To Argentina, for ducks and doves and perdiz and a timeless sense of wonder.
[by Reid Bryant]
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, Agustín 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 Agustín.
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 Agustín 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. Agustín quietly lays the gun at his side and sits back on his elbow, his sleight-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. Agustín 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 Ríos 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. Agustín was our host, alongside owner Carlos Sánchez, at Los Ombués Lodge.
Arriving at Los Ombues after all that travel was surreal, and Agustín’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 Agustín 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,” Agustín 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.” Agustín 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 birdboy, 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 Agustín in the shadows to watch.
Agustín was chatting with Ismael and José 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 José Luis shoot. I bet he does better than Rooster.”
Rooster, hearing his name and the suggestion of competition, made room. Agustín spoke to José Luis and handed over a little Beretta and a fistful of shells. The two aces stood together and went shot for shot. José 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.
Agustín 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 backwards. 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.