Viva Argentina by John M. Taylor
From its near-arctic southern tip to the mild and warm northern provinces, Argentina is a country of contrasts and adventure. Still seen are villagers using horse-drawn carts for their daily rounds, picturesque gauchos sitting their comfortable sheepskin-lined saddles, or maybe the red roadside shrines to Gaucho Gil, the martyred Robin Hood of Argentina that attracts many, but what brings me back and back is the incomparable dove shooting. Here doves often come in waves as if attacking the guns around grain fields, near roosts or water. With millions of doves, food and accommodations nothing but first class, Argentina is an adventure every wing shooter ought to enjoy just once . . . but can you go there just once?
Closing in on 20 trips to shoot in Argentina or Uruguay, this year I had the good fortune to choose two lodges, Sierra Brava and Los Chañares, that are located about 30 minutes apart. Unique was that these were the first South-American hunting lodges to be Beretta Trident awardees. Much like stars in a Michelin touring guide, Trident points – one, two or three – are awarded based on hunting quality, length of travel to the hunting areas, the lodge and its amenities. I couldn’t have chosen more wisely.
Sierra Brava is located in the Sierra de Cordoba hills, along the ancient El Camino Real – The King’s Highway – where it was a pony express remount station. The modernized lodge retains much of the wonderful flavor of that era. Nestled far back from the main highway, it rests at the base of the hills, and on more than one occasion I was shooting from one of those hill tops with its beautiful view of far away green hills and verdant plains. It has been dry in Cordoba Province this year, but the co owners of Sierra Brava and Los Chañares, Juan Jose “JJ” Sala and David Perez, have established water holes for the doves . . . areas that are not shot or disturbed. Because of the management of the birds and abundant nesting cover it is estimated that more than 30-million doves roost and nest in the immediate area of the two lodges.
The eared dove, indigenous to Cordoba Province, very closely resembles our mourning dove. One almost must have each in hand to differentiate the two species. Like their northern cousins, they provide all the challenging shooting one can imagine. Eared doves begin reproducing at age three months, and they nest between two to four times a year; do the math and its little mystery as to why there are always mobs of doves in Cordoba. Due to the preponderance of good nesting and roosting cover in the great Macha Roost, Sierra Brava and Los Chañares share an immense concentration of perhaps 30 million doves.
Principal to the doves’ prolific nesting success are the massive tangles of acacia-thorn trees. Called wait-a-bit thorns in Africa, they are also indigenous to many parts of Texas. Covered with thorns measuring over an inch in length with a hooked barb at the end, it’s no wonder that predators have great difficulty in raiding nests and ambushing mature birds. How they flit in and out of these thorn thickets is truly amazing. Add to this, the abundant farm fields – recently harvested of their bounty of corn or maize, soybeans, milo and other crops – and one need not be a Rhodes Scholar to understand why doves love it there, it’s the “Perfect Storm” of dove breeding, feeding, roosting and shooting.
I arrived on the afternoon flight at the Cordoba airport, but without my shotgun. Due to sloth and more over, indifference, my shotguns remained in Santiago. I changed from American Airlines to the local, Lan Chile airline for the short hop up over the Andes into Cordoba. New regulations require that a Chilean army or police official check your shotguns against your U.S. Customs form 4455. If the serial numbers match, all is well. However, Lan Chile personnel waited until my Corboda-bound flight had boarded to take me for the firearm inspection, and my guns were left on the tarmac. It’s too bad that one must use Lan Chile airlines, as this was simply indifference on their part since I had been one the ground in Santiago for over five hours. Hence I missed a half day’s shooting, as I had to return to Cordoba the following morning to retrieve my gun.
Finally armed, the van chugged up the hill, first dropping off three fellows from Texas who had come in on the morning flight with my shotgun. Following Eduardo Sartoreli, Sierra Brava’s chief guide, who led me up a cattle trail through the thorn-trees until we crested a ridge. Before me was a deep valley, and on my right and left were vast plains with mountains rising in the far distance. Even though the sun had not crested the hill, doves were already zipping by, begging the same old question; which one to shoot?
It was chilly, cold by Argentine standards, that morning: So cold that the water pipes that ran across the lodge’s roof to my room were frozen. The sun made short work of thawing them, but the early morn was still nippy. My Beretta full-zip sweater with its wind barrier lining was perfect for the chilly, breezy dawn. However, once the sun crested the hills, it was shirt-sleeve weather, despite the fact that my field assistant George and Eduardo looked slightly chilled in their fully zipped down vests. This was probably my 18th time in Argentina and the weather each time, despite the season, has always been mild. Even on chilly, rainy days, the doves fly.
All too soon, my watch registered noon and we headed down the hill to the truck. Zig-zaging down the hilly road we soon rendezvoused with my new Texas friends, three college buddies who were enjoying their first Argentine hunt. Spread among a grove of trees was a dining fly, several hammocks and a cooking fire being attended by Sierra Brava’s chef, Daniel Zeballos. French trained and wooed from a five-star restaurant in Cordoba, he provided excellent cuisine for my entire stay. But right now, it was excellent Argentine beef and sausage, pork roast, delicately dressed salad of fresh greens and tomatoes, and of course an irresistible desert. Following the feast the hammocks beckoned, and soon my nap was rudely interrupted with the call for more shooting.
I like to see my birds coming to me, and when I mentioned this to Eduardo, he set me up on one side of a shallow valley that opened broadly onto the plains and distant hills. As soon as I began shooting the dinner bell rang for the eagles that began circling and landing. At one time I had 20 eagles perched around my location.
Doves came from around the compass, providing the very best shooting school in the world. I took turns shooting 10 on the right, 10 overhead and 10 on the left. I was shooting my Blaser F3 fitted with an EZ-Coil recoil-reducing stock by Bruce Ney (302-242-3402). I brought my 32-inch 20-gauge barrels. I thought they might be a little long for prolonged shooting, especially with their extended Briley choke tubes, but the combination served me very well. The F3 is a highly reliable and ruggedly built shotgun; this was its second trip south with thousands of rounds in between, and gave new-from-the-box performance. My new friends from Texas were commenting on their tender shoulders and bruises, but with Ney’s stock, it was as if I hadn’t fired a shot.
Thirty minutes from Sierra Brava lays the classic Los Chañares lodge, and its vast roost. Covering 11,000 acres all laying right around the lodge, Los Chañares boasts the shortest drives to shooting of about any Argentine lodge. I’ve ridden nearly an hour and a half to get to the birds at other operations, but if you choose, you can walk out the front door of Los Chañares, and have a great shoot. Like any well managed wildlife operation, 3,000 of the 11,000 acres are a nesting sanctuary that is never shot, and whenever possible not even entered with vehicles.
Alex Mitri runs the operation, and following lunch one noon he gave me a tour of the area. Because of the hilly terrain and flat agricultural fields, hunters at Los Chañares shooters can request about any kind of bird presentation they wish. Mitri pointed out an area that resembled a bit of the English countryside and said, “Here’s where some of our British customers like to shoot . . . it’s very much like their driven pheasant shooting at home,” Mitri said.
Mitri came to Los Chañares from a dove operation in Paraguay, and his own family’s hunting operation in Bolivia. Heading in to another section of the property Mitri said, “Rotation of shooting is important to us, because we shoot the same area. However, we have many, many places to shoot; those for high birds, low birds, high-volume opportunities, we can accommodate about any hunter’s wish,” he concluded.
As we neared the lodge, Mitri pulled alongside a shaggy barked tree . . . “That’s a Chañares tree for which the estancia was named. It continually loses its bark and they grow all over the property.”
Shooting at Los Chañares was excellent. Because the lodge lies nestled in part of the actual roost, it is possible to walk out the front door and be at a shooting position in a few minutes. Where you shoot is largely based on what kind of birds you want presented, and your hunger for high-volume shooting.
I was joined at Los Chañares by Howard Johnson, a retired engineer and surveyor, and his son Bret, a Wyoming deputy sheriff. I chose to shoot high birds, and the Johnsons were out for high-volume shooting; 1,000 or more birds a day. Although we were positioned only about 100 yards apart, the shooting was tailor made for our wishes. I had an open area in front and to both sides where I could shoot birds coming from the right, left and overhead. The Johnsons were set up on a cattle trail with a slight berm in front of them. Their birds streaked in front of them at close range, offering mainly right to left chances. A perfect father/son combination that needled each other at a bad miss and in the true tradition of shooting and hunting, had the time of their lives.
The Johnsons chose to rent the lodge’s Beretta 20-gauge 391s – not a bad idea considering my gun problem with Lan Chile. Because they wanted to shoot a large number of birds, they also chose to use two guns each so that one was being loaded as they gleefully emptied the other at passing doves. I was amazed at the dexterity of their loaders who took five rounds in their hands, and transferred them to the chamber and magazine with amazing speed. Of course, it is the guide’s solemn obligation to keep your shotgun or shell pouch loaded at all times, as the ammunition bill represents a good portion of the outfitter’s profit.
This trip was particularly enjoyable because of the charm of the two Beretta Trident lodges. Los Chañares had at one time fallen on hard times, but David Perez has taken it over and put good management in place that will ensure fine hospitality and stellar shooting opportunities well into the future.
Equally Juan José “JJ” Salas has created a gem from a dilapidated pony express station when he established Sierra Brava. Good accommodations are synonymous with hunting in Argentina, and each is unique onto itself. It is, however, not difficult to understand how these two lodges have earned Beretta Tridents for their service and excellent hunting.
Travel: Be sure your passport is up to date and not due to expire for six months beyond your return. I worked my travel through Brigitte Caston, (800-826-9826, ext. 231) Brigitte.firstname.lastname@example.org, who when to extra lengths to ensure I had good seats, and that everything went smoothly. She even emailed me during my trip to relay minor schedule changes . . . that’s real service.
There are two ways to get to Cordoba; through Santiago, Chile or through Buenos Aires, Argentina. Neither is easy. If you fly to Buenos Aires, you must change airports that are on the opposite sides of town – rumor has it that the local airlines are opening gates at the international terminal – and be prepared to pay for excess baggage on the domestic airlines.
Time was when it was best to fly through Santiago, as it is a short flight from there to Cordoba. However, Chile has now instituted a regulation that all firearms must be checked in and out of the country by an official, before they can be transferred to incoming and outgoing flights. At that point it is essential you have your U.S. Customs from 4455 or a copy of it in hand, so they can check the serial numbers, without that document, there’s no telling what would happen: Be prepared!
Licenses and Permits: License and gun permit fees are included in the overall trip price. I was charged $75 to bring my shotgun into Argentina; the dollar amount varies depending on the exchange rate. Note, if you bring an extra barrel of a different gauge, they charge it the same as another shotgun. Lodges typically charge $65 per day to rent their guns.
Guns for Argentina: A 20-gauge is perfect; take a 28 if you don’t mind paying a couple of dollars extra per box for shells. On this trip I took only my 20-gauge Blaser F3 with an EZ Coil stock installed by Bruce Ney’s The Stock Market (302-242-3402). I shot Argentine manufactured ammunition throughout the trip – No’s. 7 and 8 – and found the ammunition on a par with U.S.-loaded shells. Briley improved- light modified (.015), improved modified (.025) and full (.030) chokes were my choice for the long birds. Currently outfitters in Argentina charge $14 US a box for 12- and 20-gauge shells. Twenty eight-gauge and .410 are $16 a box. It is illegal to bring your own ammunition.
Clothing: Cordoba’s winter climate, with few exceptions, is mild during hunting season. Temperatures run from the low 50s to mid-60s. L.L. Bean’s Tactical Upland Boots were perfect, camo trousers or jeans and shirts, a Berretta Wind Barrier Long Zip sweater, a hat or cap plus a rain suit just in case was all I needed. A pair of high-quality gloves like Beretta’s Trident Competition are essential. Sierra Brava and Los Chañares have daily laundry service, so don’t over pack.
Tipping: Guides work very hard to ensure your hunt is a success, and a tip of $50 US a day is both appreciated and expected. In addition, it is customary to tip the household staff $50 a day, and tip any others who made your trip special.
388: Sierra Brava’s chef, Daniel Zeballos attends to grilling several cuts of meat for the mid-day asada.
359/360: The author with doves showing his scenic vantage point overlooking vast agricultural plains and mountains rising in the far background.
125: The guides ensure that all spent shells are collected along with all the shot birds.
393: Chief guide Eduardo Saraoreli, center, pours lunch-time drinks for Travis Shamburger (l.) Donal McClatchy (partly obscured) along with chef Daniel Zeballos and James Shamburger, as the mid-day asada or barbeque begins. Note the hammocks stretched in the background.
224: The palatial grounds of Los Chañares. Shooting can be but a few feet from the inviting pool.
161: Bret Johnson’s guide skillfully loads his Beretta 391 as his father Howard shoots another dove.
164/180: Father and son team of Howard and Bret Johnson work toward their second afternoon of 1,000 doves each at Los Chañares.
280: The welcoming hors d’oeuvres in front of Sierra Brava’s lodge following a long day in the field.
215: The author swinging on a fast-flying dove.
193: The pool and main lodge at Sierra Brava. The lodge is was a remount station for the Argentine pony express that has been modernized.