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Stethoscope to Sketchpad – My Journey to Becoming an Illustrator

It’s been almost a year since I last stepped foot into a patient room. It feels like a lifetime ago. On the surface, switching from a physician to an illustrator seems backwards and unimaginable. I’m not sure anyone could have guessed the 180 degree turn my life has taken over the past year. What I do know for certain, is that I have never regretted my decision to leave medicine in pursuit of a different passion. Here is how and why The Bonnie Fly came to be, what has inspired me to create, and why I will never look back.

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Up until a year ago, you probably couldn’t have drawn a straighter line than my path to pediatric residency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I graduated high school on a full scholarship to Louisiana State University, and in four years I entered into medical school as the top ranked student in the College of Science. Before I knew it, I had matched into a competitive residency program at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and married the girl of my dreams.

That might be the most boring paragraph on this page. There were no bumps, no curves, and it certainly was void of any road blocks. This all changed before I even entered into a Pennsylvania hospital as a fully-fledged resident.

Last April, in the four month break between medical school and residency, I flew up from my home state of Alabama to meet my then-fiance in Pittsburgh. During the week we planned to move into a new apartment and settle in before graduation, the start of residency, and the upcoming wedding. Since we had been apart during my schooling and her job in Pennsylvania, the excitement was building for my big move.

As any obsessed fisherman would do in this situation, I found time to try to fill the empty space soon to be left behind on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. A few Google searches led me to the streams surrounding Pittsburgh, and soon I was able to send pictures back home of the colorful trout roaming the hills. Somehow, the experience made moving even easier. I had found my reliable escape from the hustle and bustle of medicine. It had helped me persevere through the roughest exams and rotations, and I could hopefully lean on it again.

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Looking back, I remember the sign on the stream. It even made me pause and stare for a moment because it was out of the ordinary for a southern-bred fisherman. Below the painted welcome in the parking lot a plank read: “CHECK FOR TICKS.” Medical experience is partially to blame for my reaction. After constant MRSA, TB, and diarrheal precautions, I was numb to the thought of surrounding illness and disease. In that moment in time, I hardly gave the sign any further thought. No bug spray, no full body inspections, no problem. For three full days, I trudged through brush and weeds in pursuit of trout.

After a great week in Steel City, I returned home to fish out the last few months of my time in Mobile. In that span, I have hardly been happier in my life. Between the excitement of finally being titled a real “doctor” to tying the knot, everything seemed perfect.

I took little notice of the week of night sweats, chills, and fevers that soon followed. Sure, it was odd that I could hardly get out of bed without nausea for a whole week, but it went away eventually. Probably, just something I ate. I even walked up the stage to receive my diploma with a limp from a painful, golf-ball sized mass on my right hip, chalking it up as a torn muscle from a recent long run.

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In the back of my mind, I knew what the cause might be, but I had no time or left over money to worry about visiting the doctor. The looming stress of internship kept me in denial and it was the last thing I needed to keep me from fishing.

In the blink of an eye, the weekend before my wedding arrived. I needed one final fishing trip to Dauphin Island to say goodbye. One more saltwater trout. Just one more before being sentenced to a landlocked life. Despite a sharp, searing headache that kept me bedridden the days prior, I was craving the last smell salt air.

We hopped in the boat and headed to the West End of the island full steam ahead. The breeze on my face is the first thing that caught my attention. I couldn’t blink to keep my contact lenses wet. Was there something scratching my eye? Gradually over the course of several hours, I lost my ability to raise my right eyebrow or fully close my mouth to whistle. At that moment, I knew I had Lyme Disease. Bell’s Palsy, the nagging symptoms, and the painful mass (which turned out to be an inflamed lymph node) over the last few months suddenly painted the stereotypical case study. The only thing that had been missing was a target shaped rash (which most people don’t have or report at diagnosis).

We rushed to an emergency care clinic, and I informed the doctor that I had a tick-borne illness. Without pause, I recounted my symptoms, detailed history, and handed her the diagnosis in the hopes of a quick fix. She then handed me a prescription for antibiotics and steroids. Fortunately, the disease was cured without further complication.

That would have been a great ending. Instead, I was told that it was more likely stress and I was an over-reacting young doctor. I was promptly given a handout of information for dummies on Lyme Disease, and somehow convinced myself I was overthinking the situation. I went home with steroids for a “viral infection,” and gladly accepted a milder alternative.

I may be one of the few people who can say that my Bell’s Palsy was vividly documented in wedding photos. Outwardly, I looked like I wanted to murder our cameraman. Despite the awful appearance, I have never been happier in my life. After all, the most beautiful woman in the world was now Mrs. Finnorn and I was surrounded by family and friends. Joyfully, my wife and I departed on our honeymoon the following morning, and within three days my face was able to function normally again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Residency started before I could blink (pun intended). The first few weeks were some of the most stressed weeks of my life and the previous months symptoms hardly crossed my mind.  In the wave of a magic wand, I went from the medical student in the back of the room to the doctor signing prescriptions and bearing actual responsibility over the lives of children on chemotherapy and antibiotics. At the time, even Tylenol dosing was terrifying. My own health was my last concern.

A month into my internship, I started noticing something still wasn’t quite right. My wife recalls me frequently repeating, “Something feels strange.” Like most medical students, I have always been accustomed to memorizing large amounts of information in a short amount of time. It’s how we survive. You learn on the fly and gradually build upon prior experience until it becomes second nature. But, in that moment, I found myself getting lost in familiar buildings and having trouble finding the words for common items. When the traffic lights on the road would turn red to green, I would have to remind myself that it meant “go,” only to arrive at my destination and have no recollection of why I was there. The ability to fluidly put thoughts together and just simple, short-term memory seemed to have disappeared gradually. And still, a few months after graduation, I could hardly run with the pain of my hip nagging my every move.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if the stress of medicine had finally caught up with me. Through the years I have always been even-keeled, but maybe I had finally hit a breaking point. As it started affecting my work, I approached my program director, who happened to be an expert on Lyme Disease. Without a doubt, he informed me to get tested for Lyme Disease and seek treatment, but reassured me that the outcomes were good in people with similar chronic symptoms.

In July 2016, over three months from my initial visit to Pittsburgh, I was finally tested for Lyme Disease. Of the nearly dozen markers of the bacteria on Western Blot and ELISA, I was positive for every single one. Finally, I was treated with a month of doxycycline and given time off to allow my mind to recover.

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Over the course of the next several months, I attempted to return to the hospital, with the continued support and reassurance of colleagues. I couldn’t stand missing my intern experience and the feeling of falling behind. Every day I spent at home, I could feel the extra load I was putting on the other residents. The guilt weighed on me deeply. In desperation, I pretended everything had healed and returned to push through a few weeks. In order to compensate, I kept diligent notes to make up for my memory. And still, I found myself getting lost in the places I knew well and forgetting why I had walked into different patient rooms and offices. It was like the fogginess of NyQuil during a cold, and I couldn’t shake it.

Worried about the safety of my patients, I requested more time off. From my perspective, if I was the parent of my patients, there is no way I would want a doctor who was struggling with memory. I returned home defeated, unsure of what to do and questioning every decision I had ever made.

As you can imagine, the stress of feeling your mind slipping can take a toll on your will. Every day I questioned the real cause of the loss of memory and executive function. I started to second guess every decision that lead me to becoming a resident. And each day, I wondered if my worst fears were coming true, and the abilities that had brought me so far had left me for good. All the while, the hospital stared at me from the bedroom window and the feeling of failure was overwhelming.

In those long, lonely days inside my own mind, I came to realize the importance of having people that love you. My wife saw every bit of the disease at it’s worst and showed unwavering support, even though I ruined our once-in-a-lifetime wedding photos. You would think that a conflict of this magnitude would have an effect on a new marriage, but it strengthened our bond. Friends and family flew up to spend time with me and called me daily. In that time, despite my internal despair, I discovered the value of love and its capacity to heal.

Week by week, I regained more concentration and focus for hours, then days, and eventually full weeks. Driving was no longer requiring extra focus. Constant physical activity helped ease my hip pain. To pass the time, I even found myself memorizing recipes and more easily reading articles, while accurately recounting the details.

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For years, I had accepted my path towards medicine. I never once truly questioned the decision or asked why I wouldn’t want to be a physician. Looking back at my initial thought process, it seemed like the best use of my abilities and love of natural sciences, as well as the most practical approach to a stable life. It was the easy choice. Once you accept that fate and get far enough into student loans and the culture of the medical field you forget that there was ever a choice. Turning back seems impossible.

But, there were always hints of regret. It wasn’t uncommon for me to outwardly speak of wishes to become an engineer. Fishing was my excuse to get away from anything that had to do with medicine. I hated the talk about medicine outside of work, and even avoided spending my time off with anyone associated with a hospital. The patient interaction and remarkable experiences inspired me and kept me going through my second guesses, but the mental burnout and time commitment away from home were starting to catch up.

And finally, something had knocked me down and forced me to rethink my future. I might be the only person in this world thankful for contracting Lyme Disease. I’m not sure anything else could have veered me off course. It was in this long, illness-induced reflection that I started to find a new focus for my future.

Early on in my medical leave, I took a break from the monotony of the house and visited a local fly shop. That was when I took notice of the decals and apparel on the walls. I was so drawn by every color and detail. Since high school, my notes and books were littered with similar artwork. I purchased some of the decals in the store made by Andrea Larko. They sat on my desk for months, untouched, but constantly in my sight.

In that same span, coincidentally, my aunt sent me a Z-tangle coloring book to help pass the time. I sat on the couch one morning and found myself coloring inside the lines. In all honesty, I really didn’t give artwork much thought, but it calmed me and brought me more focus. In search of a similar professional future and escaping residency, I turned my sights on biomedical engineering, pursuing an MBA, or trying to make it into the pharmaceutical industry.

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The First Sketch for The Bonnie Fly

That coloring book relief led me back to the sketchpad. I decided to sit down and pick up my former skills at charcoal and graphite. I took a photo of a trout from the previous spring and spent an Auburn-LSU football game drawing in front of the TV. I showed my wife and family, and the first seeds were sown. All the while, I stared at those decals and thought, “I bet I can learn how to do something like that.”

In time, my decision to finally leave medicine was easy, yet incredibly difficult. I knew I no longer wanted to be a physician. At the same time, I was torn morally. Once you get this far, is there now an undeniable, moral obligation to treat the sick and suffering? Had I gone too far to turn back, despite the burned out feeling in my heart?

In the end, it came down to one thing. Deep down, I felt that it took a genuine passion to be an effective clinician, and I never really had that drive from the beginning. The passion of competition and continuous learning had kept me afloat for years without second thought. Sure, I could return to push through day by day, regardless of my own feelings and mental health. But how can a physician really give 100% effort and care with so much regret and internal conflict, especially when dealing with the lives of children and young adults? There wasn’t a bone in my body that wanted to step back into a hospital.

In December of last year, I walked into the residency office and returned my badge. The plan at the time was to enter into biomedical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and find a way to use my knowledge in another form.

To pass the time between my departure and graduate school, I started “The Bonnie Fly” on Etsy and continued my sketching. I named it after my wife, who supported my decision and loved me through even the lowest points. During the days of waiting, I was able to wake up each morning excited for the day ahead. Every new idea and sketch brought nearly the same rewarding feeling as catching a great fish. It started off with a few prints and gradually began to gain traction on social media.

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The same skills that drove me as a medical student started reemerging. I translated the hours in the morning dedicated to patient cases and journal reviews to studying marketing, business, and how to adapt my skills digitally. For two hours a day, I focused on lectures by industry leaders, and ended with client work and customer service. My passion was discovered, and the effort it took to maintain it was driven effortlessly by my love for fishing. Eventually, the decision was made to fully commit to the life of a free-lance artist and illustrator and I canceled my enrollment into the University of Pittsburgh.

Medicine will always be a part of me. Between trying to understand the situation of patient and listening to the needs of a client, there are few differences. Efficiency and time management are still key elements of my life as a small business owner. The hours and attention to detail have hardly changed. For that reason, I will still carry the title of “MD” behind my name. It reminds me of how I arrived at this point and the humbling experience of being knocked down only to get up and choose a different direction.

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I guess it could be easy to be angry. There were so many points where I could have avoided this outcome. But, I am thankful. I have told many people since last winter that Lyme Disease was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to step back and appreciate how important and precious time is and the value of every interaction shared with others. Instead of despising the hours of my week in a clinical setting and living for the weekend, I was given the opportunity to relentlessly pursue my love for the outdoors and create anything that comes across my thoughts. For that reason, I will never wish for things to have been different. Each experience in our lives molds our personality for better or for worse. How we choose to react to those events largely shapes the outcomes that follow. Medicine and science changed my approach to every aspect of my life and taught me the value of humility and understanding. My wife, family, and friends showed me the importance of love. My artwork is simply a reflection of the journey.

 

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Commissioned Artwork

I offer my commissioned work through the “Illustrated Taxidermy” and “Pet Portrait” listings on Etsy.From pet portraits to recreating that special outdoors moment, I offer the opportunity to put your memories onto paper and canvas. This allows you the opportunity to make a timeless piece to commemorate a special memory. A unique offering, called “Illustrated Taxidermy,” gives anglers the opportunity to “mount” their most prized catches in a custom piece of art. Recreate the scene or unforgettable photo to hang on the wall!

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Graphic Design

I offer graphics for your every need. Vector based graphics can be utilized in a wide variety of formats and can be scaled to any size, whether it be a decal or a vinyl skin on a boat.

  • Website Graphics
  • Vinyl Skin Design
  • Decals
  • Logo Design
  • Advertisement
  • Business Cards

Have a creative idea and need a designer?

Get a quote

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Logo for Clarke Lawn Care – Copyright 2017

 

 

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Drift Boat Vinyl Skin Grapic (Vector Graphic) – Copyright 2017

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Shirt Design

I offer a unique perspective on fishing and outdoor fine art. Over the past year, I have designed for many brands, small events, and fishing tournaments. Have a creative idea? Feel free to leave your information and start developing your shirt design today.

Get a quote

Performance Gear Designs Remote Anglers™ 

The Bonnie Fly Apparel

Mobile Bay Kayak Fishing Association: Five Rivers Tournament

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Lemon Pecan Trout

PEE-CAN or PiCAWN? Definitely the latter if you’re from the South and prefer to say it correctly. With our ice chest continually full with speckled trout, there is always need for another recipe. This delicious recipe goes well with any white meat fish, and it will never disappoint.

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Lemon zest, flour, buttermilk, and crushed pecans make for an amazing flavor for the table. This unique twist on battering trout will give you a filling meal that can stretch a couple of fillets into a meal for 4-5. You will find this recipe somewhat similar to trout almondine from the previous post, but the lemon kick really makes a difference.


Lemon Pecan Trout

Prep Time: 3 min / Cook Time: 10 min / 1 medium fillet serves 1-2 with sides

Ingredients:
1 Lemon
1 cup of crushed pecans (finely crushed)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cup of flour
Salt and pepper for taste
2-3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp of butter
fresh thyme sprigs
White meat fillets (About room temperature at cooking time)

Directions: Prep all ingredients and preheat oil in pan at medium-high heat. Place crushed pecans and 1/2 grated lemon zest and mix well into a bowl. Place flour in separate bowl. Place 1/2 cup of buttermilk in separate bowl (you can substitute with egg wash). Pat fillets dry and add to flour, covering completely on both sides. Soak fillets quickly in buttermilk and toss into the pecan/lemon mixture. After preheating the olive oil onto a pan on medium-high heat, place fillets on hot oil and cook 3 minutes on each side until golden brown. For added richness, melt 3 tbsp butter and add thyme in the pan and continually spoon melted butter/oil/thyme mixture onto the surface of the fish during cooking. If fillets are thick, you may need to cook them extra for 5-10 min in the oven at 325 degrees. Once cooked, and while fillets are hot, add salt and pepper to greasy surface of the fish for taste (this will allow the seasoning to soak in). I personally substitute Tony’s for the salt. Be sure to squeeze lemon juice on the cooked fillets while plating.

Side note: This is a heavy, rich recipe. It is best served with lighter/fruity sides to balance the meal.

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Beach Predation – Topwater Speckled Trout

For most, nature shows are the closest they will come to viewing a predator attacking prey. Full high definition television makes the conflict between the hunter and hunted even closer to reality. If you are a saltwater enthusiast, you are well aware that there are many similar thrills to be found on the water. Over the past few years, topwater speckled trout have become my favorite way to wake up. It has all the essentials of a quality drama: the quiet anticipation, the steady rattle of the an innocent lure, the shocking explosion of a take, and the strong fight of an aggressive attacker. I can hardly say that I am well versed in this fishing method, but after a few years of experience in topwater here are my takeaways.

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Wake Up Early or Stay Late

This is pretty much true across the board for all species in nature, fin, feather, or fur. When I woke up on my days off in medical school, my alarm was set to ensure that, with the hour commute and walk on the beach, I was casting as first light was just beginning to illuminate the night. The bite comes and goes quickly at times and it’s important to take advantage of it.

The early morning has always served me best. For some reason the bite always tends to last longer and lead to more successful takes. Afternoons in the last hour of sunlight can also be productive, although much more hit-and-miss.


Vary Your Retrieve

There are lots of theories and it boils down to personal experience and preference. Personally, I start working the noise of the lure as quickly as possible with a slow retrieve. The means slowly reeling while at the same time twitching the bait vigorously. This leads to many more hits and informs me where the fish are located. The quick rattle seems to excite the school. Once the bite starts, I tend to slow down and even periodically stop the lure for more successful hook ups.

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Change Lures and Sounds

I am probably too active in changing baits. If I haven’t had a hit in 8-10 casts, I often changes topwater size, color, or sound. This is only because I know I can change my lure in less than a minute. My best advice for this is to practice tying loop knots quick and efficiently. Eventually, I find the lure that is working and stick with it.

My preferred arsenal includes a skitter walk (usually pearl colored and gold), a few Mirrolure Top Dogs (the classic green and silver), a few She Dogs (at least one pink), and a couple Heddon Spook Jr lures (including the trout pattern). Aside from pliers, leader, and a stringer, this is all I have in my bag for a morning of casting.

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The Bait is a Tell

Our most successful days are usually prefaced by the water boiling in every direction with bait. You can feel the fish moving and see or hear explosions in the distance. I’ve been surprised at how much noise we can make wading and splashing on these days without disturbing the bite.

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Special Secret Spots are a Myth

Of course, I have preferred areas I am comfortable fishing. But, the underwater topography and the location of the bait largely drive where you will locate fish. Frequently, my brothers and I have anglers near us casting into shallow, 1-foot flats, unknowingly. They go the whole morning without a bite. Meanwhile, we will have multiple hook ups and fill a stringer. The difference is that we find the changes in depth.

Steep dropoffs and 4-6 feet of water bring us success. These can easily be found with a google map satellite image and can be found in any coastal area. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to be scientific about temperature, salinity, and pressure, but frankly we just like to fish when we can. With a sample size of 10-15 days out of a year, it’s hardly an argument for ground breaking research on the mysterious speckled trout. All we need is sand, changes in depth, and the right time of year to find some good topwater explosions along the beach.

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You Will Strike Out

About 1 in 4 topwater sessions end without a single attack or splash. More than half of attacks on a lure end without a hook up. It can be frustrating, and in the beginning it would irritate me to miss multiple fish. It always helps to have a companion who can cover ground and work the bait differently, offering helpful clues.

Over time, you learn that it’s just the nature of the game. You learn from the “empty cooler” days and subtle changes. Hopefully, this leads to learning and more success in the future. Regardless of the level of the day’s fishing activity, you’ve just seen another sunrise and spent the waking hours on the beach. That’s already more than the average person, even without a fish on the line.

In my opinion, it’s the bad days that make those great, explosive topwater strikes worth it and even more rewarding. Feel free to comment below with your own experience!

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Catch Bigger Inshore Red Snapper

Private reefs and 300-mile gas tank ranges are nice, but in reality the average boat owner lacks both of these things. This isn’t a reason to believe that big, 20-lb snapper are out of your reach. With the season extended into the weekend in federal waters, you don’t have to venture far to find numerous snapper. The trick is avoiding the barely-legal bait thieves.

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In our 22-foot Cayman Robalo, built for trout fishing and near-shore natural gas platforms, we often come across hoards of red snapper on public reefs and rigs. On calm days, we take advantage and venture further offshore. While many of the near fishing spots are crowded with anchored boats, it’s not uncommon to find many anglers reeling undersized snapper drop after drop. Einstein put it best by defining “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

If you spend the day anchored in the high heat and chopping cigar minnows and inky squid, this can be a wasted effort. Small snapper are rampant, especially with the current booming numbers. You can easily conclude after hours of fishing, that the big snapper have been fished out. But this assumption is far off from the truth.

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The bigger fish want more choice bait. Live bait is the key. We never leave the dock without croakers or pinfish. Ideally, and somewhat surprisingly, white trout and bull minnows make incredible baits for the lunker snapper. Bigger bait. Bigger fish. More often than not we catch many larger fish than our dead bait comrades on the water. With these squirming baits on the end of the line, there is hardly ever any need for a measuring tape.

The second trick involves anchoring. Never limit yourself to the anchor if you can help it. Drifting covers more ground and allows you to hit a reef or wreck at the front, back, and all sides. This allows you to find where the fish are holding. From past experience, the bigger snapper tend to be up-current of structure and higher in the water column. Letting the weight drag the bottom or sitting in one anchored position limits the opportunity to locate the monsters.

Site quality Snapper

While these seem like simple details, they go a long way in filling the ice chest with a limit and keeping the measuring stick unscathed. Avoiding the smaller snapper also helps prevent damaging the future generations of fish. As an added bonus, you’ll even find that snapper caught with this method are the same size brought in by many boats returning from 30 miles out. Invest a little more in better bait and your smaller vessel can match the catch of the fishermen spending hundreds on gas. So, next time you plan your trip to bring home taco meat, remember the live well and forget the anchor.

Need a fish taco recipe? Check out our previous post and it will change your life.

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Trout Almondine: Turning those speck fillets into a restaurant quality meal

It’s always a treat to have a cooler full of fresh speckled trout fillets. The capture of your own meal is rewarding, and now it’s up to you to impress those at home with your culinary skills.  Simple, quick, and rich. The ideal recipe for the novice includes all of these elements. The impulse of a Southern-bred “chef” may be to buy vegetable oil, fish fry, and eggs and deep fry the white meat to oblivion. While this is a nice, addicting taste for any dinner table looking to store away those delicious trans fats and calories for winter, I’m here to tell you there is an equally unhealthy but more delicious way to prepare these spotted beauties.

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Illustrated Taxidermy, Available on the Etsy Shop

Trout almondine is a dish that only takes 20 minutes to prepare and set at the table. It’s a great combination of nutty, rich flavor, flaky fillets, and a beautiful presentation. I can’t remember how I came across this technique of cooking, but it’s an occasional treat for my family. As an added bonus, the breading and almonds allow you to stretch only a couple of fillets into a meal for four. Be warned! This recipe is very filling. You may want second helpings, but I’d be impressed if you could handle it.

I am confident you will make this more than once. If done properly, every time you execute this meal someone will comment, “Wow! This is restaurant quality!” It’s the easiest recipe to navigate, and it can turn any awful cook into a genius. Enough preface. Here’s the recipe.Fish AlmondineSauce


Trout Almondine

Prep time: 5-10 minutes / Cook time: 10-15 min / Serves: 2 per medium size fillet (2 lb trout fillet)

Ingredients:

Trout Fillets or other white-meat fish
3 cups of flour
3/4 cup of buttermilk
1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1 stick of unsalted butter
1/4 cup of lemon juice
Cajun seasoning, salt, pepper

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat. Rinse fillets and pat dry. Season the fillets with Cajun seasoning and pepper. Coat each fillet with flour. Next, place the coated fillet into a bowl of buttermilk. After the fillets are covered, place again in flour to double batter the fillet. Cook fillets on pan for 2-4 minutes until both sides are golden brown to brown. If the fillets are thick and have not been cooked through, place them into the oven in well greased pan for 5-10 minutes.

While fillets are cooking, prepare the sauce. Place whole stick of butter into sauce pan over medium heat. Add lemon juice, almonds, and parsley. Reduce down for 4-6 minutes. You will begin to smell the almonds roasting in the pan. Pour this mixture generously over the cooked fillets.

 

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ADSFR Success: Making the most of the tournament weekend

Stifling heat, slime, and fish stench! It’s the sign of a great day on Dauphin Island. Every summer,  for as far back as I can remember, the joy of the long vacation reached its pinnacle in mid to late July.  This portion of the year was marked by the arrival of the Roy Martin Young Angler’s Tournament (RMYAT) and the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), two of the largest fishing tournaments of their kind. Fishing senses were heightened and extremely long, hard fishing days were upon us. Nothing was better than seeing your name on the leader board at the end of the day or printed for all to see in Mobile’s local newspaper. For a kid growing up on the Gulf Coast, a trophy solidified you among legends. 

As a family, we have had our share of success in these events, with each family member winning multiple categories. And with the passing of each year, the Rodeo educated us further on how to maximize the three days (or one in the case of the RMYAT) to increase the odds of victory. Fishing in two of the biggest tournaments in the world teaches hard lessons on how to avoid the hazards and misfortunes that seemingly follow when thousands of anglers descend onto the small island.


Here are a few pointers to get you through these amazing events in July:


Check Yourself

While some anglers have been hitting the water all summer, these crowded weekends in July seem to attract boaters who have been hibernating all year long. This can only mean one thing: their gear and boats have spent months marinating in corrosion and dust. So before heading down, make sure to check all your tackle and start your boat to make sure it runs. Nothing cheers up the line at the dock like a boat that is struggling, sending up plumes of black smoke in failed attempts to depart.

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For the people-watchers looking to find a great source of exceptionally bizarre trailering at work, I would suggest joining the residents sitting in lawn chairs at the launches. There is no shortage of interesting dockside behavior that could easily trend on social media.

John Wooden put it best by saying, “Be quick but don’t hurry.” It turns out this advice is well heeded when dealing with an overcrowded boat launch. No one is more keen in thought and reflexes than a fisherman with two hours of sleep surrounded by waves and tons of mobile, metal-lined fiberglass. It’s equivalent to throwing a drunkard in a moving bath tub. It’s always best to be efficient with the trailer and boat, but when in doubt, slow down and make sure you do it in the safest manner possible. We have found check lists and following a routine invaluable in this setting.

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The Gulf of Mexico

Preparation is key. Before most big events, we always double check our line and tackle. This includes completing as much pre-rigging as possible in the weeks prior. This saves time wasted, and ensures we don’t lose a winning fish due to failed gear. Additionally, we double check our safety gear, licenses, and first-aid kit for anything out of date. With fast moving comrades on the boat and a higher concentration of traffic, it’s always best to be fully prepared for the unexpected.


Sleep is for the weak

The one aspect of these weekends I always dreaded was the early wake up. If we were commuting from Mobile, the best time to avoid Rodeo traffic was waking up at 3:45 or earlier. Bait is the main issue. Without a variety of dead and live bait in addition to artificial, the odds of meeting the day’s full potential are limited. This means racing to Jemison’s to be the first in line and setting out pinfish traps in the days prior. Some of the nearest and best spots fill up fast, so it’s imperative to get on your favorite fishing hole well before sun up.

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Sun up over Fowl River

Over the years, we have been fortunate enough to have rented places on the island or near the Rodeo site. With the boat in the water at all times, the worry of launching late and having an empty live well were dissipated. In time, we learned that a 12-14 hour fishing day for three days straight is almost impossible to maintain. Consequently, we adjusted accordingly and have made sun-up to 2-3 pm the ideal time to fish.


Know your limits

Over the years we have learned the hardest categories to win included the most popular game fish. As past results suggest, this includes any reef fish, like red snapper, grouper, and amberjack, and the major inshore fish, flounder and speckled trout. During the Rodeo, these fish become grocery bonuses, but they are not ever our primary targets. Out of the three thousand-plus anglers, 85-90% of them pursue these species. Unless you have access to a private reef or regularly catch monster trout and flounder, the odds are you will not come close to winning. Sure there are exceptions every year, but the chances are very small.

We spend all three days sweeping from the far east to the far west of Dauphin Island after other categories. There are plenty more species out there that have far less pressure and tend to get overlooked. Even if we don’t win at the end of the weekend, more often than not we come home with one of the daily prizes or spend the majority of the three days competing on the board.

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Knowing your limits also means working with the weather conditions. On a typical weekend, it’s easy to choose not to fish if the wind or rain isn’t cooperating. But on these set dates, it’s sometimes hard to avoid. This calls for smart boating and finding areas that are protected, well within reach of safety. We don’t let our competitive drive outweigh caution. Lightning and storms are no joke. You may not get struck, but it only takes once to teach you a permanent lesson.


Regulations aren’t suggestions

Yes, we are all upset about the shortened federal snapper season. But ignorance of the law is still not an excuse. Know how to identify the local fish, and stay updated on all the size limits. Every year, fishermen are caught shamefully misidentifying fish or killing illegally. One good example is the identification of spanish mackerel versus young king mackerel. The both display yellow spots at similar sizes. But, close inspection reveals that the black dorsal fin and less angled lateral line sets the spanish apart.

Site quality Snapper

It is also important to note that the ADSFR has it’s own set of limits to abide by. These can be found in the booklet they hand out each year with purchased tickets.

Like anything today, there is an app for that. Outdoor Alabama has its own app with updated laws and regulations. Furthermore, with the internet literally following you around inside your pocket, there is no excuse for keeping fish illegally. And of course, double check your boating registration and fishing license. Mine is always in on my Iphone downloaded on the Apple wallet.


Respect the fishery and other anglers

Overall, the people that arrive on the island on this special weekend make the ADSFR a spectacular event. Everyone shares in their passion for fishing, and viewers get to watch monster fish at the weigh-in. Families even get to witness the USA Fisheries Research team diligently dissecting colorful specimens. That being said, this tournament can sometimes bring out the worst in people.

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Illustrated Taxidermy, only available on our Etsy Shop

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Gator Trout, Illustrated Taxidermy, only on our Etsy Shop (see the Shop in the menu)

No fish is worth risking a boating accident. No small trophy is worth cussing at anglers who get too close. Frankly, every gas platform and public reef will be crowded. There is no way around that. The best approach is understanding how to handle a very large congregation of boats. For one, most fishermen like to have a nice spread of baits. This means that their space for lines and anchor should be respected. Secondly, it’s considered an unspoken rule to avoid kicking up too much wake for a vessel, including kayaks. Overall, patience with other anglers and simple courtesy can go a long way in making the day enjoyable for all.


Above all have fun

All in all, great preparation and awareness pays dividends in making this tournament weekend memorable. The early morning rises, long lines, and hot summer heat are always worth the trouble. It’s a wonderful chance for families and tourists to learn about the local species, appreciate conservation efforts, and marvel over the impressive catches at the weigh-in. This event is a great cultural reflection of the region and a celebration of the fishery we hold so dear to our hearts. I hope to see you at this year’s Rodeo! Feel free to comment and share your experience below!

This year The Bonnie Fly is proud to sponsor the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo! Each of the first place winners are receiving one of our Inshore and Offshore Alabama State of Fishing prints. Decals and other original artwork are also available on our Shop through the link below:

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Redfish in Pursuit! Check out more fishing fine art and illustration by visiting the Shop!

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Spanish Mackerel: The Overlooked Grocery

Twitch, twitch, reel. Twitch, twitch, reel. Twitch, slack?

Anglers along the Gulf Coast know this scenario far too well. The Spanish Mackerel have arrived and now have stolen your favorite lure without so much as a hint of pressure. They start ravaging the schools of bait and nipping off every spare piece of monofilament attached to something flashy. Every shrimp cast out is now doomed to a quick end. It’s one of the few pains of inshore fishing, particularly near deeper areas. To most, it’s a sure sign to switch tactics and move elsewhere. But, if I have room on my stringer or in the ice chest, I make sure to make a few additions. Here’s why.

It was likely growing up as a pier fisherman before graduating to boats, wading, and fly fishing that instilled an appreciation for this hard-fighting mackerel. In our youth, speckled trout and more “choice” fish weren’t always a guarantee. But, if you kept your eyes peeled for schools of bait in turmoil, you could easily bring home a meal of Spanish. They could heal a skunked day with a great fight, and help newcomers learn how to manage drag with a strong fish.

Spanish

It wasn’t until I grew older that I realized that some people don’t consider these fish very edible and overlook their value. This is a crazy perspective to me. These fish are actually one of the healthiest inshore fish to consume. They carry higher contents of the healthy oils found in some deep water fish. The meat of these fish is just as white as any, and if prepared properly, it can surpass some presentations of more popular species.

The secret is in the preparation. First, these fish die very quickly once captured. It’s imperative to get them on ice quickly, which makes them difficult on a stringer. Second, they have a bony line that runs down the center of the fillet. Bones can be an incredible annoyance if the consumer isn’t aware. Finally, the dark bloodline near the skin can instill a bitter taste into a bite.

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These issues can easily be avoided. Our preferred method is to keep cleaning and cooking simple. We fillet the fish and keep the skin on, carefully removing the rib cage. Once placed on aluminum foil and grilled, the meat will fall right off of the center back bones. As you pull the meat away from the center, the meat will naturally pull away from the dark, unwanted muscle.

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The only way to make these fish as tasty as possible is to understand what recipes to use for them. Sure, if you remove the bones, these fish fry just as well as any. But, in the oven or on a grill, it takes the right recipes to properly bring out the unique flavor and oils in this fish. These fish also dry out a little quicker than others, making the cooking process slightly higher maintenance. As soon as you observe the meat separating along the fascial lines and from the center bones, it is likely ready to be removed from the heat.

Below are a couple of my personal favorite ways to prepare this yellow spotted predator. The next time you spot the characteristic surface explosions of these fish you may find yourself tying on heavier leader and running towards the chaos, rather than away (we always carry a good amount of long shank hooks for the occasion).

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Vinaigrette Spanish Mackerel

Prep time: 3 min / Cook time: 12-18 min / Serves: 2-3 per fillet

2 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Creole mustard
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
Tony Chachere’s or Cajun Seasoning
Prepare wild rice as a side

Side note: fillet Spanish as mentioned above, leaving skin and placing on aluminum foil. Skin down.

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix garlic, thyme and dash of Tony’s together. Coat fish with olive oil and mash garlic mixture on the surface of the fish, covering the topside of the fillet. Mix vinegar,  mustard, ¼ cup of olive oil, and Tony’s together in a small bowl. Place a few tbsp on each fish fillet. Cook fish for 12-18 minutes depending on the thickness of the fillet. Once fish can be separated from the center bones easily, it is ready. Cover the fish well with the remaining vinaigrette and serve over wild rice.


Italian Spanish

Prep time: 3 min / Cook time: 12-18 min / Serves: 2-3 per fillet

12 oz Italian Dressing
1/4 cup Butter
Tony Chacere’s or Cajun Seasoning

Directions: Place fillets on aluminum foil over medium heat on grill. Spread butter over the fillets and season with Tony’s. Coat entire surface of fillet with Italian dressing (I sometimes add some paprika over this). Cook until fish separates easily from the midline bones. It should pull right off the skin when fully cooked.

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