In Bolivia, Ruhan Neethling glimpses golden dorado for the first time
He erupted from the river with sunset on his sides and tail, and the ferocity of an attack dog on a very short leash. For a moment I could not imagine taming this wild creature, but he came to hand and all I could think was that this was one of the most beautiful living things I had ever seen. With sides the colour of pure gold, a holographic design on the gill plates, a striking tail and the attitude of a pit bull terrier, the golden dorado must rate as one of the most exotic and desirable freshwater fly-rod species. Add to this the magic of the Amazon jungle and clear, freestone rivers, and you have the makings of something really special.
It did not take much to convince me to accept when I received an invitation to travel to Bolivia last July. The spot where the Amazon meets the Andes is a newly discovered fishery for golden dorado. Its remarkable rivers are much like those found on New Zealand’s South Island and a lot of the fishing here is done by sight-casting.
TO SANTA CRUZ
I met up with Valentine Atkinson, the photographer, in Miami for the final leg to Santa Cruz, where we joined the rest of the group: Jim and Priscilla from Hawaii, and Craig, a doctor from Oregon. We spent a night in Bolivia’s largest city before boarding a charter flight the following morning to the first of two lodges deep in the jungle. Craig and I were to be fishing partners, and on that first night it became ap-parent that we both suffer from severe ATNB (Around the Next Bend) syndrome, so we decided we would be sleeping out if possible.
Over dinner we also met one of the entrepreneurs who had discovered the fishery, and he entertained us with stories about their first scouting trips and the big dorado encountered. Such anticipation did not improve my already poor sleeping patterns.
The morning could not arrive quickly enough, and when we finally boarded the single-prop Cessna en route to the mountains, it began to felt as if we really were on the adventure of a lifetime.
We touched down on the smallest bush strip I have ever landed on to be greeted by our guides and a horde of inquisitive locals. Every photo we took had to be shown to a group of eager children surrounding us, and watching a TV show on Priscilla’s iPad proved to be a real treat for them. Once cramped legs had been stretched sufficiently, we climbed into long, aluminium boats resembling dugouts to be taken upriver to the lodge.
At last we were on the water, although not fishing yet. It took about half an hour to reach the lodge, and the sighting of our first golden dorado in a pool above the airstrip caused my excitement to boil over.
PREDATORY AND AGGRESSIVE GOLDEN DORADO
The golden dorado in these rivers grow to weights of 40lb or more, with fish of around 20lb caught here on a regular basis. They are an aggressive, predatory species, and a sucker fish called sabalo is their main prey. Never before had I seen a river with so high a biomass. There were schools of sabalo everywhere, numbering in their hundreds. The golden dorado migrate with the sabalo into the headwaters of this system during May. It is currently believed the dorado actually spawn with the sabalo, so that their fry have sabalo fry to feed on.
During the warmer parts of the day the dorado hunt in packs, pushing the sabalo into the shallows where they then crash into them, rivalling anything you will ever see in the salt. They hunt in such shallow water that their tails actually get worn down like those of salmon during spawning.
We targeted the dorado in the shallows when they were hunting and in the pockets, pools and runs at other times. It is amazing to see a school of five to 10 fish (“pack” is probably a more appropriate word, as they reminded me of wolves) holding in a pocket 10 metres across – enough to get anyone shaking.
Presentation does not count for much; this is brutal, raw fishing. We were using #8 rods with 20lb to 30lb tippet and 30lb or 40lb wire. Oh yes, I forgot to mention – they have teeth. We probably averaged about two fish per fly, if that. And the big ones can actually bite through 20lb wire. These fish are fly destroyers, as bad as if not worse than the mackerel species and wahoo found in the salt. Big flies and fast strips are not only the norm, they are essential, reminding us even more of saltwater-fishing.
We fished for three days out of the first camp, named Asunta. Craig and I managed a sleep out one night and succeeded in fishing higher up the river than had been fished previously that season. We caught some excellent fish, including a 17lb pacu – a member of the piranha family but, luckily, mostly vegetarian. Dinner consisted of a couple of sabalo speared by the indigenous population with bow and arrow, and cooked on sticks over the fire. It was one of the best fish meals I have ever enjoyed.
On day four we were flown to a second camp, Pluma, for three and half more days’ fishing. Here, Craig, Val and I had an amazing day upstream on the Itirizama river.
During the first run we spotted a pack of good-sized fish herding and crashing through sabalo in shallow water with their backs halfway exposed. I was “on strike” and made a frantic cast into the middle of this mess. One strip and the line went flying from my hand as a train connected to my fly and took to the tracks. A beautiful 10-pounder came to hand and in the glorious morning sunlight he looked fake, like something sculpted out of gold by a craftsman. This promised to be a top day.
Higher up the river we came to a stretch where we caught 10lb fish after 10lb fish in some of the prettiest pocket water I have ever seen. Almost every pocket was lined with gold and there was little we could do to keep them off our lines. In this stretch Val had an epic battle with a good fish that took him through some serious pocket water in a big pool below. He really had to do all he could to keep up with it and he swears he could have lost it a number of times.
One memorable afternoon on a big pool just below the Pluma camp, I got smoked so badly by a good fish that I actually jumped into the current, feet off the bottom, to try and save the situation – unfortunately to no avail. This is just one of my many abiding memories of this wonderful trip. Others include the sight of the prettiest and most prolific butterflies I have ever seen, the 20-pounder that ate my fly at my feet in some serious white water, and the last fish of the trip, which was actually a “three-chance fish”.
Was the golden dorado worth travelling so far for? You bet! The region is wilder than you would dream possible, with amazing scenery around every bend (and there are many) and enough luxury at the lodges to keep even the fussiest aficionado happy. And the fish themselves? The golden dorado is truly something out of this world.
How to CAST for gold In Bolivia
Price for the 2011 season is US$7,200 per rod for a maximum of six rods per week. This includes all charter flights, two nights’ stay at a five-star hotel in Santa Cruz (Bolivia) and a week’s all-inclusive stay at the two lodges (three full days at each camp).
Santa Cruz airport can be reached via daily flights from São Paulo, Brazil or Buenos Aires, Argentina, or via direct flights from Madrid. The writer flew from Miami via La Paz.
Yellow fever vaccinations are required.
The season runs from May to October.
Dorado of up to 38lb have been recorded.
Frontiers is the main booking agent for Tsimane Lodge. Steffan Jones is the contact. tel 0845 299 6212, extension 3
WHAT TO TAKE
I used an #8, a 9ft leader down to 20lb tippet and then wire. Take enough – I went through two and a bit spools. Dark flies with a bit of flash in the 3in to 5in range worked best, especially those with bunny strip tails. As you will be doing a lot of sight-fishing, good polarised sunnies are a must. And pack bug spray; the no-see-ums are ferocious.