Pigeon shooting in San Luis
If you love woodies, then you will love the picazuro and spot-winged pigeons of Argentina, says Tarquin Millington-Drake.
Let’s be honest, our woodies are king. They are the most challenging, aerobatic, intriguing, quirky, infuriating sporting birds in the world. They decoy, they flightline, they are a pheasant, partridge and grouse at any given time or all at the same time. Quite simply, they are the best and we love them.
So, it would be unfair to expect woodie quality of any other pigeon in the world, but that does not mean that a trip to shoot pigeons in Argentina is not worthwhile – it most certainly is. There are two species, the picazuro (Patagioenas picazuro) and the spot-winged (Patagioenas maculosa). Both flightline, decoy and are aerobatic, perhaps more so than our woodie when coming into the decoys, but not quite at such speed. When flying with doves, as they often do, they look like blackcock flying with grouse. They have a slower wingbeat which is misleading because (as with the blackcock) they are going faster than they look and are therefore often missed.
They tend to flightline in the mornings (we are talking Argentine flightlines – up to 20km from their roosts and sometimes they will make a two-day 70km trip, stopping on the way!) to their feeding grounds where they will eat, in order of importance, corn, soya, peanuts and sorghum. Sunflowers are not planted because of almost certain loss to bird damage. Wheat is planted in the summer, out of season, in the very high temperatures. Of course they can be decoyed at their feeding grounds but they can also be tempted to decoy on the way home, too, for a different snack.
One of the best places to shoot pigeons (and doves in big numbers as a combo, which is special) in Argentina is El Monte on the border between Cordoba and San Luis provinces. El Monte is a three-hour drive from Cordoba airport and slightly shorter from San Luis. The beautiful lodge is set in the pretty Argentine village of Yacanto. Both it and the shooting grounds are set against the backdrop of the stunning Sierras de los Comechingones that, frankly, look like mountains to me.
British railroad engineers built the lodge in the 1900s; it is a beautiful colonial-style building with those typical huge, tiled verandas where it is possible to sit out and enjoy the good weather. El Monte is ideal for this and thus a very sociable place. The staff build a big fire in the pit in the garden around which one can sit and enjoy an evening cerveza after a good day in the field. Maria and Juan have evolved the building into a superb, very comfortable shooting lodge for up to 10 guests which is full of life during the season from the beginning of March to the end of August (pigeons are best from mid April).
Seventy per cent of the pigeons at El Monte are spot-winged but the larger picazuros are on the increase, migrating from the north. Alhough they’re different, they behave the same.
The area is arid. It used to be marginal for agriculture, indeed for everything, which explains the absence of historical ‘estancias’ or houses on farms. Around 1998 the lower price of land in this area attracted investors. The local government offered incentives and this is how landowners bought their land and added irrigation systems or pivots to their farms. The best water is concentrated in an area called the Conlara Valley, with the Conlara River running through the area, hence food and water and thus the bird concentration. Juan and Maria lease no less than 32,000 hectares of shooting land all in one block. Like other shooting operations in Argentina, they value their pigeons so there is a bag limit of 200 per Gun per day and the lodge will not allow guests to shoot pigeons every day. Do not misunderstand me, there are tonnes of pigeons but they are not an almost limitless resource like the doves which they also have plenty of.
Let me explain.
There are pigeon and dove days, and dove and pigeon days. On the former, the primary target species is the pigeon and the limit is 200 birds per day. This is plenty of shooting but there are also doves on the move so while you are trying to shoot your bag of 200 pigeons, you will almost certainly fire at another 500 or more doves!
When focused on the pigeons, Juan and his team get you up early for your 40-minute or more drive to where you are due to shoot. They set up hides or blinds, not to the degree we do, but to break up a full human shape. For the morning session one is essentially under a flightline. They also put up a rather primitive whirly which goes round more slowly than ours. The pigeons start to fly as the sun comes up.
The first time I did it, I thought the guys were kidding when they told me to get stuck in. The birds were miles up there, tiny specks against a blue sky. Juan took the gun and shot one! I shut up and got on with it! The height reduced a little but it was still about a 4:1 ratio to start. Once the doves began to fly, too, the pigeons became more shootable and even came right down in height, like grouse, on occasion.
They take some hitting, just like ours, but next to the doves they did look like the mothership and it was easy to misjudge their speed. This flight went on all morning but at some point we stopped shooting the pigeons to save some for the afternoon when they would decoy on the way home. Our attention turned to doves, which, of course, are equally fun and amusing!
Soon it was lunchtime and that means an asado or barbecue with Argentina’s finest meats and wines, which is not easy to forget when combined with Ezequiel the chef’s world-class empanadas!
Usually a nap is then in order but the pigeons and doves began to decoy so we could not resist. But we need not have worried, we could have slept for a good hour or more and still had a superb afternoon’s shooting. The numbers just built and built with some packs of over a hundred pigeons dropping in on the decoys. Soon we were confined to doves again!
The crop they were coming to attack was young soya plants. I was actually able to go and sit in the field and the pigeons were landing around me like those red letter days at home when a big squadron comes in and you try and wave them away hoping they will return as singles, pairs or small squadrons, but they are so keen to come in to the decoys, they drop in anyway.
On the dove and pigeon days, it is the same routine but there are far greater numbers of doves and one tends to be away from the crops on a flightline in wilder country. The pigeons come from time to time and everyone tries to get them, but the same old wing-beat problem means a high percentage of them get away.
With the doves, the numbers are equally good as those found in the much better-known Cordoba area, except that at lunchtime the traffic slows for an hour or two. This is appreciated because one can really enjoy lunch during the natural lull, but soon things pick up and are perhaps more intense than during the morning session.
The highest birds will undoubtedly be pigeons, but the doves can be as high or low as you wish by simply moving to where they are flying higher and picking your birds. I am not an advocate of trying to recreate shooting at home when abroad. I do, however, like to practice shooting birds way out in front because no matter what we are shooting in the UK, from grouse to pigeons, partridges or pheasants, they should be shot in front. Of course I do have my two favourite species in mind – grouse and pigeons!
They do also decoy pigeons in the more classic style on smaller fields with decoys and a whirly but this is perhaps where, unless there is a wind, the birds are at their least sporting. They do not fly with the doves; they come from various directions to the feeding ground and, as they are not traveling at speed, they are therefore easier to take early. They never use plastic decoys simply because they have a huge supply of dead birds that work so much better.
Our woodies are far fewer in number, comparatively, and are shot at far more regularly, so are more wary and wily and this, I am sure, contributes to how sporting they are. You do not have to hunker down behind the hide in Argentina, and this probably helps one’s shooting. A common mistake is to try to hide and shoot at the same time – it never works and leads to frustration, and it sometimes takes someone else to point out what you are doing wrong.
There is no doubt that very few of us achieve great pigeon shooting here in the UK, much as we would like to. Unless one has a professional to do the scouting for you, it requires a lot of communication with local farmers, lots of checking and reading of flightlines, fieldcraft, etc., which requires time that so many of us do not have.
With the prime Argentine season outside our shooting season, the fine weather, great food, stunning scenery and, of course, superb shooting both for pigeons and doves, I defy anyone not to enjoy themselves.
After all, it is pigeon shooting!
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