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Argentina offers the wing hunt of a lifetime

Nov. 29, 2006 - 01:12PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2006 - 01:12PM  |  
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ESQUINA, ARGENTINA — — "Tranquilo. Tranquilo, amigo."

"Relax. Be patient," my guide Orlando Zarate encouraged as he dumped another box of 12-gauge shotgun shells into my jacket pocket.

Good advice, but easier said than done when more patos — or ducks — than I'd ever seen continued to pour into the small, shallow lake in Argentina's northern Corrientes province.

Dozens of empty red shot shells bobbed in the water at our feet while downed birds floated all around our tight blind of freshly cut greenery. For a usually frustrated North American Atlantic Flyway duck hunter, this target-rich environment spurred an adrenaline rush that lasted from first light until the birds were collected two hours later.

Hunt of a lifetime? Absolutely.

Argentina is a well-known wing shooting destination. And right now, it's a bargain trip, even if you add a visit to Buenos Aires to sample the capital city's great nightlife. Thousands of North American and European gunners travel here annually for dove shoots that can number in the thousands of birds each day. In fact, dove shoots are as close to a sure thing as one can get in Argentina, according to Martin Azar, our English-speaking host from J.J. Caceria Hunting. Waterfowl hunting, while usually great, sometimes goes through slow periods during extreme weather, he explained.

"Slow" in Argentina, though, is relative.

The late-June temperatures we experienced were unseasonably high for the Argentine winter, with morning lows around 60 degrees and afternoon highs pushing 80.

This kind of weather would yield few birds on most North American hunts. In recent years, it seems the only time you see many ducks in the Eastern U.S. is when the weather is cold and nasty.

But to Azar, the ideal situation is a morning in the low 40s, with the skies a little overcast and a slight breeze blowing. He said we saw an average number of birds on the hunt.

For our part, we call collecting 25 to 30 ducks in two hours of shooting each morning a tad higher than average.

A far, far better place

If you were to wake up in the Esquina area of Corrientes not knowing where you were, you might guess south Texas, based on the terrain and vegetation. But the area abounds with water, and for that reason is more like the vast wetlands south of Lake Charles, La.

The dwellings, though, are similar to what you'd see in Mexico. Cattle and horses are everywhere, seemingly roaming free, standing along dirt roads or in flooded pastures and drainages.

Our guides, Zarate and Lali Lopez, speak little English and I speak little Spanish, but everyone seemed to get their messages across.

Incredibly hard workers, the guides tried to spoil us. They loaded up their backs with duck decoys, all the shotgun shells for the morning, a machete and the fresh greenery limbs for the blind, making the predawn walk in chest waders toward the lagoon or lake chosen for the morning's hunt.

Hunting from dawn to dusk

As many as 11 species of ducks can be found in Esquina. The first morning, hunting just off Arroyo Sarandicito, we saw a mix of birds. Teal, primarily of the beautiful silver and ringed variety (known locally as "cappuchino" and "Franciscano" teal, respectively), were common, as were Brazilian ducks with bright red legs. The silver teal have brilliant wing flashes and a yellow and sky-blue bill.

Rosy-billed pochards, big ducks related to the canvasback family, were the most common bird. Local residents prize them for their table quality. The drakes are mostly black and white, with the big, rose-colored bills that give them their name. The hens are a sandy brown.

Both Lopez and Zarate carried various calls, including a teal whistle and a quack call similar to one you might use for mallards. To reach out to rosy bills, though, they used their mouths, executing a loud, tongue-vibrating sound like a "ggrrrrr, ggrrrrr" or "llllrrrr" against the back of their teeth. By the third day, I was trying the call myself. Zarate just grinned.

Day two, which we spent in a different hunt area, also yielded good numbers of teal and pochards, and a beautiful bird called a siriri — a white-faced tree duck. With shimmering hues of rust, bronze and copper on its wings and body and a remarkable band of white on its head, it was the taxidermy prize of the trip.

On our third and final morning, thunderstorms moved through in the predawn hours before the hunt. The wind was howling from the north. I remarked to Azar that, despite the stiff wind, it didn't seem the least bit cold. "That's because it's not coming out of the south," he said, reminding me to reverse my thinking in the Southern Hemisphere. Well, duh.

Our last hunt was in an area mostly inhabited by rosy bills and rarely did a few minutes go by without shooting opportunities.

Late in each morning's duck hunt, we saw gauchos, the Argentine term for cowboys, show up on horseback to watch the action. Usually a few birds were left with the ranch hands. Lopez would also stop at various houses along the way, sharing the day's bounty with families in need.

Beyond the duck hunting, the scrubby pastures of the area offer excellent late-afternoon hunting (after a hearty lunch and short siesta) for perdiz, a bird that resembles an oversized quail. Perdiz tend to flush in singles or, at most, with two birds close together. They fly fast and launch in various trajectories, making for sporting shots.

Tia, the English pointer Zarate and Lopez used for perdiz, is a dog who lives for the hunt. In a unique style, she picked up a bird's scent and locked on point. Then, as winds shifted or the bird moved, she got down low and slowly crawled through the brush to better pinpoint the bird's location. Half the fun of perdiz hunting was watching Tia maneuver through the cover.

We flushed anywhere from a dozen to 20 perdiz over the course of a 90-minute field hunt each afternoon.

Ducks at daybreak and perdiz until sunset — and after a day of red-hot shooting action, we unwound with a cold cerveza or a glass of Argentine wine. Drawing on a Cuban Montecristo cigar and sipping good vino tinto (red wine) as the sun slipped down over the ponds, I cast my mind back to the morning, as ducks were being collected, shot shells policed up and decoys packed away.

I looked out over the water, trying to burn the picture into my head. The caption reads, "This could be addicting."

Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.

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