I had a dream recently. I was standing in the sunshine, gun at the ready, and knee-deep in empty shells while pigeons flooded over me in biblical numbers.
An attentive loader replenished my melting gun while two vestal virgins mopped my brow and fed me ambrosia and pure nectar from an icebox next to my stand.
Strangely enough, this was not a dream (apart from the virgins, obviously – my wife Fran wouldn’t let me get away with that!)
No, this was actually happening, admittedly not on pigeons, but Argentinean doves.
I’d often read about the vast number of doves that devastated the sunflower fields round the Cordoba region of Argentina, but I never dreamed I would ever get the chance to see it for myself.
But a 60th birthday on the horizon – and the realisation that I might soon be too old to enjoy it anyway – prompted Fran to suggest I book my trip of a lifetime, ‘before it was too late’, she added!
TAKING THE PLUNGE
So back in the Spring regular shooting mate Paul, myself and two others took the plunge and started planning our trip.
Luckily for us Paul had been before, some five years ago, so he knew all the contacts.
In reality, all we had to do was simply pay the money and begin counting down the days to the off.
Our gang comprised, David (the poacher) Middleditch, so called because of his determination to try and drop doves on his nearest neighbour, Rex (iron man) Everitt, for his outstanding fitness as a 65 year old and ability to be last man standing every day, Paul (Borat) Payne – don’t ask – and me (the rooster) for my ability to literally sleep at any time and in any place.
Departure day, the 14th of October finally arrived.
Despite the excitement and anticipation of a great trip, none of us were really looking forward to the 13-hour flight.
Arriving in Buenos Aires we took a short internal flight to Cordoba where we were picked up at the airport to be driven the final 60 miles to our venue, the Los Chanares lodge.
Our trip had taken a marathon 30 hours in total.
Tired though we were, we were still like school kids in the back of the vehicle on the final leg to the lodge – excitedly pointing out small parties of doves arrowing alongside the motorway and dropping in to feed on the vast maize and sunflower stubbles.
Although Paul had warned us to expect to see a lot of birds, nothing could prepare us for the sight of maybe 10,000 doves shimmering over an old stubble, right in front of the lodge.
And what a lodge! Built specially for the shooting, it boasted 10 double rooms, each with its own en suite facilities.
Speaking to the lodge manager, Alex, that first evening, it soon became obvious why this place is the Mecca for every serious wing-shooter in the world.
Comprising 10,000 acres of mainly thorn scrub, it’s the main roost for between 20-25 million (not a misprint) doves!
These birds are further encouraged to hang around the estate – and thus keep off neighbours’ crops – by the planting of hundreds of acres of sunflowers, purely for the birds.
Even this is supplemented by feeding hundreds of tons of wheat and maize.
For a pigeon shooter used to making decent bags, every statistic about this place almost defies imagination, from the amount of 20-bore semi-autos they get through annually – usually between 12 and 15 – to the number of cartridges fired… two and a half million a year!
The first morning dawned bright and clear, and after a quick cup of coffee, we climbed aboard the shoot wagon for the short journey to our first location.
Our loaders and guns were already in position, standing next to two cases of 500 shells each. The scene around us was surreal, almost like one of those documentaries in which locusts fill the sky.
Except these were not locusts but doves, an absolute kaleidoscope of birds moving in every direction at heights varying from 10 to 60 yards.
“For a good five minutes I stood mesmerised, unable to pull the trigger, before realising what we had come to do.”
The hardest thing was remaining calm, and resisting the urge to fire at everything that came within range, as we would if they’d been woodies at home.
NOT A MISPRINT
It was a question of look up, select, fire. Reload, look up, select and fire. Astonishingly my 1,000 shells lasted two and a half hours (once again, not a misprint!)
And I had been selective!
David and Paul also fired 1,000 apiece, whilst iron man Rex was just getting into his stride with 1,500.
Between us we’d managed to fire a mind boggling 4,500 cartridges in under three hours.
It was an entirely different location for the afternoon shoot, and what was immediately obvious was the fact our loaders had clearly relayed back to the boss the kind of shots each of us favoured.
I prefer high crossing shots, whilst David and Rex like high driven birds, so we were allocated positions where everyone got exactly what they wanted.
At the end of the session, and a further 4,500 bangs, we tried to estimate how many birds had passed over us during the course of the day.
LOOK AWAY NOW
It seems absurd to view the figure in print, and I still cannot fully believe it even now, but we all agreed it was somewhere in the region of 250,000.
Obviously, with this number of shots to get used to our guns, kill rates were outstandingly high, so for people who dislike large bags, look away now.
The total bag for the day was 7,464 birds.
In the shower that night I surveyed the damage to my shoulder – a large piece of skin the size of a chicken’s egg had been completely removed.
I was going to need more padding if I was going to survive four days of this pounding!
THE NEXT DAY
We were all raring to go the next day, me with an extra pad taped directly to my shoulder and resolving to be even more selective. But it was impossible not to fire the shots!
Imagine the best shot you pull off on a day’s pigeon shooting and multiply it 1,000 times.
I ended the day firing even more cartridges, at 1,650.
Rex was beginning to enjoy himself, loosing off just over 3,000.
Paul and David were also revving up, getting rid of 5,000 between them.
I won’t bore you with numbers over the next two days, but suffice to say that at the end of it I was wearing a folded bath towel under my shooting vest to try and protect my shattered shoulder.
As an aside, though, the Iron Man had fired off a mind boggling 15,000 shells in four days!
I will let you imagine our total bag.
In cold print, these numbers could easily look excessive, but the simple fact is dove numbers are still increasing in the area – with at least twice the number of birds present now compared with the number when Paul came just five years ago.
Because the whole estate is geared up to look after the birds, and no area is shot more than once a month, the doves thrive – often rearing four or five broods a year.
So what does all this dream activity cost?
Despite the five-star cuisine and accommodation, at around £500 a day inclusive it comes in at less than a 300-bird pheasant day in this country.
Obviously the return flights to Argentina still need paying for, and the extras include £40 for gun hire, £40 a day for hunting licences and around £35 a day for your loader.
The big extra, is cartridges, and at an eye watering £8 per box of 25 our total bill for the four of us was £11,500.
Obviously it is up to you how many you fire as there simply is no limit.
To put things into perspective, look at it as condensing a year’s shooting into four days.
My only other advice is not to wait until your sixtieth – I promise you won’t regret it!