Rustic wooden gates groaned open as our Toyota HiLux rumbled through. We navigated the rutted, winding dirt road; every pothole and washboard negotiated revealing another layer of the towering Andes Mountains. A gin-clear river meandered through the valley floor. Willows on the cusp of fall color shimmered in the cool afternoon breeze. This was the start of the annual breeding season for red deer in northern Patagonia—also known as the roar.
My friend Rance Rathie’s mouth turned up ever so slightly as he steered the truck through the final bend in the road; a log cabin appeared, smoke swirling from its stone chimney into the blazing sky. He shifted the truck into park, gazing out at the snow-capped peaks. Almost, as if on cue, the guttural roar of a stag echoed in the distance.
While bowhunting has always brought an unmatched challenge, thrill and exploration of beautifully remote landscapes, it has also brought amazing people into my life. A shared passion for hunting bridges the gaps between worlds. Bonds become fortified through a shared meal, the passing of the traditional South American drink maté and stories of our hunting pursuits. Perhaps, what all those barrier-breaking activities have in common — the need to eat, drink, share and hunt — is the ability to elevate the human connection from superficial to intentional.
I took in the smoke of a hand-rolled cigarette clasped in the weathered hands of a local gaucho who’d spent his entire life tending a flock of sheep that grazed here. This trip to fabled Argentina to chase free-range stags was due to the generosity of two of my friends: Rance Rathie and Santiago Rossi. Previously strangers to one another, both lived in separate parts of Argentina with two different tales to tell.
Before I ever shook hands with Montana-born Rathie, I’d heard the legend of how he pioneered fly fishing in South America. He partnered with his childhood best friend, Travis Smith, and, together, they built Patagonia River Guides into a world class level outfit. Rathie hadn’t much personal interest in the more traditional estate hunts of Argentina. Instead, a massive track of unscathed wilderness bordering Los Alerces National Park beckoned him.
For the next week, we’d hear bone-rattling roars of stags that looked almost demonic; crowns of dark antlers rose above their heads. While we had many close calls, it became clear that these crafty stags would not go easy. Keen senses kept them alert to our presence and the thick underbrush didn't do us any favors in stealthiness. These animals didn’t congregate for the annual ritual as much as we’d hoped. Rather, lone stags sounded off at great distances as they moved up the mountainside to their bedding grounds.
Rathie had a smoldering intensity while hunting and a methodicalness about him. Every step was carefully calculated. Every variable considered. One morning, after some failed stalks, we sewed faux fur to the bottoms of alpargata (common Argentine shoes) to muffle the crackle of dead twigs, weaving carefully, but the big stags always seemed just out of reach or too sheltered to release an arrow. Rathie’s knowledge of the area was strong; his mind was always working and he carried a resolve that was steadfast to the end. We had the thrill of going toe-to-toe with these beasts. It was an exploit that remains locked in my memory. Saying goodbye to Rathie, the friends we’d met there and the near-magical landscape was hard to do, but the adventure wasn’t over yet.
About a thousand miles north and east lay the La Pampa region of Argentina and another, bowhunting-crazed friend, Santiago Rossi, operator of Poitahue Outfitters. Rossi is the type of guy who’d drive 16 hours one way to share beers or get you out of trouble, but then casually play it off like he’d just been passing through. A true nomad in every sense of the word with a gift for living life in the moment.
Everything was different in La Pampa compared to Patagonia. It reminded me of the American Midwest: relatively flat with huge expanses of cattle, agricultural and bush land rolling out productive habitat for stags. There seemed to be five times as many stags as there’d been down south. Perhaps, due to the milder winters, higher quality nutrition or more forgiving topography. Whatever the reason, populations had taken off since being introduced from Europe in the late 1800s.
Rossi’s grin was infectious that first morning as the deafening roars washed over us. It felt like we were surrounded by a pride of over-talkative apex felines rather than herbivores. Throughout the week, Rossi gave me pointers as we slipped through the brush, consistently in the presence of stags and hinds (females). Though laser-focused when it mattered, Rossi’s laid-back disposition was a treat to be around. He moved with precise timing and deftly volleyed roars back and forth with vocal stags through an old plastic pipe.
One afternoon, after leaving the stags in their bedding area for the midday lull, we approached our spot for the evening, like previous days. We didn’t suspect the action to kick off until later and were casually organizing our gear when Rossi caught movement in the distance—the tine of a lone stag antler slipping silently through the brush. Using his knowledge of the area, Rossi concluded the stag was heading towards a water source used by cattle.
Within moments, we were in position as the rusty brown hide and chipped antler points began to materialize through spaces in the vegetation. My heart raced. The stag’s musty barnyard smell was barely noticeable on the placid air currents. Rossi and I exchanged an intense glance. There was no time to range the distance nor was there a need to. I eased to full draw on my knees, obstructed by the thick vegetation and slowly stood, revealing the stag in its entirety. He swung his head towards me, but a deadly arrow was already was in transit. The stag fell immediately.
As luck would have it, it wasn’t our sharpened hunting skills or Rossi’s expert calling that ended up paying off. Rather, pure luck culminated as it sometimes does while bowhunting.
Yet I knew in my heart that I had gained more than a trophy. I had forged two friendships over thousands of miles within a handful of days breathing nothing but fresh air. The food, the card games, the glassing sessions on the hillsides, the late night Malbec-fueled conversations all overshadowed the singular exclamation point of connecting on the stag. Two unique landscapes, two distinct people and a hope that the commonality of both experiences equaled new friendships for life.