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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I have hunted ducks, doves, pigeons, blackbuck antelope and wild boar in Argentina. But red stag is the game animal that keeps drawing me back to the land of the gauchos.
On this trip, we would hunt at Algar, one of the most well known lodges in the world for red stag hunting. The owner and manager, Liliana Saccomano, has a charismatic personality and has been participating in SCI conventions and fundraisers for a long time. We were sure to enjoy great hospitality and hunt quality trophies.
Five hunters were at the lodge. Four of us were friends and the fifth we got to know at the lodge. My father had flown in from Brazil, Troy Lutze from Wisconsin and James McCarthy from Pennsylvania. The fifth hunter was Jerome Powers, who is from Texas but works part of the year in Oman.
Algar’s 60,000-acre private ranch is located 60 miles north of the beautiful city of San Carlos de Bariloche, in the province of Neuquen. This was everyone’s first time in Patagonia and we were all thrilled with the surroundings. The scenic and hilly terrain is surrounded by rivers and furrowed by streams. The vast, open country makes it easy to spot game from high vantage points. The hunting season for red stag opens at the end of February and lasts until the end of July. Algar also has one of the world’s largest populations of Pere David’s deer and is the only place in the world where it can be hunted free range.
All of us were seeking an entry-level stag, which means antlers that score up to 320 SCI points. We wanted to hunt a 40,000-acre portion of the ranch and were warned it could be difficult because the peak of the rut was long gone and most of the big stags had already headed back toward the high mountains.
The climate at the ranch is quite arid, especially during the fall. If not for snowmelt forming rivers and streams, it likely would be too dry for the red deer to survive. This part of Patagonia is similar to some parts of New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.
The hunting was mostly on horseback. The lack of cover and trees made it difficult to get closer than 100 yards from our quarry. Although reddish in color, they blend in quite well with the native grasses.
The afternoon hunt was long and tiring. We went up and down many mountains and saw nothing but a few females. These cows were alone, which meant they either were no longer in heat or their harem male had already been taken by one of Algar’s many clients. As the day started to fade, I was anticipating a nice shower and a good meal when my guide, Daniel Millapi, spotted a nice male and five to seven females. It was like guzzling a gallon of Red Bull. Suddenly we were ready to do whatever it took to get within shooting range.
Fortunately, the deer were in a canyon with lots of small trees and bushes, which served as cover for us. We tied up our horses and set off on foot. Daniel seemed to have a GPS device wired into his brain. We marched straight to the spot where we had last seen the stag. Five minutes later, I was sitting on the ground with my rifle propped on my bipod, watching the stag through my scope. The setting was like a painting, with the stream in front of the majestic stag and the female red deer in the background.
The stag looked straight in our direction. He had by far the largest set of antlers I had ever seen and I was waiting only for confirmation from Daniel to squeeze the trigger. Daniel was reluctant because the stag had not yet turned sideways and he wanted to make sure there were no broken tines before giving me the OK. After a few tense seconds, the stag turned and took a few steps to the side. We knew for sure it was at least a 14-pointer. My .300 Win Mag roared loudly and the thump of the bullet hitting the target was clear.
The stag ran about 30 yards before folding up. We had to cross the stream to go get to it and there were a few anxious moments spent finding the shallowest path. But I finally was able to lay my hands on this beautiful trophy.
The stag exceeded my expectations. It had a total of 16 points if you included a small point on the left antler. My shot had been perfect and the only drawback was that it was now too getting too dark to take pictures.
It was a bittersweet feeling taking my stag on the first day of the hunt but it turned out to be the right choice. First, because he had no broken tines, which is quite unusual late in the rut. Second, because I did not see a bigger stag during the following four days of hunting.
What was I to do now that I had already taken my trophy? Jerome had mentioned on the way to the hunt that Algar offers management stags for only $500. It had to be for an 11-pointer or smaller, but I still could not believe the price and we were all excited about the opportunity to hunt a second deer.
On the second day, Jerome got his trophy stag, which scored the highest among our group of five. The third day, Dad and Troy got their trophies in the morning and James shot one in the afternoon. We were now ready for our management stags, although Dad decided not to hunt one because he was running out of wall space at home.
The following days I hunted hard for my 11-pointer, but it soon was Thursday and I still had not had success. Meanwhile, Dad had joined me because the trip now was about enjoying ourselves and doing some father-and-son bonding.
Our plan for the early morning was to ride alongside the vegetation in a canyon where Daniel had seen a nice 11-pointer several times. The previous day we had spotted a small 12-pointer there and also a group of wild boars. If we could push the stag out of the brush, we would have a chance to shoot because it would be slowed down climbing up a steep mountain to escape.
Daniel chose to move away from the streambed and climb a nearby mountain to glass. When we reached the peak, the stag we had been looking for and his harem of five cows emerged from the brush. Although he had only 11 points, we could see he had lots of mass and long points. I was excited, but we were at least 500 hundred yards away, with no chance of a shot.
We kept watching as the cows sought cover in the thicket. But for some reason the male chose to make his way up another peak. Daniel said it was the first time he had seen a red stag act so elusively when hunters were so far away. Perhaps the sixth sense animals seem to have told the stag it was safer to run for the hills.
There was no way we could stalk the stag uphill because there was no cover and we would have spooked it even more. So we waited until it cleared the top of the mountain, then set off on horseback.
It took about 20 minutes to climb down from our perch, cross the stream, and then climb the other peak. We stopped the horses about 20 yards from where we had last seen the stag. Dad stayed with the horses so our stalk could be more effective. As we cleared the crest of the mountain, we came to a plateau with good visibility. There was no sign of the animal. We could only assume the stag had crossed the plateau and was now moving down the other side of the mountain.
As we moved across the plateau and headed downhill, Daniel started the unmistakable crouch-down stalk that will make your heart race even if you’ve done it hundreds of times before.
We still had yet to see the deer. With little cover around we should have been able to spot it, even if it was out of range. We were about ready to head back when I spotted the deer trotting away from us about 150 yards off. I quickly got into position to shoot but there were no trees or stumps to prop up my rifle and I would be shooting at an odd angle, downhill on rocky soil. I didn’t feel confident shooting at a moving target that was now more than 200 yards away.
Daniel told me the deer would eventually stop and look back. And at about 270 yards, it stopped and stared at us. I tried to get a shot off but I was breathing heavily and I thought the distance might be too great. To add to my indecision, I kept asking Daniel if this was really the 11-pointer we had seen because its antlers looked too huge for a management stag.
I did not want to kill the wrong animal so I waited for Daniel’s OK before shooting. But his reply never came and the stag disappeared over the next hill.
Then I noticed that Daniel had put his fingers in his ears to protect them from the noise of my rifle. No wonder he hadn’t answered my question.
I explained to him that I was not ready to risk just wounding the stag and that I hadn’t felt good about the shot. Daniel smiled and said to me, “No hay problema. Asi es la caceria” (No problem, that’s hunting).
Would it have turned out differently if I had taken an extra step? Maybe. Hunting skills come through experience, trial and error, taking chances, making mistakes and seizing the moment. That is why I always look forward to my next hunting trip. No matter the country, game species or method of hunting, I will always learn something to help make me a better hunter.
The hunt ended with the five of us taking eight stags in five days. Thanks to Algar and to Liliana’s awesome attention to detail, there were zero problems or surprises. It was another successful hunt in South America, with new friends made and a new region of the world explored.– Pedro Ribeiro
Have you ever had any interest in going to Argentina on a dove hunt?” An innocuous question, or so I thought. The answer that followed, however, did take me a bit by surprise. As my father looked intently at me and replied, “A hunting trip to Argentina has always been on my ‘bucket list,’ but I think that time has passed me by.”
For Dad, at 78 years old, the clock has definitely been ticking and, even as surprised as I was by Dad’s answer, sweeter words I’ve never heard spoken! Finally, here was my chance–my opportunity to make one of his dreams come true, especially for the man who has spent his whole life helping me turn my dreams into reality. “Well Dad, pack your bags because I’ve written the check for both of us to go. We’re going to Cordoba, Argentina, dove hunting capital of the world!”
As if it had always been “meant to be,” the outfitter piece of the puzzle came together quickly and completely. Enter Jim Jones of Shooters International, a specialty organization catering to wingshooters from around the globe and headquartered in Madison, Mississippi.
Jim Jones is a well-known name, especially in the South. For more than 30 years, Jim owned and operated Indian Archery, a forerunner of the custom bowhunting shops so popular today. As the years went by, Jim moved into the fledgling hunting video/outdoor television business, spearheading the development of this facet of the hunting industry, first with “Hunting Across America” and then with “Hunting Across the World” television shows. It was during that phase of his career when Jim met, befriended and ultimately became partners with the Hayes family of Cordoba, Argentina, who would eventually become H&H Outfitters specializing in high volume dove hunting.
Jim eventually sold his shares in the video company, formed his own company, Shooters International, with his son Trip, and moved into the international wingshooting business fulltime. The Hayes family has traditionally been into farming–both agricultural as well as cattle production. They have allocated more than 20,000 acres of their vast holdings to the hunting facet of their operations and operate three outstanding lodges: La Portenita, Sierra Verde and La Loma.
Cordoba province, located in central Argentina, offers the best dove hunting in the world. The roosting grounds are heavily wooded areas, covered with native trees called “Piquillin,” producing ideal habitat for the reproduction of doves. Vast and fertile valleys producing incredible quantities of grain surround these refuges. The eared dove is the most prominent game bird in the area. It is known to produce up to three broods per year and will rear two birds per clutch. A recent Argentinean Game and Natural Resources study estimates the dove population in that area to be upwards of 60 million birds.
A typical shooting day starts after a sumptuous breakfast with departure for the fields by 7 a.m. The driving distance to the fields ranges between 15 and 40 minutes. Each client shoots with their own experienced professional bird boy who provides shells, acts as a loader, retrieves downed birds and keeps cool drinks at the ready. Shooting continues until midday when the group gathers in a shady grove of trees for a traditional Argentine “Asado” or, as we know it, a barbecue.
The Asado features an open-air barbecue of grass-fed Argentine beef (from Hayes family ranches), sausage, traditional Argentine salads, gourmet desserts, fantastic wines and regional beers. After lunch and an optional siesta in a hammock, the shoot continues until 6 p.m.
Upon returning to the Lodge, hearty hors d’oeuvres are served in preparation for the evening meal. Each Lodge employs professional massage therapists to help unwind and relax at the end of a long day. Next, it’s get a good night’s sleep and prepare for the next day!
Upon arrival in Cordoba, Juan Hayes, logistics chief for H&H Outfitters, along with other members of their staff, met us. After breezing through Customs and Immigration, we were transported to La Portenita, our lodge for the next five days.
La Portenita Lodge
Situated on the very top of a high hill with commanding views of the surrounding valley, La Portenita is set within the confines of a working Argentine estancia. The lodge was built in 1935, remodeled in 1996 and possesses six large bedrooms in the main house with a separate three-bedroom villa–La Casita–just behind the main building.
In Mississippi, we will gladly spend an afternoon in a boiling Southern sun to harvest a 15-dove limit. Now, the doves were so abundant that we could harvest 15 doves PER MINUTE!
The afternoon hunts were over the roost sites and if the number of doves seen in the morning was incredible, the volume of birds in the evening hunts was increased by a factor of 20. Literally millions of doves were in the air at any one moment, stretching from horizon to distant horizon. For more than three hours–and if you could physically stand it–you could shoot as fast as you wanted to. Your only limitation being the speed with which your bird boy loader handed you a loaded shotgun. The birds were endless.
At the end of the first day, we sat and watched doves continue to pour into the roost area while waiting for our driver to pick us up for our return drive to the Lodge.
On each of the seven hunts we shared, Dad and I were never farther than 30 yards apart, so we could always keep each other in sight and enjoy watching each other shoot. Watching Dad shoot, especially when he would get “into the zone” and shoot as fast as his bird boy, Damian, could hand him a loaded Benelli shotgun, was a real joy for me personally. Even at 78 years of age, his shooting eye was still pretty impressive.
Over the entire course of the seven hunts we shared, he shot at an 82.5 percent pace–Outstanding! The physical toll I expected, but the mental toll was incalculable. This type of adventure wears you down to the core. You’re sore in places you couldn’t imagine and I can honestly say that when that last morning hunt was over, I don’t believe Dad (or I) could have done any more.
As we said our goodbyes and boarded our flight homeward, it wasn’t long before Dad had stretched out and “passed out” for a much-needed rest. As I looked at my Dad, I realized that the aging process spares no one. Thinking for so long that Dad was “bullet proof,” I knew that those days were gone forever, just as they would be for me some day in the not too distant future. Reviewing my life, as one of his four sons, I couldn’t help but think of all the great times we have shared afield as well as in the practice of medicine and our chosen specialty of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I have been blessed to practice with some of the greatest surgeons our country can produce, but few compare with Dad. I know that is a biased opinion, but he was truly gifted, making the most difficult surgical procedures look effortless in his hands, all the while practicing with a humility that was an example to all.
I also know, more than ever, that everything I know about being a man, I have learned from him: 1) How to be the Christian head of the home. 2) How to live your Faith each and every day. 3) How to be a husband to your wife. 4) How to be a Father — a mentor and friend — to your children. 5) How to have friends by first being a friend. 6) How to be a physician whose bedrock principles of treating each patient as if they were a member of your family, have never wavered, faltered nor failed.
This time spent together on possibly his last international trip, “Dad’s Last Hurrah,” will always be precious to me. Thanks Dad–for the life you’ve led, the man you are and the father you’ve been to me. It is my highest privilege to be known as your son.–D. Kyle Ball, M.D.