Fly Fishing for Dorado Deep in the Bolivian Amazon

Golden Dorado in the Bolivian Amazon By Kirk Deeter This September I joined the Jungle Anglers (six guys from Argentina and one from Brazil) on a gritty, exhausting expedition to find giant freshwater dorado deep in the shadows of the Bolivian jungle. To get there, we traveled first over land, then by small plane, and finally poled dugout canoes up the Rio Secure, one of the many headwaters in the Amazon River basin. Until recently, few people knew these fish even existed here. Golden dorado are native to the Rio de la Plata River system, which is further south, most notably in Argentina, and does not connect to the Amazon. But some prehistoric flood must have stranded them in these waters, and here they mix with hundreds of species, from pirapitinga (relatives of piranhas) to giant moturo catfish. Until we arrived, only the Indians knew how many big dorado lived in this hidden river basin.Joaquin Arocena
Before reaching the Rio Secure (and beyond that, the Rio Pluma), we endured a 12-hour bus ride on bumpy roads through the lowlands between Santa Cruz and Trinidad. During the drive Noel Pollak, a top dorado guide from Argentina, jumped out to pick up this "peresoso" (which is Spanish for sloth) we saw lumbering across the road. The Jungle Anglers said it was a sign of good luck.Joaquin Arocena
After a brief layover in Trinidad, we flew southwest for an hour in a single-engine Cessna and landed on a rough airstrip near the Tsimane (pronounced chee-MA-nay) Indian village of Asunta. I was told that the airstrip had been cut by "narcos" (drug traffickers) in the 1980s. As we circled the strip, I was hoping that our peresoso luck would get us on the ground safely.Joaquin Arocena
The instant I stepped from the plane I entered a completely different world. The Indians were remarkably friendly and curious, and they followed our every move as we unpacked gear and presented them with gifts of clothing and food. They were also extremely hard working; they proved to be indispensable guides throughout the days ahead. Their village of Asunta is in a protected National Park, and the Jungle Anglers have reached an agreement with them to someday create a tent-lodge on the river that will direct money to the tribe, and ultimately preserve both the landscape and Tsimane culture.Joaquin Arocena
Within an hour of landing, we had stashed our extra provisions in a hut, packed overnight bags, and found ourselves riding upstream with the Indians in their dugout canoes. What you don't get from this photograph is a sense of the intense heat, and the rumbling sounds of the jungle around us--whirring cicadas, screeching macaws, grunting frogs. By this point, I had accepted the fact that I was merely along for the ride...we had been swallowed by the jungle.Joaquin Arocena
Of course, the Indians took every opportunity to hunt for food along the way. Using bows and long arrows, they had an uncanny knack for skewering trout-sized "sabalos" at 10 yards. One of the Jungle Anglers, nicknamed "Puma," brought a box of purple trade show badge holders to hand out as gifts, and the Tsimane wore them like prized bead necklaces.Joaquin Arocena
It didn't take long to find the fish we sought. My jaw dropped when I saw the first dorado eat a fly, then launch airborne like a tarpon above the river's surface. Here, Ramiro Badessich (whom the other Jungle Anglers call "The White Monkey") hooks into a 20-plus-pounder. After the first few fish, I knew I was traveling in rare company. Like the "Mavericks Crew" who specialize in surfing big, dangerous waves off the California coast, the Jungle Anglers thrive on adrenaline. And what triggers their rush is the massive fish you find in wild places that most fishermen can barely begin to comprehend.Joaquin Arocena
Ramiro hefts another reward, a monster dorado he hooked in subtle seam in the current. I was surprised by how small, and relatively clear and cool, the river was. Dorado fishing mixes the best attributes of wild salmon fishing (we meticulously swung heavy streamer flies through riffles, and also threw spoons and hardbaits), with the explosive energy of tarpon fishing. Like tarpon, dorado are cunning and wary, but when you hook them they usually burst above the surface; a specatacle of molten-metallic scales and gill-rattling fury.Joaquin Arocena
Dorado are apex river predators in South America. Indian legend suggests that they are the water-born brothers of the jaguar. Like the big cats they are golden in color, with black spots and powerful jaws. We released the dorado we caught, all the while gingerly maneuvering our hands and pliers away from their snapping teeth. This dorado could easily sever your finger in one powerful bite.Joaquin Arocena
One of the things that makes this place so interesting is that the dorado we caught were mixed with a wide range of Amazon Basin fish, like this pirapitinga (which is also known as a pacu), held here by team leader Marcelo Perez. Pirapitinga are the "permit" of the river...incredibly wary, yet extremely powerful. They have teeth like a saltwater sheepshead, designed by evolution to crush fruit, flowers, and the occasional baitfish that crosses their path. They live in the deeper, calmer river runs. A relative of the piranha, this fish is a rare prize.Joaquin Arocena
One simply cannot overstate the raw beauty of the Bolivian jungle. Throughout our expedition we encountered giant swarms of vibrant butterflies at every bend in the river.Joaquin Arocena
Of course, butterflies weren't the only bugs we dealt with. Sweat bees, spiders, sand fleas, and others had us watching our steps and slathering insect repellent throughout the trip. Interestingly, the one bug I expected (but rarely encountered) was the mosquito. At an elevation of roughly 1,000 feet (and because we were taking this trip during the dry season), we were just above where disease-bearing mosquitoes are an issue. Most of our bug encounters were tame--case in point, this caterpillar creeping along a rifle barrel.Joaquin Arocena
Why the rifle? Jaguars. Or "ITCH-eh-kay" to the Tsimane Indians (I learned that native word quickly). Sometimes eight feet long and as heavy as 250 pounds, the jaguars are the undisputed kings of this jungle. While we saw signs of their presence, like these footprints on the river beach (and I often wore my sunglasses backward as a precaution, so as to appear like I was looking over my shoulder) we were never fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see a jaguar in person. For the record, in two weeks in Bolivia, most of which was spent camping in the jungle, I also never saw a single snake. But trust me, I wasn't exactly looking for them.Joaquin Arocena
Our expedition involved busting upstream in dugout canoes, then assembling rafts and floating back downstream (along with one dugout, steered by our lead Indian guides, Juanito and Ramon). Here, Noel (with Marcelo kneeling, Juanito in front, and Ramon in back) casts for pirapitinga in slow water, deep in the jungle.Joaquin Arocena
Our NRS rafts were great, but in some places, we had to pull them through the rapids. Jumping into the river was cause for pause, as there are freshwater stingrays here. Fortunately, these stingrays shun the fast water, preferring slower, sandy currents. Getting stuck by a stingray won't kill you, but the Indians warned it would cause enough pain to make a grown man curl in a ball and cry for two days. The jungle anglers took it all in stride.Joaquin Arocena
Here's a shot of the only "Moose" in South America, with a big dorado from Rio Pluma. Joaquin "Moose" Arocena is from Necochea, Argentina. As he was the biggest, strongest member of the crew (and a pro rugby player), I gave him the responsibility of getting my gringo butt home safely when this was all over. Most of the photos in this story were taken by Moose, who is not only the consummate Jungle Angler, but a heck of a photographer as well.Joaquin Arocena
What do dorado eat? Big flies. Dark flies (and spoons.) With eyes. Sometimes a fish would grab a fly and I'd miss the hookset, yet the eyes of my fly would be torn away. Dorado aim for the head.Joaquin Arocena
The acrobatics of dorado, big or small, were impressive. Within seconds of a strike, the angler could expect a violent explosion above the surface, and the fish would also often run for rocks, submerged logs and other structures. You could try to steer them with the rod, but when the battles started, the fish were always in control. We were lucky to have broken only two rods on the trip.Joaquin Arocena
We used floating lines, fluorocarbon leaders, and wire tippets. As a rule of thumb, Noel explained, you want your wire tippet section to be a few inches longer than the width of the mouth of the dorado you expected to catch. In Bolivia, the standard was 12 inches of wire.Joaquin Arocena
Here, Ramiro (obscured by his sombrero) and Rodrigo Salles of Brazil (left) release an absolute "toad" on the Rio Pluma. Rodrigo is one of the leading experts on dorado fishing from Brazil. A fish like this is cause for back-slapping fun, especially among the Jungle Anglers.Joaquin Arocena
"Moose" at one of our campsites. An hour or so after we climbed out of our tents in the morning, the sun would rise above the jungle canopy and singe us with intense, sweaty heat for about two hours before a light breeze would kick in. I took this photo, which is one of my favorites from the expedition, because it shows how we were beat-up and exhausted by the experience.Kirk Deeter
I spent two weeks in Bolivia, and it had me wound tight the whole time. So as I boarded the plane for the United States, I felt some relief, knowing I no longer had to watch every step. And yet now I wake up at night with the echoes of the jungle in my ears, and visions of massive golden fish in the river currents in my mind. I cannot wait for another chance to see Bolivia, these rivers, and these fish...and most of all, to ride the edge with the Jungle Anglers again.Joaquin Arocena