Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356
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Amazing Argentina: Doves, Trout, Tango and Polo

We come to the dove blinds by way of a dusty dirt road that passes small, stuccoed farmhouses where sleeping hogs litter the front yard, horses sleep on their feet in poor corrals and cattle graze the thin spring grass that flourishes between the invasive Piquillin’s sharp thorns. Past the farms, the truck follows a rough track toward hills that are covered with Quebracho, Carob, Tala, Piquillin and Chañar trees and as we pass, the dust lifts in shades of rose and purple above Jesus Maria’s cultivated fields. The pastoral image owes an equal debt to Faulkner’s fiction and Beethoven’s Sixth…at least until the wings begin to stir. One flight feather quickly joins another until billions gather in a deep whir that quickly grows to approximate the distant drumming of a diesel generator. Estimated at between twenty and fifty million birds, Zenaida Auriculata is on the move.
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From the blind my son Robert and I watch fifty thousand birds lift out of the dense thickets and shimmer toward us. They come in waves, hundreds at a time, weaving like gray ribbons against the bright blue sky. The air glitters with color as thousands of pink breasts and pale blue wings reflect the morning light. A minute later the first singles flash by. The singles quickly join into pairs, squaring, then squaring again until the air vibrates with their numbers.andy-robert-argenti1

Botanists classify the country north of Cordoba as Espinal, a green/gray quilt that stitches croplands to secondary thorn scrub creating perfect habit for Argentina’s eared dove. Scattered across five million acres an estimated fifteen to twenty active nesting sites may each support a million or more birds. Depending on whether you’re a hunter or farmer the math is either amazing or depressing. A mated pair will lay two eggs with a fifty-five percent success ratio. Population numbers, however, aren’t dependent upon a single clutch. Fueled by an unlimited food base the birds convert stored fat to three hatches per year. Each subsequent generation will breed and lay less than four months after they fledge, and it is this amazing fecundity that fills the skies west of Jesus Maria.Cathedral Jesus Maria

Widely recognized as one of the world’s avian biomasses, the numbers are so vast that even Argentina’s Fish and Game can’t keep an accurate count. While the U.S. anthropomorphizes Mourning Doves with everlasting love, Valentines and world peace, the Argentinean farmers exhibit a much more choleric response toward the flights that wash across their fields in the morning and evening.wheatfields-argentina

The surrounding sorghum, wheat and millet fields supply eighty-five percent of the dove’s diet and evidence exists that, like honey bees, returning birds can accurately communicate the location of ripe grain fields, sunflowers or unplowed corn stubble. The farmers call doves La Plaga…. or plague, a feathered tsunami that periodically crashes upon their crops, stripping away any meager profit in a fearless need to feed and breed. The government once scattered strychnine-soaked grain around the roosts but evidence suggest that poisons had little effect on the numbers. The days when doves were officially listed as a pest, however, are long gone. With sixty outfitters and much of the local economy dependent upon the enormous populations, and hunters contributing an average $8,000 per trip, the eared dove now approximates a ten-peso note with wings.

Piquillin Forests, High Flying Doves

Piquillin Forests, High Flying Doves

Marcel Madera hands me a loaded 20 gauge Beretta 3901. The autoloader offers an elegantly machined antidote to the dove’s rapid wing beat and erratic flight. To keep the barrel from overheating, H@H Outfitters plugs the magazine. It now holds three in the spring-loaded tube, with one in the chamber. Despite the numbers, past time on target reminds me to focus on one dove and not lead the flock. The reward is tied to the swing, trigger pull and follow through that results in a clean kill. I pick the morning’s first bird and raise the shotgun. Before I can pull the trigger, it folds. I pick another and start to swing, and then it too folds. “Stop that,” I tell Robert.Morning Flight

“Stop what,” he asks, folding another dove, then another before his autoloader runs dry and he hands it to Andreas Sanchez who trades it for Robert’s backup Beretta.

On our first afternoon in the field three days before, Andreas proved to be as calm as a Zen Buddhist. Robert hadn’t fired a shotgun in over a year and when he repeatedly missed, Andreas encouraged him to keep his cheek on the stock, his eyes open, to swing through the bird and squeeze, not jerk the trigger. Soon yellow shell cases littered the ground.

Empty Cases

Empty Cases

“You were behind… You must swing a little faster, more in front.” Andreas quietly advised him. The bird boys admire good wings shots and say “tsa!” when a bird suddenly folds at full speed. It is a verbal form of applause and to earn that praise, we avoid shooting the slow or close birds and instead reach for the high, fast flyers.

Saddled with twenty-two units of pre-med and facing midterms at the University of Nevada, Reno, Robert shouldn’t have come to Argentina. Instead, he would not be denied and rescheduled tests, wrote papers in advance, crowded labs together and lived on four hours of sleep a night for two weeks. One instructor assigned him a fifteen-page paper on ethics; the choice of subject was left open.
“How does the ethics of shooting doves sound?” he inquired following our first day in the field.
“I thought he was a vegetarian and a pacifist?” I reminded him.
“He is.”

Gaucho On the Road to Fields

Gaucho On the Road to Fields

“In that case no matter how well it’s defended, I can’t see how the Ethics of Dove hunting will score more than a C-.”

The air is filled with doves but the vast majority dodge, dip and bank around us. Some shooters claim the movement of the gun flares the birds and riding a trailing wind with their wings swept into an F-15’s delta the doves are blindingly fast and nearly impossible to hit. Yet the best shooters travel to Argentina for exactly this challenge and in the distance I can see fast moving birds tumble in an explosion of feathers or tip one wing and fly into the ground. In contrast to the popular wisdom, this is not a slaughter and stories abound of shooters who never get it…never learn to swing, or lead and though they pick up the occasional singles and pairs, shooting U.S. dove limits is not sufficient reason to fly to Argentina.

Fast Birds, Short Clips, Patient Instructor

Fast Birds, Short Clips, Patient Instructor

The devil lives in the details. One case of shells, five hundred rounds, if you’re averaging a weak fifty percent you will still kill 250 birds a day. The total may sound excessive, but that number is tiny compared to the 7600 an Irish gunner shot on his way to an Argentine record. With the help of three bird boys, five autoloaders and four shells in a gun, he took eleven hours to shoot twenty-one cases of #8s for a success ratio of 82%.

1000 Rounds, First Day

1000 Rounds, First Day

Short of sewing a bulletproof Kevlar shield into his jacket, I still can’t see how he did it. After three days and four cases of shells, a pink and blue tattoo now radiates from my armpit out onto my shoulder and pectoral. Robert’s cheek is bruised from pressing it against the stock but his average has soared. Flights of Zenaida Auriculata now enter his forty-yard range at their own peril. During the past two days, Robert’s blazing reactions and perfect eyesight have begun to beat in synch and like a blued metronome, his barrel swings from one bird to the next, sending both spiraling into dry grass.

Scattered within the flights, parrots that were introduced by a home sick Brazilian, race above the blind. The guides will shoot both if they can…but the parrots are faster and wiser than the doves and stay high out of range, or appear and disappear with the iridescent green flash of a gaucho’s blade.

I am not immune to the loss of one crippled bird. They are not simply living targets but a tradition that my father handed to me with an old Model 31 Remington pump. I, in turn, passed a love of hunting onto my sons with auto loading Brownings. Robert was weaned on ducks, blue grouse, chukar and doves and has yet to question the rightness of killing and eating wild birds We try to stone each other’s cripples and are moderately successful in bringing down the lightly hit birds.

Hector Fusilado's Son With Eared Doves

Hector Fusilado

Eared doves nest in the local Algarroba trees. Resembling a fragrant European carob tree whose reddish brown wood is used for furniture, the Algarroba Blanco’s thorny branches droop nearly to the ground, forming a solid impenetrable carapace through which the predators cannot pass.Earred Dove

The local red-backed hawk called Aguilucho Comun, the Chimango Caracara and eagles have grown lazy in the years since the dove hunters first arrived and now spiral in at the first gunshots. They have learned there is no need to risk the thorns for a barely fledged squab when the hills are littered with adult carcasses. Showing little regard for the steady reports, an eagle settles into an adjacent Algarroba where it swiftly dismembers a still warm dove.

At the end of the day the outfitters collect and give away all the carcasses they can, but the numbers are daunting. Though the eared dove can be barbecued, added to sauces and mixed with pasta, a steady diet of breasts and backs eventually grows tedious. Even so we stop at the Hector Fusilado family compound.

Hector Fusilado ready to barbecue

Hector Fusilado ready to barbecue

Scattered around a faded concrete-block house with a dirt front yard, the Fusilado children, study us with wonder. It is Sunday, clearly a day to party, and the men accept the doves with slightly out of focus nod. What interests them more than the birds is Dan Borris’ digital camera and they press together for a photo, the men grinning broadly, the children awestruck by the wealthy gringos, all but one wife too shy to join this rare family portrait.

The story of Alex and Zeke Hayes, H@H Outfitters is a case of being at the right place at the right time. Alex Hayes’ college roommate’s father owned the San Huberto Fishing Lodge in Patagonia and asked Alex if he’d be interested in working as a guide during the summer. Alex signed on for the next three years and then, when he’d graduated, accepted a job guiding duck hunters near Tucuman in Northern Argentina. At roughly the same time, Colombia’s drug cartels’ public shootouts spooked American dove hunters whose numbers crashed. Trek Safaris asked Alex if he knew of anywhere in Argentina that might take up the slack. Alex had been born and raised in Cordoba and suspected the nearby village of Jesus Maria’s resident dove numbers could support a guide service. What he couldn’t predict was Cordoba Province’s rapid shift from cattle grazing to raising wheat, corn, sorghum and sunflowers. Dove Field Argentina

By most accounts, “nuclear explosion” falls short of the subsequent growth in dove numbers. Supported by Trek Safari’s need for an alternative hunting site, Hayes scouted the birds, built the blinds and established a dependable source for 20 gauge eight shot. During that first season, he housed a total of 100 clients in a Jesus Maria hotel, fed them at local restaurants and secured access from local farmers who couldn’t believe the gringos would waste valuable shot shells on worthless doves.

Alex admits, “I thought the hunting would last, three, maybe four years at most.” Today he acknowledges that he grossly underestimated both the bird numbers and U.S. demand. When the business rapidly grew too big for Alex to handle alone, he offered a share to his brother Zeke who was building spec homes in the U.S. Zeke now handles the publicity and day-to-day operations for H&H. In fifteen years, H@H has parlayed ammo sales, lodging, food and accessories into a multi-million dollar a year business. The Hayes brothers now own 4 lodges and thousands of acres of prime dove roosting areas all of which are supported by 1200 to 1600 hunters per year. While Alex values the doves, he notes that they resemble rats, or cockroaches. “The populations will grow until they exhaust their food base.” He says. “In my opinion, hunting has absolutely no effect on them! In fact they’re more numerous now than at any time in the past!”

In the decade and a half since Alex Hayes pioneered Cordoba’s dove shooting, the number of outfitters has grown from one to sixty and the number of hunters from five to five thousand. One predictable side effect is that competition is now fierce for prime fields that were once leased for little or no charge. Over time H&H purchased or leased 20,000 acres of prime dove habitat. With 90% of Cordoba’s flyways under H&H’s control the Hayes brother’s future seems secure. Alex admits, however, that some of their leased land is under intense pressure from competitors who will take a smaller profit margin to maintain the flow of hunters.

That evening we shoot until the sun fades and the flights slow. We then return to El Colibrí. Built on a rise west of Jesus Maria, this five star hotel was a dream of Raoul and Stéphanie Fenestraz whose families’ roots can be traced to Méribel, France, the hub of Les Trois Vallées and Albertville Olympics fame. We are greeted with cool, damp towels, a glass of excellent Argentine red wine and Juan Martino and Diego Santos, two amazing musicians playing guitar harmonies that wander from Argentina, to Russia to Brazil and back to Argentina.

Welcoming Gaucho, El Colibir

Welcoming Gaucho, El Colibri

The Fenestrazs live in an adjacent house with their three children, but when we arrive, Raoul is playing polo in Buenos Aires and Stéphanie is preparing for a month long trip to Africa. colibri-evening-guitarists1 A helicopter pilot, she plans to fly from Cape Town South Africa to the Mediterranean.

Only two years old, El Colibri…which translates to Hummingbird mixes the architecture of a classic Argentine Estancia filled with Argentine art and antiques, with modern conveniences including WIFI computer access.

Each of the nine rooms is based upon a story and thus decorated in a different style. Mine is the Colibri, a huge suite divided among a living room with fireplace, a bedroom with a four-poster bed and fireplace, and an enormous tiled bathroom with Jacuzzi and glass shower.

The dining room opens onto the estancia’s 250 acres of cultivated fields and forested hills. bedroom-el-colibriSitting on El Colibrí’s porch, the mix of Piquillin and wheat stretch first to the distant Sierras Chicas then the Tras La Sierra before rising vertically to the Andes that guard the way to Chile.

At night when I return to the room, the bed has been turned down, a caramel cookie graces the pillow and a large orchid floats in front of a lit candle. It occurs to me that this openly romantic presentation is wasted upon a single man.

The roots of spoken Argentinean can be traced to the conquistadores powerful, masculine mother tongue, later bending to the lyricism of spoken Italian, the two ultimately blending like partners in a linguistic Tango.

Zeke drives us along the century old sycamore lined Martine Street in Colonia. Drawn by the government’s 19th century Cayoya, or offer of twenty hectares for every head of house, the Italian immigrants replicated an image of home. Today shop windows along Martine Street beckon with fresh dry salami, cheese and wines that have made this dry, sunlit section of Argentina famous. Argentine AsadoWe eat at the at Restaurant Aristibulo where we are served a traditional Argentine asado, a descending scale of meats, starting with the beef, lamb and pork filets and ending with the organ meats, tripe, kidneys and sweetbreads. There are also empanadas, a deep-fried meat pie that combines the best of a Michigan Northern Peninsula Pasty all savored with an excellent Argentinean Vino Tinto.
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Any sportsman, who invests the time and money to visit Argentina in good conscience should not miss the chance to fish Patagonia. After four days of hunting and exploring the land around Jesus Maria, we bid a reluctant goodbye to Zeke Hayes and his crew and boarded a flight to Bariloche, where we are met by Juan Segovia. Juan is marking his 20th year of guiding at the San Huberto Ranch. Between the volcanic escarpments and the dry plains, the land is a twin to Southern Idaho and Western Montana. After a day and a half on progressively smaller jets, it feels as we’ve simply returned home.

During the three-hour drive to San Martine, Juan points out Ted Turner’s 37,000-hectare ranch that straddles thirty kilometers of the Rio Collon Cura. Ted may be controversial but he’s no fool and flies to Patagonia three to four times a season. I grill Juan about Ted, Jane and anyone else who may use the lodge, the guide stays on subject and simply praises the fishing. While admirably discreet, Juan does reveal that the driven billionaire media mogul manages to waste a few hours in the morning and a few in the afternoon casting to some of planet’s best trout waters.Amazing Rio Malleo

After a brief stop in Malleo to buy two gaucho berets, we arrive at the San Huberto Lodge in the late afternoon. Set in the Passo Tromen, a long, broad valley dominated by the 3700 meter Lanin Volcano, and surrounded by the Parque Nacional Lanin, the San Huberto is owned by the Olsens, a family of Norwegian immigrants whose Great Grandfather claimed this wild section of Argentina in 1887. The ranch’s 10,000 hectares or 21,000 acres has remained intact since it was purchased and was eventually inherited by Carlos, who after suffering a stroke, turned the operation over to his wife Carmen, daughter Karin and sons Gustavo and Ronnie. At the same time she handles the cooking and lodge logistics, Carmen serves as kind of a surrogate den mother. Gustavo who the guides clearly respect, runs the ranch. Ronnie, the younger brother, is a passionate fisherman and hunter who has waded the four continents’ most productive fishing streams only to realize, the Rio Malleo ranks among the world’s best.

The lodge is constructed of knotty pines with exposed trusses covered by pine decking. Colored photos of young earnest men displaying enormous browns and rainbows fills the walls. Ronnie tells us that a majority of the trout were taken on dry flies, along the foam line when the weather was warm and the insect hatches formed a cloud above the moving water.

November, Spring on the Rio Malleo River

November, Spring on the Rio Malleo River

Though Juan was anxious to wet a line after the long drive from Bariloche, he agreed the wind was blowing too hard. For most of that night it whistled around the lodge and dawn’s first light revealed a bitter spring morning.

The lodge staff quickly prove to be pleasant, discrete and efficient to a fault. Leave the room for ten minutes and our Carharts were folded and put away, our shirts perfectly hung in the closet, new towels restocked, papers arranged on the desk and Dop kits organized from smallest to largest, essential to nonessential.rainbow-malleo1

During the drive to the river, arching gray streaks from the dark clouds warn of snow racing up from the south. Resembling a survivor from the Jurassic, Monkey Puzzle trees fill the sheltered draws and we encounter four of San Huberto’s resident gauchos who push the cattle off the road to allow us to pass.

Located a short distance across the Andes from the Southern Pacific, the Passo Tromen, through which the Rio Malleo flows, teams with wild life. Guanacos, a relative of the llama and Ciervo Colorado, the red stags which grow enormous elk like antlers, appear in the early morning next to the brush lines and trees that patchwork the hills. The wind drives the white male and brown female Magellan Geese to the ground and micero, (Corn Ducks) and bandurias (golden breasted, curved billed Avocet) race downwind above the braided river.

The San Huberto sits astride the Rio Malleo, which is running fast, but clear. “Go ahead, you can drink it, no problem,” Juan Segovia, tells us. Between the Guanacos, Ciervo Colorado, wild boars and the ranch’s 800 beeves using the river to drink and bathe, I’ll pass.

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Juan tell us his wife is within days of giving birth to their second daughter and, as we wade into the Malleo, says they plan to name her Sophia…Sophia Segovia, a pretty name and one clearly picked by his spousa for its alliterative beauty. But watching a King Fisher chatter down river and learning that its Spanish name is Martine Pescador, I suggest that a simple change to the feminine form Martinea Pescadora would honor the daughter of a fishing guide. Juan confesses he is muy simpatico but figures it’ll be a tough sell to his wife.

Buffeted by a thirty mile an hour wind driving directly out of the nearby Pacific, we must double haul to drive the line. With Juan directing us where to lay our streamers, we work to keep the wind opposite our casting arm. The wind works to drive the black and purple streamer into my right ear where it will hang until the barb is either dug out or pushed through to where the shank can be cut.

November in Argentina may be a perfect time for doves, but Patagonia’s rivers are cold and fast and we are two weeks in front of the first dry fly hatches.Robert Malleo River

The San Huberto offers twenty-seven miles of Malleo river frontage and eight miles of Huaca Mamuil spring creek catch and release fly-fishing. Roughly 350 fishermen will visit the lodge per season and during the good dry fly months of January and February 60-70 fish a day is not unusual with the average of between 18 to 20 inches. In a four-day trip when the dry flies are on the water, a four-person group can expect to catch three 22-25″ fish. Though 30” fish are not uncommon, Juan admits it is a once or twice per season phenomenon, typically in the mid and late summer months when the big fish leave the undercut banks and feed without caution on the caddis and mayfly hatches that cover the water in scintillating white and dun colored clouds.

Lanin is shrouded in clouds and a cold wind blows the willows into the water. Robert and I cast to a dozen of the Malleo’s deep holes where we catch and release twenty trout. None are smaller than fourteen inches and while we’re content to fish until dark, Juan suggests we warm up with a quick lunch at the lodge. On our return to the river, he points to the high ravines above the ranch where the indigenous Araucano Indians live. “It is better to call them Mapuche.” he tells us, recounting the history of how these proud and fierce people fought the Incas, Conquistadores and finally the Chilean government to a standstill. They are a tiny people, almost dwarfs and when we pass them on the road, they are walking in circles, waiting for the bus to come.

When we return to the river that afternoon, the weather closes in at the same moment the big fish begin to feed. In spite of the harsh, winter wind and two degree centigrade cold water, we catch fish–by any standard big fish, cautious golden browns and fearless rainbows that fight with a ferocity born of cold, swift water and deep holes.

Robert with Brown Trout competing with a rainbow.

Robert with Brown Trout competing with a rainbow.

Buffeted by freezing rain and hard winds, Robert lands three large browns as a full rainbow shines above the river. Juan is constantly on the move, fishing glory holes where our first cast consistently drifts into the jaws of a waiting brown or rainbow. The rainbows clearly covet flash and awe and we tie on a black streamer with a purple body and a touch of sparkling silver tinsel. Robert lands nine in one hole alone and as the fading sunset tints the heavy clouds and the to the ground and micero, bandurias, and Magellan Geese race downwind above the braided river, Patagonia pays all bets.

If I could change one thing about our time in Argentina, it would be simply to schedule much, much more time. The next morning dawned cold and clear. Driven like a rock and ice spike into the Passo Tromen, Lanin stamped a defining signature on the Rio Malleo and San Huberto Lodge. We caught and released rainbows until the last minute, then rushed to meet the plane back to Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Santiago and home. As we sped through town, Robert asked if we could stop at tack store.

“It’ll only take three minutes,” he promised. I stood to one side and watched as he raided his meager supply of pesos to purchase a Gaucho shirt, pants, belt, scarf, shoes and bolos. He considered a gaucho’s punal, but decided against the cost and trouble bringing the ornate knife into the U.S. As a finishing touch he picked out a mate’ cup and the mate’ to fill it.

“So, are you putting together next year’s Halloween costume?” I had to admit he looked exactly like a young, muy guapo gaucho.

“No,” he replied, adjusting the beret. “When I get home to Reno I’m going to buy some beef, lamb and pork. Then I’m going to fire up the Weber, call a few friends and grill up an Argentine Asado.”

Lan Airlines offers daily departures from Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Miami to Cordoba, Argentina as well as many South American cities. For Reservations dial 1-866- 435 9526 or http://plane.lan.com/index-en-us.html

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