It was proving a bumpy start to a dream trip, thanks to Kenny Rogers and Castillian Spanish.
The short, perky cab driver was in the mood for chit-chat as we pointed his little beater car west from Buenos Aires and took off through the golden grassy countryside. But my broken gringo Spanish, honed from California to Costa Rica, stumbled badly in the Argentine dialect (thi! Cath-tillian! thinco!), which is closer to that of Spain.
Abandoning small talk, he pushed his only cassette into the crackly old stereo and began playing Kenny Rogers' Greatest on an endless loop. He gave me a grinning thumbs up, probably to assure he could sing better than the Gambler himself. He could not, but not for lack of trying.
A few hours and four renditions of "Islands In the Stream" (retch!) and "You Decorated My Life" (gag!) later, I was ready to leap from the cab when we arrived at the wooden gates of Diego Munoz's sleepy ranch house in quiet Las Flores.
I unpacked in a rush, strapped on waders, and was soon buried in a clump of reeds, standing in a small pond on an estancia, watching ducks circle. It could have been Texas, except this was late June, and the birds were a wild smattering of species. I missed the first two, then clobbered a silver teal.
"You're shooting in front of them. You just shot that one in the head," whispered Munoz.
Ah, too much summer skeet shooting. I slowed my swing and started dropping birds, mesmerized by the whole scene. As the sun dipped, we collected six species amid the decoys: speckled, silver, and ringed teal, chiloe wigeon, red shoveler, and yellow-billed pintail. The rosy-billed pochard, a striking black duck with a huge pink bill that I was eager to see, would have to wait. White-faced whistling ducks ghosted through the southern sky as it turned black.
"That was unbelievable," I said, pleasantly overwhelmed.
"We shot a few, not bad, but you have not seen it yet," Diego said.
We spent the evening sipping Malbec wine by the fire and joking about a heavy-set fellow who had fallen in the icy water. Not too shabby for a "straight up duck hunt, not too expensive and nothing fancy," which is how outfitter Ramsey Russell of GetDucks.com pitched this trip to me a year earlier. "An affordable, authentic trip, the kind your readers will appreciate."
Going to Las Flores, I understood I'd given up a chance for the famous high-volume dove hunting. There would be no white linens, decoying pigeon shoots, or fly fishing, just the best possible duck hunt. The house we stayed in was spacious and warm, nicer than I expected, and Diego's gorgeous girlfriend Maria made sure of that with hot coffee, plenty of wine and endless supplies of the famous Argentine grass-fed beef. The massive rack from a red stag covered a pool table. Rustic, but not rough. I slept like death that night.
The next morning I hunted with The Waterfowler, old man Pat Pitt, of getducks.com field staff. He was born with webbed feet, and if it has to do with ducks he's done it. He talked of how much he appreciated the kind of sunrise we were witnessing after having a massive heart attack in the blind not long ago. Ducks buzzed in the freezing air in pairs mostly, and we bagged a few dozen by mid-morning, but nearly ran out of shells for a different reason.
Wild pigeons flapped toward our dekes, to my great delight, and we let them have it. More pigeons (some twice the size of teal) decoyed to all the dead ones, flying wildly around us for tough swinging shots or right to the water's edge for easy ones. We didn't limit on ducks, but with the 70 volunteer pigeons we could still warm our hands on our gun barrels.
Shooting a lot more ducks than you're used to can make you feel bad in a hurry, but make it pigeons and I will take it to the plug every time.
That hunt was spectacular, I said. "Oh no, you have not seen it yet," Diego reassured me.
Oh, but I had. Ever dream you could go back in time? I could already see that Argentina is like a trip to a U.S. that was gone before most of us were born. Where fencerows and prairie grasses were more prevalent then tilled fields. A time when limits were polite suggestions if they existed, habitat was pristine and seemed endless if it was thought of at all, and the birds, oh, the birds. Ancient pickup trucks rumble down the road and old Ford Falcons are everywhere, giving the country that slightly Cuban feel. The gauchos wave from their horses, smiling through their tight, weathered faces.
In Argentina, you don't see the great clouds of ducks like you do in the U.S., (there is no duck factory in the world like North America), but there is very light hunting pressure here. Rabbits are the prime target of locals, and any who chase ducks shoot just a box or two of shells per year, holding out for a few of the delicious corn-eating rosy-billed pochards.
Old man Pitt has been coming down to Argentina since the 1980s, and says it has changed some but is still the best thing going. A taxidermy duck nut with 850 birds in his showroom, he wears a beat up 1971 Jones-style cap with a pin that belonged to Nash Buckingham himself. I sat with him as he peeled ducks for mounting, like an ornithologist surgeon, trying to stump him on duck trivia questions. Fat chance.
Evenings brought the chance to go fox hunting and chase perdiz (a smallish brown partridge). We walked out across the grassland and kicked up ones and twos, bagged a dozen birds and missed our share. Strolling across the pampas with Munoz and his efficient little pointer, Lisa, in the steep angled shadows of Argentina's soft winter sunlight is about as pleasant as hunting gets.
Have you seen it?
Diego was impossible not to like. A refined Argentine redneck, he speaks French, Spanish, and English, is polite and articulate, and has lived everywhere from Paris and Spain to the Caribbean. He is a smart and very serious hunter with all the right gear, from FoxPro predator calls to Beretta shotguns and tricked out Land Cruisers and lethal rifles. He hunts and fishes from Patagonia to Brazil. A born killer. Many outfitters down here will round up whatever local guys they can find, call them a guide, and hope for the best. Hope is not a plan. Diego is the real deal.
Whistlers and wigeon squeals cut through the dark the next morning as he and I sat a small pond. Colors peeped from the shadows as ducks splashed down. By 8 a.m., I'd broken the extractor on my old gun and Diego and I had to take turns with his Beretta, chiding each other's shooting from our layouts. We quit shy of our limit after I swung on a flock of five teal, aimed for the lead bird, killed the three behind it in one shot, and then shot the fifth. Enough, already.
We laid the guns down and watched yellow-billed pintails pile into the pond non-stop. Nice little groups, no monster flocks.
"Well, Diego I've finally seen it," I said. "That was just unbelievable!"
"Nah, you still haven't seen it man," Diego says. "That was plenty of birds, but it took a couple hours."
O-o-o-o-kay... but I already wanted to live here. The steak, the wine, the mild weather, the ubiquitous women with narrow hips, nice shoulders and long swaying black hair. In the countryside, at least, people were so friendly it seemed quaint.
Click through to read more
If an extreme solar storm aimed at the Earth hits in just the right way, it could put interconnected electrical grids around the world at serious risk, experts say.Read Story >