Story and photos by Pat Ford
My first reaction was surprise. “This fish is completely yellow!” Actually, it was probably a golden yellow, but it was light years away from any color you’d expect a gamefish to be.
I was in a river in an indigenous native territory where the Amazon jungle meets the Andes Mountains. I had just beached Chris Lalli’s first golden dorado on a fly. My friend Chris and I had arrived at Tsimane Lodge in Bolivia, unpacked our tackle and walked down to the “home pool” to see whether we could dredge up a dorado on our own before dinner.
We moved downstream just a bit, to a deeper, slower pool that looked as if it might hold some fish. It was deeper than expected, so Chris used an intermediate line, and I dug out a huge black fly with lead eyes. Some debris was along the far bank, but there were no visible signs of life, so we began casting. Cast after cast produced nada, but I figured the practice of throwing oversize flies was good for both of us. Then Chris hooked up to 15 pounds of yellow magic. Awhile later, I caught one, too. We each had one bite out of several hundred casts, but we both landed a dorado in the 15-pound range within the first two hours of our bucket-list trip, so we were pretty stoked with a week of jungle fishing ahead of us.
Tsimane Lodge is one of several excellent, exotic fly-fishing destinations that Untamed Angling (untamedangling.com) operates. Its founders, Marcelo Pérez and Rodrigo Salles, contacted remote Indian tribes and national parks and offered them a deal: Untamed Angling would set up a lodge and bring in a limited number of anglers during a relatively short season; each angler would pay a fee to the tribe or park, use barbless hooks and release everything he catches. The lodges would provide jobs for the natives, and there would be no negative impact on the environment. The plan has come together in spectacular fashion in several locations. Tsimane is a prime example — I’ve found no place else with this quality of angling for golden dorado.
A cousin to the piranha and African tigerfish, the golden dorado appears to be mostly head, and it has a set of jaws and teeth that can quickly remove a finger. Its coloring explains the name: The entire fish is a bright yellow-gold. In most of the fishable locations that harbor golden dorado, a 10-pounder is a trophy. At Tsimane, dorado close to 30 pounds are caught on fly tackle every week.
The first leg of our trip required us to fly to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, where a Tsimane agent met us and brought us to the first-class Camino Real Hotel for the night. The next morning the agent drove us to the airport, where we boarded a small plane that flew us about 225 miles into the Bolivian jungle. We landed on a strip carved out of the jungle, next to the Oromomo Indian village. From there the lodge was a 90-minute trip up the Secure River in a native-made, 20-plus-foot canoe with a long-shaft engine.
Tsimane Lodge, initially, was farther upstream, at the convergence of the Pluma and Secure rivers. In February 2015 floodwaters turned the river into a 45-foot torrent, destroying the lodge. Tsimane had three months to relocate and rebuild before the 2015 season began that June, and Untamed Angling did it in just 60 days. The team used native labor and materials to construct a lodge with four double- occupancy rooms, a generator and solar power. Electricity is provided between 6 and 10 a.m., and again from 6 p.m. to midnight. The temperature cools as soon as the sun sets, so there is no need for air conditioning. The beds are comfortable, and there’s all the hot water you could ask for. There’s also Wi-Fi, outstanding food and daily laundry service. All in the middle of the jungle.
Tsimane’s river system is divided into beats, with a pair of anglers and three guides fishing each beat each day. The fishing guides and boat operators are natives, and our guides somehow all managed to be from Argentina and spoke perfect English. Before my trip I’d researched Untamed Angling’s website and every golden dorado video I could find, with most showing a small, rapid river with giant dorado holding in small pools and eddies — sight fishing at its best. We were told that 8- or 9-weight rods with floating lines were the norm, as were huge black flies. I’ve always had a problem casting 6- to 8-inch black flies on an 8-weight, so I stuck with 9s, and I’m glad I did. Chris, on the other hand, had a leg up on all of us. He is a friend, a part-time muskie guide in Virginia and one of the best casters and fly tyers I know. Serious muskie fishing requires you to cast a foot-long fly all day, to muster up a few strikes on a good day. Not only did he have the right flies for the Bolivian jungle, but he also was used to casting them.
The lodge manager, Vicente “Chuky” Lorente, took us upstream to remote fast-water, seldom-fished pools. We spent an hour maneuvering over rocks and through native-made channels and cuts where the canoe dragged over the rocks. When we finally reached the site of the original lodge, we hiked another 90 minutes through the jungle, over a tapir path, until we reached an area of river that had not been fished yet that season: virgin waters in the remotest area imaginable.
The only problem was that there were no fish. In pools where Chuky expected to see 20 fish, there were none. We worked our way upstream and found hardly any fish. The ones we did spot saw us and spooked about the same time we started to cast. A cold front had blown through the week before, and water levels were unusually low, but for whatever reason this prime stretch of river (the one shown in most promotional videos) was barren. It was incredibly beautiful, with clear water and lots of rocks and pools, but no fish.
Though the day was a bust, it proved that the lodge’s clothing recommendations had been correct. Felt-sole wading boots without spikes were the best way to maneuver around the ankle-breaker rocks, and jogging tights under fishing shorts were much more comfortable than long pants. A wading stick saved me from falling on numerous occasions; the rocks along the riverbanks and in the flowing water are brutal. Bugs were not a problem, but sun masks and gloves were good to have. (I hear that the bug levels increase later in the season, so remember to bring repellent.) Then again, our native guides went barefoot and could spot a tree frog 50 yards away. When they couldn’t find fish, we knew we were in trouble. (Naturally I heard that the dorado were back in the upper sections the week after we left. Go figure.)
The next day, Chris and I headed downstream. This turned out to be a totally different fishery. The lower Secure was big and deep, and we had to make as long a cast as possible. Chris had a 10-weight intermediate line on a 9-weight rod, and I had a 10-weight Cortland sink tip, as well as my floating line, on a 9-weight rod. We were casting lead-eyed flies, and the more water we covered, the more likely we were to get a bite. It was important to be able to shoot out 60-plus feet of line with a minimum of backcasts. (Next trip, I’m going to bring a 10-weight for this section and a full intermediate line.)
Our days on the lower beats were spent casting, casting and casting some more. Chris was right at home, and I was glad that I was wearing gloves to hold off the blisters. The guide would set us up in a section he knew had recently produced fish. We’d cast across-stream, let the fly sink, then fast-strip back, make a few more casts, move downstream a few steps and repeat.
The water in this part of the river was murky, so there was no sight fishing. We did aim at rocks, riffles and snags whenever they came into range, and it didn’t take long to figure out that the dorado liked fast water, as well as the sheltered sections. There was no pattern to our bites: They could come at any time, in any place. Evidently the dorado are always moving around, searching for sabalo (Bolivia’s version of mullet), and you have to keep covering water until you find one. I firmly believe that if a dorado sees a big black fly, it will eat it. The trick is getting the fish and fly to meet.
At one point we were casting to fallen trees from the drifting boat in coffee-colored water. I’d been throwing my 9-inch fly for what seemed like an hour without any sign of a fish, to the point that I was about to give up. We came around a bend, and I dropped the fly next to yet another nondescript pile of branches and popped a 25-pound beauty. The lesson: Never stop casting. Your next cast can produce the fish of a lifetime.
Dorado feed on the sabalo, which are about the same size as a big mullet, which is why our flies were so big. The natives hunt them for food with homemade bows and arrows, which is really fun to watch. The sabalo are everywhere, and every so often the dorado will drive them almost onto the bank in a feeding frenzy. If you’re close enough to get your fly into the chaos, it’s an instant bite. Chris nailed the biggest fish of our trip, probably 30 pounds, in an early-morning frenzy. At other times we’d find dorado cruising with their fins out of the water in large, shallow, flats-like sections. You could spot them quite a ways away, but they were constantly moving, and in only inches of water they were as spooky as bonefish. It soon became apparent that golden dorado are not easy fish to catch. You really have to be a good caster to nail the big ones.
Dorado are voracious feeders, and when they strike, the strikes are vicious. We were coached to have sharp hooks and to strip-strike multiple times. Strikes are almost always followed by a series of jumps, then a run downstream. If you survive the jumps, resetting the hook is a good idea. Their jaws are rock-hard, and if the hook is only pricking some bone, any slack in pressure can cost you a trophy. I lost one that weighed more than 30 pounds, my biggest hookup of the trip, after five jumps and several long runs. The hook simply fell out when I thought I was home free. You need to concentrate on setting the hook and keeping constant pressure.
We spent three days on the upper river, and I never caught a fish bigger than 15 inches. And we never really saw any big dorado in that part of the river. We caught all of our big fish in the murky waters of the lower river. If all goes well, a decent caster should be able to land a 10-plus-pound dorado each day on the lower beats, even when the fishing is slow. I’m told that the upper sections are a whole different show when the fish are there, but we never got to experience the red-hot sight fishing in the upper sections. We didn’t count the little guys that were always whacking our flies, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of midrange fish. They were either less than 3 pounds or well more than 10. Chris and I each caught three fish of more than 25 pounds during the week, which was more than I had hoped for.
The only other predictable catch at Tsimane is the pacu. It looks like a dark freshwater permit and can grow to more than 20 pounds. It feeds on berries but eats small fish on occasion. Chris caught one on a black dorado fly. Pacu are exceptionally strong fighters and a real prize. Most hold in deep pools and along banks with trees that drop berries. Chris had tied some plastic-bead berry flies that the guides raved about, but despite trying for hours, I did not manage to catch a pacu. We spotted a lot of them cruising in shallow water, but I couldn’t connect, which gives me another reason to return.
If you’re fishing the lower sections, I recommend having two rods with you at all times: one with floating line and one with full intermediate. The rod-line pairing is a matter of individual preference, but I suggest practicing with 8-inch, lead-eyed flies until you get the rhythm down. I overloaded the 9-weight rods with 10-weight floating line to compensate for the monster flies, which was fine for the upper sections. However, many times on the lower sections I wished I’d had a 10-weight with a full intermediate line, just for the ease of casting. The upper river beats are pretty much floating-line areas, and the casts are a lot shorter, but they have to be accurate. Poppers work well in the upper beats, and Chris had some success with a deer hair rat fly that was literally the size of a rat. I’d also throw in a 200- to 300-grain sink tip for the deep pools that the pacu inhabit. And there’s always a chance that you’ll hook into an exotic catfish if you keep the fly just off the bottom. Wire leaders are also a necessity. Don’t let those jaws get near your hands!
I can’t say enough about Untamed Angling’s Tsimane operation. If you want near-luxury accommodations where the Bolivian jungle meets the Andes Mountains, with warm days and cool nights, excellent guides and staff, and one of the most exotic critters you could ever hope to hook on a fly rod, this is the place to go.