Wings Over Argentina

Sporting Classics (Jan-Feb 1992)
By Robert L. McKinney

Imagine the American West as it must have been 80 years ago.

Now throw in blood-thirsty piranha, 50-pound ostrick-like birds that graze like cattle, clouds of doves, and more ducks than you ever imagined possible.  Welcome to Argentina!

“Pato! Pato!” my birdboy, Yondi,whispered excitedly from just behind my right elbow.

 
My eyes followed his pointing finger toward a flock of silver teal at two o’clock high and speeding in our direction.

Crouched in a makeshift blind of green branches stuck into the mud of what had to be the biggest rice paddy in the world, I gave a couple of low whistles on a Lohman teal call that I’d brought with me from Virginia, on the off chance it might be able to speak Espanol del pato.

For a second,  thought the ducks hadn’t heard my whistling invitation or that they’d spotted us, but suddenly the squadron rolled into a 90-degree bank and put on full flaps for an approach at our decoys.

Having already humiliated myself as a wingshot earlier in the day – the result, undoubtedly, of jet lag – I bit my lower lip and waited until the ducks flared, then leaped to my feet and fired two quick shots at the leader and his left wingman.

 
I was rewarded with two very satisfying splashes and the broad grim of my barefoot birdboy.

“El gringo no es muy mal!” I announced with mock grandiosity in what I imagined to be fluent Spanish.

Yondi laughed and smiled broadly.

 
“El hombre es numero uno!” he lied with equal enthusiasm, obviously intent on a nice tip.

It was my first morning of hunting in Argentina, and I was already thoroughly in love with the country, its almost unbelievable wildlife, and most importantly, its gracious handsome people. During the rest of my six-day stay, my opinion of all three would be reinforced as I learned more about the second largest nation in South America.

The excitement had started less than a month earlier, in January, when Don Terrell invited me to accompany a group of six hunters on an expedition for ducks, doves and perdiz in Corrientes Province in the northeast corner of Argentina.  Terrell, owner of Wings, Inc. in Camden, South Carolina, explained that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, so it would be late summer when we arrived in Argentina, with daytime temperatures in the 80s.  I could go along, he said, if I didn’t mind hunting in short sleeves.

I glanced out my office window at the icy snow glazing the trees and listened to the frigid fingers of a near-zero wind rattling a loose storm window that a July mayfly hatch had kept me from repairing, gave Don’s proposal some two seconds worth of serious contemplation, and said I’m meet him in Miami.

It seemed like only a few hours had passed before we were aboard an Aerolineas Argentina 747 with its great high nose pointed at the Southern Cross and Buenos Aires.

Arriving in Argentina’s capital, we were served what the beef-loving Argies modestly call “lunch” (wine and inch-thick New York strip steaks) before boarding another jet for the 300-mile flight north to Santa Fe.  There we were greeted by  Richardo Anichini and Giuillermo “Willie” Popelka, two of our hosts from Estancia La Carolina, the massive 40,000-acre rice plantation where we would stay.  We crammed ourselves and gear into a boxy Renault van and a Mercedes 4-wheel drive “jeep” and settled in for the final leg.  The three-hour drive seemed remarkably short, due in part to the Argies’ complete disdain for speed limits, the excitement of the adventure unfolding around us, and the warm and outgoing congeniality of Richardo and Willie.

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the estancia, but the place was ablaze with both lights and more hospitality in the form of drinks, food, and the wide smile of Carolina Popelka, Richardo’s slim and beautiful wife for whom the estancia is named.

 
Despite our best efforts to stay awake, however, we had all been up and traveling for more than 30 hours so it wasn’t long until we found our rooms and collapsed into comfortable beds.

A few hours later we hit the deck, plunged our unsuspecting taste buds into the glories of Estancia La Carolina’s magnificently macho café, and headed for the rice fields.

 
The rising sun turned the eastern horizon into more shades of pink and red than a Van Gogh oil, and the air sounded not unlike downtown Baghdad as we blasted away at more ducks than I’d ever seen, much less shot at.  To borrow a phrase, the skies over Argentina were a “target rich” environment.

In Corrientes Province, the limit of ducks is quite liberal, in fact, the farmers throughout Argentina poison hundreds of thousands of waterfowl each year to try to protect their crops.  Estancia La Carolina, for example, had to replant its entire rice crop earlier in the year because ducks and other birds had scratched up and devoured most of the seeds.

That morning, we shot mostly rosy-billed pochards – Argentina’s “mallard” – in addition to teal, Brazilian ducks and a spattering of other species.  Rosy-bills weigh in at 2 ½ pounds apiece and the males have bright red bills.  Culinary-wise they taste pretty much like canvasbacks and are remotely related.

All around me ducks were splashing into the rice paddies, and I shot so much that by the time we headed back to the estancia for lunch and siesta, I was more than willing to let my aching upper body take a break.

 
I’d shot up slightly more than five boxes of high-based Winchester Super-X shells in three hours.  Considering that I was wearing only a t-shirt, that was sufficient to turn my right shoulder into a bright purple candidate for Salisbury steak.  Hey, I’m just as pseudo-macho as the next armchair Capstick, but right then I was glad to have packed a bottle of Ben-Gay and some shirts with shooting pads.

Richardo was very apologetic as we drove back to the estancia.

 
The biggest concentration of ducks was still farther south, he said.  Heavy rains had delayed the planting season, and the rice wouldn’t be setting heads for another month.  Though sincere, Richardo’s apology seemed odd, especially after I had just shot 40 ducks in a single morning.

At this point, it should be mentioned that although foreign hunters kill a large number of birds, it is the rare drumstick that goes to waste.

 
Estancia La Carolina alone has more than 70 families of plantation laborers, all of whom prize the meat of ducks, doves, and perdiz.  Few of the workers own firearms, but the high price of ammunition (about a week’s wages per box) makes hunting prohibitively expensive for them.

During our first lunch at the estancia, sometime between the fourth and fifth huge course, it became obvious that my resolve to drop a few pounds would have to be put on hold.

 
Not only do the Argies love to eat, they like huge servings of everything.  The justly famed, melt-in-your-mouth, grass-fed Argentine beef is their favorite entrée, of course, with the per capita consumption of beef being just slightly more than a pound per day for every man, woman and child.  Rice is also popular but – are you ready for this? – it costs nearly twice as much per pound as beef.  Every meal also includes a gigantic dessert, and fruit is passed around afterward along with the ever-present café.

Such huge lunches make it no wonder that Argentine country folk still adhere to the tradition of siesta, a three-to four-hour nap during the hottest part of mid-afternoon.

 
It is a delightful custom and, as they say, “When in Rome…”

About 4 p.m., we roused ourselves and headed for some large overgrown fields to hunt perdiz, a sort of quail/grouse bird taxonomically known as tinamou.

 
Corrientes Province has two kinds: The smallest and most plentiful are spotted tinamou, known as perdiz; the big red-winged tinamous are called coloradas.  Both erupt from the grass with a boom not unlike that of a big rooster pheasant, and both fly fast and low.  It’s supposed to be good luck for a hunter to shoot a colorada; I blasted away at two, but apparently the birds were keeping their luck to themselves.  I did manage to bag a couple of their smaller cousins, however.  One hunter in our group also killed several snipe.

Argentina can truly be described as a land of birds.  Hawks of many varieties, parrots and parakeets, storks and even ibises abound, but the most unusual species is the rhea (pronounced ray).  Semi-domesticated, the 40 to 50 pound bird resembles the ostrich and can look a grown man in the eye.  Although flightless, it can easily outrun a human.  Fortunately, the rheas are herbivorous and can often be seen grazing contentedly side-by-side with cattle.

That evening it was back to hunting pato, but this time we headed for a patch of swampy grazing land on the northeast side of the estancia.

 
Imagine the kind of vegetation you have in central Texas, say somewhere around Abilene, with grass, thorn bushes and scrubby mesquite, then flatten the whole thing out to resemble a pool table and flood it with about six inches of water.  Now you have some idea of the kind of county we were hunting.  In other words, some of the best-looking duck habitat in the world.  It also looks like one of the snakiest places on the planet, but our hosts assured us there were no poisonous snakes and, in fact, I never saw any during our stay, and being the ophiciophobic than I am, I sure looked.

By then I had decided to ditch my cheap plastic waders I’d brought along and change to tennis shoes for better mobility and comfort.

 
It wasn’t long before most of our party followed suit.  On a couple of days, in fact, I hunted in nothing but tennis shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt.  My only discomfort came from mosquitoes, a problem I pretty much solved by throwing on my faithful Shoo-Bug net jacket and trousers.

That evening we shot a fair number of white-faced tree ducks (

 
siriri), silver and ringed teal, and several Brazilian ducks.  It was mostly pass shooting though the tree ducks responded to our decoys and to both a wood duck whistle and a teal call.

By daylight on the second morning we were spread out in a former sunflower field and popping away happily at wave after wave of doves coming in to feed from what seemed to be every direction, speed, and altitude at once.

 
Sitting on one case of ammo and shooting out of a second, I was limited only by how fast I could shoot and reload.

If you really want to wring out a shotgun, there’s no better place than an Argentina dove field, and if your gun is going to fail, that’s when it will happen.  Most paloma are taken with Argentine-made, low-base shells, and though much improved over what they used to be, Argie shells are still less than the best.

My own estimation is that an Argentine 12-gauge dove load packs about the same punch as an American 20.

 
This creates problems for hunters who take semi-automatics because the low-powered shells frequently lack the power to drive the action, especially after they’ve had a chance to carbon up the chamber.  We had several models and brands of semi-auto along, and most of them jammed at one time or another or performed sluggishly.  If you plan an Argentina wingshoot, take your semi-auto if you want, but to be sure to bring along a double or pump.  Forget finding a gunsmith!

During our third afternoon at the estancia, Willie invited us to try our hand at fishing.

 
We piled into his powerboat and were soon four miles downriver at one of his secret holes.  Using borrowed tackle, it took less than five minutes for me to connect with what turned out to be one of the ugliest, snoutiest, toothiest, and downright quarrelsome 24-pound catfish I’d ever boated.  For genuine bad attitude about being caught, however, the catfish didn’t hold a candle to the 2 ½ pound piranha that I hauled in a few minutes later.  Judging from the angry snapping of its razor-like teeth, the piranha was obviously used to being in charge.  What scared me, though, was that I’d taken a swim in the river less than an hour earlier while waiting for Willie to gas the outboard.  His assurance that swimming is perfectly safe-unless you’re bleeding-didn’t make me feel much better.

To say that wingshooting and fishing in Argentina is fantastic would be an understatement.  Still, more than the sport, what remains vividly clear in my mind is its people; our gracious hosts, the birdboys, the young lady who cleaned our rooms and did our laundry; Susanna, our beautiful chef, and her husband, Julio, our waiter, and especially Chavy, who served as our interpreter.  All were marvelous, waiting on us hand and foot but somehow never giving the impression they were doing so.  It was, really, just friends entertaining friends.

And of course, none of us will ever forget Pedro, owner of the neighboring estancia who invited us to a sumptuous afternoon barbecue with himself, his attractive wife, Elsa, and the gauchos who help them run their sprawling cattle ranch.

 
Authentic Argentine cowboys, the gauchos shared with us their genuine smiles and music, their skills at rodeo, their wonderful food cooked over open eucalyptus fires, and several gallons of potent, locally-made red wine.  Although not one of the gauchos, to my knowledge, knew a word of English – and some, in fact, spoke only an Indian dialect – we somehow communicated with one another through smiles and gestures – a process well-lubricated by the vino tinto.

When we first arrived at Pedro’s place, we wondered how we would be received by the gauchos.

 
Likewise, they were probably a little apprehensive about meeting us, especially those who were seeing North Americans for the first time.  It didn’t take but a few minutes, though, until we realized that all of us were just fellow human beings who laughed, sang, danced, loved to eat, and weren’t above getting just a little drunk.  Well, okay…drunk enough that we wisely decided not to go hunting that evening.

The bond was strengthened even more when a couple of us accepted gracious invitations to try out their elegant and spirited horses and even to try some calf-riding during the rodeo, though we left the broncs for the pros.

Out last day at Estancia la Carolina came all too quickly.  After saying our goodbyes, we piled into the vehicles and headed south, all of us, I am sure, resolving to return.  I know I sure did.  We still had a full day in which to explore Buenos Aires, but not even the wonders of this delightfully European city could ever displace the warmth and excitement we had experienced in Corrientes Province.

In the years ahead, Argentina is sure to become more and more popular with wingshooters from around the world, and when this happens, it will sadly but inevitably change.  If you want the excitement of what may be the last great wingshooting experience on the planet, certainly in the Western Hemisphere, the time to act is now.  If you wait, you may miss it, and that would be a shame.

If You Want to Go

Arranging a hunt in Argentina is a complicated process, best left to a reliable booking agent who knows the ropes.  This is doubly true if you want to get the best possible hunt for the least amount of money.

With a top booking agent, the only thing you have to worry about is obtaining a passport and getting a good night’s rest before the flight.

 
All the really complicated stuff, such as gun permits and hunting licenses for each province are handled for you.  Although traveling to Argentina with guns can be a bit of a problem, Don Terrell and his associates in the both the US and Argentina had really done their homework, and I can honestly say that I’ve had more trouble with customs driving into Canada for an afternoon picnic.

When departing from the Miami airport, our party was zipped through ticketing, drawing hard looks from other customers who had stood in line for more than an hour.  And when we arrived in Buenos Aires after the more than eight-hour 4,400 mile flight, we were met at the airport and spirited through Argentine customs by Leticia Acosta, Don’s vivacious Buenos Aires associate.  On our return to Buenos Aires from Corrientes, Leticia had us checked into our Hotel, showered, and headed out for dinner just as another agent’s group of hunters, off the same plane, were lugging their bags into the lobby.

No visa or vaccinations are required to hunt in Argentina (visas are now required since 2010) and the water is okay to drink even though most restaurants, hotels, and estancia dining rooms serve bottled water to foreigners.

 
I deliberately drank several glasses of Estancia La Carolina tap water (in the name of investigative journalism) just to see if it would upset my stomach.  It didn’t, though I can’t say as much about the half-gallon of gaucho red wine I drank at the barbecue.

The best time to hunt in Argentina is from February to August for ducks, doves and perdiz.  Plan on shooting about two cases of shells during a six-day hunt, and if you really hit it right, you could shoot a case per day.

The cost of the hunt I took is $3450, which includes airfare from Miami, all licenses and permits, and ground transportation.  Your only out-of-pocket expenses will be tips (about $100 is enough to cover all the help), shells at $11-$13 a box, and whatever shopping you do in Buenos Aires.  With its hyperinflation, Argentina is not much of place to look for bargains except in leather and fine furs.