The combination of brown liquor, asado, and the setting sun slipping behind the range of Southern Hemisphere mountains makes mediocre ideas seem good and bad ideas seem downright plausible. Fueled by a deadly combination of bourbon, bravado, and bullshit, I proudly exclaimed to the group that I would take a water buffalo with a deer rifle.
Now, low-crawling up on a herd of water buffalo, armed only with a .300 WSM, loaded with rapidly expanding softpoints designed for long-range performance, not bone-crushing tenacity on black death, the previous night’s bad idea was quickly evolving into a horrible one. I vaguely recalled a gaucho saying he had a .375 H&H we could use as backup if needed. It must have been wishful thinking as not only did he not have a .375, he didn’t possess a rifle at all.
I had killed several Cape buffalo (albeit I was appropriately armed), and water buff aren’t even in the same league, right? Hell, I had seen videos of boys holding their tails and waterskiing behind them through rice paddies in Vietnam. And I had heard hunters claim they are nothing more than half-wild domestic cows.
About then, the old bull lifted his head and looked in our direction. He stared down his nose at us with a look that only a buffalo can muster. The rumors were wrong. He possessed the same bovine cantankerousness as a Cape buff. His look made it crystal clear: Bubalus bubalis wasn’t meant to be taken lightly. Bad idea, indeed!
Why, you may rightfully ask, was I hunting water buffalo with essentially a magnum deer rifle? Well, the easy answer is I wasn’t supposed to be. The hunt was originally to be for red stag, and a .300 WSM is ideal medicine for such a task. Arriving in Argentina via a long flight from the States to Buenos Aires, I joined a handful of longtime buddies: Anthony Licata, Mike Stock, Rafe Neilson, John Draper, and Shane Meisel. A drive of several hours through the scenic Cordoba province in north-central Argentina brought us to Rincon de Luna lodge. A combination of modern and rustic, the lodge sits atop a mountain overlooking a beautiful trout stream and miles and miles of pristine stag meadows and highland parks reminiscent of Scotland. I had hunted Argentina several times before, so I was content to sit back and watch for a bit, letting some of the other guys go first while I soaked in the experience.
It didn’t take long. On the first night, I peered through 10X Leupold binos and watched Meisel tip over a great stag. Depending upon your perspective, that’s a problem. If you go first and the stars align, your hunt can be over before you can truly savor all of it. Now he was in for a few days of trout fishing and an Argentina keto diet: platters of smoky, grilled beef; a seemingly endless leg of cured jamón; and an entire lamb on the open-fire asado.
The following morning, while riding over the steep country on a stout mountain pony, I quizzed Jorge Pavan, my guide, about the area, its history, and game. The high, semiarid plateau had been ranched for hundreds of years, and the hills were fenced and cross-fenced with the primary natural building material: rocks. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of rocks had been hand-stacked, forming waist-high fences that stretched for miles. I couldn’t help but wonder who the poor sons of bitches were who got the rock-stacking detail, up mountainsides, across long valleys, along ridges—days, months, years, and possibly multigenerational lifetimes of work stretching out in every direction with no end in sight.
Over the next few days, the other boys brought in great stags. Fantastic tales around the campfire of hard stalks and missed opportunities and the occasional stories of when everything went right were told in the same quantities as the plates of empanadas. It was like nearly every other deer or elk camp I have ever been in, until one of the guides mentioned running into buffalo that previous day.
“Really, you have buffalo here?” I inquired. The property looked as hospitable to water buffalo as my home in Montana.
“Si, mucho grande búfalo,” the guide answered.
I knew there were buffalo in parts of Argentina—and millions in the Amazon basin, the first batch being relocated there in the late 1800s. But I didn’t expect to find them in this mountainous region.
“Do you hunt them?”
“Can I hunt one instead of a stag?”
That final “si” and a couple more glasses of bourbon were all it took to find myself a day later, a hundred or so yards from 1,000 pounds of angry-looking buffalo with a rifle that felt increasingly light.
Meisel had his fill of the red meat Caligula-fest by then and wanted to tag along to witness the deer rifle/buffalo experiment—and if things went wrong to place my remains in a shoebox for transport back to my family stateside.
Death in the Short Grass
We rode the horses all morning but couldn’t find the buffalo. A small herd of even a big animal can get lost in this immense mountain country. Then, as mid-afternoon was turning to early evening and a storm was brewing in the high country, we spotted them. A band of about a dozen, with a decent bull, tucked up into a high, wet mountain cirque.
Dismounting, we tied the horses and started walking. A long hike through a narrow canyon would put us right below the band. A couple of hours of daylight were left, so we didn’t need to hurry. We would have time. Working our way up the steep hill across the canyon, Jorge caught movement above us. A lone cow was feeding from left to right 150 yards distant, close to where we had spotted the original band.
Getting low, we crept closer, now within 100 yards. That’s when the bull emerged from the group. I lay prone and examined him through the Leupold scope. Usually, on big, tough, heavy-boned game, I try and break down the major joints, legs and shoulders, while driving a heavily constructed bullet all the way through the vitals. With luck and a perfect broadside shot you may break both shoulders. But the 150-grain Winchester Deer Season bullet was not designed for this, so where to shoot a buffalo when penetration was going to be limited? The exact opposite technique needed to be employed. Look for the softest spot where you can slip a rapidly expanding bullet into the vitals. Avoid all major bones and concentrate on getting a bullet inside the chest cavity. This means think like a bowhunter—either a quartering-away shot or, to a lesser degree, a quartering-to shot where you can shoot past the massive leg and shoulder and reach the delicate vitals.
The bull made the decision for me.
He must have seen our supine figures in the grass. He lifted his head, looked down his nose and started walking toward us, exposing his jugular and that hollow spot where the base of his neck meets the thoracic cavity. Knowing the rifle was extremely accurate and dead on at 100 yards, I aimed small to miss small and sent a bullet into the chink in the armor. I saw the bullet impact and knew the placement was right. Hopefully the bullet did its job. The bull trotted closer, still quartering-to. Racking the bolt, and knowing I had one bullet in the boiler room, I held just below his boss and let a second round fly. Like the first, this one connected where aimed, and the bull folded in his tracks.
As I walked up and cautiously poked the old guy, it was apparent he was down for good. Now the work began. Unlike Africa, where it is generally sunny and warm, with lots of capable helping hands and the ability to generally drive a truck close to the kill site, we were on a steep mountain hillside. Darkness and rain were rolling in, and we were few in number. The reality of dealing with several hundred pounds of wonderfully delicious red meat was starting to sink in. Jorge started the walk back down the mountains for the two pack horses we had left at the base while Meisel and I rolled up sleeves, grabbed knives, and set to work peeling back thick black hide to eventually lay bloody quarters and backstraps on.
It was well after dark when we finally rode back into camp, horses heavily laden with meat and more to be retrieved off the mountain the following morning. We sat once again by the fire, drank Malbec, ate more red meat, and retold the tale. Long story short: Yes, you can kill a buffalo with a deer gun, but before I attempt it again, I think I will make sure the guide has a .375 H&H I can borrow if needed. No sense in tempting fate twice.