Dove hunting right of passage

TUCUMAN, Argentina — Having been to South America several years in a row, I had decided to skip this year and do a more extended duck/dove/wild pigeon hunt next year. Everything started changing in April when I got a call from Tim Gilmore, a close friend and duck hunting buddy.

Tim informed me he was seriously considering taking his son, Reed, on a dove hunting trip as a high school graduation present. This practice had become fairly popular among hunters in our area of the country for a number of good reasons. It strengthens the bond between father and son at an important time and it is a great hunting experience for both.


Argentina Doves

It is of some significance that taking your son on a hunting trip is a great justification tool to overcome resistance from a wife.

At this point, I probably need to point out that 4 years ago, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed 30 miles to the west of Tim's residence on the Mississippi coast, and they suffered a devastating loss of most of their belongings and ended up having to rebuild their home.

Prior to that, I had duck hunted several years with Tim but didn't know his sons well because we live in different areas. I went down with another of our duck hunting friends to lend whatever help we could after the hurricane and that's when I got to know Tim's two sons (Jackson and Reed, ages 13 and 14 at the time).

I came away from that trip very impressed with how both boys were handling what was a traumatic time in their lives and their willingness to pitch in and work tirelessly to help rebuild their lives.

Since then, I've spent many days duck hunting with Reed and Jackson. They are sons any father would be proud of. Like all brothers, they are different. Jackson likes to hunt, Reed lives to hunt. I knew this trip would be a very special time in his life. I also suspect this trip was a little reward for all the time these boys sacrificed from their friends to help the family put their life back together the past four years (Jackson took his trip last year and opted to go to Spain with his mother).

When Tim commented that "he sure wished I could work it out where I could accompany them," the working it out on my part got started. I had told Tim previously that Gustavo Olsen at Rodeo de los Bueyes Lodge has a policy of no charge (except for shells and tips to birdboys) for your son or daughter no matter what their age might be. I had taken advantage of this two years ago to take my son, and it was a wonderful experience, so it was really a "no-brainer" where we were headed.

The next two months saw a flurry of e-mails and phone calls back and forth as I coached Tim and Reed on what they needed to take with them on the trip.When Reed's graduation invitation came by mail, I got on line immediately and ordered him a present of a shell pouch and pair of shooting gloves, plus I sent Tim an e-mail telling him he needed to buy the same things.

The lodge does laundry each day so it's not necessary to carry a lot of clothes. Light boots, two hunting shirts, a couple pairs of hunting pants/jeans, socks, underwear and light jacket and you've got all the clothes you need for several days of dove hunting.

A couple years ago I bought one of the Cabela's long sleeve, wrinkle-free travel shirts with zip-up passport pocket and pair of cargo-type pants with velcro-sealing pockets. I wear that for travel down there, the lodge launders them and I wear them back and it's worked out well.

We were able to make our reservations directly with Gustavo by e-mail. The lodge is located in northwest Argentina some 700 miles from Buenos Aires, so it is necessary to fly overnight from Atlanta to the international airport in BA then transfer across the city to the domestic airport and catch an Aerolineas Argentina two-hour flight to Tucuman. Gustavo arranged for us to be met by a representative of Gateway Travel, who provided a shuttle bus and escorted us through customs at both airports and stayed with us until we boarded our flights.

Thursday, July 9 finally got here. Tim and Reed flew into Atlanta from Gulfport and I drove up from Albany, Ga., to catch our 8:30 p.m. flight to Buenos Aires. We met in the food court at the international gate area about 6:30 p.m. I had eaten a late lunch and had warned Tim and Reed that it was prudent to to eat something rather than depend on airline food to sustain you for an overnight flight.

The flight menu never changes: it's some form of rubberized chicken, a small salad and a greenish looking vegetable glob. The other choice is meatless, and mostly tasteless, pasta, a small salad with a tiny container of salad dressing, both entrees accompanied by a packaged cookie.

If this is seen as criticism of airline food, rest assured it is meant to be.

Reed spied a pizza place and Tim found some quesadillas and finally it was time to board the plane. Reed is a pretty cool, laid-back guy, but I can tell he is excited about this trip. The plane has a few empty seats, so Tim and Reed are able to move and spread on two. I'm not so lucky, but I got a window seat, so I managed a couple of hours sleep, about my average for sleeping on overnight flights.

After an uneventful flight, we landed shortly after daylight in Buenos Aires. Sandra Rodriguez, our tourist guide/escort from Gateway whom I've known from previous trips, was holding up a sign with my name on it as we exit the gate area. She took us to the luggage claim area and then out to where our shuttle bus was waiting for the trip across Buenos Aires. It's some sort of holiday, so traffic was not as bad as usual. We arrived at the other airport an hour ahead of our 10 a.m. flight to Tucuman.

Sandra worked her magic, getting our luggage checked through and our boarding passes and led us to the departure gate.

As it nears flight time, we noticed there was no plane. A few minutes before 10 a notice goes up on the monitor that the flight will be delayed 20 minutes. I also noticed there are not many passengers waiting to board this flight. Our concern was that we would miss the afternoon hunt.

The 20-minute delay stretches into an hour. We ask the reason and their answer is, "They are waiting on a crew." Translated, this means they are waiting for enough passengers to show up to justify the flight (just like commuter flights in the U.S.). Finally at 2 p.m., right before the next scheduled flight, a plane appeared and we boarded. Did I mention the departure gate was now full of passengers waiting to board?

We arrived in Tucuman and head for the lodge but it was too late for an afternoon hunt. That had to be a bummer for Reed but after a mostly sleepless night, I've had enough birthdays to where my desire for a little nap was about equal to my urge to go hunting.

At dinner, we were joined by fellow hunters Ken McDonald and Fritz Barratt from Michigan, who had just arrived from Gustavo's "Pigeon Camp" some 200 miles south. They had flown into Tucuman earlier in the week and had opted to hunt wild pigeons first for 2 1/2 days and then dove hunt 2 1/2 days.

Pigeon hunting in South America is a fast-growing sport that has been described as "upland duck hunting" and I was keenly interested in their experience. I had shot wild pigeons with another outfitter a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. They put out decoys around waterholes and it was probably the most challenging wing shooting I've ever experienced, particularly with the wind blowing.

The wild pigeons are similar in size to ducks, faster than doves and we used #5 shot to bring them down, which gives you an idea of how tough they are to kill. Both Fritz and Ken reported the opportunity to shoot 150-200 pigeons a day, a really nice lodge and food so it's definitely on my radar for next year.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cold with temps in the high 30s. We loaded on the little bus just at daylight for the 20-minute ride to a harvested corn field. Bird boys have worked their magic with their machetes and constructed blinds of corn stalks mostly along the edge of the field. My bird boy introduces himself as Mario and although neither of us speak each other's language, we have no problems communicating.

I was an adjustment to go from plus-90 weather one day to 35-degree weather the next and I was glad to have a fleece vest under my light jacket. It was a beautiful day, with a slight breeze and the sun just peaking over the horizon, and the birds started to arrive.

First, it's small flocks of six to eight birds, then larger and soon flights of a hundred or more are sweeping over us and lighting in the field. It wasn't one of those Argentine mornings where the birds appear as a black cloud over the fields, but there are far more birds than you can possibly shoot at.

We chose to quit carrying our guns to Argentina a few years ago and I was shooting a 20-gauge Browning over/under with #7 shot. Typically, I miss a lot of birds on the first morning, but that morning, I got into a good rhythm early and pretty soon I was taking at least half my shots at high birds.

Dove hunting with this many birds will fool you into thinking you are a better shot than you really are. The reason being that unlike our hunts in the U.S., there are so many birds that you don't even bother to take the difficult shots.

Based on my observations, an average shooter will shoot close to 60 percent on an Argentine dove field and 30 percent (or less) on an American dove hunt. Birds started to slow down as it neared 11 and I saw the bus headed down the edge of the field to pick us up for lunch. I've heard steady shooting from Tim and Reed and I was anxious to hear how they did and what their reaction was to the first morning hunt.

Reed was all excited and all smiles, he had shot 600 times and killed 472 birds (79 percent). I knew Reed was an excellent shot from our experiences together duck hunting and that was an outstanding percentage for a first-time dove hunter.

Tim, like Reed had little experience dove hunting and he struggled this first morning. He was very concerned about his shooting but we assured him that if he would just swing through the bird and concentrate on not stopping his gun, his shooting would get better and better in the upcoming hunts. (It did and he ended up the week shooting close to 80 percent each hunt).

Both were astounded at the amount of birds. I'm sure neither really believed me when I told them this morning was probably below average in the amount of birds, but before the week was over, they would really see swarms of birds coming into these fields.

Another 20-minute bus ride and we stopped at a particularly attractive guest-house compound on one of the ranches Gustavo hunts on. Most of the ranches have similar guest houses and I asked Gustavo why all the ranchers live in Tucuman and have these guest houses.

His answer was that years ago, ranchers did live on their properties and sent their children to boarding school. The thinking began to change 20-30 years ago about the need for everyday parenting and now most ranchers live in town so they can maintain normal homes for their kids to grow up in.

As mentioned, this was a particularly attractive compound with a pool, two guest houses and the area was shaded with giant eucalyptus and orange trees. They were preparing an asada (spanish for barbeque) for us with beef and sausage cooked over wood coals. The sun warmed temperatures to the high 50s and in years past we have eaten under the outdoor pavilion, but it was still a little cool, so we ate in the dining room of the guest house.

Argentine beef cooked over wood coals is reputed to be the best in the world. I wouldn't argue with that statement except to add that the sausage should be included. I've hunted here several times so I should have known by now to not over-eat so I will be hungry at the next meal time. I'm a slow learner.

When lunch was over, a short siesta seemed most appropriate so Tim and Reed choose to lie down in the grass in the warm sunshine and I choose one of the reclining seats on the bus. Ken and Fritz do a combination of napping and reading in the guest house.

The afternoon hunt took place probably about 1/2 mile from the birds primary roost. Gustavo never shoots the primary roost. There was a long fence line and small road through this wooded area and we were spaced out 60-80 yards apart.

This was a little more challenging shooting because you can't see the birds coming until they are almost over you. Then you have about a 30-yard window overhead to track the bird and get ahead of him. Fortunately there's a lot of birds and it didn't take long to get into a quick rhythm. The old shotgunners adage of "don't think, just shoot" really applies here.

The afternoon shoots typically lasted about 2 hours. Maria Paz, hostess and co-owner of the lodge, joined us this afternoon with her camera to take pictures of each of us shooting. The last two years she had been presenting each hunter with a photo disc when they left that had pictures of the lodge, surrounding area, and some really great photos of doves in the fields. She inserted pictures of the hunter shooting so we had a really nice memento of the trip that is great viewing on a big screen TV. Even though the birds were still flying over us, two hours of repeatedly raising your gun is tiring so the shooting started dying out a little before 6 p.m.

During happy hour back at the lodge, Gustavo showed us pictures of an African safari he had taken the previous fall and this carried over into dinner. Both Fritz and Ken had hunted all over the world and they had some very interesting stories to share with us the next two nights. I'm always glad to see other hunters at the lodge when I go down there because I know I'm going to hear some great hunting and fishing experiences.

The second day was very similar to the first day: we shoot a cornfield in the morning and another wooded area near a roost in the afternoon. Like most first-time hunters in Argentina, Tim and Reed came to realize the birds were never going to slow down and it just wasn't possible to shoot at every one of them.

We had teased Tim about young guys running up their dad's shell bill on their trips to Argentina, so he claimed to have "put a governor on Reed" after the first day by making him switch from an automatic to an over/under. The reality was Tim's shell bill was higher for the week than Reed's (Reed, you owe me for revealing that). At any rate, all of us shifted gears after the first day and began shooting less and enjoying it more.

The third day was one of those days that hunters come back from South America raving about. A cool but not cold morning, slight breeze and swarms of birds coming into a newly harvested cornfield. Picture thousands of doves framed against a backdrop of the Andes Mountains (see photo gallery) and it just might be a glimpse of what dove heaven looks like.

I took a break mid-morning to walk over to take pictures and video Reed and Tim shooting. You can be knocking birds down at an 80 percent rate, but when somebody gets behind you with a camera, your success rate goes to about half that. I chatted a little with each and I'm sure both were glad to see me and my camera leave, so they could go back to hitting birds with some regularity.

The wind picked up mid-morning and like game birds everywhere, the doves used it and the shooting became more challenging. I resumed shooting, but at a leisurely pace, taking frequent breaks to sip on a Coke. When I took a break, I usually scooped up 10-15 shells and handed them and the gun to Mario and told him to shoot.

We worked out a simple communication system. Bueno means good in Spanish, so when I managed to kill a high flying bird, he commented "bueno." When I missed, it was "no bueno." When he's shooting, I make the same comments. When I hit a bird that wobbles off but doesn't fall right away, his comment is "muerta manana," which I think means, "He will die tomorrow and you get credit for a kill."

Birdboys each wore a clicker around their neck that looks like an oversized whistle, but was a small counting device they used to record kills. I also suspect some of the high percentage shooting in Argentina is due to the birdboys generosity at crediting kills.

It was a short distance back to the lodge, so we went back there for lunch. Instead of beef and sausage we had a spicy pasta dish followed by barbeque chicken. Again the food was very good. Since the bus didn't leave until mid-afternoon, a short siesta seemed to be the thing to do. Gustavo had told us we were going to shoot a waterhole that afternoon and promised we were going to see more doves than we'd seen all week.

Ken and Fritz had to leave after lunch to catch an afternoon flight back to BA, so it was just Reed, Tim and I on the little bus. After about a 20-minute ride we turned into a long tree-lined lane. I recognized it as a place we had shot the previous year, and I knew we were going to see a spectacle of birds.

This particular place is a small wooded area with two waterholes and has grain and winter wheat fields surrounding it. The birds seemingly come from every direction, and it truly was a spectacle to see the streams of birds pouring into the small area. After we shot 30 minutes or so, Reed walks over and joins me for a little while and I take pictures. He knew our hunt was winding down, so he headed back to where he could shoot without "the camera" watching him.

A short time later Tim cames over and we finished the afternoon shooting together. It was kind of a neat experience being able to shoot side-by-side in that you could compliment each other on good shots and make appropriate comments on the not so good shots. We each went through a case (500 shells) and probaly had time to shoot another half-case each but finally decided to just watch the birds and maybe shoot a little extra on our final hunt the next morning.

I had warned both Tim and Reed the days were going to fly by and the last morning was going to get here a lot quicker than we wanted it to. Iit did. That morning we headed out of the lodge due north through the rolling foot hills of the Andes. Somewhere around 20 miles north of the lodge we turned east on a dirt road and a few miles later came to a harvested cornfield similar to what we had hunted the previous morning.

The weather had turned a little cooler and we had a 10-15 mph wind, which made it a little uncomfortable the first 30 minutes or so. The sun started to come up and I wasn't not seeing many doves. Typically, I look toward the horizon for doves here, but I happened to look straight up and there were thousands of doves so far up they looked like ducks migrating. I've never seen doves that high in Argentina and these were coming against the wind then started dropping into the field.

The wind was sweeping down off the mountains and may have been stronger near the ground, which caused the doves to fly at higher altitudes from their roosting areas. Reed had told me the day before that his shoulder was a little sore after shooting an over/under all day, so I gave him my gel pac recoil pad and I switched to an automatic (Berretta model 391 Urika) for its lighter recoil. That was a sweet shooting little 20-gauge and that particular morning was one of those really good shooting days that you remember — beautiful weather and as they say in Argentina "mucho palomas" (many, many doves).

Mario and I shot a leisurely case of shells (if there is such a thing) and the morning ended way before I wanted it to. When Reed got on the bus, he was all smiles, in fact I never saw him all week without a smile on his face. I asked him if he was ready to go home and his reply was, "Yes, but I'm ready to come back".

We had uneventful flights back and it was good to get home. Tim, Reed and I have spent many hours in duck blinds and it was great seeing them experience the hunting I had been telling them about for years. This was the second year in a row I've had the privilege of being along when a father brought his son down here. Two years ago my son came with me. If the man upstairs lets me shoot birds another year, we will be back here next year.