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Ankle Biters

ADMITTEDLY, I’M A LITTLE LATE late to this party. The Bolivian Tsimane golden dorado adventure has been online for several years, but I’ve just recently found my way down there. When the first snippets of dorado video began filtering north from the Bolivian jungle, I immediately took note of a fishery that I knew I’d enjoy. What’s not to like about huge predators blitzing baitfish among clear tumbling rapids in a Jurassic Park-like setting? While I’ve done my share of “exploratory” fishing over the years, these days I’m more inclined to sit back and observe while the initial rush of anglers dash and scramble for the early spots. And such was the case with Bolivia.

As with any river fishery, there are trade-offs with weather and water levels. At “normal” flows a fishery is at max efficiency with predators and prey able to disperse and use cover to their advantage. At high-chocolate flows the predators hunker down, forcing us to blind cast and hope for the best. At low flows, the fish are easier to find, but often more difficult to catch. Such was the case during our trip…but when the catching happened, the catching was spectacular.

When Blake and I first looked at this trip, we both decided that low and clear was what we’d angle for. Just like in the videos, we wanted to sight-cast to big dorado in clear shallow boulder gardens. And we wanted to witness the feeding melees when hunting packs of dorado pushed schools of sabalo into the shallows and hacked them to bits. On those fronts we were not disappointed, but between those events we put in a lot of boot miles and slung heavy streamers into thousands of fishy-looking spots. Was it an easy fishery during our visit? No, it wasn’t. Was it rewarding? Yes, off the scale.

For me the highlight came on the third morning when a wolfpack mob blew up a shoal of sabalo and sent them dashing between my feet. That gave me a head-on shot at a big dorado that ate my fly at about 1.5 rod lengths. I was looking right down his maw when he inhaled the streamer. For Blake, it happened on the last afternoon when we spotted a massive dorado laid up in a shallow slot on the Upper Itirizama. It was a tough lie, with opposing currents, rocks, and not much room to land the fly without spooking the fish. From his perch atop a huge boulder, Blake laid the fly inches from the fish’s nose and it sipped his steamer like a rainbow eating caddis. From there all hell broke loose and Blake’s only option was to lean into the fish and keep it from diving down a deep chute between massive boulders. The fight was over within minutes, and I’ve never seen my son more excited. He had jumped off a couple of big ones the day before and this fish was a fitting end to a great trip.

Beyond the fishing, we also give a huge hat tip to the team at Tsimane Pluma Lodge. Manager “Chuky” Lorente and his guides are as skilled a team as we’ve encountered, the lodge and meals were exceptional, the native Tsimane boatmen were an invaluable part of the equation, and the jungle setting was even more spectacular than I imagined. During our week we saw scarlet and blue macaws, raptors, caimans, a tapir, jaguar tracks on the sandbars, and more tropical bird and butterfly species than I could count. It was buggy at times, but never overwhelming, and we had no problems with dengue fever, bot flies, narcos with Uzi’s, natives with poison darts, or giant constricting snakes. Not that we were worried about those things, but…hey…

Thanks, as always, to the team at Frontiers International Travel for their impeccable planning services.

If you’d like to see the entire shoot, please click here.

Jungle commute

Morning rigging and bull session at Pluma Lodge

Low-water maneuvers on the Pluma River

Blake Brown tight to a jumper on the Lower Secure

Alejandro Gatti holding the part that doesn’t bite

Go catch one of these, they’re awesome

Oh sure, he SEEMS nice…

From a deep clear bucket on the Itirizama

Working a pool on the Pluma

Bring wire, heavy wire

Tsimane native subsistence program

Me and Augusto on the Lower Secure

Measuring a good one    

Look up “work ethic” in the dictionary and you’ll find this man’s photo

Blake working the boulder gardens on the Upper Itirizama

Skinny water cage fight

The winner

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Guide Lucas Mora cooling off after a marathon walk-n-wade

Farewell asado at Pluma Lodge

Piñata party at the Oromomo airstrip

Pah Nah Mah

I’M NOT EXACTLY SURE HOW, but in my 30-plus years of photography and fishing travel I have somehow missed out on one the world’s more fertile angling playgrounds. I’ve lurked around the perimeter of Panama, but until last week the stars have never properly aligned for entry. Thanks to Mike Fitzgerald and Joe Codd at Frontiers for lining up a great photo assignment, and to Mike Augat at Pesca Panama for running a really cool fishing operation.

Our week started with a departure downriver from the town of David (Dah-veed in local parlance.) When the fleet of sportfishers caught up with our floating accommodations we dropped bags, ate lunch, rigged tackle and set out on a six-day odyssey that would cover over 100 miles of open ocean, jagged shorelines, and submerged seamounts. By day we fished while the lodge/barge “Hannibal” relocated to pre-arranged mooring spots. Each evening we gathered on Hannibal’s fantail for happy hour, fresh catch-of-the-day, and plenty of chin-wagging.

Panama is widely-known for it’s billfish opportunities, but it’s also a phenomenal fishery for the inshore angler. We spent the majority of our week fishing around Coiba Island which offers the opportunity to fish both bluewater and inshore in a single day. On a couple of mornings we started with a trolling session at Hannibal Bank for billfish, then motored inshore after lunch for light-tackle brawls with jacks, roosters, snappers, et al. The marlin bite was off during our trip, but we did find decent numbers of sailfish, tuna and dorado. The captains were well-versed in all techniques and the fly casters in our group appreciated their tireless enthusiasm for chunking hookless teasers over rockpiles and current rips. That technique turned up lots of fights, mainly with floating lines and streamers.

By week’s end we tallied over 30 different species of fish and our evening confab sessions turned toward Advil bartering and finger taping. Big thanks to Mary, our bartender; the captains and deckhands; and to Mike Reilly and Chris Deelsnyder who tag-teamed in the octagon with 150 pounds of tuna steak and sashimi.

Frontiers will be hosting a couple of weeks again next year with Pesca Panama. If you’d like to jump aboard, call them at 800 245-1950.

To see the rest of this shoot, please click here.

The floating lodge “Hannibal”. Yes, that’s the bar on the starboard bow

Pre-dawn boat prep

Chi Chi and Chris tailing a jack

The tuna arrived like this…

And departed as such

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See any color yet? Si, señor…dark blue…

Mike with a bluefin trevally

A cubera snapper depth-charging for the rocks

Inshore ordinance

Slinging streamers over rockpiles

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End of the day

Safety in numbers at Hannibal Bank

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Bridled blue runners are like chicken nuggets for pelagic predators

Stewart and Dick working a Coiba shoreline

Thomas with a reef donkey

Evenings on the fantail

2016 In Review

TWENTY-SIXTEEN WAS A BIG YEAR. New clients were booked, revenue milestones were reached, shutter clicks were off the scale, and the official year-end tally of My Butt In An Airline Seat surpassed 15,000 miles.

In this video, you’ll find a smattering of my 2016 work from The Olympic Range to the Seychelles. Much appreciation to YETI and Frontiers International Travel, and to all involved in the commission, planning, capturing, and licensing of these images. 2016 was a magical year filled with epic scenes, great gear, and wonderful people.

The first shoot of 2017 is booked for January 4th. By then I should be sufficiently recovered from the holiday gustation coma in which I’m currently residing.

Happy New Year to you all, and thanks for riding along.

South Plains Sojourn

 

I LOVE THE TEXAS PANHANDLE. Some folks who live there despise it, and I get that. What’s to like about a flat place that smells like cow pies, where blowing dust can find your toothbrush, and where snow can drift as high as your barn…that is, if your barn survived that twister which spun your house off to Oklahoma?

Birds. That’s what I love about the Panhandle. And if you’re an avid wingshot there are few greater places.

My early Panhandle visits happened largely because I’d grown tired of mucking around in rice fields, swatting fire ants, and watching snow geese watch me from 10,000 feet up. I had heard that Panhandle geese decoy well into dry fields, and boy do they. They did 20 years ago and they still do.

Last week, my son Blake and me jumped up to Tulia to visit my friend Dane Swinburn at Tule Creek Outfitters. Dane runs a small lodge and does a bang-up job on pheasants, ducks, doves, geese and sandhill cranes. We lucked out on the weather (temps above freezing and wind less than 50 knots) and had a great time switching back and forth between blaze orange and 3-inch steel. We were covered up with geese on our morning hunts, and the pheasants are rebounding nicely from the mini-dustbowl years of 2007-20013.

Below you’ll find some images from last week’s trip, and a few favorites from years past. To see more of my Panhandle stock images, click here for pheasant hunting, and here for geese.

 

Lesser Canadas on the wing

Rooster delivery

SHOOT em!

The sandhill crane hero shot

Hiding in plain sight

One man band

Casey and Dane demonstrate the trophy rooster pose

Not good to eat

Incoming

Prairie decor

The comeback flag

Evening confab at Tule Creek Lodge

The Spruce Donkey Beatdown

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I’VE ALWAYS WANTED to do an elk hunt. A real elk hunt. Not behind a tall fence or out the window of a truck. On foot in big country; the way it should be.

When I settled on an area of New Mexico known for giant bulls, I was incessantly warned of just how tough the Gila Wilderness can be: burned ridges littered with deadfall, loose lava rock on steep slopes, lung-busting climbs in the dark, deep canyons too rough for equine support. On my first climb out of camp on the morning of October 15th, I found myself immediately thankful that I didn’t shrug off those warnings. I’m not sure if the reptile was named after the mountains, or the mountains for the reptile; but they’re both Gila Monsters.

My prep for this hunt started with stadium steps in August in 100 degree heat. From there I shouldered a loaded pack and trudged up every steep slope I could find in Austin. At the end of my hunt I was thankful for every drop of sweat spilled during those grueling weeks of training. I was also glad that my wife, Kathy, agreed to join me for a little pre-hunt altitude work in West Texas. She had never seen Big Bend, and we had a blast camping, hiking, and touring the Trans Pecos on the way to New Mexico.

When I arrived in the Gila for my hunt, I could immediately detect nervous optimism among the guides. A hot wind was puffing with temps well above normal, and the October “harvest moon” was as full and bright as I’d ever seen it. Not your best recipe for elk chili. The guides were hopeful for some hail Mary bugling and rutting activity, but that was not to be. What we quickly learned on our first morning was that the big bulls had left the cows and holed up solo in the steepest, nastiest spots available. Who could blame them? Like most males of a specie, when a bull elk is done with sexy time, he likes to be alone…and sleep…have some food…maybe watch a little TV.

For the next five days, I tallied up exactly 56.8 miles of climbing and descending through the roughest country I’ve ever encountered. We saw plenty of small bulls still running with cows but I was after a sure-nuff bull. On the morning of our second day we found a mature 6×7 with mass and long beams, but he couldn’t have been in a worse locale. He was standing on the edge of a steep rock face at 600 yards. Had I hit him where he stood he would have likely tumbled 100 feet over the cliff. My guide, John Chapel, figured we could maybe get a little closer, and hope that he might move into a better spot before bedding down. Ultimately I elected to pass when John said that particular canyon was too rough for the mules, and it would take he and I two days to hump the bull out of there, one shank at a time. With temps pushing 80 degrees, I didn’t want to risk spoiling 300 pounds of meat.

From that point on, unfortunately, the writing was on the wall. The big bulls were only active for an hour or so in the morning, and then again for a brief window right at dusk. We were up at 4am each morning and climbing in the dark, hoping that we’d end up in view of a wall-hanger, but it was not to be. On the evening of October 19th, I ate a tag sandwich for dinner and packed my truck for the long haul back to Austin. Sadly, in one of the best trophy elk units in the country, only two bulls were harvested from the camp from which we were hunting. One guy tapped out on a small 6×6 and another fella shot a giant that they jumped from its bed at 11:30 am on the way back to the truck. It was a massive 10×9. A true Gila Monster.

Was it worth it? All the training miles, the rifle range time, the cost of the tag?

Yes…it most definitely was. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I hung in there until the final bell. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was a hunting trip, and hunting is not shopping. At this point I’m still working through the stages of denial and bargaining, but I’ve emphatically decided that I will certainly do another elk hunt. I’ve now paid a big chunk of dues (physically, mentally, and financially) and there is still a big bull out there with my name on it.

You can’t win a prize without spinning the wheel.

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Whistle stop at the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon

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Acclimation climb in Big Bend with my lovely wife (and personal trainer)

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First evening in camp, filled with anticipation

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John Chapel glassing for bulls in Deep Creek

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Shovel down some calories and fall in bed

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We saw plenty of this…

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And we climbed…and glassed…

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We crashed in the shade at mid-day…

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And got sick of seeing these…

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And this shiny bastard which turned nighttime into day

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Not my bull, but I’d have been glad to have him

Rivers and Fields

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WHEN ONE LIVES IN TEXAS, one might think that Idaho would be cooler in August. Right? The mountains, the desert, downtown Boise: anywhere in Idaho would be cooler than Austin, surely…right?

I was really looking forward to my Idaho assignment a few weeks ago when Austin was pegging 100, every day; but a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. Texas and Idaho switched places. Austin got a week of rain and cool and the Tater State went under the broiler.

My charge was to visit the Flying B Ranch and split the week shooting photos of their backcountry camp and their wingshooting programs back at the ranch. Thankfully, we had cool nights and low humidity for the camping portion of the trip, because I don’t suffer hot tent sleeping gladly. I’m certainly not above it; but I’m almost beyond it. Fortunately, the nights were cool and the fishing was great and when Ryan rang the dinner bell it was easy to forget that we were forty miles from pavement.

Flying B Ranch offers one of the finest western cast and/or blast programs that I’ve seen. They’ve been long known for their big game and bird hunting, but they’ve got options galore beyond pheasants, huns, chukars, grouse, valley quail, deer, elk, bear, and mountain lions. These folks have backcountry outfitting completely dialed in. Their summer trout camp on Weitas creek offers unmatched scenery and seclusion, along with a stream full of native cutthroats that love dry flies. If you’d like to combine fishing with bird hunting, they can float you down the Clearwater River for smallmouth bass or steelhead. We did the smallie float on a couple of hot afternoons when the dogs needed a break, and it was fantastic.

Thanks to Rich, Jeremy, Ryan, John, Ian, Arby, Carol, and crew at the Flying B for their hard work and hospitality. And to Frontiers for pulling together another great photo-op. If you’d like to see the rest of this shoot, in full, click here.

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Stringing horses into the high country

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Shall I fish dries…or dries?

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Arby and Selway on Weitas Creek

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Going native

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Small fauna

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Camp cook Ryan’s Dutch oven enchiladas

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Rich Coe scoping the crick

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Cutties on hoppers, all the livelong day

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Big fauna

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Miles from everywhere

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Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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Dogs needed working

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And birds needed flushing

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Cover and food

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Rooster rise

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The best part of bird hunting, period

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Stinkeye

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Break time

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Chukars in the rockpiles

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A welcomed diversion when it’s too hot for bird dogs

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The incomparable Flying B Ranch

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Relax, will ya

Silver Anniversary

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A LOT HAS CHANGED in the Florida Keys since my first visit in May 1991 but, fortunately, a lot of things have remained the same: namely, the mass migration of grown-up tarpon through gin clear shallows. Confession: I haven’t made 25 consecutive return trips just for the conch fritters.

If you’ve never seen the annual spring tarpon migration in the Keys, it is truly one of nature’s great spectacles. The big pushes typically start in April. By mid May they’re in critical mass, and by late June they’re on their way out. Somedays it’s just a trickle past a given spot: ones and twos and small packs following the same tidal currents and bottom contours year after year. On other days they come in hordes: a hundred, three hundred, great writhing meatball masses of floating, slow-rolling, tailing tarpon.

The changes in the fishery that I mentioned above have little to do with population growth, because there’s not much vacant land left in the Keys and it has become an expensive place to turn a shovel, pour a slab, and make a profit. Water quality certainly isn’t as good as it once was but the tarpon are still coming, and this year we saw as many, or more, fish as we’ve seen in a decade. Tackle, skiffs, flies, and techniques have changed; some for the better, some not so much (electric motors are the spawn of the devil) but that’s a whole n’other story…

Will it all hold up for another 25 years? I certainly hope so; and if I’m still casting I know where I’ll be in late May 2041.

Herein you’ll find a selection of images from this year’s trip. To see more Keys Tarpon images that I’ve shot over the years, please click here.

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Bridge slalom on a bright still morning

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Bull session: waiting on the first push

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Hey, there they are…

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Close quarters

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Windy days mean snappy fish

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Re-entry

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Slack tide

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Oof-dah!

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Blake Brown serving snacks to a mob of tarpon

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Sea serpent

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End game

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Let’s us preserve the moment in photos

Chrome Niño

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FISHING ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET during an El Niño year carries at the very least a smidgen of risk. When my flight left for Seattle on March 13th, I’d have been much better off had I never found the online flow gauges for the various steelhead rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. A watched pot never boils, and a tall brown river ain’t gonna clear any faster if you’re hitting the refresh button every ten seconds.

When my friend Bill Hoffman and I finally arrived in Forks after navigating bridge closures and random highway timber, we were relieved when Jeff Brazda announced that we’d be fishing the next day. “Probably not early, but we’re fishing.” To date, they’d had a pretty tough season. Lots of rain, lots of river blowouts, and lots of “hurricane parties” at the Bogy House. I figured we might be in for a dice roll when Nate McDonough posted an Instagram shot of a grocery cart full of tortilla chips and video games about a week before our trip.

There were still a few waves of rain (and hail) rolling in from the ocean, the next morning, but by 10am the rivers were dropping and clearing. The next five days alternated between grey and clear, but mostly dry. The fishing was good and I cringed when Nate said, “You guys have had the best weather of the entire season.” History shows that Nate’s curse will ensure at the very least a Category 1 hurricane during my late May tarpon week in the Keys. It’s called “weather karma” and it hangs on me like waterlogged tree moss.

Thanks to Jeff, Nate, Andy and crew at the Bogy House for a great week of fishing. Thanks to YETI for keeping hot stuff hot. And thanks to Bill Hoffman for hooking photo subjects and extended sessions of river philosophy.

To see the entire shoot, please click here.

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Some call it “winter steelheading”

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Last of the morning fog

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Heave-ho

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Nate and Bill at the closing table

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Buck face

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The net man cometh

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So, Tosh, how the heck do you balance your need for photos and your desire to fish?

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An hour later Andy’s boat was full of pea-sized hail

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Sea-run goodness

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Dropping, but not quite clear

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Java stop

Year of the Quail

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AS I’VE WRITTEN HERE previously, there is a positive relationship between rainfall and quail hunting in Texas. Yes, there are habitat issues that can be blamed for their extinction in many areas east of IH-35; but on the quail factory ranches of west and south Texas, lack of birds in certain years just ain’t that hard to figure out. We can postulate about parasites and we can speculate about predation until we’re blue in the face, but at the end of the day it just needs to rain.

Last season we saw the beginnings of a quail rebound when ample rains during the prior summer lifted us from the deathtrap of a seven-year “drought of record”. Everyone agreed that timely rains again in 2015 might kick off another quail boom.

Two wet years back to back in Texas? Pffft, that’ll never happen…

But it did. And it came in the form of El Nino. And if I was in the market for a new birddog, right now, that’s exactly what I’d name him.

The quail season that ended on February 27, 2016 was one for the record books. Unfortunately, I wasn’t on the shotgun end of very many hunts, this season, but I did get to photograph some good ones. Two that stand out were private shoots that I did for groups who own leases around Hebbronville. I’m not going to quote numbers of coveys pointed on those hunts, because it really doesn’t matter and many of you would call BS. Suffice to say, though, lots of birds were killed and the dogs were really tired. As were the hunters.

Could next year be even better? Well, it’s raining right now in Texas and has been for the past five days. Here’s hoping.

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Moms, dads, and young’uns gather for their annual South Texas quail hunt

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Stylish

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Head-high to a hoss in Hebbronville

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Giddy-yup

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 Sliding in for the flush

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 The MVP on any wild quail hunt

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Orange gloves on horseback are easier to spot than short dogs in tall weeds

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Nothing pen-raised here

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Pick me?

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Whiff-o-goodness

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Field brunch

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Gearing up in the Rolling Plains

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Lunch break in Ballinger

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Panhandlers

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Pushing a road covey in South Texas

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Best seat in the house

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Bobs on the wing

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Attaboy, Trip

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Hey, over here….

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Special delivery

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Working singles

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Chow time for the chain gang

Far Flung

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WHILE THERE AREN’T MANY new fly-fishing discoveries in this vociferous age of chatrooms, GPS, and social media; there are still a few “developed” spots so wild and remote that you feel a certain Captain Cook vibe when you first step ashore on a small island located 10 time zones from your home.

The Seychelles have long been on my must-visit list, so you can imagine my response when Frontiers asked if I was up for a photo shoot on the other side of the world. These tiny pearls in the Indian Ocean on the far side of Africa have long been the playground of wealthy Euros seeking a beach holiday; but pay-to-play fishing is still a relatively new industry for the Seychelles.

Organized fly-fishing first came to Alphonse Atoll in 2000 when a group of South Africans spruced up an old coconut plantation adjacent to the flats they’d been exploring. When word spread of phenomenal bonefishing, with lots of diversionary species, to boot, the angling travel set showed up in droves.

During our week on Alphonse there was a relative lack of opportunity for GT’s and milkfish, but the crazy numbers of bonefish, triggers, bluefins, emperors, and other exotics kept us plenty busy. It’s an amazing fishery, and a pristine resource, with some of the best guides I’ve ever fished with. If you’re pondering a visit, contact Bob Artzberger at Frontiers.

I’ll stop jabbering now and let the photos speak. If you’d like to see the entire shoot, please click here.

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First glimpse of Alphonse

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Like Gilligan’s Island, with A/C and bartenders

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When your ramp is made of sand, you launch with ingenuity

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Mothership to skiffs, loading the lunch coolers

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If wading is your thing, you can hoof it for miles

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The best bonefishing you’ve ever seen; no seriously

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Rush hour

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Deco flotsam permit

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Yard pets

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Bent stick on “Bonefish Sunday”

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A combat wade for GT’s on the outer atoll

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Geet meat

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One day it was cloudy, but just for a few hours

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A proper shore lunch

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Bluefin trevally from Baghdad Wreck

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Sorting gear on the morning commute to St Francois

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Mustache triggerfish

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Watching the drop for GT’s

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Hey, there’s one!

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Alphonse was once a working coconut plantation

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One morning it rained, but just for a few minutes

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Alright then, back you go

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The liar’s lounge