By Andy Hahn
Forty three year-old Rio de Janeiro-based American Andy Hahn, senior editor for Florida’s Sport Fishing Magazine, goes hunting in Brazil for a coveted gamebird not found in New Zealand and finds extraordinary sport he never imagined
APPROACHING QUICKLY, the low-flying flock of doves stood out in silhouette against the sky. “Pick one target, pick one target, “I mumbled to myself, hoping that mantra-like repetition of wingshooting’s cardinal rule would help me focus.
The shotgun made it up half way before dozens of flitting, darting birds scattered my concentration with rapidly beating wings. During the first 10 minutes of my Argentina dove hunting, I must have begun to raise my gun six times without ever actually shouldering it. Each passing flock overwhelmed me to the point of just watching them fly overhead while 1 laughed at my own helplessness.
Soon, however, I became accustomed to the sheer numbers of birds and settled into a comfortable routine of selecting individual targets, swinging the 20 gauge autoloader and squeezing the trigger. Pepe, a local youngster of about 15, helped mark downed doves and kept refilling the deep pockets of my shooting vest with shells. By 11 a.m., I’d burned nine boxes (225 shells total) and only dropped 18 doves. A rather dismal success ratio on the feathered rockets, I admit, but improving my wingshooting ranked as a personal goal on this trip. The first morning’s events made it obvious that I’d get plenty of practice Argentina dove hunting.
My hunt took place in the outlying areas of Cordoba, 690 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires, which is Argentina’s second largest city with just over one million inhabitants. Although Cordoba offers dove hunting only, other hunting options abound in Argentina. Taking advantage of these requires additional travel within Argentina. From June through August in Santa Fe and Corrientes provinces, for instance, hunters can pursue ducks and spotted tinamou (Nothura maculosa), called perdiz in Spanish and resembling a partridge. As well, big game species, such as Russian boar, blackbuck antelope, axis deer, red stag, and puma can be hunted in the Pampas region.
But it is the Cordoba region’s flat, fertile ground that serves as the country’s breadbasket, where sprawling farms produce wheat, soybeans, and corn. And the plentiful year round supply of grains combines with a rather mild climate to produce another huge cash crop: the eared dove (Zenaida auriculata).
Eared doves range widely throughout South America. The species is found from (central Argentina and Chile to as far north as Venezuela and beyond. Favorable conditions fuel a tremendous avian population boom in Cordoba, with an estimated 40 million doves in the region.
While driving back to the lodge after a hunt, guide Roberto Grasso, pointed toward a wooded strip between freshly ploughed bean fields. “The doves we shot this morning came from that stretch of woods. It measures about half a kilometer wide and six kilometers long -full of birds. And it’s just one of several large roosts around here,” he said.
Although doves are listed as gamebirds, no seasons or bag limits govern their harvest in Argentina. Local farmers view doves as crop destroying pests that, despite considerable hunting pressure, seem to become more numerous each year. While the ever-increasing dove population takes its toll on grain fields, bird hunting serves as a self-sustaining resource that brings benefits to several different groups. First, outfitters and their employees earn a living by catering to visiting hunters. Second, farmers gain a method of pest control, as well as additional income by leasing hunting rights to their property. Last, but certainly not least, visiting sportsmen enjoy fantastic Argentina dove hunting and are willing to pay handsomely for the privilege.
Jose Luis Grasso, owner of JJ Cacería Outfitters, figures that 10,000 to 14,000 dove hunters come to Cordoba annually, served by about 50 registered guides. “Peak season runs from March through September,” he says. “It’s not that the shooting is any better then, because we enjoy consistent, reliable hunting on a year-round basis.”
A typical package includes meeting clients at the Cordoba airport and helping with the firearms importation process for those who bring their own shotguns; transportation from Cordoba to the hunting area; lodging, meals and beverages; transportation from lodge to each day’s hunting spot; hunting license; Spanish/English interpreters; and bird boys to help carry shells and retrieve downed doves.
Planning and preparation preclude any successful Argentina dove hunting outing. This is why it is almost impossible for a foreigner to simply drop into the area and find good dove hunting. Almost all hunting takes place on private farmland and much time is spent scouting for dove roosts and studying the changing flight patterns.
“When my scouts find a good roost, I do my best to secure hunting rights on properties surrounding it,” Grasso explains. “My goal is to have at least one spot on each side- north, south, east, and west- so we can position clients for steady shooting no matter which direction the birds are flying.”
While doves may use the same roost year-round, their flight patterns change according te which grain fields offer prime feeding opportunities. Quality outfitters do their homework and place hunters between the roost and the feeding area. In the morning, hunters get shots at birds heading out to feed. In the afternoon, they intercept doves returning to roost.
The effectiveness of this strategy became quite evident on the second day of my hunt. Guides dropped off our group of five hunters along a fence row between cultivated fields. allowing about 15 meters between each man. We piled dead bushes on the fence to form improvised blinds and break up our outlines.
THEN, FACING SOUTH, WE SETTLED in for several hours of shooting as wave upon wave of doves flew past.
After relaxing in the shade for a short while- summer temperatures in Cordoba range from 18-31C with winter temperatures 6-19C- we got back to business. Each hunter returned to his spot along the fenceline, but this time we faced north to greet doves on their way back to the roost. Marcelo, another guide, picked up a couple of birds and brought them to me to examine. “Look at this,” he said, touching a dove’s tightly stretched gizzard. “Full of corn. They’ve been feeding and are now heading back to roost.
I’ve always been a do-it-yourself type, so I had some trouble getting used to a bird boy standing behind me awaiting orders. Though some of the ‘boys’ are fully grown men, they are all eager to fetch cold drinks, carry cases of cartridges, and clean up the area after a hunt. It was also quite convenient to have a helper to open boxes and feed me cartridges. I learned one every important detail on this fast and furious dove hunt: don’t look up while reloading! It seemed that every time I’d push one or two shells into the magazine, another flight of doves zipped by and I’d feel compelled to raise the gun and shoot before I could completely reload the magazine.
‘High volume’ has become an appropriate and commonly used term to describe Argentine dove hunting. The statistics associated with the sport are truly staggering. Millions of doves inhabit the region and tens of thousands of hunters visit annually.
Consider that each hunter shoots about 1000 shells per day on average, and many burn 2000 or more. There is even an informal club for shooters who manage to bag 1000 doves in a single day. I witnessed an induction to this elite society when a 17 year-old hunter in our group dropped 1006 doves on our last day. The young sharpshooter required 1500 shots to achieve the feat.
The trick to connecting with these fast-flying birds involves paying attention to wingshooting fundamentals and following your instincts without thinking too much. Due to the rather flat terrain, approaching doves are visible from distances of 400 meters or more. Shouldering the gun too early makes it difficult to correctly track and lead the darting, weaving birds. The better shooters select an individual bird in the group and follow it with their eyes until it comes within range. Then they bring up the gun as the muzzle and eyes track the target, so the barrel has actually begun to swing before the butt nestles against the shoulder.
As the muzzle swings past a bird, squeeze the trigger. If the bird doesn’t fold, a quick follow-up shot usually proves fatal, because by now you’ve dialled into the target’s speed. And if a bird drops with the first shot, there’s usually time to switch to a second individual in the group to try for a double. When birds fly in tight groups, it’s not uncommon to score a “dos por uno,”- that is, dropping two doves with a single shot. I even saw one hunter kill four birds with one shot!
Although doves are not especially skittish, they tend to flare away or fly higher when they see movement on the ground. If these flying torpedoes are tough to hit when caught unaware, imagine trying to draw a bead on doves performing evasive maneuvers! Drabcolou`red or camouflage clothing will improve shooting opportunities by helping hunters blend into the surroundings. Standing behind some cover keeps a hunter concealed and offers shots at lower flying birds.
Hunters preparing for this experience face a dilemma- to bring your own gun, or rent from the outfitter? Carrying one’s own shotgun offers the confidence, comfort, and accuracy of using a familiar firearm. Entering Argentina with one or two sporting arms is a rather straightforward process, as long as you follow clearly outlined procedures. But ,will your gun stand up to firing 1000 or more rounds per day (U$S 10 per box of 25) for several days in a row? I asked one member of our group why he’d stopped shooting his over and under 20 gauge for a stretch in the middle of the morning.
“The barrels got so hot that the breech wouldn’t open! I had to rest the gun for 15 minutes before I could reload,” he told me.
Reputable outfitters offer rental shotguns to clients (about U$S 40 per day), who prefer not to bring their own. I opted to renting a Beretta 303 autoloader on this hunt and had no regrets. The gun performed flawlessly for three days, then jammed on my fourth afternoon of shooting. Prepared for such emergencies, the guide immediately produced another 20 gauge and my hunt suffered no interruption.
Jose Luis Grasso keeps a dozen or more Beretta autoloaders on hand for rentals because these guns and their replacement parts are readily available in Argentina. “It seems I spend more time with my gunsmith than with my wife,” Grasso jokes. “Despite regular maintenance and frequently replaced parts, a shotgun usually lasts only one year at this crazy pace. Beretta makes fine guns. The problem is that they were not designed to withstand the punishment of firing several thousand rounds per week, month after month. After a while, they simply wear out.”
Speaking of wearing out, proper protection for your body should be brought when you come to Cordoba. A shooting vest with a thick shoulder pad softens the pounding when you’re pulling the trigger a hundred times per hour. Earplugs shield your hearing from continuously barking guns, while a hat and glasses prevent injury to the eyes from lead falling from the sky. No matter how careful you and your companions may be, spent charges of shot occasionally rain on fellow hunters. On one windy afternoon, I got smacked in the chest by plastic shotshell wadding three different times. The hunter to my right was observing all safety rules, but when he fired at birds ahead of us, the wind pushed the wadding back at me. Although the hunter to my left never brought up the subject, it’s quite possible that my wadding may have fallen on him.
Every hunter expressed the same amazement at the sheer number of birds and non stop action. One even explained his plan of attack in this target-rich environment. “I started out shooting at birds passing left to right. When I got tired of that, I shifted my feet to practice on birds moving right to left. Then I only took shots at birds coming straight on. I just kept adjusting my position to practice different types of shots all day,” he said.
I thoroughly enjoyed my four-day dove hum, however, three days of this high-volume shooting would have sufficed. The intensive practice went a long way to making me a better shooter. I began my last morning in the field by bagging 30 doves with the first 100 shots- still not championship level, but much better than my first day’s performance. As my wingshooting improved, the numbers suddenly had no more importance, so I quit tallying birds as they folded and dropped.
I fell into an easy rhythm of swinging, squeezing, and reloading (while looking down). And as the next flock careened toward me like wild. wind-driven leaves, I heard myself mumbling: “Pick one target, pick one target.”
Taken from Andy Hahn, “Doves of Argentina”, Fish and Game New Zealand: January 2005, issue 47.