Anna, Get Your Gun

For teenager Anna Ackerman, a Virginia mid-summer trip to mid-winter Uruguay with her parents was the stuff of dreams. It would be the 14-year-old’s first time traveling internationally, staying in a luxurious lodge, eating magnificently prepared wild game, and getting to see a world and culture far distant from her rural King George home in Virginia’s historic Northern Neck.

Plus, she’d get to be a trigger puller on a mixed bag bird hunt.

I “won” the hunt with Uruguay Lodge, part of the David Denies  stable of fabulous wingshooting and big game destinations, during the live auction at a Fredericksburg banquet. It was sold as a hunt for two and I offered the other half to my friend Bob Ackerman, owner of King George Welding and an avid outdoorsman.

Our original two-man hunt soon became a family affair, with Ackerman opting to bring his wife Amy and their daughter Anna. My wife Maria also joined the entourage.

Ackerman began coaching Anna in archery at a very young age. At 13, she won the Virginia 4-H Shooting Sports Program’s compound bow championship, besting a large field of boys and girls in the Junior Division with a score of 485 out of a possible 500. She successfully hunted deer with her bow but her shotgun chops, especially with fast-flying birds, were unrefined. Uruguay would help hone her scattergun edge.

The four-day hunt in early July included two mornings of perdiz hunting over pointers, two mornings of duck hunting and four afternoons of high-volume dove blasting.

South American dove shoots are well-known for their ability to bruise shooting shoulders and burn out shotgun barrels. With Anna being a newbie, we looked for a more genteel experience. And, neither Ackerman nor I were keen on enduring four days of 12-gauge thumping. We brought two Mossberg SA-28 guns, including the new bantam model, sized for younger and smaller shooters. A Mossberg SA-20 and a Mossberg International Silver Reserve II over/under with both 28- and 20-gauge barrels rounded out the gun case.

The light-recoil, gas-operated 28-gauge was perfect for Anna. The gun points exceptionally well and weighs just under 6 pounds. We broke in the new guns in Virginia, busting clay targets with Winchester AA Super Sport sporting clays ¾-ounce loads with the 28s and Winchester Super X high brass 1-ounce loads with the 20-gauge option. As we shot them, both Ackerman and I knew it would be easy to fall in love with these highly affordable, sweet shooting 28-gauges

In terms of killing power, those small bores will knock down game birds just as handily as a 12-gauge, but you need to ensure the birds are in reasonably close range, ideally inside 30 yards or a little further. Doves, woodcock and quail are obvious gamebird candidates, but birds as large as pheasants can be brought down with good, responsible shooting.

While coaching Anna, it was apparent the SA-28 guns were her favorites. The shooter-friendly recoil helped her maintain proper shooting form with cheek welded to the stock. Discomfort increased notably when shooting the larger bore guns.

Stately Lodge

We landed in Montevideo, slightly bleary eyed from the overnight flight from Miami. The outfitter’s representatives met us at the airport and quickly cleared our firearms into the country. We hopped into two trucks for the nearly four-hour drive to the lodge, a few kilometers from the small town of Young, in Uruguay’s Río Negro Department.

The worn, ranch road leading to the lodge is bordered by towering eucalyptus trees, more than 100 years old and teeming with bright green wild parakeets. A greeting suitable for an old “Fantasy Island” episode awaited. Our hostess Mercedes de Castro and the entire staff stood on the steps, flutes of champagne ready for a welcoming toast. We settled into our rooms and made a hasty reconnaissance of the facility.

Uruguay Lodge is one of the newest in the David Denies’ lineup; new, that is, in terms of being an upscale hunting operation. It’s also one of the operation’s oldest lodges. Appearing castle-like from the exterior, the mansion was constructed in the late 1800s as the main house of sprawling Valle de Soba ranch, named after a location in Cantabria, Spain.

It was once owned by a man who would later become Uruguay’s president. An eccentric Italian count was another owner. The current occupants like to joke about a room now used as a wine cellar beneath the kitchen. Folklore has it that a previous owner was a jealous sort and that room was where he would safely stash his wife when he was away on business!

The lodge has Old World elegance. High interior ceilings promote coolness in the summer. Some bedrooms and other common rooms have cozy fireplaces. The pinewood floors are original, as well as the intricate ceramic mosaics in the main hallways. The center of the building once had a retractable roof and was used as an indoor courtyard or atrium where plants flourished.

Mercedes and her husband Bernardo Barren added a beautiful back addition, with full window views of the surrounding pastureland, an indoor, open-sided fireplace and a large brick “parrilla” where traditional South American grilling is done over wood fires.

“You must be hungry. We’ll have lunch once you settle in and then you can head out to hunt,” Mercedes said. Lunch, it turned out, was a thick cut of the most succulent, tender Uruguayan beef tenderloin imaginable. A siesta seemed more appropriate than saddling-up for a ride to the dove roost, but away we rode.

Great Gunning

Benjamin Bono, the lodge’s lead hunting guide and a former player on Uruguay’s national rugby team, prioritizes the region’s mixed bag wingshooting.

“First, is perdiz. We have the best perdiz hunting in the world,” he declared.

No arguments here. I could’ve perdiz hunted every day. Perdiz, translated to “partridge” in English, are spotted tinamou, small brown birds about the size of a Hungarian partridge.

Bono led the first hunt and Barren the second. Barren is a lawyer by profession, and a bird hunter and dog trainer by passion. The English pointers and setters they use to hunt perdiz are adept operators, enthusiastic hunters that delight in displaying their unique personalities as they sweep the field for birds and lock on points, awaiting the guns to arrive near their side.

The first morning’s hunts were not far from the lodge. Muse (pronounced “Mussa”), a 4-year-old English pointer, worked the first couple fields. We always moved into the wind, which was blowing hard enough that morning that you had to lean into it a bit.

Muse crisscrossed the scrubby field with controlled abandon, pointing many birds. We constantly adjusted our approach to sustain the best downwind angle. Perdiz are unpredictable, sometimes ranging far ahead of the dogs, other times holding in a clump of cover so tight that you nearly step on them. When you find one, another is often nearby.

Ackerman, using the Mossberg Silver Reserve II over/under, had his eye dialed-in a little better than mine that first morning. He regularly gave Muse and, later, her slightly older English setter partner Arle, birds to fetch.

I also used a 20-gauge. I knocked down a few, missed more and always snapped back with a lame excuse.

Bono had a way of gently jabbing before letting you down easy after easy misses. “Look, you don’t have to pretend to be a good shot,” he said with a smile before immediately giving me an out by pointing out it had been nearly a year since I shot any bird on the flush.

Our next perdiz outing, at a large farm about 30 minutes from the lodge, featured gently sloping pasture, mostly covered in a lush mat of low-growing alfalfa and rye. Barren worked the dogs, first Arle, and then an enthusiastic Gordon setter puppy named Fofy.

This morning’s hunt saw a reversal of fortunes. I was lasered-in with the 20-gauge. Except for a couple that flushed early, few perdiz escaped – mostly on Bob’s side (sorry, buddy!) Maybe Bono’s “pep talk” helped. Then again, I think it was more of a “practice makes perfect” result.

We easily walked 6-8 miles each morning. It would be easy to get hooked on perdiz hunting.

“Next,” Bono said, “is dove hunting. We see incredible numbers of birds with action varying by day and weather conditions.”

We hunted adjacent to Uruguay’s largest dove roost, changing locations daily. The number of doves returning in late afternoon was overwhelming. Our SA-28 shotguns had fiver factory choke options. We quickly switched from improved cylinder to modified when it became apparent the birds were flying a little higher than we were used to over cut corn or sunflower fields in the states.

With each shot along the line of fire, every bird seemed to juke, dive and jive. It took Anna a while to warm up to the challenge of picking out single birds in flocks ranging from five to 50. Sky-busting high birds was tempting, but unproductive. Flock shooting a group – pray and spray – was a similar waste of ammo. Eventually, though, she figured out the appropriate lead for the conditions and began downing some doves.

The lodge charges $17.50 per box of 28-gauge shells. I was a judicious shooter, at least on three of the four days, limiting myself to a few boxes each afternoon. For me, it was about quality versus quantity. The Ackermans made the most of it, racking up a pile of birds and an even bigger pile of spent shotshells.

 “That’s okay,” Bono would call out after a series of misses. “Nobody is keeping count.”

After each dove shoot, the hunting assistants break out a picnic basket with a nice bottle of local wine. It’s a wonderful way to end a day of wingshooting.

“Finally,” Bono said, “are ducks. The shooting is over ponds. Pigeons often fly by and present shots.”

Duck shooting was, perhaps, the easiest hunt. The ducks usually decoyed right in and we sat on stools in a blind at the water’s edge without a need for waders or other accoutrements North American waterfowlers are used to.

The pigeons are wild, not your typical barn or city park pigeon. They’re also fine eating. Several species of ducks zipped into our decoys, including Brazilian teal, speckled teal, yellow-billed pintails and more.

On our final morning hunt, I shot an autoloader and, amazingly, scored my first triple ever on a trio of ducks that swung over the pond. One fell in front, another to the left. The final duck dropped as it flew just a few yards over the top of the blind. A few minutes later, three more ducks set their wings. We fired simultaneously, with Bob dropping the right-side bird, Anna the center, and me the left. Fist bumps and high fives ensued.

The lodge limits each hunter to four boxes of shells on the duck hunts. We never used our full allotment, but the ample birds were enough to satisfy any trigger itch.

Duck hunts end about 9 a.m. but it’s an early start, especially when travel is involved. Perdiz hunts begin around 8:30 a.m., following a nice breakfast.

Fantastic Food

Ackerman’s interest in making a South American hunt was partly stoked by the fact he created a stainless steel “cross spit” that we used to roast a whole deer on “asado” style a couple years ago as part of a Sportsman’s Channel show hosted by our friend Scott Leysath, The Sporting Chef. I told him the style of food preparation in Uruguay would be similar.

Mercedes has a background in art history. Cooking is her passion and she researched and developed a beautiful cookbook called “Feasting on Wild Birds” that includes many of the recipes enjoyed at the lodge. And what can you say about the food except that it was consistently spectacular?

Executive Chef Edward Cardona hails from Colombia. Sous pastry chef is Peruvian Oscar Vegas. Both are “nomad chefs,” based in Argentina at resorts, beaches and hotels in the summer, and the hunting lodge in the winter.

Full breakfasts were available every morning. I spoiled myself with eggs benedict daily. Lunch featured multiple courses. Dinner was a casual, yet gracious, multi-hour affair, with passed hor d’oeuvres, several appetizers and fine wines. In South America, expect grilled or roasted meats to star at most meals. Besides the welcoming filet, we dined on skewered perdiz with lemon risotto, duck burgers, rolled skirt steak (cooked on the inside grill), pork, dove curry, lentil soup with passion fruit cheesecake and more.

Our outdoor asado experience was a side of lamb, with crispy beef tongue and pea soup appetizers.       Watching Cardona hand-grind with a large mortar and pestle an incredible chimichurri using spices, seasonings and chopped, dried peppers, garlic, parsley, basil, rosemary and more was fascinating.

A highlight came when the Ackermans shared that the third night at the lodge was also their 30th wedding anniversary. I snuck into the kitchen and told the chefs, asking if they might whip up a special dessert. Vegas’ eyes lit up with excitement at the opportunity and he immediately began making a beautiful cake served by the entire team.

We returned to the lodge after the final duck shoot to finish packing and enjoy early lunch before traveling back to Montevideo. The staff cleaned our guns and helped load the van. Leaving such a place is bittersweet. You’re only there for a, seemingly, fleeting moment. The wingshooting adventures pass in a flash.

For Anna Ackerman, it was the dawn of what she hopes is a lifetime of travel and adventure. For now, though, she knows the good old days of fine dining may be in the rearview mirror. As we headed down the eucalyptus-lined lane from the lodge, she looked wistfully at her mother. Her eyes betrayed a question as much as her statement, “I’ll never have food that good again.”–Ken Perrotte

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