By Steve Price
At the February 2016 SCI Conference in Las Vegas my faithful traveling companions and I sat down in the exhibitor booth to meet with the Donnelly family who own and operate Caichue, an 85,000 acre working cattle ranch in La Pampa, Argentina. We enjoyed a glass of wine produced in Martin’s own winery while we viewed some video footage captured from horseback of the vast grasslands and lagoons on the ranch. Our group had been discussing a first visit to Argentina for some years, but we had never made a commitment. The hospitality extended to us by Remigio, Martin, and Gustavo that afternoon convinced us the time had come. Before our visit concluded, we booked a six-day hunt to take place in March 2017 during the peak of the red deer roar. Martin stated that after we had visited his ranch, if we could honestly claim we had ever been served food which was better than the fare at his ranch, he wanted to know where it was.
On March 18th of this year we departed Atlanta destined for Buenos Aires. When we arrived at Ministro Pistarini Airport, our host Remigio was posted at the RENAR (Registro Nacional de Armas) office as promised to assist us with our firearms paperwork completion. Argentina is definitely not as efficient as some other countries we have visited when it comes to processing firearms importation permits. One noteworthy item on this topic is that a pre-requisite for hunters bringing firearms into Argentina on subsequent visits includes a scheduled personal appearance before an Argentine Consulate to obtain a firearms permit. Fortunately for us, the process is waived for first-time visitors. Once our two-hour paperwork shuffle was completed, we were off for a seven hour van ride to the ranch near Santa Rosa. During our ride, we had ample time to ask questions and develop high expectations about the blackbuck, red deer, water buffalo, and boar hunting that would commence on the following morning.
As soon as we arrived at the ranch we were greeted by Gustavo, the ranch manager, and our guides. Once our gear was stowed in our rooms, we convened around the fire pit where we enjoyed a fresh hot rack of beef ribs that the chef, Leo (short for Leonardo) had prepared for our appetizer. This was followed by a wonderful three-course meal. Clearly, dining was to be a major highlight of the trip. Soon after the meal, we retired to our quarters to prepare for our first day in the field.
After eating a light breakfast and checking our rifles and bow sights for accuracy, we were off. My guide was Pato (which means “duck” in Spanish). This is probably a good juncture to mention that some of the guides at Caichue do not speak English. Pato’s English vocabulary consists of about five words. He was literally born on the ranch and had developed a good set of hunting skills during his 30+ years.
The trophy package we had negotiated included free-ranging blackbuck, water buffalo, red stag, and wild boar. I had elected to hunt blackbuck antelope first since that was my most desired trophy. As we drove away from the buildings, I began to realize how vast the property really was and how diverse the landscape can be on such a large property. Doing the math, 85,000 acres covers 133 square miles. It was a comfort to know that every guide had both a vehicle and a mobile radio capable of communicating from any part of the ranch to the main ranch house in case of an emergency.
Numerous times, Pato stopped the vehicle and crept away to check for our quarry beyond the next rise. Soon Pato urged me to follow him. He had spotted two male blackbuck in a small group with some females. Our sweeping long distance approach brought us to the crest of a sandy hill overlooking a spacious valley. Through my scope, I could easily see the two males at about 450 yards. One was magnificent with very long spirals and a wide horn profile. I have shot paper well over that distance, but not with a 30 mph crosswind and a live target. The terrain would not allow us to gain a closer position. Though it was somewhat of a “Hail-Mary” shot, who could resist? I had my handy-dandy trajectory chart in my pocket for a factory 120 grain .257 Weatherby round. Dialing the proper MOA would be no problem; however, wind compensation was beyond my skill set. Off came my elevation turret cap and after a series of clicks, I was set for 450 yards. While waiting for a brief break in the wind, the last thing I expected began to unfold. Both males turned and begin to walk directly toward us. As they continued to walk at a steady pace, the excitement almost overcame my awareness of the effect this would have on the 26.5 inch elevation I had added. The blackbuck is a relatively small target with not much room for error. I “guesstimated” the reduced distance and begin to reverse the clicks of elevation. Finally the most impressive buck stopped at what I estimated to be 300 yards. I took the chance. The shot appeared to pass no more than an inch above his back. Had I not touched my scope in the beginning, this distance would have been no problem. We all know about hindsight. As the blackbuck sped away over the horizon, we hiked down the hill to the truck to break for lunch.
Since the weather was unseasonably mild, the midday heat was intense for most wildlife movement so we took most of our daily lunch breaks at the ranch house. When we arrived at the dining room the first day, Remigio told us to go ahead and begin our meal without Skeet. He explained only that Skeet and his guide Edwardo had been delayed by a water buffalo and they would fill us in on the details upon arrival. Skeet had opted to bring his Matthews bow along to take a buffalo and a red stag, so we anticipated an interesting account of their morning buffalo hunt. As any authentic chef would, Leo began to deliver and introduce our lunch beginning with the appetizer, followed by the main course of almond-pistachio crusted red deer tenderloin with all the trimmings, and finally a crème brulee for dessert. There was no doubt the meal could not be topped by any restaurant at which I have had the privilege to dine.
We heard a truck approach and soon Skeet appeared in the doorway of the dining room. He had a pale, shaken expression on his face and fresh abrasions on his hands and arms. He proceeded to explain that had learned first-hand that water buffalo do not take kindly to being pierced with arrows. Make no mistake; water buffalo can be aggressive when injured, and a 2,000 pound injured buffalo can traverse a given distance more rapidly than the average hunter. In summary, sometimes it becomes a necessity to break out the .375 to complete the job. This was one of those times and it was just at the last second. Skeet disclosed that he and his guide shared a rare male-bonding moment soon after they realized they were both still alive. What a start to a great trip!
The following day we found the same blackbuck again, and again his luck held. After two days in search of an exceptional blackbuck, we opted for a morning of water buffalo hunting. These animals did not behave quite as cautiously as the cape buffalo I pursued in South Africa, but they were very scent-aware and could not be approached without care. Before departure that morning, Remigio and I had a brief discussion about the best situation for stalking buffalo. It seems that while a large herd would promise more choices for a good trophy, a small group or even a single bull is more desirable for a successful hunt.
We worked our way through an area which was partially covered with brush. The buffalo had mixed with the cattle in some areas, so careful observation was required to insure that no buffalo went unnoticed. We came upon a small group of about fifteen buffalo including at least two large bulls chasing and sparring with each other. The dust cloud created by this disturbance made it almost impossible to determine the trophy quality of any of the bulls. At one point I saw what I believed was an excellent example of one of the creatures with tall curly horns, but he immediately disappeared into the haze. The scuffle seemed to continue for twenty minutes, but it was probably closer to five. Finally the dust settled enough for a better look at these enormous bovine. Without hesitation, Pato pointed out a particular bull and using two of the five words in his English vocabulary: He said, “Good. Shoot.” I requested verification that I had interpreted his instructions correctly. After a universal thumbs-up gesture, I placed the crosshairs on the massive shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The shot from the .375 H&H hit the mark at 75 yards, but the beast was still standing in the same spot. My instinct prompted me to bolt, aim, and shoot again, but Pato’s instructions were, “No shoot.” I have learned always to listen to my guide, so I kept the rifle shouldered and watched as the creature began slowly to stagger in a small arc before he tipped over. In less than one minute the bull had expired. I consider a one-shot rapid kill to be a huge success on an animal of such mass. This was one of those times when the radio comes in quite handy. Pato didn’t waste any time getting a truck on the way with all the manpower and hardware needed to cape, quarter, and load a tremendous animal. The SCI score was 92 7/8” which is gold medal, so all the recommendations from my guide had been spot-on.
As each half-day outing came and went, a superb meal followed. I found myself looking forward to the upcoming meal almost as much as the hunt. I captured the main course of each meal on camera as any proud hunter would his trophies. I could describe each day’s dining experience in detail, but one deserves a special mention. I had always been led to believe that any meat from a mature buffalo bull would be tough and stringy, possibly even after grinding. The buffalo burgers Leo prepared for our lunch one day were the finest burgers any member of our group from Alabama had ever tasted. The flavor was amazing and the fresh home-made buns and savory toppings enhanced the sandwich to near perfection.
The following day we continued our quest for a suitable blackbuck. My expectations had been somewhat reduced after two missed opportunities at what was surely the pinnacle of trophy blackbuck in the area. After a long day of trekking over rolling hilltops and perimeters of picturesque lagoons, we settled down at a vantage point above a long valley holding numerous blackbuck males and females. The distances were too great for a certain shot, so we made ourselves comfortable as we continued to scan the terrain for a male of trophy quality. As the light of day began to fade, we made our way to the nearest road. When we crested one ridge, we could see a buck grazing below us about 250 yards. Due to the animal’s posture and the lack of light, I could not be certain of his size. Pato indicated the buck was a good candidate, and I was able to take him easily at 225 yards. While not as impressive as the “one that got away,” I was satisfied with the hunt and the result. I had enjoyed it so much that I hunted blackbuck again the following day and bagged a slightly better buck with a 210 yard shot before noon. (We weren’t late for lunch!)
From the onset of the trip, I had not planned to hunt red deer. My decision was justified based on the fact I already possess a beautiful specimen harvested in New Zealand scoring 353” SCI displayed in the center of my feature trophy wall. After hearing first-hand accounts of the deer sightings from the other members of the group for four days, I could not resist. There are literally hundreds of free ranging red deer on Caichue. One that would definitely score 300” had been in a crosshair twice; however, he was still at large. Red deer could be heard roaring in the evenings, most of the night, and up into the late morning every day. The excitement made it irresistible. Pato and I spent the next two mornings and one evening following the deep-throated roaring of red deer stags, but no shots were fired from my weapon. I had decided to patiently wait for the opportunity for an exceptional stag or return the following season to resume the hunt. Before departing the ranch, we had set booking dates for 2018 and I already anticipated the roar of March 2018.
An added highlight to my visit was the pleasure of conversation with Remigio’s delightful Grandmother who frequently spends the months of March and April at Caichue as she enjoys the climate there during that time of year. She shared stories about her father, who established the ranch almost 100 years before, and is the subject of a published book titled Pioneer of the Pampas . We discussed a tree in the courtyard that is over 300 years old, and I learned the particular species is found exclusively in the La Pampa province of Argentina. Other topics of discussion included giving up horseback riding two years prior at 84 after being thrown as the result of an unplanned halt.
Our final afternoon in Argentina was spent at an Argentine-style barbeque hosted by the Donnelly family at their lovely home in Buenos Aires. Martin, Remigio’s father, had prepared a selection of traditional meats to highlight our meal. Before departing for the airport, I reminded Martin of the comment about food he had made at the time our hunt was booked. Without hesitation I was able to inform him the food at Caichue had not been surpassed by any chef at any venue in all my travels.