Spoilt for choice
With world-class sea trout fishing, and dove shooting on an epic scale, Argentina will overwhelm the versatile sportsman's senses, as Bob Sherwood discovered.
Kneeling on the gravel in the swift cold water, I feel the strength of the fish return. But I can't quite bring myself to release it yet as I struggle to comprehend that this really is just a trout.
At a fraction under 20lb, this is a sea trout bigger than I ever imagined I would set eyes on. As it powers back into the Rio Grande, it covers me with a shower of cold water bringing me back to reality.
Yet just days later amid the rich farmland of Cordoba, I have the same sense of the surreal as I take a right and left at long crossing birds at ranges that I would never normally attempt, and then glance down to see the amassed pile of empty cartridges at my feet.
If, like me, you consider any sea trout over 5lb to be worthy of celebration and any shoot where you put more than a handful of birds in the bag to be a red-letter day, then Argentina is a country that will overwhelm your sporting senses.
The Rio Grande in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Patagonia, feels like the end of the earth. The river snakes through the treeless landscape of sprawling sheep and cattle ranches, creating a variety of long runs, cut banks, deeper pools and shallow riffles. It is intriguing fly water, made all the more exciting by the knowledge that you are swinging flies over the biggest sea trout on the planet.
Forget the standard 45˚ cast, mend and swing that is the standard game plan of many salmon fishers. Here, Alejandro Bianchetti, manager and top guide at Nervous Waters' Villa Maria Lodge, insists on taking a specific approach to every pool, showing me the channel of deeper current where the fish lie and demonstrating how to feed slack into the line, cast at different angles, mend three or four times and strip the fly in different ways to cover fish most effectively and provoke a response.
It was a fly fishing masterclass from a man who certainly knows his river. A few weeks earlier Alejandro had landed a lodge record - a 33 pounder. “There are bigger fish here”, he says with a smile.
Earlier in the season, smaller rubber leg nymphs and even dry flies are the favoured method here. But we have arrived towards the back-end, in late March, when rain has lifted the river and the water is running cold. Now we are fishing larger, bright articulated flies and heavy sink tips on our double-handers. But it is no hardship, as the river is a delight for the Spey caster and the upside is that the late run of really big fish are in the river.
This means that whenever the line stops on its swing across the pool, so does your heart. We catch some smaller fish in single figures, but more often than not, the rod hoops into a heavyweight that stays deep with power that shudders through the line and tears at the drag with a series of lunges.
My travelling companion Jim Curry, a veteran of global angling destinations and partner at sporting agents Halstead and Bolton which organised the trip, is as enthralled as I am and we both even forfeit the traditional after-lunch siesta to keep fishing as long as we can. There are few people calmer than Jim when playing a big fish, but the Rio Grande manages to crack even his composure.
As darkness falls one evening, Jim's rod is almost pulled from his grasp as he watches the longest fish he has ever seen, roll on the surface. I know it must be big both from the bucking of his rod that I can just make out against the moonlit sky and his silent concentration as he backs out of the water. Then, in an instant, the rod is straight. There is a rare curse on the breeze and it takes a full five minutes of contemplation on the bank before I hear him laugh and see his broad grin. “Every time I close my eyes, I see that fish”, he tells me later.
A couple of flights and a day later, we are in a landscape a far cry from the stark, wind-buffeted beauty of Tierra del Fuego.
Cordoba, Argentina's prime agricultural region, is surrounded by rolling hills and fertile farmland. It is the abundant crops that feed the tiny doves that migrate daily in vast numbers from the surrounding scrubby hills.
At Rio de Peidras Lodge, a cosy five-bedroom lodge in the heart of shooting country - complete with elegant terraces and swimming pool - the Argentine hospitality continues over cocktails and fried dove breasts as Ramiro Gonzalez Allende fills us in. “There are more than 50million doves within a 60-mile radius of here”, smiles Ramiro who runs the lodge operator Puelo Expeditions. “And we have 40 shooting fields within a 40-minute drive.”
Shouldering a 20-bore on my first morning I can hardly decide which shot to take. As doves appear in groups, pairs and singles from all angles, my aim deserts me. The sheer numbers are disorientating.
The trick, I soon realise, is to pick the type of birds you want to shoot, and focus on a specific window in the sky. Because there are so many birds, I can single out the most challenging - high doves, long crossers or those particularly difficult ones that curl in the wind.
Jim, a far better shot than me, is chuckling away as he picks out stratospheric doves with a diminutive 28-bore. It looks like he is shooting at dots in the sky. As the pile of shells mounts at my feet, I am still missing plenty, but I'm also folding some of the best birds I've ever shot at.
As an enthusiast of small shoots, I confess I had been apprehensive of tackling Argentine doves. The huge bags often advertised seemed unappealing and I was not motivated to rack up the 1,000plus bird days that are possible. But these birds are small and very fast, and in the undulating terrain they can offer targets to challenge any shot. And it is surprising how the cartridge count mounts up as more and more tempting birds speed overhead.
Ramiro was keen to show us the full range of terrain available, so we shot over crops, in dense undergrowth on hillsides and on the edge of huge, wide fields. On a memorable evening as the light faded on one serene hillside, bathing the mass of trees and bushes in golden hues, the doves flitted by at lightning pace as they suddenly appeared high above the treeline.
But Ramiro had saved the best for last. On our final morning he stationed us on the edge of an enormous field of sorghum and told us to watch the sky. The doves appeared as specks on the horizon, coming straight at us like supercharged partridges. But the scale of the landscape and the smallness of the birds were difficult to take in. I waited for the birds to come into range and, far too late, attempted to swing onto them when they were already over me, higher and faster than seemed possible.
Once I realised the extent of the challenge, the sight of the specks appearing on the horizon pushed up my heart rate. We both started swinging early on miniscule targets, taking birds far out above the crops.
These were birds that deserved the toast of a fine Argentine Malbec, with which we celebrated our many successes and failures that evening.
Jim first came to Argentina seven years ago and has been back to fish and to shoot every year since. Now I understand why. “For the quality and variety of the sport, the scenery and hospitality, Argentina has to be my favourite destination”, he says. “It's the ultimate cast and blast trip.”
Villa Maria Lodge on the Rio Grande is operated by Nervous Waters: www.nervouswaters.com
Puelo Expeditions operates three shooting lodges in Argentina: www.pueloexpeditions.com
Villa Maria: Just six rods fish the Villa Maria water on the lower Rio Grande, sharing a guide between two rods. The rods rotate beats at lunchtime and alternate between the estancia's upper section of river and lower section each day. A traditional asado (barbecue) is taken at arguably the world's most luxurious fishing hut on the banks of the river, complete with glass-fronted deck, lounge, bedrooms and showers. Rods can enjoy a siesta there before returning to the river with the guides at 4pm-5pm to fish until dark. After fishing, rods are driven back to the lodge for waiting cocktails, appetizers and dinner.
Rio de Piedras: After a 30 to 40 minute drive to the shooting grounds, each gun is assigned a bird boy who provides shells and drinks, and counts your birds. Guns typically shoot 1,000 to 2,500 cartridges per day, but you are free to shoot as much or as little as you like. Chefs cook up a lavish barbecue at midday, served at a table in the field, and guns can retreat to the shade on a lounger or hammock for a siesta. Shooting continues in the afternoon until almost dark when guests return to the lodge for cocktails and a traditional Argentine dinner.