05/31/2019
red stag
Heather Smith, Gary Wells and Boddington with Wells’ huge red stag, taken on Parque Diana in Argentina’s Patagonia region.

By the time SCI was started in 1973, founder C.J. McElroy (1913-2002) had hunted most of the places in the world…as our hunting world was known at the time. Over the next two decades, and especially after our record-keeping system got rolling, “Mr. Mac” spent a lot of his time afield exploring—and making us aware of—new hunting destinations.

It seems amazing today, but 40 years ago hunting opportunities in South Africa were few and far between. Hunting with pioneer outfitter Norman Deane, Mac was among the first to draw our attention to South Africa, now that continent’s most popular safari country. Together with his friend Ricardo Medem, Mac was among the first to publicize the great opportunities in Spain. He had much to do with the development of her outfitting industry, for many years now Europe’s most popular hunting destination. It was here, in the pages of SAFARI, that I read about Mac hunting Sindh ibex and Blanford urial in Baluchistan. That’s the first mention I recall of Pakistan as a hunting destination. It looked like a great place and I put it on my bucket list! Many years passed before I hunted Pakistan, long after Mac was gone, but when I hunted there, I remembered his account.

I remember, too, from the late 80s, Mac’s accounts of hunting in Argentina at a place called Parque Diana, a gorgeous estancia nestled against the mountains not far from San Martin de los Andes. Parque Diana, too, went on my bucket list.

The ranch was established by German owners in the mid-60s. At that time Argentina was already a popular wingshooting destination, but big-game hunting was almost unheard of. Parque Diana was established as Argentina’s first big-game operation. Red stags had been in Argentina for decades and were busily expanding throughout Patagonia. Parque Diana’s stags were pretty good back then, but introduction of new bloodlines would make them better. The original owners also experimented, introducing a number of species, some with success, others not. Regrettably, European roebuck was among the failures. Axis deer and blackbuck were established elsewhere in Argentina, but down in Patagonia the winters proved too harsh. But there were successes: An Alpine ibex taken by McElroy at Parque Diana in 1988 is still in our record book. Pure European mouflons, though constantly harassed by pumas, also took hold.

For many years, Parque Diana’s clientele was mostly German. Mac was almost certainly among the first American hunters, followed by other Americans…but, at the time, not by me. I tried to hunt there ten years ago, but Parque Diana was unavailable. Times change, and the estancia fell on hard times. Ownership changed and for several years Parque Diana lay fallow and wasn’t hunted at all. Under new owners, Parque Diana is now much smaller than it once was. But the core is intact, broad valleys and pine-covered hills ascending to the first major ridges of the Andes. The dozen-plus sturdy cabins and the main lodge are still there as well. Parque Diana is again open for business, now operated as a concession of Marcelo Sodiro’s South American Adventure Safaris.

So, together with friends and fellow SCI members Gary Wells and Heather Smith, I was able to fulfill that bucket list item and hunt there in March 2019. The stags are still there…and so are the Alpine ibex! Ibex are not currently hunted but, glassing up toward the high ridges, I saw groups of them a half-dozen times, seemingly perfectly at home in the Andes! Current population is unknown, but there’s potential for a small quota in the future.

Right now, red stags are the primary attraction, and mouflon are also available. Good red stag hunting is hardly unusual in Argentina. Successfully introduced nearly a century ago, the European red deer is now widespread from La Pampa Province south throughout northern Patagonia. Quality is pretty good; for many years I’ve said that Argentina offers some of the best free-range red stag hunting in the world. However, although New Zealanders definitely got a jump in improving bloodlines and growing really big stags, Argentina has been catching up fast. I saw this a decade ago during a round-robin book project that took me around to numerous outfitters: Much effort was ongoing to improve red deer antler quality.

The inevitable result is that, like stag hunting in New Zealand today, stag hunting in Argentina is a mixture of free range and estate: Stags with really large antlers with numerous points almost invariably reflect influence from selective breeding. However, over time, as fences deteriorate and deer escape or are released and breed with wild deer, it’s also inevitable that the lines between free range and estate are increasingly blurry.

This is exactly what I saw this year at Parque Diana. During the roar wild stags wander in from the mountains, and with perimeter fencing purposefully broken for many years the deer are mixing it up pretty good. One can tell the difference; a good-looking mature stag with 12 or 14 points was probably bred up in the timbered ridges; a stag with heavy beams and twice as many points is probably not of the local bloodlines. All are hunted in the same area and, during the rut, making the same guttural roar…but you never know what kind of stag might be making the wonderful music!

As is common with so much red stag hunting today (worldwide), pricing is by size classes. In Argentina costs for the biggest stags are quite reasonable, but you know what you’re looking for…and what you’re getting yourself into. I stuck with the basic red stag hunt, while Gary Wells wanted a big stag. Neither proved easy! Sodiro, perhaps Argentina’s longest-running big-game outfitter, figures he can take perhaps a half-dozen stags exceeding “SCI 500” annually on Parque Diana. This is not a needle-in-the-haystack hunt, but the area is huge, with lots of cover and much up-and-down.

Gary and I, hunting separately, had quite the opposite problem: Over the course of several days he turned down innumerable gorgeous stags that weren’t quite big enough…while I turned down innumerable gorgeous stags that were a bit too big (or not quite big enough)! In early March the roar was just getting into full swing, with more activity (and noise) every day. We both remained confident, and on our fourth day each of us found the stag we were looking for.

Gary shot his late in the morning so I was able to join he and Heather for photos and the recovery. Gary’s stag was tall, heavy, and symmetrical…and I carefully counted 36 scorable points, an amazing animal. I got mine just at sunset, a beautiful stag—not too small, not too big, exactly what we were looking for! In that same time period SCI member from Florida Dennis Jordan also took a “500-plus.”

This was a pretty good week at Parque Diana! Times do indeed change. When C.J. McElroy hunted here 30 years ago stags of this quality hardly existed in Argentina, certainly not “on the hill” in huntable numbers. These days my bucket list is getting shorter, but I’m glad I had the chance to see Parque Diana!--Craig Boddington

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