Editor’s note: Each Friday we post a story from the Safari Magazine archives. This week, we tag along on a hunt for red stag in Argentina. This story was first published in the January/February 2005 issue. Enjoy the adventure.
The heft of the Marlin rifle felt right for the job at hand. All we had to do was get within shooting distance of the big red stag, or ciervos rojos in this part of the world.
The introduction of European red deer to Argentina dates back to the early 1920s, when small populations were first released in Patagonia Province. The great Patagonian tableland, 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, is made up of rolling short-grass plains, sage and stony ground inlaid with crystalline rocks and volcanic, glacial and fluvial remains. The weather is mostly cold and dry, although showers can occur at any time during the red stag season, which runs from the first of March through July.
I traveled to Argentina with a group organized by Marlin’s Tony Aeschliman and Hornady Manufacturing’s Steve Hornady to experience the world-class red stag hunting I’d heard so much about and to tackle the challenge with a classic firearm – Marlin’s Model 444 lever action rifle. My hunt happened to coincide with the peak of rutting activity, which occurs anywhere from mid-March to mid-April.
After arrival at the Buenos Aires International Airport, we transferred to a domestic airport across town and boarded another jet for the two-hour flight to the beautiful city of San Carlos de Bariloche located east of the Andes not far from the Chilean border. Bariloche, overlooking picturesque Lake Nahuelhuapi (“tiger water” in Patagonian), looks like an alpine village and specializes in producing quality chocolate that would make the Swiss envious.
Algar Ranch assistant manager Javier Diaz met us at the airport and facilitated our gun permit details. The drive from Bariloche to the 65,000-acre Algar Ranch follows a scenic will and poplar-lined river for 65 miles. During the 30 minute drive from the ranches main gate to the lodge, Javier pointed out red deer, fallow deer, guanacos (llama type animals) and large rheas. Except for the game we saw, Algar ranch had the feel of Montana or Wyoming.
Tommy Dobie, a veterinarian and ranch manager, welcomed us to the spacious facility. Tommy not only manages Algar Ranch and its wildlife operations but also supervises the ranch’s intensive red stag breeding program, which utilizes the best bloodlines from Great Britain, Europe and new Zealand to produce world-class stags of more than 400 points, as measured by Safari Club International’s scoring methods.
Besides red deer, Algar boasts huntable populations of fallow deer, black buck antelope, Asian water buffalo, mouflon sheep, wild boar, alpine ibex and the world’s third largest population of the rare Pere David deer. After our hunting license details were completed, Tommy described to us what type of hunting we could expect.
“Rancho Algar has the perfect habitat for red deer and here they are free roaming,” he explained. “You’ll find this country vast and open, making it easy to spot game from high vantage points, much like the country you hunt in the western U.S. The hills here are intersected by broad river valleys and deep ravines.”
Most of the hunting involves spot and stalk either from horseback or four wheel drive vehicles. For those unable to walk or ride, a few blinds are strategically located overlooking game trails or feeding areas, but hunting on horseback is recommended for the best results. No calling is done here.
“Getting into high canyons and up and down escarpments will product the best trophies,” Tommy advised, “and that’s best done on horseback. Vehicles are mostly restricted to roads, which means you have to walk up and down the steeper areas.”
Tommy confirmed that we had indeed arrived near the peak of the rut – or the “roar” as they call it here. The echoing and somewhat haunting sounds made by rutting stags can be heard day and night on Algar Ranch for nearly a month. During this time you can stalk stags that are preoccupied with the hinds. Of course, when a stag is with a herd of hinds, there are many more eyes watching for danger.
The Rifle and Ammo
That afternoon, I sighted-in my rifle, a crucial chore following a long international flight with multiple airport transfers. It’s also necessary because most of us traveled from sea-level locations to the significantly higher altitudes of Algar.
The lever-action Marlin I’d brought, chambered for the .444 Marlin caliber proved to be an excellent combination for western Argentina’s red stag country. The spirit of the wilderness is felt in this colorful and rugged terrain, and the classic style of a lever-action is right at home here.
Marlin’s .444 was introduced in 1965. Designed for North American big game, the first rifles came with 24-inch barrels and were the most powerful lever-actions available. Employing the same basic action as the Model 336, the Model 444 was modified slightly to handle the powerful .444 cartridge, generating more than 1 ½ tons (3,180 foot-pounds) of muzzle energy.
The .444 cartridge was developed by Marlin’s director of research and development, Thomas Robinson, and Marlin metallurgist Arthur Burns. The case was formed from an unfinished .30-06 case that was drawn straight and then turned to create an extractor rim, rather than the rimless cannelure of the finished .30-06 case.
Marlin presented the project to Remington, which agreed to manufacture the new .444 ammo utilizing Remington’s own 240-grain .44 Magnum pistol bullet. In 1980, Remington added a 265-grain loading that enhanced the .444’s performance. Today, factory-loaded .444 ammo with 265-grain bullets is available from Remington and Hornady. Ammo for the .444 Marlin cartridge is also offered by CorBon in 280 and 305-grain loads.
Hornady, which has provided hand-loaders with a 265-grain bullet since 1965, also produces factory loads for the Model 444 in its Light Magnum lineup. Working together, Marlin and Hornady Manufacturing developed a new .444 load that uses Hornady’s 265-grain lead-tip, flat nose bullet, achieving a velocity of 2325 fps – an improvement of 100 fps over most other .444 loads.
The Model 444 holds five shots in a tubular magazine and, like all Marlin lever-actions, features side ejection, a solid top receiver that’s drilled and tapped for scope mounting, and a hammer block safety. The 22-inch barrel has deep-cut Ballard-type rifling featuring six grooves with a one-in-20 right-hand twist, which accounts for the rifle’s excellent accuracy. You will find this 7 ½ pound rifle, measuring only 40 ½ inches long, handy for most hunting applications.
The metal is deep-luster blued and the rifle has an American black walnut stock that features a pistol grip, fluted comb, cut checkering and a black rubber recoil pad. The stock’s satiny look and feel are well protected by Mar-Shield finish. Sling swivel studs are located on the forend metal band and on the buttstock.
The rifle comes standard with iron sights, featuring an adjustable semi-buckhorn folding rear blade and a front ramp sight with brass bead and a Wide-Scan hood. I topped my Marlin 444 with Leupold’s 1 ½ – 5X Vari-X III scope to complete the rig’s eye-catching look. An offset hammer spur is provided for use with a scope for right or left-hand shooters. With the rifle sandbagged on the shooting bench, I levered in one of Hornady’s new Light Magnum loads. After only a couple of shots and a slight scope adjustment to accommodate the higher Argentine altitudes, those loads produced tight, pleasing minute-of-angle groups.
Mornings at Algar Ranch are cold enough to make warm jacket, hat and gloves essential for the ride to the hunting areas, as well as for the inactive periods spent glassing from high and often windy lookout points.
I soon met my guide, Tito, a native of the region and one of Tommy’s senior hands. He and I spent our days covering ground on horseback and looking at more red deer than I ever imagined I’d see. His experienced eye was quick to spot stags worthy of a second look. But more often than not, he would disregard stags long before I lifted my binoculars for a look. His quiet, confident manner conveyed a sense of knowledge and experience. He obviously knew this country and its game. I adapted to horseback quickly enough, though it had been a few years since I’d last ridden. It helped that the horses were calm and tolerant of mixed signals for inexperienced riders. The traditional Argentine saddle, bound with rawhide and covered with a padding of sheepskin, proved to be very comfortable. Most of us experienced only mild soreness after the first day in the saddle.
Near noon on the third day, Tito and I slipped off our horses and tethered them to a low bush near the mouth of a draw. I quietly worked the rifle’s action to ease a cartridge into the chamber and pushed on the safety. Staying low, we used the cover of tall pampas grass in the bottom of the draw to move upward toward the ridgetop.
We’d followed the movements of a big stag for most of the morning. He was the king of his mountain and proved it with every step. He herded his hinds while heading off nagging interruptions by interloping stags – all the while roaring with defiance and determination.
He’d been a study in motion, following his hinds from the valley bottoms to hillsides and ridgetops. We waited him out, for this was certainly the biggest stag we’d seen over the last couple of days. Eventually, he cut a willing hind out of the heard and pushed her toward a quieter corner of the valley, away from the attentions of other stags. They topped the escarpment opposite our position and then dropped into a draw and out of sight. We watched for 10 or 15 minutes more, then made our move.
Mounting up, we sidehilled our way down to the alley floor, crossed the river and trotted to the mouth of the draw, where we tethered the horses. Carefully, we moved up the draw, stopping occasionally to peek over the grass. I began to doubt we were in the right draw. Suddenly, however, Tito dropped to the ground and indicated for me to do the same. We crawled forward to the end of a grassy patch and peered around its edge. There was the stag not more than 100 yards away, bedded next to the hind in open country where he could watch and rest.
I quickly set up a pair of Underwood Rest shooting sticks and from a kneeling position, I placed the rifle on their intersection and looked through the scope. The stag’s antlers filled the view – a sight forever etched in my memory. His head turned and he seemed to look right through me as I settled the crosshairs on his shoulder and pushed off the safety.
I kept slow, steady pressure on the trigger until the gun jumped in my hands. At the sound of the shot, the stag was up in an instant and charging downhill toward our patch of pampas grass. I quickly chambered another round and fired into his chest at 50 yards. Staggered by two lethal shots, the stag stumbled into a patch of pampas grass and disappeared.
Tito and I eased up and peered into the shadowy, chest high vegetation. I spotted the white tips of the animal’s magnificent dark antlers and eased into the cover, the stag seeming to grow bigger with each step. The antlers sported 12 long tines, with three point clusters crowning the tops of the heavy main beams – a dream trophy.
The first shot had taken the stag just behind the shoulder and passed through his body. The second punched through the point of his shoulder, angled rearward and came to rest just under the skin on the opposite side. That bullet was formed into a classic mushroom shape and interestingly, had picked up a sliver of bone that was firmly encased in the front portion of the lead. The recovered bullet weighed 248 grains, having retained 93 percent of its original weight.
When Tommy heard the news of our stag, he drove out to help Tito and me bring him in. During the photo session, I told Tommy that Algar Ranch had proved to be much more than anything I had expected. The hunt had been challenging and productive, and thinks to the skilled trophy processing by staffers who cleaned and bleached the stag skulls, we were able to bring the antlers back with our checked luggage.
The morning we departed Algar Ranch, I listened to that incredible roaring echoing through the valleys. It seemed a fitting salute to the bountiful hunt we’d enjoyed during the past week.–Joe Coogan