Monday, March 19, 2012

A Fist Full of Feathers

Ask any volunteer and they will tell you that a post service international travel epoch is more than customary, it's downright compulsory for those wide eyed paragons of government efficiency called the Peace Corps. I may have ended my service early, but I still got my travel experience, and in my opinion, it was streets ahead of anything I was thinking about back in Africa.

For anyone who is more than a close acquaintance, they will know my love of hunting, specifically bird hunting, with an occasional prairie dog massacre thrown in for funzies. This past week I have experienced the Valhalla of wing shooting (that's birds for you hippies). It is located in Argentina, on a ranch called "Estancia del Salida". This is the tale of the Carpe Palomas.

My father is a prolific, if at times unsuccessful in returning with meat, hunter; and so are his army friends from the era of the Soviet Union, or the Persian Empire, I forget which. My father also happens to be the state chairman for the waterfowl conservation group "Ducks Unlimited". During a national gathering, he blindly purchased a dove hunt in Argentina from the auction believing he could convince a few of his friends to join him in a bucket list worthy week of hunting. He was not disappointed.

With my early termination of service, I was suddenly available to fill the final slot on the trip a mere month before the departure. Our hunting band was formed, which as I write this sounds poetically like a D&D set up: Dave Marsh the father, Michael Marsh the son, Dan Posten the young of heart, and Roger Weed the commander.

After a 12 hour plane trip from Dallas to Cordoba, 75% of our gang were fatigued enough to swear of plane travel forever. Then came the taxi ride through the city on streets only 5m wide, nary a major road to been seen, and only a coat of paint separating us from oncoming traffic. My companions were suitably jostled by the end. I was chuckling with the deja vu of TIA.

The next day the Estancia sent a van and whisked us 2 hours upcountry to the ranch. Almost the entire way was surrounded by enormous swathes of farms or businesses related to farming. Metal fabricators, tractor dealers, tractor repair shops, chemical dealers, bio research sites; the fences of the farms were even used as advertising space for the products they were using, generating a discount for the farmer.

Farming in Argentina is huge, and it gets bigger every year. In this particular region the biggest pests are doves. The estimate is there are 40-60 million doves in an area the size of Kentucky. However, the dove population size, combined with the complete lack of a bird hunting element in Argentine culture creates an average loss of 40% on farm outputs. The Estancia we are staying and hunting at is first and foremost, a farm. The wing shooters that come all year long are their attempt to control the doves, as there has been no effective solution to the problem, and none looms.

At this stage, I believed my hunting band, and me specifically, was the answer to their dove problem. Arriving at the Estancia, we left for the fields 10 minutes later. Each of us was taken to a hunting blind prepared by one of their bird boys. These were the men who would fill your shell belt, count your hits, serve your field beer, and call out if there were birds coming you didn't see. A finer hunting assistant I have never had.

As I approach my blind, I see there are several cases of shells, with each case containing 500 rounds. Before I can scoff at the idea of using that many shells, a 20 gauge semi automatic beretta is thrust in my hands, my shell pouch filled, and birds begin to swarm through my firing arc. Being an experienced hunter, I know that this boom of birds in shooting distance cannot last, so I do my level best to put a wall of lead in to the air. But this is a farm in Argentina, so the doves don't stop coming. There are points when I cannot load my gun fast enough and many birds escape, only to be replaced by two more. In any other story, I would tell you how many birds I pulled out of the sky with super accelerated lead BB's, but I'm going to leave the magnitudes till the end. After about 2 hours, it's time to go in for lunch.

Lunch is a 3 course meal with bottomless Malbec red wine and a guaranteed siesta afterwards. Sometime during the nap another 4 hunters arrived to join us. Three brothers and a business partner, all from California, all avid hunters; no better company from total strangers could be expected. After introductions and shit shooting, we all head to the fields at about 4pm for actual shooting. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we rotated through different shooting spots. My first time was over an open undeveloped field, and this second time was on the edge of a milo field.

To say that hunting doves with no limit over a milo field is like shooting fish in a barrel would be disingenuous; it was more like shooting a barrel filled with only fish. However, at the end of the day, what was never told to us was the physical toll this style of hunting takes on a person. Interestingly, it was not the recoil shoulder that screamed with fatigue, but the one that lifts the gun up. All of us were in varying degrees of shooting fatigue, after 1 day. I made sure to schedule a massage for the following day's siesta.

The next day after waking up to the after effects of shooting too much, we all made the pledge that we would only shoot at difficult birds so as to increase our skill. Taking only shots that challenged us so we could become better shooters. Things like direct overheads, right-left crossings, late stage flares, etc...

The day turned out almost the same numbers as the first. Only now both shoulders shrieked with ache, even after the massage.

For our third day, we all decided to do contest shooting as a group. We came up with games to play while good naturedly ribbing each other. We started with rotational shoot-till-you-miss, then teamed up and did the same. Later we tried a rounds system. First round required only one bird to be hit, 2nd round the same, but the 3rd required both shooters to make hits to continue. We did this until lunch. My best streak was 12. Lunch this day was more memorable due to the steak they served us being the size of a War and Peace novel. It really was more like Valhalla than real life at this point.

Our afternoon shoot was on the same milo field I had hunted the first afternoon. I came up with the idea that we do time trials. Normally, on any other hunt this would be ludicrous as no two time periods could guarantee an equal number of targets for each hunter to have a fair trial; but again, this is a farm in Argentina. We started with a last man standing round: each hunter has five minutes, low score is eliminated. It came down to me and Dan; we tied. Since a tie in unacceptable, we reduced the time to 3 minutes and went again. Another tie. Reduced to 2 minutes. Another tie. Reduced to 1 min. I lost by 1. Damn.

After the single elimination we did team 5 minutes. After those we came up with what ended up being my favorite. Two of us, me and Dan, would do a team 5 min shoot, but have the bird boys loading the guns of the two not shooting and pass the loaded guns to us after expendeding the 4 shell magazine of the gun we were actively using. This in effect cut our loading time down to 0 giving us the maximum lethality possible.

After this one particular 5 min shooting spree, I have forever been ruined as a dove hunter, or really a bird hunter period, as nothing will ever compare again... unless I bring an AA platform.

That evening our host, the owner of the Estancia, brought several of his friends who own a big game hunting preserve from Patagonia. While Red Stag are impressive, as well as the dozen other large and unique animals it's possible to hunt on their Estancia, I can't quite justify the 34k it would cost.

Our flight out was the next afternoon, so our last dove massacre would be that morning. For this particular session my blind was on the side of a hill overlooking a meadow. For non dove hunters, this creates a situation where the birds are flying higher to get over the hill, and often just going behind it, or veering off to the trees on the other side of the meadow; practically, this meant 80% of my shots were at greater than 20m. Normal bird hunting is done at less than 30m, so this session represented the greatest challenge purely because of distance. Thanks to the constant barrage of dove slaughter, I was well prepared, and achieved a hit percentage of 74%. And just to toot my own horn on this, the average American dove hunter comes in with a meager 14%.

After settling the bill, having lunch, traveling home, blah blah blah, no events besides denigrating the TSA, we arrived back home.

Best hunting trip of my life, and one hell of a post Peace Corps travel experience.

And now for the really fun part, the numbers (for me only):

1st day
morning: 520 birds
afternoon: 640 birds
Total: 1160
2nd Day
morning: 552 birds
afternoon: 596 birds
Total: 1148
3rd day
monring: 156 birds
Afternoon last man standing, 5 min rounds:
1st round: 25
2nd round: 42
3rd round (3 min): 21
4th round (2 min): 10
5th round (1 min): 5
Team rounds: 62, 47
Bird boys loading guns session (5 min): 51
I would like to make a special mention of this round; in effect,
I shot 1 dove every 6 seconds for 5 straight minutes.
Total: 428
4th day
morning: 260

Total all days: 2996 doves
Time hunting: ~18hrs
Total average efficiency: 68%

Carpe Palomas

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