Montana-based photographer Dušan Smetana captures a hunt on 14,000 acres of bluegrass farmland.
[by Dusan Smetana]
[by Dusan Smetana]
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by Rusty Ward
AS I UNDERSTAND WHAT WE THINK WE UNDERSTAND OF EVOLUTION, it does not necessarily progress toward a higher order, rather is concerned only with differential reproductive success in response to selective environmental pressures—progress toward any defined goal not involved. I have no quarrel with the fact of evolution as the powerful and overarching framework of modern biology; still, I think we may not yet have grasped the whole warp and woof of it. The same biology that decries evolutionary change as progress teaches that inert matter self-assembled into cells and, after a billion increasingly complex iterations of microbes, worms, fish, dinosaurs, birds, shrews, and primates, in more or less that order, composed the Ninth Symphony and Hamlet. I might add to those achievements the eventual crafting of elegant 6½-pound double guns capable of extending our diminished fang and claw with an ounce of 7½ shot. It seems that reconciling our present understanding of evolution with the observed progression of life without acknowledging something like linear progress is like forcing a camel through the eye of a double helix. And yet . . . , and yet . . . , my own journey as an aspiring duck hunter seems to have followed the textbook evolutionary formula—of adaptation to opportunities presented randomly when life exposed me to various waterfowlers, each of whom pursued the craft in a manner distinct from the others.
“Much as an ancient fish waddled out of a primeval ocean and found new ways of doing things on land, I knew that if I was to evolve as a duck hunter, I needed to explore new environments…”
ALAN WAS THE FIRST. Transitioning out of high school into college, I was already a determined hunter whose thoughts lived in the woods more so than anyone I knew. Alan, a year older, dabbled at hunting but was driven by political and career ambitions I lacked, so he sought out and befriended community movers and shakers. To my good fortune, he wasn’t shy about asking them for favors.
“Hey, Rusty,” his call came breathlessly one winter afternoon as the north wind rattled the windowpanes with needles of cold rain. “I met a guy who owns some catfish ponds south of town, and he said they’re full of ducks and we are welcome to come hunt them!” A whirlwind hour later, we were on the road with newly acquired duck stamps, high brass 4s, and our go-to shotguns—mine a Remington 870, Alan’s an 1100.
We drove close, saw ducks on the ponds, sneaked up to the nearest pond, Alan to one side, me to the other. We jumped up, ducks flew, we shot, nothing fell. Undaunted, we flattened ourselves on the bank and for the next hour shot at ducks as they arrowed overhead, the wind driving them at relativistic speeds from which they arced like falling meteors into the ponds. Speeding up our swings, we finally killed a few, but our plan hadn’t included how to retrieve water-bound ducks. Stymied, the wind, which had been our nemesis, became our friend as it slowly nudged the floating birds to the bank.
Proud that I was now a duck hunter and eager to feast on nature’s bounty, I removed the smallish breasts from our entire take (Alan’s interest ended when the ducks hit the water) and noticed for the first time a faintly fishy smell as I chunked them on the grill. Innocent of even rudimentary cooking skills, I hoped if I cooked them long enough, the smell would go away. They were, of course, mergansers, and their fish-fed breasts condensed in the flame to the size and density of golf balls and smelled like cheap cat food gone bad. True caveman style, I ate them to the last bite, proclaiming them excellent fare to my dubious parents, and thought, Hell! Yes! I am a duck hunter! Of course, I was no such thing. I had merely shot a few ducks, but it was a start.
A FEW YEARS LATER, Alan and I stood at the edge of a backwater slough dotted with towering cypresses and laced with duckweed and hordes of high-balling, quacking, chuckling mallards. Ducks streamed in as we crouched in the shadows and planned our attack. By then, my evolution as a duck hunter included leaf-pattern camo, rubber waders, a Yentzen call around my neck, and a dedicated light duck gun in the crook of my arm. I had bought the Parker long-distance from an older gentleman who sent a couple of Polaroids along with a two-page description that concluded with the magnificent hook line, “She’ll gut a duck at forty yards.” She was a skinny 16-gauge DHE (these were pre-steel-shot days) with 30-inch barrels, twin ivory beads, and a stock of flame-colored walnut pretty enough to palpitate the heart. Duck-gutting patterns with high-brass 6s were the norm, and 4s weren’t far behind. Life just didn’t get any better.
Though Alan had more spare change than I did, he was also shackled with a boring pragmatism and clung to his 1100, wore GI hand-me-downs gleaned from the bins of army surplus stores, and— get this—wrapped plastic bread bags around his boots to keep his feet dry. In evolutionary terms, I was eons ahead of Alan.
Our plan, actually Alan’s, called for him to remain hidden where we were (so as not to put his bread bags to the test) while I worked around to the far side of the slough. Alan agreed to sit tight and not disturb the ducks until I got into position; then we would rise in unison and have our way with them. It was a good plan, but I had barely rounded the end of the slough when Alan’s 1100 clattered itself empty and the sky filled with more ducks than I had ever seen, mostly streaming away from me. I tried to run and immediately swan-dived into the duckweed.
Sputtering foul water, barrels plugged with fetid mud, dripping duckweed, and filled with dark anger, I told Alan he had five seconds to explain why he ignored our agreement before I throttled him. He said with a little too much glee that he had agreed not to flush any ducks before the appointed time, but nothing forbade him from popping the easy pair that came in on set wings.
Later, I discovered a philosophical gent named Montaigne, who had something lively to say about everything; I read of a Spartan king who, after agreeing to a seven-day truce with his foe, fell upon him after nightfall and vanquished his army. The Spartan afterwards declared that the truce stipulated seven days but made no mention of nights. Montaigne’s conclusion—that “the hour of parley is a dangerous time”—would have benefited me had I read him earlier. As the years flew by and my duckhunting experiences broadened, I found the wily Frenchman to be a reliable companion, guide, and sometime source of solace, and determined that even if he himself hadn’t been a duck hunter, he was no stranger to their ways.
The MeatEater brand first became a household name through its host, Steven Rinella’s uncompromising work and conservation ethic while filming his outside-the-box show that focused on ethical hunting with a penchant for well-prepared wild game. Now, MeatEater is turning its sights to the fishing world. Bolstered by the storytelling aptitude of its new fishing director, and previous long-time Gray’s Sporting Journal Angling columnist, Miles Nolte, the show Das Boat follows Rinella and the MeatEater crew across the Southeast to different fisheries as they modify and customize what can only be described as a boat past its prime.
It looks to be one hell of a ride.
[By Jim Mize]
Forestry students at Virginia Tech have to learn about more than trees, and a few decades back, I found myself one fall semester taking physics and calculus. They were curriculum requirements forestry students viewed like castor oil—you just pinched your nose and got them over with. Both my classes were taught by professors speaking broken English, so I also should have been given foreign language credits.
At that time, I was testing a different approach to studying. Instead of cramming all night on the rush of Thundering Buffalo tea, I did the heavy work two days before and relaxed the night before the test. Just being rested, I told myself, had to help me think. So when I got an invitation to bowhunt whitetails the afternoon before my physics and calculus midterms, it seemed like the perfect way to prepare for the exams. Maybe being relaxed did help me think, if not prioritize.
On the way, a steady rain began to fall. With each drop, our odds of finding the deer melted like sugar in the rain.
My state-of-the-art archery gear consisted of a Fred Bear recurve, fiberglass-shafted broadheads with razor inserts, and a three-fingered leather shooting glove. All of this was special-ordered through the local hardware store and delivered on a truck along with mattocks and tenpenny nails. The broadheads arrived so dull, I had to file them to have a decent edge. I wore red, yellow, and orange camo—something I referred to as my clown suit—having heard that deer were color-blind and hunters usually weren’t.
The farm we hunted was 30 minutes from school in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A ridge ran behind the house, and crossing it led to extensive patches of hardwoods and small pastures. In front of the ridge, the farmer kept a close-cut hayfield with two apple trees in it. The apples had begun to fall, and deer had left signs of frequent visits. My guess was that they visited mostly at night.
Our plan was to hunt the last few hours until dark. Mike, who had no exams and thought this trip a great idea, crossed the ridge and used a selfclimbing stand to get above a trail we had found earlier. I decided that if the deer were hitting the apples after dark, they might be staging in the hardwoods late in the afternoon to be first in line. So I set up 20 yards inside the woods in a ground blind thrown together with fallen branches and loose debris.
The leaves were mostly off the oaks, maples, and hickories, carpeting the ground in colors matching my clown suit. I watched clouds rolling in from the north and felt a light breeze that stirred the ground foliage where it grew thickest near the edge of the woods.
When the four-pointer came into view, I first saw his head and forked antlers above this foliage. His head would drop down to feed, then spring back up when a branch moved or an acorn fell. He seemed alert but not spooked. At 60 yards, he was beyond my comfort zone for a good shot. But I still had some daylight.
He kept angling my way, dropping his head to feed, popping back up for a look, and then taking a few steps. The path he took paralleled the field but was deeper into the woods than I had set up for. When he reached the point I guessed would be his closest to me, I estimated a 35-yard shot. Drawing while his head was down, I took aim and released.
[by Russ Lumpkin]
AN OLD TURKEY HUNTER ONCE TOLD ME, “When the dogwoods and redbuds are blooming, turkeys are gobbling.” But by the time our turkey camp opened the first weekend of May—having to host it around the Masters and Easter and other considerations—the blooms were long gone. We figured the turkey hunting would be slow, but we had options. Wild pigs plunder in great numbers in the swamps of the Savannah River. In addition, the turkey camp is always about half bassfishing camp. The fishing is usually very good, and in fact, the dinner plans always include one all-out fish fry that usually leaves enough leftover fried bass for appetizers on subsequent nights.
After a beautiful April that ran cooler than usual, we thought the fishing would be ripe about the time May rolled in and temperatures began climbing toward 90. We had every reason to believe the camp would continue its string of yielding at least one largemouth that exceeds eight pounds.
“I made a short roll cast to the right side of a tree, and two strips later, I connected with a decent buck bass. It leapt a few times and put a heavy bow in the fly rod.”
The camp opened Thursday morning, and over the next two days of hunting, the action proved sparse at best. By Saturday afternoon, however, we had two birds on the ground. Even with the quiet turkey hunting, the bass fishing had actually been worse—especially for spring days, especially for largemouth bass. All we could imagine is that the fish were on the bed. Still, we kept at it.
At least initially. As Saturday afternoon waned into evening, I found myself alone on the lake and bore on my shoulders the weight of a skunk. I didn’t want to pack it in and kept changing flies: streamers, poppers, terrestrials, and Dragon Tails that are all the rage. Nothing.
Near sunset, I maneuvered my kayak amid a stand of pond cypress. In the past, a bug pitched near the buttressed trunks had yielded plenty of hard-fighting, leaping largemouths. But after a couple casts, I began to lose heart. So, I reminded myself what a beautiful day it had been. Around the lake, I’d seen ospreys, a bald eagle, and gators aplenty. Bobwhites, mostly a thing of the past in the Georgia coastal plain, whistled all around. Red-winged blackbirds, calling from the cattails, reminded me of fishing farm ponds with my father. Finally, I made a short roll cast to the right side of a tree, and two strips later, I connected with a decent buck bass. It leapt a few times and put a heavy bow in the fly rod. By the time I wrangled it in, my kayak had moved a good 25 feet from where it had been when I set the hook and still had momentum.
That leaping fish reminded me why I so enjoy catching largemouth bass on a fly. It also made me wonder: Why don’t more fly anglers target largemouths?
In the world of conventional tackle, bass fishing is big—huge, in fact. A short walk through the iCAST angling expo shows that fishing only for largemouths with spinning gear is larger than all fly fishing put together. The fly industry has made attempts to tap into that big bass market. For example, Sage and St. Croix offer rods designed specifically to lift heavy poppers and lay them back down near stumps and lily pads.
While most fly angling concentrates on trout, I’m of the opinion that it’s fly fishing, the process of it and nature of it, that attracts participants more so than any particular species of fish. Once an angler has the necessary skills to catch trout, he or she can apply and adapt those same skills to catch any game fish on the planet—and fly anglers are a traveling bunch. Yet the fly magazines and film tours and blogs seem to highlight only the salmonids or some salty destination. It’s rare to see a story or fly fishing film about Micropterus salmoides.
Among fly anglers, this anti-bass sentiment or lack of interest or whatever it is, is nothing new. Paul Schullery, in American Fly Fishing: A History, includes a section on bass bugs, which summarizes early fly fishing for black bass in the United States. One of the first denunciations of bass fishing appeared in The American Turf Register (March 1831), and the piece described bass waters as “turbid” and “sluggish.” The writer also mentioned alligators and “hissing moccasins” as reasons to dislike bass fishing.
In the late 1800s, James Henshall tried to change the perception of the largemouth. He wrote extensively on the many virtues of black bass and stated that American anglers had allowed themselves to be too heavily influenced by British writers to see worthiness in any game fish beyond the salmonids. He used the term black bass to cover the variety of the sunfish family of bass species, but even a brief reading of his work gives every indication that he spoke mostly of largemouths and even promoted the game qualities of largemouths as superior to smallmouths.
But soon after Henshall wrote The Book of the Black Bass (1881) and praised largemouths as a great game fish, he had detractors. One Chester, writing in The American Angler in 1882, called the fish “a porcine, snake-devouring rover of stagnant water.”
These days, perhaps the bias is due to the Bassmaster circuit, which treats fishing like a NASCAR event. Weigh-ins aren’t even on the water but in arenas packed with fans and complete with flashing lights and an MC who might as well be calling a WWE match. Each fisherman is heavily sponsored and festooned with logos from lure and boat manufacturers. Such competitions, with retrieves that skate fish across the water and fisherman strutting on stage while waving big bass, are anathema to the “quiet sport,” which is a pursuit for people who don’t mind manual labor. Most fly anglers explore water by either wading or paddling a canoe, kayak, or drift boat. Even in salt water, anglers who use enginepowered skiffs to reach distant fish then either wade hard-sand flats or pole the boat.
But I ask, what’s not to love about fly fishing for largemouth bass?
The above statements about bass and their home waters are partly true, but in my opinion, such characteristics aren’t negatives. The presence of gators and moccasins are proof that even a farm pond can be wild and dangerous. And if fly anglers hesitated to step foot in turbid waters, the carp craze would never have lifted off. And even if you don’t enjoy fishing for bass in still water, the native range of largemouth bass includes rivers from the St. Lawrence southward that drain into the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin. They are also found in rivers that terminate in the Atlantic, from North Carolina to Florida and into Northern Mexico.
Even before Henshall’s Book of the Black Bass was published, largemouths had already begun making their way around the world. In the 1870s, France and Belgium received transplants of largemouths. When Henshall wrote, “He [largemouth bass] has the faculty . . . of making himself completely at home wherever placed,” he had no idea what would transpire over the next century.
Today, largemouths have been successfully transplanted to every state except Alaska, and they can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And in fact, the fish that tied George Perry’s world record largemouth bass at 22 pounds 4 ounces came from a lake in Japan.
The joy in fishing for largemouths isn’t that they’re widely available, but that they’re everything a fly rod angler could want. They’ll eat just about anything. A friend of mine caught a seven-pounder while flipping a Stimulator for redbreast. And while largemouths are widely known for explosive takes on topwater, their fierce attacks on streamers are a fitting prelude to the acrobatics that will surely follow. Few game fish take to the air as readily and often as a largemouth bass. Their writhing, twisting leaps will remind you of tarpon, and if you’re close enough and hook a specimen of sufficient size, the rattling gills cement that comparison.
To top it off, their flesh is delicious. In many places, they are invasive. As a fly angler, you have no reason not to fish for largemouth bass—they’re fun, and you can catch and keep a few without guilt. Chances are high, there are some near you.
[by Chris Dombrowski]
I HAD A BIRD DOG, AND THEN I DIDN’T—TWICE. Then we got Zeke.
Very early one September morning, Brent, a good friend and hunting partner who breeds hardrunning Llewellins, left a nine-week-old pup in our mudroom. A three-by-five card taped to the dog’s kennel included feeding instructions and the note: “Frank the Tank, pick of the litter. Figured if he was a surprise, you guys couldn’t say no.”
Indeed I couldn’t, and my eyes beamed with expectation when I picked up the pup. On the other hand, my wife, Mary, who had recently weaned our infant daughter, Molly, from the dreaded midnight feeding, had no trouble saying, “Not a chance.” She didn’t go so far as to add “him or me,” but I took the hint, and back went Frank, who quickly found a new home with a middle-aged, divorced fishing guide who possessed plenty of time to train a pup and perhaps resembled the man I would have become had I not ceded to Mary’s sound judgment.
“I picked a pheasant rump feather from the dashboard talismans, let it loose out the window, and wished on it, similar to wishing on an eyelash.”
I went dogless until the following fall when Brent headed to British Columbia to fish famous steelhead rivers for six weeks and left Pearl, Frank the Tank’s mother, in my care. He said he didn’t want his sevenyear-old female losing out on several weeks of prime bird season but later confided that he thought a trial dog would soften Mary’s stance.
I hoped he proved correct, but regardless . . . Relishing this second chance, I toted Pearl everywhere—in the boat on guide trips, to my office on campus—and even let her sleep on the couch, naïvely figuring that she would work more diligently for me in the field if I spoiled her.
I had shot numerous birds over Pearl’s points in seasons past and expected similar results as her surrogate parent—expectation leading the list of this hunter’s recurring failures. Our first hunt that October found us traipsing a small spring creek near the foot of the Mission Mountains—okay, I was traipsing, while Pearl was using up the country in hundred-yard bursts. When she did stop to point, it was only at the verge of sight: a small white puff buried in the grass, distant as a cloud on the horizon. Eventually Pearl tired and reined herself in, pointing numerous snipes among the cattails—but we were hunting a chunk of federal land where migratory snipes were illegal to shoot, and Pearl seemed only to grow more and more flustered when I passed on the tight-holding birds that flushed with eerie cries.
The next week we struck out for Eastern Montana to hunt pheasants. The results were improved if far less dependable. One minute, Pearl worked close and held a bird so tight that I’d have to kick an adjacent fence post to get a flush; and in the next field, she ranged half a mile, as if studying the curvature of the earth. Flustered, I called my friend Dan Lahren, a former hunting guide who raises top-flight French Brittanys, and asked what if anything I could do to convince Pearl to hunt nearer the gun.
“For starters, your voice is hoarse,” he said, sipping loudly from what he’d called his “evening goblet” of vodka. “Don’t yell at the dog. She’s seven years old and can hear a mouse belch from a hundred yards away. When you yell, she thinks she’s in trouble. Just give a whistle, then turn around and make for the other side of the field. Pretty quick she’ll want to be out front and find you. Remember this: Dogs don’t hunt for you; you hunt with them.”
In large part I heeded Dan’s advice, and while my game bag didn’t suddenly bulge, I began to enjoy my hunts with Pearl. One day, driving home from a hunt with mere feathers to show for my efforts—I’d shot the tail off a rooster, missed another clean, and failed to switch the safety off on a third—I stopped along the road near a grove of aspens to write in my journal: November 4, coming down the Blackfoot birdless with Pearl, and damn am I happy.”
It hit me then that Brent was due back shortly from steelhead Shangri-la, that my time as Pearl’s surrogate was waning, and that I would miss these hunts, even picking the houndstooth from her ears, the burdock from her tail. Mary was pregnant with our third, and funds were tight, so I didn’t expect to be able to care full-time for a bird dog any day soon. But I hoped to. I picked a pheasant rump feather from the dashboard talismans, let it loose out the window, and wished on it, similar to wishing on an eyelash.
FRESH FROM THE BORDER, Brent met me the following week to reunite Pearl with her pack mate and an offspring, respectively Red and Blue. We rallied at an old dependable Hi-Line haunt, which, with its grain ditches threading between windbreaks and through alfalfa fields, looked like the cover of a Pheasants Forever calendar. Red and Blue were rangy after several days in the truck with Brent, but Pearl, never more than 50 yards in front of us, picked through the cover and pointed several birds in the section. At the end of one particularly staunch point—Pearl’s lip quivering, tail bristling with sunlight—I watched her resituate, angling her body every so slightly between Brent and me, orchestrating the bird to flush in my direction.
“Clearly,” Brent said as we bent over the killed bird moments later, “you haven’t been feeding her mere Purina.”
“She does get dibs on table scraps,” I admitted. Later that afternoon, when I was packing up my vest and gun and Brent was watering the dogs, Pearl climbed into my truck and slumped into the front passenger seat, curling her tail around her keen nose. I let my heart sink a little.
“Sorry, Pearlie,” I said while ushering her out the door. “It’s back to kibble for you.”
Over the next three years, I would hunt with Pearl several times a season. As she grew more efficient in the field, often downright lethal, she also grew more socially reserved, almost matronly, though she always met me wagging wildly and paws on my thighs. Last winter on her 10th birthday, she labored through a final hunt with Brent and she pointed four birds— three hens and a rooster—the latter, Brent shot, cooked, and fed her. She died of bone marrow cancer, survived by her mate Red and daughter Blue, as well as dozens of children and grand-dogs—among them our family’s first pup, Zeke.
[by Sekhar Bahadur]
THE V-SHAPED BOW WAVE FROM A PACK OF MARAUDING GOLDEN DORADO WAS 50 FEET IN FRONT OF ME AND COMING ON FAST. I could just about make out the fish themselves. After a couple of heart-pounding false casts, I managed to drop my red and black Andino Deceiver in front of the nose of the lead fish, and all hell broke loose. The dorado attacked my fly with a mighty splash, and I remembered to strip-set hard, twice. The 20-pound fish went airborne, its black-speckled golden sides and shiny gill plates sparkling in the sun, propelled aloft by a powerful orange tail with a dark stripe down the middle. After a spirited tussle involving more head-shaking leaps and a few powerful runs toward cover, I brought the fish to hand, and after extracting my mangled fly from its powerful jaws and razor-sharp teeth, I released my first dorado.
“In addition to their brute strength and aerobatic leaps, dorado have the attitude of pit bulls, and catching and landing these fabled fish on the fly is among the most demanding freshwater-angling experiences around.”
The dorado of Bolivia travel up the Mamoré River in the Amazon basin to the tributaries near Tsimane’s Pluma Lodge. We fished freestone rivers where the Amazon rain forest meets the foothills of the Andes. The Itirizama is a small, rocky, fast-flowing, and usually clear stream emerging from just visible hills, which slows and widens after it meets the Pluma just upstream from the lodge. Downstream from the lodge, the Pluma joins the Sécure, a slower river with lots of sunken tree cover, and then becomes a wider, gently flowing river with islands and flats. All these waters are bordered by dense vegetation, with almost no sign of human presence except for the lodge.
The golden predators are usually in hot pursuit of sábalo, shadlike baitfish that migrate upstream to spawn in huge numbers. Sábalo somewhat confusingly share the name given to tarpon in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and we saw many of them that must have weighed a couple of pounds or more. Massive schools of sábalo with their distinctive black tails congregate in the river, and when the dorado attack, the baitfish flee in splashy terror and create what looks like a saltwater blitz.
In addition to their brute strength and aerobatic leaps, dorado have the attitude of pit bulls, and catching and landing these fabled fish on the fly is among the most demanding freshwater-angling experiences around. One reason is that there are challenges other than a formidable fish. The weather is hot and humid, and long hikes over sunbaked, beach ball–shaped rocks and through tough, slippery, uneven and obstacle-strewn jungle paths are commonplace. The wading gives no respite, as the smooth rocks are greased with slimy algae, requiring studded-felt boots, wading sticks, and great care. Wading quite a few times turned into swimming, sometimes to retrieve flies stuck on cover. We used 40-pound or heavier straight fluorocarbon leaders with wire bite tippets, so a quick tug to snap off a hopelessly marooned fly was not always a practical option. As in some saltwater fishing, long accurate deliveries of very large flies to moving fish were often required.
At other times, when rains in the mountains upstream discolored the rivers, we had to blind-cast into murky water—the marketing phrase “gin-clear freestone waters” contains some hype. When we couldn’t see the fish, we cast to cover, seams, and confluences while managing line—all that plus wading in deep and fast currents proved a handful for even the most experienced anglers.
Outwitting spooky trout in crystal clear spring creeks on sunny days may arguably require more finesse, but rarely does one need to cast 70 feet just to be in the game. Specialized overweight jungle fly lines with heavy front tapers to turn over big flies are helpful. And next time I’ll also take a stripping basket and not attempt to tame dorado with any outfit lighter than a 9-weight. Penetrating the hard bony mouths of the fish requires a timely, powerful, and low tarponlike strip strike, often more than one, and they then need to be vigorously prevented from heading for tangly cover with a good rod and reel with drag locked down tight. A golden dorado is a worthy adversary and a hard-earned prize indeed.
WHILE SOMEWHAT OVERSHADOWED BY THEIR GLAMOROUS GOLDEN BRETHREN, other species of hard-fighting game fish filled the rivers. They include the omnivorous fruit-eating pacu, dubbed the freshwater permit for its finickiness and shape, which it uses to great effect in the current when hooked; the yatorana, an aggressive smaller, sharp-toothed relative of the golden dorado; and the spectacular surubí or striped catfish. Pacu are often targeted with flies that resemble the small round fruits they eat, but they will sometimes take streamers left to drift.
But the fish are just icing on the cake. The rivers we fished are in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory that is home to the Tsimané, Yuracaré, and Moxeño–Trinitario ethnic groups. It is beautiful, very sparsely populated, untouched, and well protected. The local people watch over their lands and waters vigilantly, and the Bolivian authorities have little patience with trespassers, poachers, and the like, sometimes rooting them out with tough, anti-narcotics troops accustomed to locating jungle drug labs and dealing with whomever they find there. Our guides shared a cautionary tale about would-be fishermen from abroad who bribed a local guide to take them on an illegal expedition—ending in arrests and imprisonments.
The first slice of the cake is the journey into a simpler past. Anglers fly on small single-engine planes into a tightly situated jungle airstrip in a 90-minute journey from Santa Cruz, a fast-growing and prosperous city with several restaurants that would hold their own against those of any of the world’s capitals. The Saturday arrivals and departures at the Oromomo village airstrip on the lower Sécure River are major events for the villagers, who turned up in force. Bread is not available in the village, so the planes bring large plastic bags of rolls for the village children. The children scarf them down and when the planes start up and begin to taxi, the children stand behind them in order to enjoy the cooling breeze of the prop wash.
THE VILLAGE HAS RECEIVED CONSIDERABLE FUNDS THROUGH ITS PARTNERSHIP IN THE FLY FISHING OPERATIONS, and while it remains basic, we did see quite a bit of new infrastructure investment, which we understand includes a small airplane for medical emergencies. Smiles and seemingly good health were in good supply. After landing and gathering our gear, we then traveled for nearly an hour upstream from the village to the Pluma Lodge in wooden dugout canoes.
The second added benefit was the spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. We saw several jaguar prints and a tapir. Beautiful butterflies and birds were all around us, including the blackand-yellow crested oropendola with its distinctive xylophone-like pinging call. We sent birdsong recordings with deciphering requests to our mad-keen birder friend and fishing buddy Michael, who after hearing them while walking down London’s Oxford Street, was even more disappointed he couldn’t make this trip. A birdsong version of the Shazam app that can identify the feathered creatures that make beautiful sounds may or may not be commercially feasible, but it would definitely have come in handy.
AS I THINK BACK ON OUR TRIP, HOWEVER, the local people themselves are easily the most memorable aspect. Each group of two anglers fished with an Argentinian professional guide and two indigenous boatmen. The boatmen are assigned to the lodge’s fishing program on a two-week rotating basis by the village’s reputedly formidable elected mayoress (whom we saw running a no-nonsense village meeting). The boatmen grew up on the rivers and know every inch of them and the surrounding forests. The professional guides wisely listened very closely to them. Their skill and strength in navigating rapids in our low-sided vessels were nothing short of miraculous. The boatmen knew the names of every plant and animal we came across, and while caiman evoked no particular reaction from them, a particularly dangerous poisonous caterpillar above a jungle path most certainly did.
The boatmen enjoy eating sábalo and would hunt the baitfish with simple handmade bows and arrows. Not only did we never see them miss a shot, but they also hit just above the midline of the sábalo, a few inches behind the gill plate—every time. We also were told they have deep respect for dorado, historically for driving sábalo into the shallows within range of their arrows, and now their appreciation of dorado is augmented by the tourism revenue the game fish generates.
These small, fit men—coca leaves frequently in cheek, carrying their few belongings in small simple woven satchels slung over their shoulders—had a quiet stoic dignity that left a lasting impression. I noticed one of our boatmen had a deep open gash on his toe. Fortunately, our surgeon friend Dr. Joe was on hand to take care of him, but I am sure if I had not said anything he would have carried on without a murmur of protest. We brought waterproof watches as gifts for the boatmen and lodge staff, and they were a big hit. On our last day I was heartbroken to see our wounded but recovering friend, who had worked so hard for us all week, sadly tapping his bare wrist as we were pushing off—we thought we had taken care of everyone but had inadvertently not done so. Fortunately, an impromptu one-off payment in lieu of merchandise seemed to do the trick, but it just underscored how much we take for granted.
Meeting these incredibly humble, hardworking, and accomplished persons made us all a bit ashamed of many of our first-world worries and concerns and being able to tame a few beautiful golden dorado in such special surroundings made us feel even more fortunate. We hope this special sanctuary and its people remain undisturbed.
Sekhar Bahadur lives in London and Greenwich, Connecticut. He holds advanced fly casting–instructor qualifications from Fly Fishers International and the Game Angling Instructors’ Association.
Sekhar and his friends traveled with Untamed Angling (untamedangling.com), which operates the Tsimane Lodge and arranges round-trip transportation to and from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which is fairly well served by direct international flights. Before you go, make sure your inoculations are up to date, and consider antimalarial precautions. You might also want to hit the gym before you go or otherwise work on your stamina for hiking long distances, wading strong currents, and fighting big fish. Further, you will need to pack the following:
Here’s a great new video from the folk’s at Sage about photographer and Gray’s contributor, Bryan Gregson.