A return trip for doves, pigeons and bass
by Gary Kramer
Between 2007 and 2010, I traveled to 30 destinations in 17 countries in order to gather information for my book Wingshooting the World. Although all of the lodges visited provided good-to-excellent wingshooting, it was the dining experience, service, staff, accommodations and overall ambiance that caused a few to make the short list of those I would return to.
One such operation was Bolivian Adventures. Compared to Argentina, Bolivia is a relatively new wingshooting destination, having come online in the late 1990s. Some Bolivian outfitters formerly operated in Colombia, but when that country became unsafe, they searched for alternate locations with comparable dove numbers. Today Bolivia offers high-volume dove shooting and boasts several first-rate destinations and outfitters. One is Jorge Molina, who left Colombia in 1992 and settled in Bolivia in 1996. Molina was a four-time Colombian skeet-shooting champion and participated in the 1984 and ’88 Olympics as a member of the Colombian shooting team.
He started outfitting for doves in Bolivia in the late ’90s, staying at leased estancias and shooting on leased land. In 2003 he built Las Palomas Lodge and gained access to more than a half-million acres of habitat and farmland. The lodge is in the center of the Bolivian portion of the Gran Chaco, a semi-desert grassland with scattered agriculture that occupies portions of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Most of it is dryland farmed, but in some areas irrigation systems have been installed. Widespread small-grain crops, including milo, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers; abundant nesting and roosting sites; and ample water have created a region alive with doves.
More recently Molina opened Caño Negro Fishing Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rain forest of Bolivia. With the fishing operation in place, he began offering cast & blast trips that included three days of fishing for peacock bass and three days of dove and pigeon shooting at Las Palomas. The transfer between the lodges was by small aircraft, and the cast & blast option became an instant success. Then in April 2015 Molina opened a second dove lodge: Los Guaduales. Located only a few hundred yards from Las Palomas, the 20,000-square-foot deluxe lodge has 11 rooms, a large dining area/lounge, an outdoor BBQ, a pool, a spa with a full-time masseuse, manicured grounds and the same outstanding staff as Las Palomas. The rooms are booked as single occupancy unless otherwise requested. So a chance to fish for peacock bass, a wingshooting trip to a proven destination plus new luxury accommodations made booking a return trip to Bolivian Adventures a no-brainer.
In fall 2016, flying out of Sacramento, my hunting buddy Ken Mayer and I made stops in Houston and Panama City before finally landing in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. There we were met by Roberto Aponte, one of the partners in the fishing operation, who took us to our hotel for a much-needed night’s rest.
The next morning we were transported to the domestic airport for the 90-minute flight to the fishing camp. I scored the copilot’s seat in the twin-engine aircraft and enjoyed a great view of Santa Cruz from the air. The terrain quickly changed from city to scattered villages and croplands, giving way to dark-green rainforests interspersed with wetlands, lakes and rivers. After a gradual decent, the pilot made a perfect landing on a narrow grass runway carved out of the jungle. When we stepped out of the plane, we were met by a crowd of anglers ready to depart and a staff ready to assist with our luggage.
It was only a short walk to Caño Negro, where we were shown to our rooms. Built in 2008, the lodge has four wood-and-thatch cabanas and four weather-port-style tents, each air-conditioned and with a private bath. They provide spartan but comfortable and clean accommodations. After lunch we were assigned guides and escorted to a nearby lagoon, where several 16-foot aluminum boats with 25-HP outboards were beached.
Twenty minutes after leaving the lodge, we turned off the main river into a labyrinth of channels and backwaters, our guide Jose expertly maneuvering the boat around deadfalls and through the flooded jungle. Our surroundings reminded me of a Tarzan movie, with the interface between the dark water and dense jungle alive with wading birds, military macaws flying overhead and six-foot caimans basking in the sun.
Jose eventually killed the outboard, and we drifted to a stop. That’s when I realized why we had two guides: to act as human trolling motors, using paddles to position the boat. I stepped onto the bow platform and began casting an 8-weight fly rod with a purple streamer while Ken used a baitcasting rod and silver spoon from the stern. The first strike came 10 minutes later when I dropped the fly near the submerged roots of a massive mahogany tree and began stripping line. I reared back, and a flash of gold and black erupted from the dark water. It took several minutes, but I was able to coax the four-pound peacock bass to the boat.
In the next half-hour we caught more peacocks, but none exceeded three pounds. Then we moved into a narrow backwater, and 50 yards ahead the surface erupted in a torrent of jumping baitfish. In the midst of the mayhem were several peacock bass. I’d seen predatory fish chasing bait before, but this was super-charged. Jose pointed at the melee and yelled, “Cast now!” Ken and I did as directed and soon were into a couple of four-pounders.
The remainder of our three-day stay provided more solid action on both flies and lures, and we landed several fish that tipped the scales at six and seven pounds. All of the bass were released except for a handful that were kept for dinner. The largest fish caught in camp was a 10-pounder, which was landed by an angler in another boat.
The second leg of our trip involved another 90-minute flight, as we traveled 70 miles east of Santa Cruz to a dirt landing strip only minutes from Las Palomas and Los Guaduales. Las Palomas has 12 well-appointed double rooms in three buildings, an indoor pool and spa, an outdoor swimming pool, and a lounge and dining area.
Shooting eared doves is the primary attraction at Bolivian Adventures. These handsome birds are the same size and similar in appearance to North American mourning doves. They are considered pests by farmers, and there are no seasons or bag limits. To provide an idea of how the dove shooting can be, recently a client fired 127 boxes of shells in the morning and 72 in the afternoon, for a total of nearly 5,000 rounds. His party of six shooters bagged 17,500 doves in three days. All of the doves are retrieved and either served to guests as hors d’oeuvres or given to local residents.
The shooting areas are located anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour from the lodges, with many closer than 30 minutes. The lodges are open from April 1 to November 15, to coincide with the highest dove populations, the dry season and the harvesting of corn, soybeans, sunflowers, sorghum, sesame and wheat. The hottest months are April, October and November when temperatures are in the 90s or above and there is noticeable humidity. May, June and July are the coldest months, with daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
This region of the Chaco is farmed by Mennonites of German decent who came to the area in the 1970s. Through the years they have been instrumental in converting this semiarid region into some of the richest farmland in South America. Some of the farmers are traditional, using horse-drawn farm equipment and horses and buggies for transportation; others use modern farm equipment and drive vehicles.
Just as I finished loading, a flock of two dozen doves passed overhead.
Agriculture has increased the amount of food and water available to doves but at the same time has reduced native vegetation important for roost sites and nesting areas. As agricultural acreage increased, forward-thinking individuals in the Bolivian government and conservation community passed legislation that requires at least 20 percent of the land in major farming regions to remain in native habitat. This combination of farmland and native vegetation has been extremely favorable to wildlife and created dove populations in the millions. Within a one-hour drive of the lodges, there are an estimated 20 million doves that use 14 different roosts.
Most morning hunts take place at or in grainfields and waterholes, while afternoon hunts are often near roosts. One of my most memorable shoots was near a waterhole. We arrived about 6 pm, and while we were unloading the gear, the first flock of doves passed over a small patch of brush 100 yards east of the water. Our driver that day was Jorge’s son, 32-year-old Jorge Jr., who attended college in Florida and speaks impeccable English. I pointed to the spot and asked if it might be a good location to set up. Jorge Jr. gave me a nod, and we headed in that direction.
Jorge Jr. and our bird boy, Luis, carried shotgun shells, a stool and a small blind. Luis set up the blind while I opened a case of shells and loaded the semi-auto that the lodge had provided. Just as I finished loading, a flock of two dozen doves passed overhead. I fired three shells and dropped two birds. The doves were flying along what appeared to be a path to the water. I soon switched from shotgun to camera and finished the afternoon photographing Ken and Jorge Jr. shooting. The average bag was at least 300 birds per shooter.
We returned to the lodge in time for a dip in the pool and a shower before bacon-wrapped doves and cocktails were served in the lounge. The main meals were a mixture of pork and chicken dishes, seafood and grass-fed local beef along with breads, salads, soups and desserts.
During a typical three-day program, one morning or afternoon is reserved for pigeon shooting. While pigeon populations in Bolivia cannot compare to those found in Paraguay or support shooting every day, there are sufficient picazuro pigeons to warrant at least one quality shoot per visit. We shot 45 minutes from the lodge in a harvested milo field. A blind of cut brush was used for concealment, and decoys were placed nearby. Many of the pigeons decoyed at 20 to 30 yards and offered shots similar to ducks, while others passed overhead and presented even more of a challenge. By morning’s end Ken and I had taken a total of 100 pigeons.
An outfitter once told me that in addition to its shooting, each lodge has at least one attribute that sets it apart from others. It might be the accommodations, a talented masseuse or a barman who mixes the best drinks in the country. At Los Guaduales it is the ambiance of the lodge and the employees who make you feel comfortable the moment you walk through the door. Bolivian Adventures truly lives up to the saying “Mi casa es su casa” (“My house is your house”). And that is a house I wouldn’t mind visiting again and again.