Wiltz: An awesome experience with Argentine waterfowl
As I munched warm, crispy empanadas by the crackling fireplace, I paged through the heavy tome that served as a guest register. Sure enough, Sioux Falls hunters had preceded me to this enchanted corner of Argentina? Small world. I think I’ll send them a copy of today’s column.
San Ambrosio, a castle-like estancia (ranch) built in 1840 by Basque immigrants, served as headquarters for hunting partner Mike Hall and myself. We had been picked up at the Buenos Aires Ezeiza Airport by Tomas, co-owner of South Parana Outfitters, and driven the 150 miles north by northwest to the ranch just outside of Gualeguay, a city of 40,000. We had come to hunt waterfowl in an area touted as the world’s best. For me, it was a bucket list destination.
Gualeguay was semi-tropical with heavy rainfall. The area’s flat terrain was made up of corn, wheat, and bean fields with vast pastures of lush grass. Putting up hay, as we do, was unnecessary, and cattle were abundant. Ponds, lakes, and rivers supported vast flocks of non-migratory ducks whose numbers staggered my wildest imagination. Light clothing was satisfactory, as the early winter temperatures ranged from 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. We would shoot rented 20-gauge Benelli semi-automatic shotguns.
Mike and I hunted ducks our first evening and the following three mornings at San Ambrosio. Two hunts were nearby, while the other two hunts required an hour’s drive. We hunted from dry land, and waterproof hunting boots were adequate. The layout was surprisingly simple.
One of the South Parana owners, either Tomas or Juan, drove the Toyota quad-cab truck in total darkness to the hunting area. Ramon and Samuel, the guys who did the work, rode in the back with the gear and the black lab. After driving up to a shallow pond in a grassy pasture, Ramon and Samuel would unload the two barrels of gear that included shotguns, shells, and decoys. They also had bundles of fresh-cut willow branches. Tomas or Juan would then drive the Toyota back to the muddy trail or road perhaps a hundred yards away and remain there through the hunt.
For the first evening hunt, Ramon and Samuel walked about in the pond, as they threw handfuls of ground corn on the water. I’d call it “baiting,” an apparently legal practice in Argentina. I noted that the three morning ponds had been previously baited. Just how well the corn attracted the ducks, I can’t say.
Ramon or Samuel then threw 10 decoys into the water in no particular order. It didn’t matter. Five yards from the water’s edge, Ramon and Samuel pushed willow branches into the soft ground, so that they stood perpendicular to the ground in a semi-circle. They were perhaps 4-5 feet high. Both Mike and I are tall, and it didn’t seem to matter whether the ducks saw us above the willows or not.
The two gear barrels were placed behind the willow shield for Mike and me to sit on. There would be very little “sit down” time. All the while this was going on, ducks were landing in the decoys. Now we waited for shooting light. Once the shooting started, Ramon and Samuel kept our pockets filled with shotgun shells. With my tremor, I often had loading problems but the guys graciously loaded my gun for me.
As we fired away, Samuel kept count on a mechanical counter. When the 50th duck fell, we were done. We shot seven different species including Brazilian teal, ringed teal, silver teal, speckled teal, rosy-billed pochard, brown pintails, and tree ducks. No ducks were wasted, as frozen vacuum-sealed breasts were given to the less fortunate. If I could do one thing over again, I’d bring my own shotgun in spite of the legal hassle.
During the afternoons, we hunted doves. We were to hunt perdiz, an Argentine grouse, but they refused to fly when the grass was wet, and it was wet! The very entertaining doves came in endless waves.
Other than the beautiful country and friendly, warm people, Argentine food — especially the meals prepared by Adriana at San Ambrosio — has no equal anywhere.
While Argentine duck hunting was great, I wouldn’t trade a blustery day over decoys and great northern mallards with their bright orange feet and curly tails for all the ducks in Argentina.
See you next week.