Rolling thunder had the ground shaking underfoot. A flash of lightning, and then another, foretold what was coming. But the doves were flying, so I wasn’t ready to run for the bus yet. My long-barreled 28-gauge was scoring regularly.
“Stay in the gun. Hard focus on the bird’s head. Stay smooth,” I kept reminding myself, perhaps to keep my mind off the rain that the sky promised. Just as I felt the first patter of rain, there was my favorite shot –an incomer right to left–passing on my left. The 20-gram 28-gauge load hit that bird very hard at about 25 yards.
The patter of rain increased a bit. I looked at my secretario, Jesus, and pointed the opened 32-inch barrels toward the Mercedes-Benz minibus. Jesus shook his head up and down, and followed that with, Si, señor.” He covered the case of shells with a small, zippered waterproof tarp, and we took off at a fast walk.
By the time we reached that bus it was raining a little harder, but the white aerial display coupled with the ear-thumping acoustics promised that ditches would soon be full, flat areas would turn into ponds and road negotiation would become questionable. Our head guide, Pablo, hadn’t sat in the driver’s seat very long before the rain started coming down harder. He turned the engine over and, one by one, he picked up the other shooters in our party while their secretarios ran for the nearest trucks.
Once our gang was in the bus and no longer getting drenched, we reconnoitered, trying to come up with a game plan. Pablo suggested we go for coffee. There was a gas station and restaurant about 25 kilometers away.
Proceeding slowly, the Mercedes had no difficulty getting through the muck of the field. Once we reached the road, with a good stone bottom, all we had to worry about was keeping the motor running because we had to drive through area after area where the road had flooded, with water a foot or more deep. All this time the rain kept pelting down with ferocity.
Once inside, we were dry and warm. Small cups of rich black coffee were placed before us. We sipped slowly, but the rain kept coming down. On our drive, I had predicted, “It cannot rain this hard for long.” My optimistic side showing, I followed up with, “We’ll be back to the shooting area soon.”
Well, we weren’t. The rain was relentless. The secretarios (called bird boys on previous shoots in South America) busied themselves at the restaurant pool table. Soon tiring of that game, they played “foosball” soccer. There was a table where six could play at a time. Some light peso betting took place, but the game was simply a good way to beat the rain outside.
We had reached the restaurant about 10:30 a.m. By 12:30 p.m. there had been no letup. Pablo had food brought in from the coolers in the trucks that accompanied us. A fire of mesquite-type wood was already going on the inside asado (a kind of cooking fireplace). The Argentines use the hot coals from the wood to cook over a grate. Hector, the cook, soon had chicken breast, sausages, tenderloin and other beef cuts sizzling over the coals. The rain drummed down as hard as ever.
There was no letup while we ate, or after. By around 2 p.m. it was just raining–no longer a deluge. I wondered about the safety on the blacktop surface highways, to say nothing of the dirt roads with their good, hard stone bases. By 2:30 p.m. the rain had slackened to a mere pitter-patter, so Pablo prepared us for departure. I was totally lost with all the turns we made, coupled with the heavily overcast sky. But I think Pablo took us back to near where we had been shooting in the morning.
Jesus and I took up a position adjacent to a copse of trees surrounded by a massive soybean field. He loaded two dry shells into my over-and-under. We took up the vigil, which lasted about two seconds. I had a right-to-left crosser, probably at 35 yards, but I missed. “En frente,” I told my partner, meaning “in front.” When I miss a dove, it is often in front, and I think that’s true for a lot of shooters.
My short-in-stature secretario had built a blind of cut bushes, but after shooting maybe a box of shells it became apparent that more birds were coming from the opposite direction. The solution was simple. We took up our waiting position on the opposite side of the little brush blind. The only problem was that the birds flying in the opposite direction were very high, and there I was standing with a diminutive 28-gauge tossing only 20 grams of shot–about 3/4 of an ounce. Interestingly, the shot size is one of my favorites for pest pigeons back at home–No. 7s, which you don’t see very often in American factory loads.
I had screw-in chokes for this over-and-under (a Caesar Guerini Summit Sporting, by the way), so I thought about making a choke change. For most of the trip to this point, I had found that I shot my best with the Skeet screw-ins. These have a mere .003 constriction, so I started passing up the long, high incomers, shooting only at birds within 40 yards. But even the doves at 40 yards were absolutely collapsing to my little 20-gram loads of No. 7s, at least when I did my part of pointing properly.
The rage in Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia these days is to have doves presented at extreme distances. Shooting 500, 750, even 1,000 shells a day is no longer the in thing to do. No, it’s high, high birds that shooters say they want, and the outfitters seem to work extra hard at getting shooters positioned where the tall tries can be frequent. But I’ve always resisted stretching the distance, even with a 12-gauge gun. I get a lot of satisfaction in shooting a high percentage, as well as seeing most of the doves hit very hard, i.e., with the center of the pattern. Of course, I don’t always perform to expectations.
But this seemed to be the day for me to stretch shots out a bit. It’s difficult to judge distances to an overhead dove. Whether the bird is 40, 45 or 50 yards is not easy to estimate. Stretch the distance even farther, and such estimates become even more difficult.
All I know is that I started shooting some very high doves, and regularly. You can really fine-tune your shooting on a high-volume shoot like this. Shooting doves at home, I might get only five or six shots some afternoons. If we miss four of, say, six shots there’s no frame of reference for what we did wrong. Believe me, there’s a lot that can go wrong on any given shot at a winged target. Did you have a good gun mount? Did you start the muzzle(s) swinging just an instant before you started the buttstock to your shoulder? Did you stay smooth throughout? Did you look extra hard at the bird’s head? Did you stay in the gun through the shot? How was your footwork? Was your left toe pointed toward where you shot at the bird? These are only a few of the many aspects of shooting to perform correctly to give you the best chance of being successful.
But it’s by shooting a lot that you can fine-tune all of the above and more, and especially your leads. How far you are in front of a bird at 25 yards is next to nothing compared to the lead you need on a dove at 70 yards. I was shooting out of a lodge called Pica Zuro, where I had shot three years before. The head guide at that time was Horatio Dartiguelongue. Horatio had encouraged me to take longer and longer shots. He’s not only an outstanding shooter at the longest of ranges, but he also talks about a shooting instructor from England, Simon Ward, who comes to shoot doves at Pica Zuro twice a year.
Evidently, Horatio learned a lot about long-range shooting from Ward, and he tried to impart many of the basics to me. He demonstrated on what I thought to be 70- and 80-yard crossing shots, and he had consistent success. He wasn’t bowling over every bird, mind you, but he was knocking plenty from the sky, and with so-called authority. He was shooting my Krieghoff 12-gauge with full chokes of .040 constriction. Horatio stressed anticipating where he was going to pull the trigger and immediately getting his feet and body set up for that position – he did that so his swing would not be bound up at trigger-pulling time. He also stressed a level and a smooth swing. I’m sure there were others factors he stressed, but that was three years ago.
While all the shots Horatio had demonstrated were crossers–up and out away from our shooting position–my rainy day shoot had the incoming doves flying more overhead. They were not directly overhead but a bit off to my left–so my preferred right-to-left crosser–but more of an overhead shot than one with the bird a greater distance to my left. I hate direct overhead shots on a high-volume shoot. I just don’t take them. The recoil on such a shot is simply more severe. Of course, in a duck blind, where I might take fewer than 10 shots a morning, I’ll take the straight overhead bird every chance I get.
But back to Cordoba. Because these doves were largely overhead, I think they were more vulnerable to the shot pellets than doves farther off to the side. Maybe that’s the reason I brought so many of them down with the small 20-gram load. Had the birds been farther off to my left, would that 20-gram load have been as effective? I don’t think so. Penetration at long distance becomes suspect. I think pellet penetration is easier on a bird that’s overhead compared to a crosser where the shot is more inclined to hit the side of the bird instead of the bottom (breast, etc.) of the dove.
This was an extended trip, for I was shooting for 15 days in two countries. The rainy day in Cordoba took place the next-to-last day. So by then I was well schooled via lots of practice in my shotgunning basics. I was doing all the right things, at least most of the time. I now view that rainy day in Cordoba as my best shooting day ever. Not only did I shoot a high percentage, but after more than 50 years of shotgunning, I also finally got a good feel for shooting doves at great distances. I just kept shooting them higher and higher. After one particularly long shot, I turned to Jesus and asked, “Cuantos metres?”
He came back, “Ochenta,” which in Spanish means 80 meters. Was Jesus being kind? Was he overestimating that distance? I don’t know. What I do know is the dove came plummeting down.