Done Unto Others
To Argentina, for ducks and doves and perdiz and a timeless sense of wonder.
by Reid Bryant
First published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, November/December 2014
With evening fast descending, the sunlight merges with the water, turning Jimmy and Rooster into hunters in two dimensions. Shape disperses into the shadow of the blind, with Jimmy’s rising cigarette smoke the only movement. Somewhere, Jackie the dog whines. The delta marsh is still. The sheen of water on flooded field spreads toward the horizon.
Inside the trees, Agustin Bustos is propped on an elbow, watching. He can do this for hours.
I can’t. I want back into the blind, to swing on more ducks before the day completely fades. My days, measured in singles, are growing short here in Argentina. My ducks are measured in tens, and I shouldn’t need more. It was my poor shooting, after all, that got me ejected from the round-robin in the blind, and I’m taking my turn in the on-deck circle while Jimmy and Rooster wait for birds. Relegated to this place beneath the trees, I watch Agustin.
Tree ducks come in high in the low fading light. Jackie whines. Oscar holds her collar and whistles through broken teeth. You can hear the wing-beats above, feel the push from a score of birds in their swing. Jimmy and Rooster, hat brims tucked, roll their eyes skyward, but don’t move. They follow the birds by sight, then by feel, the duck-shooter’s telepathy. The tree ducks swing nearer. The boys in the blind, urged on by Jackie, rise and mount their guns, flaring the flock.
In the low light, a 45-yarder is a Hail Mary, but four muffled shots from the 20 gauges overlap. From my vantage under the trees, I see Agustin sit quickly, grab a gun, and swing: a single shot from a seated man at 60 yards, and the lead bird folds. Jackie busts the blind in the retrieve. Agustin quietly lays the gun at his side and sits back on his elbow, his slight-of-hand masked by indifference. He turns and gives me a quick smile. In the blind, Rooster and Jimmy look at each other, wondering where that phantom fifth shot came from. The bird boys giggle. Agustin feigns ignorance, hums a little tune. He looks off into the brush, away from the blind, away from the setting sun.
It was a seven-day trip, with three days of hunting and four days of travel. Into those three days we crammed a lifetime of hunting, at least by my standards.
We’d come from the States in mid-August to hunt ducks and doves and perdiz in the Entre Rios Province of northeast Argentina. I was the writer, Brian Grossenbacher the photographer; Rooster and Jimmy were there to prove that a bird in the hand makes for better pictures. Agustin was our host, alongside owner Carlos Sanchez, at Los Ombues Lodge.
Arriving at Los Ombues after all that travel was surreal, and Agustin’s calm was as welcome as the open bottle of Malbec on the hearth. With the season nearing its end, the lodge was quiet; we were the only guests. I stood on the lodge’s terrace, looking down over a sweep of farmland, deep into the heart of the delta marsh. The magnitude, the solitude—for a moment I felt wildly alone. Then Agustin joined me.
“Forty thousand acres, with access to more than double that,” he said.
For me, a New England boy, that meant nothing.
“Finish your wine and settle in. We’ll be shooting doves in an hour.”
That made more sense. And brought welcome direction.
Dirt roads ran in quadrants over the country surrounding Los Ombues, and hedgerow thickets defined the margins. This was working land, old land, trapped in a forgotten time. Church bells rang as we drove past the village. Sheep and goats socialized in backyard pastures. A lone gaucho, his beret askew, drove cattle unhurriedly down the track toward new grass. I cracked the truck window. Diesel fumes and cook-fire smoke, grilling meat and manure merged in an honest scent of land and livelihoods and open space. We veered off behind the gaucho, who never looked back, and drove the margin of a freshly-tilled field stippled with green.
“Wheat,” Agustin said. “For the doves.”
It was doves we had come to see that first night, the doves that have made Argentina’s upland shooting legendary: eared doves, Zenaida auriculata, ravenous and proliferative. Never one to shoot wantonly, and strapped with my wife’s disapprobation (You’re shooting doves? Like, the universal symbol of peace?), I was eager for rationalization.
“Numbers are really okay?” I asked, deepening my voice.
“Don’t worry, we monitor populations closely.” Agustin seemed to appreciate my concern. “And with the feed we plant, their nesting frequency has doubled, maybe tripled. The more interest we experience, the more doves we seem to find, and the village families are grateful for the meat. You just worry about hitting them.”
I proceeded to do just that.
Over the first box of cartridges, I swung and missed, working out the jitters of several days and several thousand miles in airliners. I apologized in English to the bird-boy, Raul, who seemed indifferent to my failures and just smiled and shrugged at my excuses. By the end of the first box I’d begun to spiral birds from the sky with some frequency, prompting Raul to issue the odd Bueno! and add another box of cartridges to the bag. Birds fell like crumpled paper. Along the field’s edge, villagers arrived with grain sacks to reap the evening’s harvest. I sat down beside Agustin in the shadows to watch.
Agustin was chatting with Ismael and Jose Luis, the other bird boys. He made room for me, offered water or beer. I pestered him with questions, and asked if he’d care to shoot.
“No. You shoot. I have this every day.”
“You must be a wonderful shot, then.”
“I’m okay. It’s ducks I love most. And running the dogs on perdiz. But you should see Jose Luis shoot. I bet he does better than Rooster.”
Rooster, hearing his name and the suggestion of competition, made room. Agustin spoke to Jose Luis, and handed over a little Beretta and a fistful of shells. The two aces stood together and went shot for shot. Jose Luis was 9 for 10, but the last one seemed an intentional miss. I think Rooster knew it, too. He turned and gave us a muckle-mouthed grin, cracked his gun, and took a beer from the cooler.
Agustin woke us before dawn with a sharp knock and a mention of coffee. He’d stirred up the fire and laid a light breakfast, which we inhaled standing at the hearth in our long johns as he ferried guns to the trucks. We pulled on waders in the tiled mudroom, slipped into the idling trucks, and descended toward the maze of marshland below the lodge.
The night sky is different in morning, with constellations spinning into new places like words turned backward. In South America, the constellations are disorienting regardless of the hour, but the patterns of the dawn are similar: decoys and dogs and guns and cartridges are readied with frozen fingers while flashlight beams streak the landscape, trapping tunnels of mist.
Oscar let Jackie loose to tour the bank while he and Fabio pulled brush from the pickup beds and filled gaps in the blind. It wasn’t careful work, and the flashlight beams swung carelessly despite the stirring of a thousand nearby wings. Ducks jumped and set even as we tossed the decoys, a few dozen blocks loosely resembling rosy-billed pochards, Agustin conducting the operation with calm certainty.
“Settle into the blinds,” he said. “We’ll shoot our limits and have a full breakfast back at the lodge about nine.”
Given what I know about duck hunting and the improbable limit of 20 birds per gun, I couldn’t have imagined that possible. Agustin pulled the trucks back under the canopy of ombu trees, cut the lights, and let the world go quiet again.
Rooster and I had the blind and Jackie that morning. The marsh opened up in the gray dawn, with a webwork of flooded pasture, bottomland, and the spreading delta of the Parana River. For miles in every direction the land of Entre Rios was a waterfowler’s Shangri-La, the birds just beginning to sift out in black skeins, the lodge lights on the hill not a half-mile distant still visible. Finding my place within all this left me so dizzied that Rooster’s first shots caught me off-guard. Two big ducks splashed in front of the blind while the remainders passed on down the channel, and Rooster pulled fresh cartridges from a pail staked into the mud.
“Keep that shiny face of yours down and start shooting,” he said, “and you might even get a duck or two.” I sheepishly closed my gun and lowered my hat brim just in time to see some low skimmers approaching from the right. The teal, speeding for other regions, saw our blocks and hit the brakes, and I dumped one nearly in our laps. Rooster had two kickers on the water alongside mine, and Jackie was off and running.
The ducks came in waves of hundreds then thousands, an exponential bounty receding into the Parana Delta: Rosies; white-cheeked pintails; silver, speckled, and ringed teals; Brazilian ducks; and the high-flying flocks of white-faced and fulvous tree ducks. Ducks filled the sky, along with ibis and coots, parakeets and marauding caracara. It was a waking landscape so full and vibrant it overflowed, and we took advantage of the bounty. At 8:30 our limits were nearly full, and the big ducks, the Rosies, had become a load for three men.
Nearly 40 ducks in a morning is more than enough, and by the end you feel it, though the birds keep flying. Of course, as we sat there, letting it all sink in, a column of ducks unlike any we’d seen rose up a few hundred yards out, banked, and funneled before us. Out there on the spit of dry ground, we could just make out the shape of a man working through the thicket at the water’s edge, moving slowly, pushing a thousand waterfowl into flight. Oscar laid a heavy hand on our shoulders, indicating that we should hold our shots.
“Who is that?” I asked Rooster, who asked Oscar the same in Spanish. Oscar pointed a gnarled finger, squinted, smiled. “Agustin,” he said, laughing, and waded out to pull the blocks.
Agustin met us back at the trucks as we were loading, swinging along under the shadow of the ombu trees with a drake Rosie in each hand.
“Cripples,” he said, flinging them into the back of the truck. “Breakfast?”
We rode up the hill in satiated silence. To our backs, the ducks multiplied.
In the perdiz fields we found the Corazón of Argentina and saw Agustin at his best, becoming a corner-piece of the frame. Perdiz is the catch-all name for the family Tinamidae, the grassland birds that are the prize of the Argentine uplands. The speckled blighters that haunt Los Ombues are specifically the spotted tinamou, or Nothura maculosa, and they became my favorite. I won’t remember the details of the birds themselves without Brian’s photos, nor the bending shots, nor the inexplicable misses. What I’ll remember is Agustin astride a dog, holding him suspended on the brink of animation, affording us time to sneak in from the flanks and become a piece of that panorama.
The fields surrounding Los Ombues feel ancient and long-worked. Fenced and bordered by thickets, and dropping downhill from the lodge, the fields are a patchwork quilt of cutover sunflowers, green winter wheat, and tilled soil ready for planting. There are forgotten corners, too, making this a human landscape, not a mechanized one, and the places where the tractors don’t go are thick with tangle. There are makeshift pastures here and there, sheep and goats and pigs intermingling, rooting and grazing on the remainders of the season. There are small houses and stuccoed sheds where smoke rises, and on occasion a child’s face pokes out from behind a fencepost.
We parked the trucks at the edge of a wheat field, and assembled our gear on the tailgate. Three massive Ombu trees proved the sole interruption in a 100-acre field of consistent, shin-deep green wheat. Knowing little of perdiz, I couldn’t define any likely holding areas in the landscape, other than the scrub edges and hedgerows. But Agustin’s best dog turned his block head into the wind and disappeared into the wheat, locking on point almost before we’d closed our guns.
Peron was a blue Belton setter with continental lines. He’d have looked perfect painted in oils, though confining him to canvas would deprive him of his motion. Walking up tight beside him, I scanned ahead, looking for any indication of a bird. Peron rose and repositioned at Agustin’s command, still fixated on the cone of scent, Agustin equally fixated on him. We followed as he repositioned several times, and Agustin urged us on until the electricity grew palpable under Peron’s nose. Then, as Agustin soothed him, a clattering flush rose 20 feet ahead, and another just after it as a brace of perdiz jumped into the wind.
With all that space and a wide-open flush and two birds bigger than bobwhites, I managed to miss with both barrels, though Rooster dropped the left-hand bird. Peron returned it to Agustin, who bent to praise him then stood to show us the bird: speckled brown and black, long-legged and -necked, designed more for running than the birds I’m used to. Somehow, they’d streaked through the wheat without a wave of implication, and they’d dragged Peron a good hundred yards in pursuit. Rooster and I handed the bird back and forth, trying to make sense of it. That tinamou are the long-lost cousins of the ostrich did nothing to make them more familiar, but Agustin’s call from the right brought us back. Peron was pointing again, his head a swatch of roan above the wheat, and he’d risen already to move farther up the scent cone. This we recognized at once, and we closed our guns to play our roles.
It’s nearly full dark in the trees with just a streak of light along the distant shore, though the birds are still moving, or so it sounds. Jimmy and Rooster are lost to the darkness, but Jimmy’s cigarette flares from the direction of their muffled laughter.
There is more here for me, in the delta marsh of the Parana River, in the bird fields of Entre Rios province. But the prospect of more feels still in its infancy, still built upon the first taste of something new and wonderful.
As the birds move and the day descends, I pick a Rosie drake from the pile, smoothing the water droplets so it glimmers. And there it all is in my hands: a glorious composition of dog work and flushing birds, a pastoral place of wine and salt and woodsmoke, of friendship that lingered beyond the setting sun.
We shot and missed, and hit a few, too, and held each bird as a precious memory, a feathered sliver of the whole.
If You Go
Los Ombues offers an intimate, elegant, and conservation-minded opportunity for the traveling wingshooter. The lodge and its holdings comprise nearly 160,000 acres of upland and wetland habitat in the Entre Rios province of northeast Argentina. Some 20 million eared doves frequent the roosts within walking distance of the lodge, thousands of waterfowl inhabit the Parana River delta just below, and the surrounding fields are host to two species of perdiz.
No-limit dove shooting is available year-round. Guests can anticipate shooting two to four cases of shells per day in a dove-only hunt. Duck season runs May to mid-August, as does the perdiz season. The Los Ombues winter season allows for mixed-bag hunts that include pass-shooting doves, decoying waterfowl, and walking-up perdiz over pointing dogs. Guiding and dog work is first rate; local “bird boys” are deeply familiar with the region and the species that inhabit it. A kennel of pointing dogs is maintained and trained on-site for use in the perdiz fields.
Guests at Los Ombues Lodge typically fly into Buenos Aires, then make their way to the lodge via a four-hour car ride or a short charter flight. Once at Los Ombues, no detail is overlooked. Fine guns by Berretta, Benelli, and Browning are available for rent, as is much of the bird-shooters kit. In-house chefs feature local fare, including exquisite Argentine beef, as well as game in season. Traditional asado meals are a favorite of guests, as are the famous wines of Mendoza.
The lodge is an intimate place that rarely hosts more than a dozen guests. Though shooting is the primary focus, Los Ombues offers fishing for piranha and golden dorado in season, as well as bird- and wildlife watching.
For more information, including rates and availability, visit www.losombues.com or contact the lodge at 1-800-609-7185 or via email at email@example.com. Los Ombues is the only Orvis-endorsed wingshooting lodge in Argentina, and comprehensive information is also available at www.orvis.com.