SOUTH AMERICAN DUCK HUNT.
He didn't hit the water hard like a Lab. In fact, he hardly made a splash, easing into the marsh until he stood belly deep in water that would be well over the head of any other retriever. But then, this retriever wasn't a dog. He was a horse. His young rider leaned out of the saddle, scooped up the silver teal and, with the Uruguayan equivalent of "giddyap," urged him on to the next duck.
Rural Uruguay is a long, long way from here. it remains a place so devoid of Reeboks and Golden Arches, so remarkably foreign, that a mounted gaucho riding out of nowhere to help fetch your ducks fits right in to the surreal landscape.
You might be driving down the highway on your way to shoot pigeons when an honest-to-goodness 1948 Hudson Hornet--held together by homemade parts and shade tree ingenuity--passes you going the other way. Everyone whips around to look, and someone says nostalgically, "My first car was a '48 Hornet." Or, when you're drawing a bead on flushing tinamou, you might hear a little voice in your head say: "Better not shoot. You might hit that ostrich." Only it's not really an ostrich, of course, but its South American cousin, the rhea. Still, you lower the gun.
Back at the lodge, you ponder all this strangeness over a glass of the local red and a platter of pigeon breasts. Then you take a nap before the afternoon shoot.
That I am delighted to report, is how I spent my vacation two summers back...
Ten of us travelled to Uruguay at the invitation of Kent Cartridge (Dept. HM, 1000 Zigor Road P.O. Box 849, Kearneysville, WV 25430, 888/311-KENT) to test its new nontoxic Impact TungstenMatrix shotshells. The idea was simple enough: Eager to garner preseason publicity for their new ammo, the folks at Kent needed a place where they could take some writers duck hunting in the summertime. The solution? Cross the Equator and find winter. Hence, Uruguay--where the ducks fly north in the fall and hunting seasons are just winding down in July.
Trek Safaris of Ponte Vedra, Florida, has been running trips to Uruguay for the last seven seasons, handled the arrangements. We flew overnight from Miami to Buenos Aires, then rook a short hop to Montevideo where our guides met us at the airport and helped us clear customs. Loaded into a pair of vans, we made the four-hour drive to our lodge. Uruguay, or at least the part of it we saw through the van windows, is a land of rocky hills and wide pastures. The only trees are either low scrub or tall groves of imported eucalyptus. The towns--with their stucco buildings and rile roofs--have a distinctively Mediterranean look, as do the people.
Uruguay is stable, friendly and has a very low crime rate. Our American dollars and American accents were welcome. Trek's comfortable lodge, in the northern province of Treinta y Tres, was the summer home of a Montevideo doctor and his family. Their excellent cook stayed on to work the winter season for shooting clients.
Less well-known as a wingshooting destination, and much smaller than neighboring Argentina, Uruguay nonetheless winters millions of ducks in the rice fields near its northern border. The pastures and grasslands are full of spotted tinamou, a wonderful, sporty, upland bird. Flocks of pigeons pour into the grainfields to feed in the afternoon. With the exception of few sportsmen from Montevideo, there aren't many hunters in Uruguay.
Our daily program was ducks in the morning, then pigeons or tinamou in the afternoon. Although we enjoyed perfect, sunny weather every day of our hunt--lows in the 40s, highs in the 70s--heavy rains prior to our arrival had rendered many marsh roads impassable. Our guides worked hard to get us back into the blinds, going so far one day as to hook our Toyota van to the bumper of a four-wheel-drive diesel pickup and simply drag us like a trailer through about 150 yards of mud. Once back in the marsh, we'd settle into simple blinds on shore or in ankle-deep water and wait for the ducks to fly.
They came not in big flocks but steadily, beginning when it was still too dark to shoot. As the guides stood behind us, calling softly on wigeon whistles, the birds came into the decoys (and to the rice scattered around the blinds, as baiting is legal in Uruguay) in singles, pairs and small groups. Teal--whether bluewings at home or the silver, Brazilian, speckled or brown teal we shot in South America--behave about the same anywhere. They flew early and often, plopping into the decoys without undue cautions, and made up the bulk of our daily bag. The bigger yellow-billed pintails and rosy-billed pochards approached warily and often shied out of range.
An hour or so after sunrise the brown ibises would pick up off the marsh and fly overhead in waves, low over the blinds. "The ducks stop coming when the ibis fly," a guide told us. Sure enough, when the last of the ibis passed over, the 8:00 flight of ducks would arrive. We'd shoot until we expended the camp limit of 75 shells apiece or the guides decided we'd killed enough birds for the day, usually in the neighborhood of 100 to 150 ducks for a group of seven shooters.
The opportunity to shoot that many ducks and to see so many more shot every morning allowed us to thoroughly evaluate Kent's Impact TunstenMatrix. At typical decoying ranges, ducks hit the water stone dead. In the hands of the better long-range shooters in our group, the Kent loads were deadly to 50 yards and beyond. The local guides, who see thousands of ducks shot with lead every season, were impressed by how cleanly Impact TunstenMatrix killed and how few birds our group crippled.
While we had a variety of loads to choose from, most of us stuck with the 2 3/4-inch, 1,400 fps, 1 1/4 ounces of 5s. I had no doubt that if conditions turned cold and windy, the heavier 3-inch loads of 3s or 1s would have been more than equal to the test. The secret to effectiveness lies in its lead-like density. By mixing powdered tungsten--a dense, hard metal--with varying amounts of polymer (plastic) matrix (powder), Kent's engineers can make pellets of nearly any density they please. With Impact they've come very close to matching the density of lead. Impact pellets deform very little, pattern well and hit like old-time premium lead loads. At the same time, TungstenMatrix pellets are soft enough to shoot safely through any modern shotgun, including many nor suitable for steel. As a general rule, just think of it as unleaded lead: Use the same shot sizes and chokes with TunstenMatrix as you would have used in pre-steel days.
Unfortunately for U.S. waterfowlers, Kent loads weren't approved until late in 1998, after many northern states' seasons had closed. The cartridges have received full approval since then and should be widely available. Tungsten is a scarce metal; these shells will never sell for $10 a box at Wal-Mart. As of now, however, they are priced on par with competitive brands.
Along with the heavy loads of 1, 3 and 5 shot configured with waterfowl in mind, Kent has announced a dine of lighter nontoxic game loads for upland hunting. Tungsten Matrix cartridges, incidentally, are loaded at the old Activ plant in Kearneysville, West Virginia, which Kent bought.
The hard work of evaluating ammunition over by mid-morning, we'd return to the lodge for lunch and a nap, then take a short drive to either the pigeon fields or the perdiz coverts.
The spotted tinamou--"perdiz" or partridge--lives in the dry, rolling uplands. The tinamou is a little brown bird the size of a tall, skinny bobwhite, with the heart and attitude of a ringneck pheasant. Living in grass often no more than ankle tall, perdiz run and flush wild in front of pointing dogs exactly like wild ringnecks.
Trek guide Eduardo Gonzales keeps a kennel of Brittanies for perdiz hunting, and we'd pair up and strike off across the countryside following a guide and one of the Brits. The walking in the short grass was easy, the shooting often tricky, and we were never long out of birds. Perdiz don't covey, but you'll find them scattered evenly throughout grass fields. We killed, about half our birds over points, the other half as they flushed wild in front of the dogs. The limit was 10 birds, which we usually managed to collect in a two-hour walk.
The third bird of our South American trio--my favorite--was the blue-gray pigeon. The pigeons roost in the eucalyptus groves and fly into the grainfields to feed in the afternoon. Often, they're accompanied by flocks of green and yellow parakeets, a bird so numerous in Uruguay as to be considered a pest.
Pigeons ordinarily decoy very well, and the standard hunting method is to save a few dead birds from the previous hunt and set them out as decoys. You add to your spread as you kill birds. The more pigeons on the ground, the better the shooting becomes.
That said, we had poor success decoying pigeons, perhaps because it was late in the season. Mostly we shot them on their way into the field. Both days I found a spot on a flight line where I could crouch behind a low levee, standing to shoot when a flock of 10 or 20 pigeons swept overhead. For a Midwesterner hailing from a state where mourning doves are protected songbirds, pass-shooting pigeons was the purest of bliss.
The big, blue-gray pigeons aren't as acrobatic as our barn pigeons at home, but they're strong flyers, capable of soaking up more pellets than any game bird I've ever seen. Often, it took two, occasionally three (and once five!) solid hits to bring them down with competition-quality lead pigeon loads. One day I brought some Impact duck loads along just to see what would happen. The high velocity 5s smacked the birds cleanly where lead pigeon loads often merely rocked them. It was as convincing a demonstration of the power of TungstenMatrix as anything I saw in the duck marsh. The pigeons, incidentally, were darkmeated and delicious. As with the ducks and the perdiz, every bird we didn't eat fed local school children, farmers or retirees. Protein never goes to waste in South America.
Our shoot was not one of the high-volume, finger-burning, shoulder-bruising South American hunts you've heard about. All told, I fired perhaps 400 rounds in four and a half days; other shooters managed to burn 700 shells or more. While our shotshell expenditure represented a full season's work back home, we shot at a relaxed pace: three boxes in the morning about the same in the afternoon. None of us even bothered to take the plugs out of our shotguns. We shot more than enough, yet we were never too busy shooting to occasionally look around in wonderment that we were indeed in South America, 4,000 miles from home, doing what we love to do best.
Trek runs trips to Uruguay from Moy to July. Take two 12s in a durable hard case. I pocked only one gun, and when my autoloader broke down on the first doy, I was reduced to using other people's spores for the rest of the trip. I wound up shooting two different Browning over/unders and a Beretta AL 390. Either an aver/under or an auto will work fine; you'll shoot a lot, but not so much that the recoil reduction of a gos gun becomes essential. I used on improved-cylinder choke in the autoloader and improved and modified in the over/unders far pigeons, ducks and perdiz. Don't forget earplugs. I brought 10 pairs of disposable earplugs, and by the trip's end I hod given them all away to folks who forgot theirs.