Graham Gurr goes in search of a golden dorado.
The Judge and I have been hunting and fishing together for more than 30 years, but for some reason, the Judge had never managed to hunt in South America whenever I was going. This was our year.
As soon as word got out that we were going, a few other people joined the trip. In the end six of us went: the Judge, Ross Cottle, Neil Candy, Di Pritt, Alistair Garland and moi.
We flew with Air New Zealand to Buenos Aires and a couple of days later to Parana Airport, a 2½-hour drive from the lodge we had booked. I won’t tell you about the fabulous meals we had in BA, or being targeted by pickpockets, nor will I tell you about the whiteknuckle ride from Parana to the lodge.
But when we got to the lodge – wow – a waiter offering a glass of champagne greeted us, and all the staff turned out to welcome us. After finding our rooms and a quick scrub-up, we repaired to the lounge/dining room to be fed with a sumptuous three-course meal washed down with some of the region’s finest wines (mostly malbec).
This gave us a chance to meet our fellow hunters for the week, two brothers from Texas and later that evening (when they arrived), a husband and wife team also from Texas. All, as it turned out, were marvellous company.
We had booked this particular lodge as it offered a mixed bag of hunting and fishing, ducks, doves, perdiz and fishing for the golden dorado, which inhabit the local waterways. Parana Sunrise Lodge is on the banks of the Parana river delta, the second largest river delta in South America – only the Amazon is bigger – and the sixth biggest river system in the world.
The delta itself is 1200km long by 40km wide where we were, so wide you could not see the other side. The countryside is flat and grows water-intensive crops like rice and cotton. The size of the fields is mind boggling as they can be several miles in each direction, with irrigation dykes running around the edges, and the same dykes provide a means to travel by 4x4 along the tops to reach the hunting areas.
Rice and water together can only mean one thing, ducks and lots of them. The first morning, Alistair, Neil and Ross elected to duck hunt. After a 5am breakfast and a short ride to a local field, they were amazed to find themselves back at the lodge by 8am, having each shot a morning limit of 25 ducks – that’s 75 in under two hours!
The good news was they could do it again after lunch if they wanted, instead they went fishing. Yes, that’s right 50 ducks per person per day! The Judge and I along with Di had gone fishing that morning; we had landed piranha and catfish. The piranha are beautifully coloured, iridescent pink and were it not for the teeth that can take your finger off with one bite would be a fun fish to catch; they are aggressive and fight well on light gear. However, we were rigged for dorado, with a 40-pound wire trace, so they never stood much of a chance.
While we had been fishing, there was a drama playing out back at the lodge, the lodge manager Augustine who had greeted us the night before was sacked. Just like that, for some indiscretion that had been brought to the attention of the owner, who was coming down from another lodge he owned to look after us. Only problem was Augustine was the only person at the lodge who spoke English.
It pays when travelling in South America to relax and just enjoy what is happening rather than waste effort trying to make things happen. As it turned out, it was not so much of a problem, we knew the words for the essential food groups, cerveza (beer), vino (wine) and carne (meat).
We had a shooting manager by the name of David; he made an appearance after dinner to tell us that we were shooting ducks tomorrow. “Er no, the Judge and I would like to fish tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “OK,” he said, “tomorrow in the morning you hunt ducks, in the afternoon you fish, everybody else hunts ducks”, and with that he was gone.
And that’s what we did, in the morning, the Judge, Di and I shot a whole pile of ducks and in the afternoon, the Judge and I went fishing.
This time after several piranha, I managed to hook and land a golden dorado. Celebrations all round that evening. After dinner, our shoot manager David announced that tomorrow we would shoot doves all day.
The next morning, we left the lodge about 7am and drove for an hour and a half to the dove fields.
It turned out to be a roost shoot so, standing behind a makeshift blind made from a couple of leafy tree branches, we faced the roost, an expanse of woodland, and shot the doves as they left the roost to go out to the fields to feed.
Doves are regarded as an agricultural pest, they can breed six times a year and can reduce a farmer to ruin in a couple of weeks. So there is a lot of encouragement to kill as many as you can or want to.
I had suggested to everyone that to shoot 250 cartridges was a good shoot, more if you wanted, but we were paying for our cartridges in US dollars and that can add up at the end of a trip. So most contented themselves with shooting 250 for the morning.
There is no great skill to shooting doves – it just takes more than one shot. They refuse to fly in straight lines and will jink and dive just as you pull the trigger. So the more lead you put in the air, the more doves you will potentially shoot.
After a couple of hours, the rush of doves slowed to a trickle, and all but Neil and Alistair stopped to compare notes. Both were in a neck-and-neck race to see either who could kill the most doves or use the most cartridges. Their tallies were in the hundreds of doves and more than 14 boxes each.
We each had what they call a “bird boy”, delightful young men with little or no English but there to ensure you had a good time, they would replenish the cartridges in your jacket pocket as you shot, fetch you a drink if needed, and clear the jam in your shotgun which happened a lot with the guns we were using and the cheap ammunition. They also carried a clicker around their neck to record how many birds you shot. Conversation was limited to “drink”( do you want a drink?), “muerto”(dead) and “shooty shooty (you can work that one out).
We called a halt for lunch about 11. While we had been shooting, David and a couple of the boys had built a fire and were in the process of preparing lunch, an “asado”, basically a barbecue and traditional in Argentina. It consisted of several cuts of meat, beef and pork as well as sausage, all cooked over the embers of the fire and served at a table, complete with a white table cloth, china plates, salad and the requisite wine glasses for the wine that helped digest the meal.
For those who needed it, they had also placed hammocks between the trees so you could have a nap before the doves returned. While we had been eating and sleeping, the hundreds of dead doves which littered the field, were devoured by a vast array of birds of prey which flew to the feast as soon as we had walked away.
Return they (the doves) did, thousands of them, an almost continuous stream of birds as far as the eye could see coming directly to the roost, which was now behind us. If the morning shoot had been good, this was sensational.
Having got “one’s eye in” in the morning, everyone shot better and more successfully in the afternoon. What a day!
The staff and boys seemed genuinely pleased to see him and there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. With him there, things went up a notch.
The next morning was again devoted to ducks, everyone shot well and when we all returned to the lodge. Before the bird boys could whisk the ducks away (I suspect they were feeding most of the local population), we asked for some group photographs so we could identify the ducks we had been shooting. We laid out them on the lawn; it was three groups’ morning shoot and all had limited out (as usual).
We had Coscoroba swan (Coscoroba coscoroba), fulvous whistling duck(Dendrocygna bicolor), ringed teal (Callonetta leucophrys, Brazilian teal (Amazonetta brasiliensis), silver teal(Spatula versicolor), yellow-billed pintail (Anas georgica), yellow-billed teal (Anas flavirostris), rosy-billed pochard (Netta peposaca) and one the locals called pato grande, which we never managed to identify properly.
The swan was particularly interesting as it is believed to be the common ancestor of all the swans and geese, as it is really neither one nor the other, but a very interesting one to hunt.
That afternoon we drove (past the dove shoot) out to a new area to hunt perdiz. They are one of my favourite upland game birds, but this time I was to be disappointed.
After a three-hour walk behind a pointer, Di and I, along with Carlos our bird boy for the afternoon, managed to flush seven birds, all but one either out of range or at extreme range.
The Judge and Ross on the other hand had a magnificent hunt, they had a local with them who had an exceptional dog, which found them bird after bird. They almost shot two limits (eight perdiz each) and returned to the meeting point with big grins and tales of a wonderful hunt.
Neil and Alistair fared a little better than Di and I but had been plagued by an out-of-control dog that flushed birds out of range, but they had still managed 11 between them.
That evening Ivan’s girlfriend, Florencia, turned up; it was her birthday. We had a party!!!!
Last morning, we drove about half an hour down the road to a boat launching place where we had hunted from the day before, this time, however, the boys took us to a new spot, out on an island.
On the island, there was a wetland and here, they had erected one of the bamboo blinds they used. Nothing special, just a row of bamboo fronds placed in the ground.
This wetland was mostly mud covered by an inch or so of water, like all the places we hunted, it had been fed for weeks to get the ducks to concentrate in this particular area.
The mud proved to be a problem, as once you stood still; you sank into the mud and were unable to turn to take a shot in any direction except in front.
The boys solved that problem by using the rear of the blind and laid the bamboo down under our feet to give us a more stable platform.
Just as well as the ducks were trying to land in front of us as we sorted ourselves out. Di to the left, the Judge to the right and me in the middle. It proved to be one of those memorable hunts where everyone shot well and the ducks came into the decoys like kamikazes, all too soon the bird boy was saying “only three more” which took three more shots and we were done.
One hour, 75 birds, three happy hunters.
Our final hunt was more restrained, this time we set up in a rice field, the rice had long been harvested, but Ivan paid the farmers to keep some fields flooded with a few inches of water until the end of the duck season.
We had all driven out along the dykes miles from the road and set up almost within sight of each other. Out in the flooded fields, the boys erected the blind and we settled down to wait for the birds, they came on ones and twos, but without the intensity of the morning, it was just nice to be there, we had a magnificent sunset and for me the highlight was shooting one of the Coscorobo swans.
And that was it, a wonderful week with a group of friends, most of them experiencing South America for the first time. We were blessed with some excellent company with our new friends from Texas and at the lodge we were looked after by some of the best, friendliest and most accommodating people I have ever. We were truly sad to leave.
Now I won’t tell you about our delayed flight back to BA and landing at the wrong airport, but I will tell you about the tango show we saw on our last evening.
Tango and Buenos Aires go together like bread and jam. We went to an intimate restaurant and theatre, where we ate an excellent meal, followed by a 90 minute non-stop show of tango dancing and singing – the main female singer was superb and when she sang Buenos Aires from Evita, it just summed up the trip for me. (Go listen to it you’ll see what I mean). Wonderful!
I can’t wait to go back, anyone care to join me?