Dove Hunting in Argentina Beretta Style: The Sierra Brava Lodge
I had landed at 6:20 PM at Córdoba airport on LAN Argentina flight 4214 from Buenos Aires. My luggage breezed through customs. Now it was time to claim the two Berettas on loan from the company: Beretta’s A400 Xplor Unico Light semi-auto with the Kick-Off recoil-reduction system and the Beretta SV10 Prevail also equipped with Kick-Off would provide the shotguns to stress-test my theory about shooter endurance with a 12-gauge instead of the lower impact subgauges for high-volume dove hunting.
Eduardo waited outside the airport with the Sierra Brava van. At twilight, the air felt fresh, the sky a pastel pallet of lavender, peach and powder blue. He loaded up my luggage, I jumped into the passenger seat and my adventure in Córdoba’s legendary dove hunting took to the road.
Eduardo’s English was excellent, so I was saved the embarrassment of dipping into my high-school Spanish. The last time I resorted to Spanish was in the early 1980s. I had been driving from Paris to San Sebastian, Spain. At the border crossing, the armed guards bombarded me with questions in Spanish. They kept laughing at me, as though they asked “Are you bringing drugs into Spain? Are your carrying automatic weapons, Are you a stupido Americano?” And I kept nodding yes and they kept laughing.
In the Sierra Brava van, we spent the next 70 minutes or so discussing our families and Argentina’s corrosive inflation. Night fell fast as we drove to Sierra Brava on a two-lane highway through the countryside, the landscape reminiscent of East Texas.
Finally, we turned onto a gated dirt road that sliced through brush. The estancia appeared on my right, a single-story stucco building of coral pink with golden-hued lanterns on either side of the modest entrance. Stepping out of the van, a young woman greeted me with a hot towel served on a silver tray. Outside, the fragrances of a Córdoba summer evening were redolent of sweet meadows with a trace of tropical exotica.
A few farm animals grazed in the fenced pastures. In the distance, the Sierras de Córdoba Mountains appeared a distant purple beneath a moon-lit sky bejeweled with stars. Eduardo unpacked the van. On the front steps of the estancia, Manager J.J Sala had gathered the staff for a formal introduction that set the tone of the hospitality for my stay there. Apparently, hospitality has been a staple here for nearly 140 years.
The edifice dated back to 1874. Originally a Pony Express ranch, the Posta stood as one of many that populated El Camino Real, which connected Peru with Argentina. Travelers ate and rested while the horses were changed. Now, in the 20th century, after flying from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, I was ready to continue the legacy with dinner, shower and bed.
Sierra Brava is an affiliate of the Beretta Trident Program, which is the first and only system to rate shooting sports venues. Not an endorsement for purchase, “Tridents” are awarded for excellence, like Michelin® stars for restaurants. Only five percent of destinations worldwide merit even a single Trident. The Sierra Brava Lodge was the recipient of one of three possible Tridents for Upland Birds.
Over the past several years, a capital renovations plan at Sierra Brava included a swimming pool, cabana accommodations, several new outdoor cooking and entertaining areas and ongoing improvements throughout the entire property. The pool, a lake and a fire-pit area were clearly evident across the front lawn as I followed my bags inside.
With wrought-iron chandeliers and Spanish-tile floors the immediate impression of the place was of a well-appointed hacienda. There was a macho vibe from the half-timbered ceilings, over-stuffed leather chairs and sofas, dark furniture and trophy heads.
Plaques declared members of the high-volume fellowships that acknowledged takes of 1,000, 2,500, 5,000 and even 10,000 doves in a single day. The extraordinary numbers posted inspired me to think about the hunter’s adage “When there’s lead in the air, there’s hope.” I wanted to down at least 1,000 doves per day, as both a new personal best and to explore my theory about hunter resilience in high-volume bird scenarios with a big-bore 12-gauge.
My room, adjoining the small lobby, was accessible through a pair of stout rustic doors that evoked the original Posta. Two twin beds and a Spanish armoire dominated the ample interior. The wide-plank wood floors, beamed ceiling and wrought-iron chandelier continued the warm décor, accented with indigenous art over the headboard. There was a private bath, small desk and chair, and forged hooks on one wall that easily accommodated my bulky upland outer-wear and camo rain gear.
Even though I had arrived past the scheduled dinner serving, Mr. Sala made sure a hearty steak dinner was at the ready, accompanied by a bottle of Argentina’s celebrated Malbec red. The young waitress was gracious and the chef appeared from the kitchen to check on my meal. Seriously, no exaggeration, it was one of the best steaks I had ever eaten – tender, expertly seasoned and charred to my liking.
By now my friend Rick Cundiff, whose accommodations fronted the dining room, had joined me at the long table. Rick was absolutely buoyant. As the COO of the investment banking firm Townsend Capital in Hunt Valley, Maryland, he routinely logs 60 to 80 hour weeks putting together deals mostly on clean-energy companies. He had arrived earlier that day, just in time for an afternoon hunt where he bagged more than 400 doves. Away from the office, with a successful shoot already notched, he proved to be in great spirits. J.J had joined us and dinner proceeded with superb companionship. Rick told me that he had spent the afternoon with a bunch of guys from Texas and Arkansas who struck him as some of the funniest people he ever met, and gave me an advance on the anticipated height of hilarity.
Back in my room, satiated on Argentina beef, drunk on Malbec and thoroughly exhausted, I cleaned up then crashed until awakened the next morning by a knock on the door.
Anticipating breakfast and the hunt, fellow guests had gathered in the lobby, drinking coffee as the dining room table set with fruits, toast and cheese awaited the eggs and breakfast meats. Among other men at the lodge, the Texas/Arkansas contingent produced a conspicuous presence of natural-born hunting working men who relished their cigarettes. Randy Craig was there with sons Ryan and Clay, along with family friends Tommy Clafton and Glenn Gilpin.
Polite chit-chat occupied breakfast, but once we piled into the van, those stories from down Texas and Arkansas way started to fly. They usually involved some errant country uncle in overalls who suddenly had to do his business out in the field while hunting birds – and of course the teller of these tales swears up and down that every word of it is 100-percent true, exactly as it happened, completely unembellished. Come the well-timed punch line, we would burst out laughing with tears streaming down our cheeks, ribs aching, rocking back and forth. And the drinking hadn’t even started yet.
The weather was clear and chilly that morning. The ride to the first blind lasted about 10 minutes. At Sierra Brava, the preference is to let parties shoot together. The guys from Texas and Arkansas were dropped off at one blind, a father and son at another, while Rick and I were assigned a brush blind under a sprawling mesquite tree that thrived amid a broad clearing. Straight ahead and to the right, rises covered by vegetation served as dove habitat. Behind us and to the left were crop fields. Each of us worked with our own bird boys – the local guys who speed load the shotguns from the stacked cases, cleaned up the hulls and birds, worked the thumb-operated counters and dispensed the iced beverages stored in a cooler topped by a swivel seat. With all the gear in place, our blind resembled a far-flung encampment.
Of the two Berettas, I opted to start with the A400 Xplor Unico Light semi-auto that had the Kick-Off recoil-reduction system. I had tried the shotgun for the first time in September 2010 at the Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge in Pierre, South Dakota. As a Beretta Trident Affiliate, the Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge previewed new Beretta shotguns, and fortunately had just taken delivery of the latest 12-gauge A400 Xplor Unico Light with Kick-Off.
On an afternoon pheasant hunt over dogs, the A400 Xplor Unico Light was extremely fast and accurate – perhaps the best semi-auto I had ever shot. It was the hunt at the Cheyenne Ridge Signature Lodge that originally sparked the idea of evaluating the 12 gauge version with Kick-Off for high-volume dove hunts in Argentina.
Just to recap, the A400 Light is the wingshooting version of the original clays model. Both feature an aluminum receiver. The 12-gauge A400 Light is about 6.8 pounds with a 28-inch barrel and Kick-Off – or approximately a half-pound less than an equivalent Beretta A400 Xcel Sporting with 29-inch barrels. The reduced weight comes mostly from a shorter receiver – tradeoff impacting shell sizes and capacity. The A400 Light uses Beretta’s Blink operating system, which can cycle shells ranging from 2¾ to 3½ inches. Factory capacity is 2+1.
The sleek design of the A400 was complemented with a Muller Featherlight choke. Muller’s gloss-black extended chokes are made of aerospace-grade aluminum infused with ceramic Teflon. Jim Muller claims his chokes are half the weight of titanium and one-third the weight of steel. Instead of using conventional constrictions, Muller’s chokes are designated Ü1- Ü4. I used a Ü2 opened to .012 inch. The Ü in white against the black finish of the choke accentuated the state-of-the-art veneer of the A400.
At first, I simply stood there under the tree, A400 in hand. It took a moment to recognize the magnitude of the doves. The birds flew solo and erratic, contributing to the initial impression of a patchy quarry. But it was like looking at stars on a clear night. The brightest both catch your attention and overpower the more distant, and then the longer you focus the explosion of light gradually manifests. Soon, I realized that the doves were swarming all around us. I started shooting.
Dove hunting in Argentina is addictive and feverish. Once the birds drop, you want to shoot more and more. Rick and I had originally agreed to a gentlemanly line in the veritable sand: I took the birds on my side of the blind, and he took the ones on his side. Yeah, right. The Muller choke patterned so well that I was able to bring down the fast-flying acrobats 40, maybe 50 yards out, which meant that certain shots became irresistible regardless of our arbitrary boundary. And of course he reciprocated – our zeal fueled by the bird boys who instigated an exuberant competition as to which of us shooters was “numero uno.”
Having shot plenty of sporting clays with Rick, I knew he was the better shooter. That morning he hunted with a 20-gauge over/under (he also brought a 20/28 gauge combo). But the semi-auto and the Muller choke compensated for my deficiency. At the end of the trip, the true “numero uno” emerged after our averages were calculated – eventually proving that the brute force of a 12 gauge provided a critical edge over the subgauge shooters, although the physical toll of the bigger shotgun remained to be assessed by the end of our week together in Córdoba.
The brush blinds of Argentina provide a quick study in developing your own high-volume, dove-hunting strategy. The birds ensured their survival via erratic flight patterns. A raised shotgun barrel would prompt a flare-out, giving pause for a reset. It didn’t take long to realize that spot-shooting delivered the best results with the least effort.
Becoming overwhelmed by the fantastic number of swarming birds is akin to rapture of the deep: an intoxication takes grip and you lose the ability for decisive action. Instead, a cool head must prevail by quickly deciding which bird to shoot next. See it, shoot it, almost straight at it. Long crossers could involve tracking but otherwise if you insist on following the method of butt, belly, beak, bang the additional exertion of keeping the gun up that much longer will contribute to accelerated exhaustion. I found it much easier to hold the gun at the ready and spot shoot.
As lunch time approached, I had already downed more than 500 doves shooting virtually non-stop. I began to feel the physical repercussions, although completely different than originally expected. Talk to high-volume dove shooters in Argentina and it seems that the first bruises appear in the shoulder area where the butt meets the pocket. The Beretta A400 Light with Kick-Off started to hurt someplace else.
My shoulder was fine, but the constant one-half-inch compression and expansion of the hydraulic dampeners connected to the recoil pad caused the comb to move back and forth against my cheek, which started to swell. The cheek abrasion from the dampening hydraulics, not the direct impact, proved to be the system’s weakness for relentless high-volume shooting.
By now I had reached a few conclusions about the Beretta Kick-Off system. Beretta says Kick-Off can reduce total recoil by up to 70 percent compared with the nearest competitor. Apply that claim to my shoulder and I would support it. Even now, shooting his 20-gauge over/under, Rick’s shoulder was starting to smart after two hunts – forcing him to borrow an over-the-shirt recoil pad from Mr. Sala. By comparison, my shoulder was in great shape – pain-free – without any supplemental recoil gear. But the slight back-and-forth movement from the Kick-Off started to break down the skin on my cheek as I approached the 1,000-round mark of hot-barrel shooting during that morning session. The realization was that the Kick-Off system would be enjoyable for everyday shooters who might go through, at most, 10 boxes of 12-gauge shells in a single day.
Just as a footnote, the A400 Xplor Unico Light hardly jammed. There were about four instances of where a shell wouldn’t cycle during my hunt at the Sierra Brava Lodge using local CAZA ammunition.
For lunch, we were driven to a grove were the meal was served under a tent. A long table was set quite lavishly. After the assorted grilled meats and sides, time was allocated for a siesta in one of the cots under a tree or a hammock. At one point, the conversation turned to the A400 Xplor Unico Light. The guys from Texas and Arkansas really like it and I invited them to give it a try.
The Sierra Brava Lodge likes to move hunters to another location for the second hunt of the day. Rick and I were assigned a blind across a stretch of scrub and mesquite from the Texas contingent. We could hear them shooting and occasionally one of them would amble over to our blind for a few rounds with the A400 Xplor Unico Light. The gun was a big hit with them as, by that point, they appreciated a lighter, softer shooting shotgun than the ones they had been firing for the past day and a half.
Day one of hunting ended with a tally of 1,019 doves using 60 boxes of shells for an accuracy rate of 68%.
Back at the lodge, a young woman gave us hot towels as we stepped off the van. Cocktails and appetizers awaited us at the outdoor bar around the lake-front fire pit. Then we cleaned up for a wonderful steak dinner with wine. After dessert, Mr. Sala handed out distinctive Sierra Brava Hats for hunters who downed at least 1,000 birds that day. Some of us wrapped up the day with a massage.
The second day of hunting began with skies that threatened rain. After breakfast, Rick and I were taken to a blind that seemed almost magical. Beneath a tree, we faced a long corridor of vegetation that ended in our immediate area near a stream and fenced-in grazing cattle. Low, ominous clouds cast a metallic green light across the landscape. Looking straight ahead, incoming birds were endless – waves of them evocative of black-and-white World War II documentaries that filmed squadrons of bombers in wide formation across enemy lines.
I started with the Beretta SV10 Prevail over/under. The shotgun, equipped with Beretta factory chokes and 32-inch barrels, shouldered smoothly – a more sumptuous shooting experience than the A400 Xplor Unico Light. Once again, as the morning hunt approached the lunch break, the cheek abrasion returned from the Kick-Off system, although my shoulder felt fine.
The friendly contest between Rick and I heated up as the bird boys instigated the competition for “numero uno.” From the four of us rose cries of “uno, doble” resounded with each bird taken. And after the over/unders were reloaded it would continue to “triple, cuatro” as we laughed and ribbed each other, our gringo Spanish running out at five or more consecutive kills. The birds tumbled or nose-dived to the ground all morning, some of the fast incomers landing in the blind with a meaty plop – the hot barrels capable of blistering your fingers if you accidentally touched them. Nothing stopped us. We shot unremitting like fiends until lunch.
For the afternoon hunt, Mr. Sala complied with our request to stay at the morning blind rather than switch to another place. By the time we returned, a warm drizzle infused the shooting with even greater exhilaration. Lightning streaked in the distance. Finally, the walkie-talkies crackled with instructions to the bird boys that we needed to come in from the impending storm. The bird boys decided to wait it out there while we climbed on the van – listening to more hilarious stories from the Texans.
Our luck held, though, as the storm cleared before reaching the lodge. The van turned around and soon we rejoined the bird boys. The day ended with 1,005 dead birds from 56 boxes of shells. I celebrated with a few scotches and a Cuban cigar at the fire pit. That night over dinner I was awarded my second Sierra Brava Lodge hat for 1,000 birds.
Veterans of Argentina dove hunting may scoff at celebrating 1,000 birds in a single day – given that 2,000 and 5,000 are within reach. In fact, a few hunters at the Sierra Brava Lodge, including Rick, racked up that many birds and more.