So You Like Bird Shooting?

If there’s a bird shooting paradise anywhere here on earth it has to be Argentina. Though the country offers phenomenal duck and goose hunting, and big game like Red stag, wild boar and mountain lion, Argentina — the province of Cordoba in particular — is best known for its dove shooting. Indeed, the Benelli people offer a semi-auto shotgun in 12 and 20 gauge that’s called the Cordoba model. It is estimated that some 15,000 hunters from around the world visit the country each year just to shoot doves. And why not? Where else on earth could one man shoot 15,208 doves in 14 hours, and another guy 10,335 in 10 hours, both setting world records doing so? It’s hard to get your head around such numbers, especially when here in the States going through a couple boxes of shells in a day is considered damn good shooting!

Photos like this, taken in the evening when the birds rise en masse to return to their roosting area are impressive, but do not offer quality shooting. There’s too many to track for more than a split second.
Photos like this, taken in the evening when the birds rise en masse to return to their roosting area are impressive, but do not offer quality shooting. There’s too many to track for more than a split second.

Equally mind-boggling is that each year all those shooters from around the world have not put so much as a dent in the population. The province of Cordoba claims to have some 30 million doves, but other provinces not as well developed for tourism as Cordoba, claim to have more than 100 million birds. The reason for such awesome numbers is that these doves do not migrate, and they have as many as four broods per year. Looked upon by farmers whose crops they ravage as being nothing more than flying rodents, it is estimated these ravenous birds destroy as much as 20 percent of the corn, sorghum, millet, wheat, soybean and sunflower crops, representing losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Bandaged fingers, bleeding from pushing shells into the magazine, are common. After one hand is too sore, you try loading with the other.

It wasn’t always like it is today. In fact, dove shooting and the infrastructure that supports it, i.e., the formation of outfitting companies with leases and places to put up guests who expect good food, accommodations, etc., really didn’t get organized until the late 1970s, which was about the time I first visited the country. My first hunt down there was in Patagonia for ducks and geese. My outfitter was Luis Sier, whose company, Luis Sier Safaris, is one of the oldest and best established in all of Argentina. In the 35 years he’s been in the outfitting business, Luis has hosted more than 27,000 clients. I’ve been back some 20 times since that first trip hunting waterfowl, partridge, red stag and boar, but most of my trips have been dove/pigeon shoots. Luis has leases in Cordoba, Patagonia, San Luis, Formosa and Salta provinces and he claims he has more than 300 million doves in the areas surrounding those leases. He feels that Cordoba has enough outfitters and dove shooters, including his own estancia, Riverside; that’s why he’s developing new areas in different provinces that he feels are as good or better than Cordoba.

My most recent trip was this past December, which is my favorite time of the year. It’s late spring down there and temperatures are still quite comfortable — high 70s and low 80s. It was my first visit to Luis’ newest estancia in San Luis province, which is south and contiguous to Cordoba, and about the same distance from the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, which is about 500 miles to the east. It’s about a one hour flight to either, but only a 20-minute drive to Luis’ estancia, Mememhue, while most of the Cordoba hunting areas require drives of two and three hours. That’s important to me because I hate having to sit in a car for that long, especially after spending so many hours in airplanes to get there.

Argentina’s excellent wines from the nearby Mendoza area are a part of every meal. Guided wine tours for non-shooters are easily arranged.
Argentina’s excellent wines from the nearby Mendoza area are a part of every meal. Guided wine tours for non-shooters are easily arranged.

Anyway, my son, Sean, and I, along with a friend, Mark Poulton, had the lodge all to ourselves that week. As is customary, we shot different areas each day, and though we did not experience the quantity of birds as we have in some other areas of Cordoba and Salta, we had all the shooting we wanted. There was a time when I was quantity oriented and could not get enough shooting; they had to drag me out of the blind for the traditional mid-day asado (cook out) and siesta. Tables, chairs and cots are set up in an established shady place near the shooting area where the camp chef prepares empanadas, grilled sausages, chicken, pork ribs, chops, beef tenderloin, skirt steak and more over hardwood coals. Then it’s a siesta before going back in the fields for the afternoon shoot.

I’ve long since evolved into a less bloodthirsty shooter, where I limit myself to 10 boxes of shells in the morning, and 10 in the afternoon; that’s 500 rounds or one case per day, and that’s more than enough for me. In fact, my son and I always share the same blind and bird boy, and take turns using the same gun. We find the chiding and banter on both good and bad shots far more enjoyable than being posted alone.

Another thing I like about Luis’ Memenhue lodge is that you have both pigeons and doves in the same shooting areas. We shot far more doves, but with most places I know of, you have to go to different areas if you want to shoot pigeons, and there’s always a premium price attached. Not so at Luis’ Memenhue Lodge.

Just one small street and a few of the nearly 4700 mausoleums that date back to 1822 found in the Recoleta Cemetary.
Just one small street and a few of the nearly 4700 mausoleums that date back to 1822 found in the Recoleta Cemetary.

When I said there were less birds than in most other places I’ve shot in Argentina, we still could have easily shot 1000 rounds a day if we were so inclined. Considering how many times I’ve down there, I don’t think I’m any better a shot than I was 30 years ago. Depending on the wind, and at what height and direction the doves are coming, I can shoot 20 percent or 85 percent, it just depends. I also prefer the kind of shooting we had at Memenhue. Birds were flying in smaller groups…from singles to 10 to 12, which I greatly prefer to having them come over in swarms. I find it’s so much easier to pick and stay with a single bird — as you must do if you expect to hit anything. When they come over like swarms of locusts and flare upon seeing you — as they always do — they dart, dive, and change direction so quickly that one second your tracking one bird, and a split second later another takes it place and is on a different vector. The result is that often you’ll not get off a single shot! At least that’s the way it is for me.

Over the years, I have met and shared dove-shooting venues with hundreds of fellow hunters and I am amazed how many — especially Americans — are interested only in getting to their destination, shooting as much and as long as possible, then getting back home as quickly as possible. For me, if I could not spend a couple of days in Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t go! It is such a beautiful city, one that compares favorably in all aspects to the great cities of Europe. Being the foodie and wine weenie I am, I so look forward to the superb restaurants that are everywhere. Being a city of 15 million, there are many sections I haven’t seen, but when it comes to dining, I find there are so many great restaurants in the Recoleta and nearby Puerto Madero areas, that I’ve found no need to go further. Two restaurants that are musts for me on every trip are Las Nazarenas across from the Sheraton Convention Center downtown, and Bice, in Puerto Madero. Las Nazaremas is a traditional Argentine steak house whose specialty is a 1 kilo (2.2 lb.) ribeye steak, but they also offer all kinds of carnivorous delights like lamb, goat, suckling pig all slowly cooked over hardwood coals, all of which can be seen from the street. Bice is an Italian restaurant, and a very good one. Like all the many restaurants in Puerto Madero, it’s on the Rio de la Plata and dining al fresco is a must, weather permitting.

Another estancia of Luis Sier Safaris is Riverside, in Cordoba province, a venue where Sundra has stayed many times.
Another estancia of Luis Sier Safaris is Riverside, in Cordoba province, a venue where Sundra has stayed many times.

I have always stayed in the Recoleta area of the city, named for its world-famous cemetery. Yes, a cemetery, one that was begun in 1822 behind the Our Lady of Pilar cathedral, which was finished in 1732. The cemetery covers 14 acres and contains nearly 4,700 burial vaults and mausoleums, all above ground, and every one unique. The structures range from very modest to elaborate marble buildings large enough to house a family. Anyone belonging to Argentine aristocracy — presidents, generals, famous poets, artists, and musicians…anyone who was a mover and shaker is buried there. Many mausoleums have steps going two stories underground where wooden caskets representing several generations of a family can be seen right from the street. Some are in such disrepair that you can actually reach in through the broken glass and touch the caskets. The place is divided into blocks like a small city, with tree-lined avenues separating them. I never tire of seeing the place and have visited it every time I’ve been down there. Entrance is free.

My favorite hotels are all within a block of the cemetery. This past December I stayed in the Hotel Etoile for the first time, and highly recommend it. Other places I’ve stayed are Loi Suites and Ayres de Recoleta. If you demand the best digs in town, that would have to include the Alvear Palace, which is in the Recoleta area, but several blocks from the cemetery. Another must-see place is Florida Street, which begins across the street for Parque de St. Martine. It’s a pedestrian-only street about 20 blocks long lined with shops and arcades selling clothes, shoes, leather goods, jewelry, you name it.

A view of Riverside, another of Luis Sier’s hunting lodges, this one in Cordoba province.
A view of Riverside, another of Luis Sier’s hunting lodges, this one in Cordoba province.

There are several airlines serving BA, but from the States, American, Delta, and United offer the most options. If your destination is Cordoba, you can fly directly there from Santiago, Chile, and bypass Buenos Aires, which I think is a mistake. If you do go through Santiago, recent changes in the law require that your gun(s) must be checked by police or army personnel against your U.S. Customs Form 4455. Problem is, or so I’ve heard, that those officials are in no hurry to perform that function, and the result is that you, and/or your gun, can miss the connecting flight to Cordoba.

If going through BA, your guns must also be checked by police there upon arrival to ensure the serial number matches the form you filled out weeks in advance. You then pay a stiff fee that about matches the $60 to $65 a day you’d be paying to rent a gun. It’s enough of a hassle that unless you absolutely must have your own gun, renting is the way to go. The most popular guns for rent at most estancias are 20-gauge Benellis and Berettas, but 12-ga. guns are also available. If you’re a great shot and shoot 28-ga., you’ll have to bring your own gun, for which ammo is usually more expensive than the $10 to $12 charged for 12- and 20-ga. shells.

If you’re a hunter who enjoys any form of wingshooting, you owe it to yourself to experience Argentina. No matter how much you’ve read about it, or the pictures and videos you may have seen, you simply can’t imagine what it’s like to see that many doves, to shoot that many shells, unless you’ve actually done it. And don’t forget Buenos Aires; to not spend time there would be to miss experiencing  one of the great cities of the world.– Jon R. Sundra

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