Spring Break Doves by Mike Maddox

This was to be my “off” year. I had hunted doves (palomas) in Argentina three previous years and had wanted to return with my young friends, Tom and Clay Monarch, but they had been unable to go, so I decided to take the year off. However, in late February, Sam Monarch, the boys’ grandfather, called stating that the boy’s plans had changed and they would be available for a “spring break” dove hunt. With that said, I only had a month to find a place for us to hunt.

On my three previous Argentina trips, I had hunted with two different outfitters in two different areas. I quickly contacted each outfitter, one in Salta, the other from the Mendoza area. The outfitter from Mendoza was difficult to reach but did finally answer my request. He had a lodge in Cordoba, which was where I really wanted to go, and he quoted the Cordoba lodge per my request. The Salta outfitter’s website directed me to a booking agent in the States, Rick Collins of “Southern Outfitting”, and I asked Rick to reach out to the outfitter in Salta and secure a quote for the five of us (Tom, Clay, and I as shooters and Sam and his wife, Alice, as observers).

I really wanted to hunt in Cordoba as I had not hunted that area before and air travel options through Buenos Aires made Salta undesirable. The international airport in Buenos Aires and the domestic airport are not in the same location, and getting to the domestic airport requires an hour plus cab ride across town on a “good” traffic day, so I told Rick we did not want to go to Salta and asked if he had another outfitter in Cordoba we could get a quote from.

Rick responded instantly and said he had a top rated outfitter, “Sierra Brava”, which he recommended highly. When I went to their website, I read everything I could. I viewed their videos and read all the customer feedback. When I read that Sierra Brava is a “Beretta” rated facility, I knew it should be good, and after a little cost comparing and negotiating, we decided to go with Sierra Brava.

Since my 2012 Argentina trip, I learned that Argentina had a new “reciprocity fee” ($160 per person) on travelers from certain countries, and the United States is one of the countries. Each American traveler entering Argentina must pay the fee prior to leaving the States as there is no provision to pay the fee upon entering the country. If the fee is not prepaid, they will send you home. After paying the reciprocity fee, we made flight reservations and sent in deposits. Everything was set! We were going to Argentina for “spring break” doves.

March 30th rolled around quickly and we were soon headed to Cordoba, Argentina. We left Louisville on American Airlines going through Dallas and flew all night before landing in Santiago, Chile early on “Easter” Sunday morning. After a layover, we boarded a LAN Airbus 320 for an hour and a half flight to Cordoba.

Upon our arrival, I was the first of our group to reach the baggage area where I was greeted by a porter who surprised me when he asked if I were “Mr. Maddox”. He had been sent by Sierra Brava and had already collected most of our group’s bags! He graciously assisted us through customs and escorted us to the lobby where he introduced us to Marcelo and Marcelo (yes, both have the same name) from Sierra Brava, who were waiting for us. It is always comforting to be greeted by a representative when entering a foreign country. From that minute on, the only things we had to lift for the rest of our trip were drinks, food and shotguns. We were quickly escorted to the front passenger pick up area where Sierra Brava had waiting a very nice mini bus which was to be our transportation for the rest of the trip.

The trip to the lodge is about an hour and a half ride due north of the airport. Both Marcelo and Marcelo could speak English which was a big comfort to me, since I do not know any Spanish; however, Sam informed our greeters that Tom and Clay were both studying Spanish in school and requested that they speak only Spanish to the boys.

Upon our arrival at Sierra Brava Lodge, we were greeted outside by a cadre of staff who would be taking care of us during our stay. Once inside the lodge, we were welcomed with champagne and hors d’oeuvres while Zeke, the lodge manager, welcomed us and provided an itinerary of what to expect for our stay. The lodge was a beautifully restored, rustic, Spanish style building built in 1874. Originally, the lodge had been used as a bed and breakfast rest stop for travelers going cross country. The refurbishments and additions were in keeping with the original structure with 14 foot ceilings with brick and mortar sandwiched between wood timbers on two foot centers. There is a striking open courtyard internal to the structure with clay tile floors and arbors over the walkways. We were soon assigned our rooms which had wood planked floors with sandstone walls. Each room had a private bath with modern fixtures. To our surprise, the lodge had Wi-Fi that allowed us to communicate anywhere we wanted.

Dinner would be served at eight each evening so we had a couple of hours to rest and relax from our journey. The dining experience was u n b e l i e v a b l e . Chef Topo prepared a beef tenderloin with a mushroom and wine sauce that was exceptional. Each presentation was picture perfect and the flavor of the Argentina beef was outstanding.

After a good night’s rest, the excitement of the shoot was finally here. Following an excellent breakfast, we boarded the mini bus and drove to a huge feed lot of cattle being fed corn prior to market. I had wanted to shoot with both Tom and Clay for one session each, so the first morning, I paired up with Clay. It was decided that Sam and Alice would rotate with the boys, and Alice, who was the official photographer, would stay with Clay and me the first morning to take pictures. Sam would be with Tom across the feed lot in another blind.

Soon, the bus stopped on a dirt farm road beside the feed lot where we met our bird boys, Sergio for me, Walter for Clay, and Jose for Tom. As soon as we arrived, doves flew up in flocks of 50 to 100, and the excitement over powered the smell of the cattle. This was clearly a target rich environment. Usually each person has their own blind, but we doubled up in one with both bird boys to assist. Clay, who had hunted with me in the States, had some knowledge of shooting doves. I kept telling him once he got in rhythm, he would not have a problem hitting the birds. I did not have to teach shooting technique as he just needed coaching on understanding the leads. I could follow the shot wad and tell he was shooting behind the birds. I borrowed a phrase from a league shooting instructor and called out, “miss in front of the bird”. After a little bit of coaching, Clay was dropping birds as fast as I was. We never had to load a shell in our shotguns as the bird boys were unbelievable at loading them. We just canted the guns to our side and they loaded the shells into the magazine faster than I have ever seen. What a great morning! We shot until noon and headed back to the lodge for lunch and a siesta.

After an unbelievable lunch and a quick nap, we repeated the trip back to the ranch for the evening shoot. This time, Tom and I shot together and Alice stayed with us to take photos and Sam went with Clay. Tom had also hunted doves with me and his technique was good. He, like Clay, just needed coaching with the leads and understanding when the birds were too far away for a high percentage shot. After a few misses, he got in rhythm and started dropping birds one after another. By mid-afternoon, my neck muscles were starting to tighten up from repeated shots, but the first day was a huge success! Both Tom and Clay were hitting birds consistently for their first high volume dove shoot.

Back at the lodge, we were greeted at the bus by Zeke and a young lady who, with thongs, handed us hot, moist towels to wipe our faces and hands. What a great touch of class! We were then directed to a fire pit by the lake where a table of hors d’oeuvres and a bar were set up for our refreshment prior to dinner, and dinner was another gourmet, picture perfect presentation! I didn’t have any problem going to sleep that evening. Zeke had given us our itinerary for the next day and we were all awakened by a knock on the bedroom door at 6:00 A.M. Breakfast was to be in half an hour and we would leave for another location shortly after the meal. Our destination for this shoot required an hour and half ride. As the weather forecast was for rain in the area, we were worried we might get rained-out. On the way to the ranch, we ran through heavy rain and the skies were heavy with dark clouds. After a scenic drive through very fertile farmland, we arrived at a very nice entrance to a huge cattle feeding operation.

Fortunately, a few miles back, the rain had stopped and didn’t return for the rest of the day. As we drove through this beautiful ranch, we saw hundreds of cattle in corrals that were being fed corn, and doves were everywhere! As our minibus stopped, we were greeted warmly by our bird boys who already had blinds set up for each of us. Tom, Clay, and I were shooting separately today, and Alice accompanied Clay and Sam went with Tom this morning. Birds were flying everywhere, over my head and in my face! It was hard to concentrate while trying to get my gloves, glasses and gun ready. Sergio had a grin on his face as he could see the excitement in my eyes as I viewed all the birds. Finally, I was ready and birds started to fall like rain. I got in a rhythm, and four hours and a few cases of shells later, I finally stopped for water and told Sergio that I needed a break. Sergio said I should keep shooting as we only had fifteen minutes before lunch; so, I kept shooting but I was exhausted! After 15 minutes, I turned to Sergio and was amazed when he said I had shot 610 birds! Wow!

That was my personal best for all my trips! I had never expected to get close to the “1,000 birds in one day” goal, but I knew I only had to shoot 400 that afternoon to hit the magic number! We went to lunch at a local restaurant that we had passed on the way to the ranch. I had commented about the very interesting building with a thatch roof like I had seen on my trips to Africa. The unique restaurant looked out of place in the small town, and we were pleasantly surprised when we were seated. The menu also had English captions but our guide offered to select our food for lunch. After our drinks were served, the waiter started bringing food. Tossed salad to start and then the meats started coming. First a strip steak, then a beef loin, then sausage, then beef ribs. All was served on wood platters, not glass plates. There was so much food, we could not eat everything, but Alice wanted to try desert anyway. Wow! What a meal! I could hardly move my gun I was so full.

Lunch took about an hour then we drove back to the ranch for the afternoon shoot. Sam and Alice traded Tom and Clay for the afternoon, and we went to new locations on the ranch. I followed Sergio to the end of a wood line separating two fields. Birds were flying high and their flight patterns were inconsistent. Hitting 400 would be a challenge! After a few minutes of missing, Sergio decided to relocate about 200 yards to the edge of a cornfield. The birds were still high but flying more consistently. I shot there for a few minutes, when Sergio said he would be right back. I didn’t pay attention to where he went as I was finally hitting some birds. He returned in about fifteen minutes and said we were moving again. We walked about 50 yards to a blind he had built in the corner of a fence row right next to the farm road. This was the spot! Birds were still a little high but were flying over one after another. After a few misses, I finally got the lead on these birds and consistently started dropping doves.

Unlike the morning when birds were trying to land on my head, I had to lead these birds about five feet. Once I got the sight picture, I locked in and filled up the road with grey spots. I shot until about three o’clock and asked about my count. I was at 376 and only needed a few more to break 1,000 for the day! I kept shooting until I shot a total of 405. I had made the 1,000 club! I stopped at 3:30 and sat in a chair watching the birds fly over. My shoulders were stiff and my neck was sore from tense muscles. I had scheduled a massage back at the lodge and could not wait to get back.

There was still an hour and a half left of shooting for Tom and Clay, so Sergio started picking up birds and shells. I love the high volume shooting, but after 1,000 birds and some misses, I was ready to stop for the day. As the day’s shoot came to an end, everyone gathered at the road to compare stories. All the bird boys had gathered bags of birds then placed birds in a big square pattern for a photo op. We had the best day ever as Clay, Tom, and I set behind the square of birds for a photo shoot. This day, Tom had brought down 579 doves and Clay had added 631 to his count. The bird boys placed over 1,000 birds on the ground which was impressive, but the trucks were still full of bags of birds from the day.

The trips to and from the lodge are what these trips are all about. The conversation, the comparisons, and the excitement made the trip back to the lodge seem short. This was a once in a lifetime type of day for a bird shooter. Having the opportunity to shoot until you drop is unbelievable. On the way back, the clouds faded away and the sun set on the horizon for a picture perfect sunset.

The third day was a welcomed repeat of the previous days but included a field lunch. The staff set up a large tent in a shaded area and the chef grilled sausage, chicken and beef ribs on a ground pit. Hammocks were strung on trees adjacent to the tent. JJ, one of the owners, had driven to the ranch to meet and have lunch with us. After a wonderful lunch, we enjoyed a siesta then went to different blinds on the same ranch for our last hunt. After another great hunting afternoon, we returned to the lodge for the evening meal and activities. At dinner, I was surprised by clanging “pots” and “pans” drums and the staff dressed like clowns. They were celebrating my shooting 1,000 birds in one day! I was presented with a Sierra Brava hat embroidered with a thousand birds and my name will join others on the “1,000 Bird” plaque in the courtyard.

We slept in on the last morning then went for a tour of Cordoba on the way to the airport. Cordoba, with over a million and a half people, looks like a smaller version of Buenos Aires. JJ was kind enough to meet us at the airport to send us off. We boarded the LAN Airbus 320 and headed home.

This was absolutely the best dove hunting trip I have been on in Argentina. Thanks to Sierra Brava and Rick Collins for setting this trip up. Also thanks to Sam, Alice, Tom and Clay Monarch for sharing their conversation and companionship on this wonderful “spring break” dove shoot!

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