes went wide. She later told Susan she was a bit nervous at the first lunch because she didn’t know what she was supposed to do: but she was comforted by one of the other women—who had spilled something onto the front of her blouse! The tours she took with Susan and the other ladies and the time we later spent in Buenos Aires seem to have sparked her interest in the possibility of spending a few months in Argentina in an intensive immersion course in Spanish. On this trip everyone had fun (except the doves). Can't ask for more than that!
Argentina's always described as the wingshooter's Paradise, and it certainly lived up to the billing. Such a shoot had long been on my "bucket list," and it exceeded my expectations. I'd certainly do it again.
All our arrangements—both for the shoot and a few days in Buenos Aires seeing the sights—were made through Expedition Adventures, the Colonel's booking agency. That's the Colonel himself above...I will add that he was by far the best shot in the group! Expedition Adventures and their travel agency did an outstanding job, not only with airline reservations and the choice of venue for the shoot, but also with arrangements to attend shows and events in BA. All the ground transportation to and from airports, to and from the hotel in BA, English-speaking tour guides, all of it. I would highly recommend Expedition Adventures to anyone looking for an Argentine hunt—they also book hunts for other game, and have contacts in Africa, Canada, and Alaska. A top-class experience like this is surprisingly affordable, especially if you get your airline tickets using mileage or rewards points.