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Where the Rivers Run East
A Trip From the Past
Although we no longer offer the trip described in this article, the stories are still interesting and remain available for your information and enjoyment. Over the last two decades, Acute Angling has focused on owning, operating, outfitting and organizing its own vertically integrated trips. We have painstakingly evolved and perfected our trips to provide you with the broadest range of options and access to peacock bass and Amazon exotics in a dependable, carefully controlled manner. As the Amazon’s premiere fishing operators, we provide “turn-key”, “all-inclusive” trip packages in our polished accommodations, delivered with first-class service. That success mandates that we no longer offer trips operated by others. Trips owned or operated by someone other than the entity outfitting and ooffering the trip creates multiple layers of responsibility. We offer only trips that we ourselves operate, where we have total control over how your trip is delivered. One responsible entity, no excuses, no unpleasant surprises.
We offer stories in this archive for your enjoyment and to provide insights into how our operating philosophy and our trips have evolved over the years. Mostly, they're here because some are fun and interesting to read. As for the trips themselves, we've moved on. In some cases the fisheries described have been depleted, in others, access to the region is no longer available and in a few, current governments have made travel less attractive. The fish, however, always remain interesting, so read and learn about them and the fishing experience they provided. Who knows, governments may change, conservation practices may improve and rivers may reopen. We just might end up returning there, or someplace like it, in the future.
by Garrett VeneKlasen
La Paz, Bolivia lies atop a desolate, frost-bitten lunar landscape at an elevation of almost 12,000 feet.From here, small glacial streams plunge east of off the back of the imposing Andean Cordillera and, in less than 50 nautical miles, combine forces to form magnificent boulder strewn rivers that cut deep into the heart of pristine Amazon jungle where few, if any, Western anglers have ever wet a line.
It was Chi Che Añez, owner of the recently established Mamoré River Fishing Lodge (see my previous story on Bolivia), who first told me of the above mentioned angler's paradise. Here he said, at the headwaters of the Sécure River, it was rumored that freshwater dorado as long and thick as a man's leg could be found in great numbers. Giant tambaqui, yatorana and a strange predatory spotted catfish were also said to share the river's many spectacular rapids and riffles alongside South America's golden 'Jurassic trout.'
My blood began to boil at the mere mention of a trip to such an incredible fishery and I begged Chi Che to arrange an exploratory as soon as humanly possible - I simply had to see the place with my own eyes. Unfortunately, the rainy season was too close at hand and the trip had to be postponed until the river subsided enough to allow safe passage. And so began the painful wait which lasted nearly six months. In the meantime I recounted all Chi Che's tales to my partner, Paul, and soon I had him as wildly crazed as I - we are both ready to travel with the least bit of prior notice…
Several months before our tentatively scheduled departure date, Chi Che's ex-lodge manager, James Booker, and ex-pilot, Jorge Velarde, managed to gain exclusive rights to the river, creating a politically volatile situation. From this point on, the trip now must be arranged through Booker himself.
To help cover the costs of the trip, Booker requested that we bring along two paying guests, offering an 'exploratory' rate to make the trip more attractive. In the end, Mark Patti, and Barry McCalin, sign up for the adventure. Mark is an extremely well traveled angler who has been to more obscure fisheries world wide than perhaps any other client I know. Barry, a hilarious Brit, also has considerable international angling travels under his belt and thus the two make for ideal traveling companions.
At the last minute yet another exploratory opportunity comes up in conjunction with the Bolivia trip. O'Farrell Safaris, out of Northern Argentina, contacts me with promising news of an obscure dorado river (appropriately named "Rio Dorado") outside of the town of Salta. They say the river is brimming with dorado and, because its only access was via a two hour horseback ride into the base of the Argentine Andes, remains completely wild and untamed. The news seems too good to be true. It will be quite simple to extend my trip onto Salta Argentina from Santa Cruz. Two fantastic dorado fisheries in one trip!
The trip itinerary in Bolivia is simple and straight forward. From Miami we fly into Santa Cruz and then transfer, via a single engine Cessna, straight into a primitive Chimane Indian village on the banks of the Sécure River. The flight takes us towards La Paz, some 265 nautical miles northwest of Santa Cruz. The river we're trying to reach is only 80 miles east of La Paz, but the towering mountains are too high and dangerous to fly over, so we must use Santa Cruz as our port of embarkation. Jorge Velarde is our pilot and James Booker is already in camp. The flight from Santa Cruz to the river takes almost 2½ hours - most of which is over pristine rainforest.
As we near our destination, Jorge requests that Mark move up and sit in between Paul and Barry in order to stabilize the plane for the short landing strip that literally ends at the base of a mountain. Mark makes the move without protest as overflying the landing is not a healthy option. The term 'short' is certainly an understatement when the landing strip comes into view. In reality it is hard to distinguish what appears to be nothing more than a small clearing cut out of the dense rain forest. Jorge assures me that there is plenty of room and that he has successfully made the landing dozens of times without mishap (mishap is not an option here folks). On our final approach Jorge also adds that the "strip" would not be there at all had it not been for some well meaning drug smugglers who crashed a plane near the village and thus were forced to build a place to land in order to salvage their precious cargo. That little bit of information is just what I need to hear as we glide into the tiny clearing surrounded by primitive palm covered Chimane dwellings. If we don't die on impact, the drug lords will have a high time torturing us for sport.
Jorge executes the landing with the flawless skill of a surgeon and much to all our great relief, the plane slows with plenty of room to spare. No sooner has the Cessna rolled to a stop than we are surrounded by a hoard of tiny Indians peering through all the windows. Several of them have filed their teeth into menacing little points.
"Take the Brit!" I jokingly holler through the plane's glass, "they're much better eating!" I feel like we just landed in some sort of Amazonian Munchkin Land.
Jorge explains this Chimane tribe has only recently begun to wear clothing and still preserves most of their traditional way of life, living a primitive hunter gatherer existence. To see such prehistoric people as these even in the Amazon is a rare treat indeed.
We are all dying to fish and waste little time gearing up as the crowd of Chimane looked on with utter disbelief and amazement. They still cannot not grasp the idea of fishing rods, as a bow and barbed arrow do the trick much more effectively. Then there is this business of catch and release. The mere idea of releasing a fish was completely ludicrous. To them, I'm sure we are a bunch of absolute crackpots.
In less than fifteen minutes we are geared up and ready to fish. Our mode of transportation is a fleet of identical 12-foot, extremely unstable dugout canoes that Booker has rigged with small molded boat seats. Each of us has our own canoe, piloted by two tiny Chimane Indians - one in front and one in back. Each 'guide' holds a stout 12-foot bamboo pole. Amazingly, my tiny dugout does not tip or sink when I get into the contraption. Bows and arrows in hand, my two guides, Trini and Abel (lord knows what their Chimane names where), deftly jump into the canoe with catlike agility. Trini stands in front and Abel stands in back, never once losing their balance. I sit in the middle of the canoe as still as possible praying we won't all go over in one great roll. Trini and Abel both have rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, so we are able to communicate fairly well - although they have a habit of saying "si" to every question I ask, whether I inquire about a certain kind of fish in the river or tell them to go jump off a cliff.
After several minutes of hard poling we are steadily gliding our way up the river despite a stout current. Once I get used to the idea that we aren't going to flip, I relax enough to start enjoying the incredible scenery. The Sécure is undoubtedly one of the most exotic and spectacular rivers I have ever had the privilege of fishing. Physically, it looks exactly like one of our larger Western trout or steelhead rivers such as the Umpqua or Snake. Some 50 to 100 yards across with a volume of perhaps 1800 cfs, the river runs fast and clear over a colorful bottom of granite boulders, most the size of bowling balls, but some as large a house. The river is broken up by churning rapids interspersed by pools and riffles.
The river's edge rises into magnificent rainforest with towering trees well over 100 feet high. The jungle here is extremely rough and mountainous and the bank in most places rises steeply into toweringridge tops - some as high as several thousand feet. Raucous bands of scarlet macaws, green parrots and toucans fly from tree to tree high over head and the jungle teems with agouti, deer, peccary, jaguar, tapir, capybara, monkeys and sloths. The animals here are extremely wary, and those that are not, quickly end up roasting over a riverside Chimane fire. We travel perhaps a quarter of a mile before we come to the first set of rapids. Barry gets first crack at the pool as he has yet to catch a dorado. We get out of the dugouts and wade up into the head of the pool carefully watching our step so as not to tread on any freshwater stingrays. There are no piranhas or caimans to worry about, so wading is safe as long as you avoid the rays.
I instruct Barry to tie on a 5-inch 5/0 black and yellow Muddler-style streamer and tell him to cast the offering into the fast water at the head of the pool. The Chimane have never seen such a thing as a fly rod and excitedly chatter among themselves at the whipping antics of our Barry's casting stroke. No sooner does the fly hit the water before a big dorado boils up and takes a swipe at the fly. He casts again and another larger dorado pounds the fly and races downstream. Barry is excitedly yelling obscenities as we chase the fish into the pool. The dorado jumps several times then bulldogs in the current. It then makes several hard runs and jumps again in a valiant effort to throw the hook. Barry puts on the heat and we finally manage to land the spectacular 14-pound dorado after about a 10-minute battle. Barry is beside himself.
"How easy is this going to be?" I think to myself. Meanwhile Barry is arguing with his guides about releasing the fish. They'd like to cook the poor thing on the spot. I hear him holler, "Like bloody hell," as he gently tails the fish and then releases it back into the current. His guides look on with utter contempt and disgust. Perhaps the Brit will get eaten after all…
We all work the pool over and give Mark a chance to catch up before moving on upriver. Trini and Abel continued their precarious balancing act while I look on at the magnificent passing scenery. Another fifteen minutes and we are at the base of an even larger set of roiling, boulder-strewn rapids that spill into a huge pool that is nearly 400-yards long. It is here that James and Jorge have chosen to place one of their outpost camps.
No sooner do we arrive in the pool than Mark hooks up on an 18-pound dorado. Mark is the no nonsense, 'blue collar' angler of the trip. His tackle consists of several stiff glass casting rods with matching closed face Zebco spin casting reels. He wears a woven cowboy hat with an immense "Zebco" banner across the front. Mark uses only one type of lure the whole trip - a #3 Mepp's cyclops spoon. Equipment aside, this is one of dozens of fish he will land on the trip. We might be laughing at his "Snoopy Outfit" now, but soon enough he will out-fish all of us 5 to 1. After ten minutes of awesome leaps and blistering runs, Mark has the fish boat side. Somehow his squeaky Zebco holds up under the incredible stress of the battle. Mark's Chimane guides are practically salivating when they get the fish in the net. We huddle around to admire the fish and snap a few pictures, then argue again with the Chimane and practically have to tear the fish from their grasp in order to release it.
Paul, Barry and I walk up to the campsite for a quick inspection while Mark continues to fish at his standard relentless pace. No sooner are we out of the boats when Mark jumps another 20-pound dorado that throws his spoon in a spectacular head shaking leap. Mr. Zebco is going to be a force to be reckoned with.
The camp is in complete disarray as Booker and Jorge have just begun to set things up. James hardly has time to greet us as he is in the process of erecting a water tank to feed the bathrooms which are made out of turquoise PVC material. There are two separate bathrooms complete with flushing toilets, sinks, and hot showers.
A dozen or so Chimane are standing around the camp looking on in complete wonder at the spectacle of crazy gringos. They have never seen such things as showers, toilets, gas ovens or the multitude of other gizmos that we all take for granted in our modern lives. The Chimane pay special attention to the toilets. They howl with laughter when James and Jorge finally make them understand the actual purpose of the wondrous white porcelain bowl. The Chimane cannot grasp the concept of saving bodily wastes in a container. Why not just excuse yourself and find the nearest tree?
Mark is hollering again down on the river. He's into another fish and wants me to come down and take pictures. This dorado is another 20-plus-pounder and has recently eaten another extremely large fish which protrudes from its belly like an obtuse ulcer. The whole package is perfect for an afternoon Chimane feast. Luckily for the Chimane, this fish is badly gill hooked and must be killed. They are all beside themselves and chatter excitedly in expectation of the ensuing feast. It looks like Barry will live to see another sunrise after all.
Mark wants to fish some more, but it is clear that when the Chimane stop for a feast, all work comes to a standstill until their appetites are satisfied. Mildly perturbed, Mark decides to bank fish while his guides partake in the dorado feast. The Chimane have the fish eviscerated and chopped into several pieces in the blink of an eye. A 4-pound sabalo is found inside the dorado's stomach. Sabalo are a vegetarian silvery scaled schooling fish that look almost identical to an Asian grass carp. The Chimane expertly build a fire and produce two battered aluminum cooking pots which have apparently recently been obtained from James and Jorge. To the Chimane, these pots are like sacred chalices, as they have never seen metal of any sort before. They also ceremoniously produce a Tupperware container obtained from Booker. This seems to be their most prized possession of all and they take turns handling it with the utmost care and respect. The dorado is unceremoniously chopped up and parboiled without salt or any other seasoning until it falls off the bone. The head of the fish is a special delicacy and they divvy it up with a great deal of care and diplomacy. The fish is devoured in less than five minutes and the Chimane lazily lounge about like so many gorged lions after the kill. Mark returns to the scene of the crime and starts harassing his guides.
"Amigo!" He addresses them both, "Fish!" His guides look at him incredulously and lie there as if he does not exist. James intervenes, explaining that the Chimane traditionally eat at least four times a day and rest quite a bit in between. Work is not particularly high on their list of priorities. They're really here for the novelty of seeing these silly gringos with all their neat stuff. Please be patient he asks. He also warns us that an unwritten Chimane rule states that if they can catch a fish after we release it, it theirs for the eating!
After a bit of further coaxing they gather up their bows and arrows and saunter down to the canoes. We can't stand to let Mark have all the fun and unanimously decide to head upriver for an afternoon of fishing. The Chimane maneuver the dugouts through the white water while we scramble up the river's edge toward a huge pool above the rapids. Our guides have the boats up the rapids in short order and soon we are all on our way again.
We pole up the river for about five minutes, casting as we go. Paul is fishing a purple and pink Yo Zuri Surface Squirt. The oddball lure looks like it belongs on the Strip in Vegas, but for some reason the dorado and tambaqui find it irresistible. The lure lands in some fast deep water adjacent to a slide of huge rocks and is inhaled by a 20-plus-pound dorado that makes a short run before it bursts from the river. The dorado rakes Paul's braided line on a submerged rock shelf and breaks off with Paul's prized lure in tow.
Our dugout caravan eventually comes to yet another huge pool conveniently equipped with an immense granite casting platform. The water is really too deep and fast for fly fishing, so once again Mark gets to show off. He launches his Cyclops out into the roiling current, let's it sink for a few seconds, and then begins a sweeping retrieve. The lure goes perhaps 30 feet before it gets hammered by a 22-pound dorado that races downstream. The fish leaps once and skillfully uses the heavy current to its advantage, thoroughly abusing that damn Zebco. The fight lasts perhaps 15-minutes before I manage to confiscate a landing net from one of the dumbfounded Chimane and net Mark's magnificent fish.
Mark's dorado is an incredible spectacularly-colored specimen with an immense head, thick shoulders and an extremely muscular body and tail. We shoot up several rolls of film and fight back the Chimane in order to let the exhausted fish return to the river unharmed. We fish for perhaps another 45-minutes. I manage to roll a good fish on my fly rod, but can't keep the dorado hooked. It seems as though the dorado in this river are most active during the brightest daylight hours, which is contrary to all the other dorado rivers I've fished in the past.
By the time we get back to camp, James and Jorge have set up tents for us. James uses fairly large folding "Remington" tents. A plastic air mattress covered with sheets and a blanket, makes for surprisingly comfortable sleeping arrangements. The Chimane boys again are in awe of these strange gringo sleeping habits. When they're out on a hunting or fishing expedition, they simply curl up on a pile of freshly-cut banana leaves and fall asleep. What's all the fuss about? They look at us like we're a bunch of big sissies.
Just as I am eyeing one of the made up air beds (I'll pass on the banana leaves, thanks) James announces that he has forgotten one of the air mattresses and therefore I must sleep on the ground. I am quite used to such abuse, as Luis Brown, a Brazilian outfitter for whom I used to work, would always supply me with the most meager equipment imaginable during extensive exploratory trips on obscure Amazonian rivers. I tell James not to worry and manage to obtain an old army issue sleeping bag which makes a fairly decent mattress. After inspecting our sleeping quarters, we all walk over to the nearby dining tent and have a decent meal of pork chops (borrowed from a semi feral hog that once roamed the Chimane village) and manioc root. We're all so tired at this point that food is the last thing on our minds. We eat in silence and then quickly adjourn to our tents for the night. The Chimane are lined up like so many corpses atop their banana leaves alongside the tents. Within minutes, Mark is snoring so loudly that he almost drowns out the roar of the river. Normally, such a racket would keep me from sleeping, but I too fall asleep within minutes.
At first light, I awake to a string of Barry's obscenities. I open my eyes to find several Chimane with their faces pressed up against my tent screen. I wonder if they're curious or just plain hungry. Apparently Barry's fancy new air mattress sprung a leak in the night and left him atop a jumble of roots and rocks. Paul is now laughing uncontrollably in the nearby tent. His mattress has also failed to hold air. Mark is down on the river fishing his brains out, but upon inspection, his mattress is also as flat as a pancake. We all have a hearty laugh at the breakfast table and take turns harassing James - who takes the abuse in good humor. James tells us that we are going to fish our way upriver today and camp on a beach at the confluence of a smaller tributary. After breakfast we pile into the canoes and begin a new day of adventure.
Mark is already packed up and well upriver. Paul, Barry and I take our time, stopping along the way to fish the more tantalizing pools. With Mark ahead of us, we know the dorado have taken a beating and probably won't be receptive to our flies after he has thoroughly vacuumed the holes with his Mepp's Cyclops. When we are still together, I manage to entice a 6-pound dorado out of a shallow run that Mark apparently overlooked. After releasing the fish, I head upriver to look for Mark while Paul and Barry stop to fish a deep run. Triny and Abel are as tireless as ever and pole the canoe through repeated rapids without incident. We come to a particularly shallow run and Triny gets out of the boat with his bow in tow in hopes of spearing a wary sabalo. He sneaks up the bank hopping from boulder to boulder as nimbly as a cat and then suddenly freezes after a great leap onto a particularly suitable boulder. In one fluid motion, he raises his six foot long bow and lets fly with an equally long barbed wood tipped arrow. The arrow flies out into the river about 20 yards and ends up stoning a 6-pound sabalo right through the eyes!
Triny retrieves his arrow and the quivering sabalo, and retreats to the river's edge. He cuts down several wild banana leaves, wraps the fish up in them and then we are again on our way as if nothing ever happened. We pole along through several more rapids and come to a series of deep pools. Triny spots motion in the river at an impossible distance up ahead and excitedly whispers, "pacú!" Pacú are huge omnivorous fish with human-like teeth, distantly related to piranhas. I was quite skeptical at first, but sure enough, there was indeed a sizeable school of pacú feeding under a huge overhanging flowering tree. The tree's fuchsia flowers, which look like pom-poms, are falling into the river and the pacú are feasting on them like so many giant prehistoric trout. Triny and Abel are particularly excited because pacú are extremely hard to kill with an arrow due to their size and thick skin. Pacú are wonderful eating fish. They are known in some parts of the Amazon as "lechón del rio" or the suckling pig of the river, because they sport two fabulous racks of ribs as succulent and tender as any suckling pig!
I have in my fly box, several 'flower flies' which I tied for my previous Bolivia trips. I instruct Abel and Triny to quietly position the boat about 60 feet away and parallel to the feeding fish. Using my 8-weight, I tie on one of the bright spun deer hair flies with a short piece of 25-pound braided steel leader. Pacú can crush even the most stout saltwater hooks if they get it in their jaws right, so steel is absolutely essential. By the time I rig up, a gust of wind blows a wave of cascading flowers into the river and the pacú go nuts. They wallow about among the blossoms in an utter feeding frenzy with fish up to perhaps 35-pounds dimpling the surface as dainty as a finicky trout. I make a few false casts and let fly with my fake flower. Most of the pacú are piled up against a rocky shoreline with a fairly swift current. The fly goes about 10 feet before it drifts among the feeding pacú. Several large fish come up to inspect the fraud, but refuse it because it is smaller and off color. After four or five near takes, a 15-pounder rises up and eagerly engulfs the fly. I set hard and the pacú races off downstream, spooking the entire school of fish. Trini and Abel are fascinated and excited all at the same time and holler encouragement whenever the pacú gets close to the boat. Abel keeps telling me how delicious pacú taste and holds the net anxiously each time the powerful fish races into deep water. After about ten tense minutes, I finally get the fish boat side and Abel deftly nets the fish. There is absolutely no question that this fish is going to be shore lunch. I take a few pictures and Mark arrives to inspect my catch. While we talk, Trini and Abel quickly clean the fish while Mark's guides prepare the fire and make a grill from green saplings. After the grill is made and the fish is put on to cook, the entire group of Chimane disappear into the jungle with bows and arrows in tow. Mark doesn't eat lunch and grumbles off upstream with his rod, instructing me to tell his guides to come find him when they're done with the pacú. I warn him not to be too optimistic about the longevity of their lunch break, but he is already racing upstream like an out of control fishing machine.
I lounge about under a big overhanging shade tree and wait for the boys to return. After about fifteen minutes, Abel appears with a colorful assortment of 12-15-inch baitfish they have shot in a landlocked pool. He quickly cleans his booty and wraps the whole lot in a big banana leaf, which he then places in the coals to steam the fish. The rest of the hunting party returns without any other arrowed critters and they huddle about the pacú poking and prodding at the fire to hurry along the whole cooking process.
When the fish is finally cooked, Trini offers me a choice rack of ribs and the rest of the gang heartily digs in. They dismember the pacú in short order and then break open the banana leaf to ration out the smaller fish. I savor my rack of fish ribs and then settle in under the shade tree for a little siesta, knowing full well that the Chimane will take a good long while to rest up before pushing on upriver. I fall into a deep slumber and awake to Mark's ravings. He is standing over his lounging guides repeating his not-so-extensive command of Spanish.
"Amigo, vamos pescar! Amigo, vamos pescar!" They again look at him incredulously, so Mark turns to me and pleads for me to do something. He tells me that while I've been sleeping my life away, he's lost the biggest dorado he's ever seen in his life. He swears the fish was well over 35-pounds. I patiently tell him that I cannot change eons of Chimane tradition in one afternoon. By now its already three in the afternoon and Mark is livid. He paces around for about fifteen minutes before his guides get back into the dugout and continue upstream toward our outpost camp. I follow along behind Mark, taking pictures and fishing halfheartedly as he skillfully vacuums the river.
We come to an ominous looking pool and in short order, Mark hooks into a dorado that will go about 17-pounds. The fish fights hard and makes numerous spectacular leaps, then darts up onto the surface and begins acting strangely. Mark screams that another giant dorado has come up behind his fish and is trying to eat it! It grabs Mark's fish by the tail like a killer whale eating a seal and then, for no reason at all, releases its prey and disappears back into the depths. Mark reels the wounded dorado in and looks down with his jaw flapping open involuntarily. The base of dorado's tail, thicker than a man's wrist, has been severed almost completely in two. It hangs loosely by a small piece of skin and the fish quickly bleeds to death. Neither of us can believe our eyes! Mark's guides, however, are delighted at their fortune and neatly package Mark's dead dorado in several banana leaves before pushing on again upriver.
Mark stops at another deep pool while we continue on, soon reaching the outpost camp where James and Jorge greet us and ask about the day's adventures. I chat with them for about 20 minutes and then head upriver on foot with a fly rod, wire leader and several streamers for backup. I walk for about ten minutes and come to the tailout of a breathtaking pool which runs deep along a sheer rock wall. By now it is fairly late in the afternoon and the dorado have come out of the deep water to catch the baitfish holding in the shallows. I carefully approach the edge of the pool and spy a good sized dorado cruising at the edge of the deep water. The fish explodes into a terrified school of sabalo and then quickly disappears back into deeper water. I make several casts in the vicinity of where the dorado was last seen and then suddenly spot an entirely different fish which has come in to investigate all the commotion.
The fish in question looks at first like some sort of three-foot, slim-bodied shark, but I quickly realize that it is a type of catfish I have never seen before. Thinking this peculiar beast might be game for a fly, I shoot out my streamer in its general direction and begin stripping the fly across the fish's path. My offering doesn't go far before the catfish turns and pounces on it with alarming speed and savageness. I have little time to react, as the fish is out of the water like a dorado as soon as I set the hook. The irate catfish puts up a valiant leaping battle that lasts about 20-minutes before I'm able to beach the creature and subdue it for a close inspection. This particular catfish, which seems to think it's a dorado, is certainly an interesting character. It's markings and physical characteristics are similar to the spotted surubi, but it is longer and thinner. It has a wild looking shovel nose and a huge mouth which is large enough to swallow a football. I carefully lip the 15-pound monster and carry it back to camp for proper identification.
Trini spots me walking down the beach with my new friend in hand and runs up to assist me. I soon learn that his designs are not out of kindness but purely hunger motivated. It turns out that this particular catfish, which he calls "paleta" or shovel in Spanish, is particularly tasty and would make a welcome addition to our dinner plans. While we are looking over the fish, Mark arrives and proceeds to hook and land yet another of his numerous dorado that day. His guides pole him over and we snap a barrage of photos with him holding his nice dorado and me with my "swimming shovel."
Barry and Paul soon show up and divulge their day's fishing tally which, needless to say, was not nearly as spectacular as Mark's results which accounted for 14 dorado in the boat. His fish ranged from 14 to 26-pounds! Paul and Barry unanimously agree that tomorrow Mark is to head in the opposite direction of the rest of the group so that they too might get a chance at fish not previously subjected to the Zebco-wielding assassin. I need to head back to Santa Cruz, so Mark and I opt to head back down stream while Paul and Barry continue exploring the upper river.
Jorge whips up a delicious meal of catfish in a fresh tomato sauce and James miraculously produces a cooler full of ice cold beer, which receives an immediate and thorough work over by the gringo fishing team. All agree that life can't get much better here among the Chimane on a river that's seen only a handful of Western anglers in its ageless lifetime. Jokes are told and fish sizes and stories thoroughly stretched and embellished before we all turn in.
James is convinced that he's fixed all the air mattresses and proudly announces that he's found my missing mattress so that I too might experience true comfort in the wilds of the Bolivian Amazon. I was really quite happy with my army bag cushion, but accept the air mattress to humor James. Within minutes, Mark is snoring as loudly as any human we have ever heard, but we are all so tired again that it doesn't matter. Lord knows what tomorrow may bring! Long before sun up the swearing begins anew. Not a single one of the air mattresses holds air and so we are all left high and dry atop a jumble of boulders and gravel. We all take turns cursing and sighing until the first signs of daylight force us out of the tents and onto the gravel bar. We stand huddled together among the Chimane who are sleeping soundly as babies atop their banana leaves. It is us who peer down upon them with envy in our hearts. One stirs and looks up at me with fear in his eyes. He's probably wondering if I'm curious or just plain hungry!
Jorge and James soon stir from their tents after a series of insults and cat calls all referring to the quality of James' air mattresses. Again, James is the punch line of the morning's jokes and he takes the abuse with hands held in the air like an innocent robbery victim. He is quite well rested because he wisely chose my beloved army bag as a cushion. Army bags don't spring holes at three in the morning.
Jorge breaks out a dozen or so eggs and mixes in onions, bacon and a local blend of Chimi Churri hot sauce to produce a wonderful dish of "jungle eggs." The Chimane had grilled a healthy assortment of sabalo, dorado and pacú the night before and set forth to consume about 10-pounds of fish each, saving room for the rare and delicate catfish head, which ceremoniously boiled for half an hour in their sacred aluminum pot. I say my goodbyes to Paul, Barry and Mark and I head off downstream toward the Chimane village. Jorge and James are anxious to get flying as soon as possible, so we waste little time pushing on down river. Trini manages to arrow two sabalo without hardly missing a beat and before I know it we are back in the main camp.
Storm clouds are brewing and Jorge is getting quite anxious, so I hurriedly gather up my bags while Jorge does the same and then we make the last half hour leg of the journey to the Chimane village. While Jorge inspects the plane, I manage to procure two magnificent Chimane bows made from dense black palm wood. At least a dozen arrows adorned with macaw and harpy eagle feathers are added to the collection. Jorge spots a hole in the clouds and so without further ado, we jump in the plane and take off over the river with a trail of Chimane children running alongside the runway's edge, all with their arms held out level pretending they too are flying off to a land far away that they only know through confusing stories.
I myself am secretly hoping to be back up at that bottomless pool where the immense dorado grabbed Mark's 18-pounder by the tail. That giant golden whale haunts me all the way back to Santa Cruz and on to Northern Argentina, where my next dorado adventure begins where this one has left off…
From Bolivia, I continue south along the Andean Cordillera to the northern edge of Argentina. My flight is a brutal endurance test that flies directly over the intended destination then further south some 1500 miles to Buenos Aires before heading back north to Salta, Argentina. The journey takes all day and late into the evening before I finally touch down in Salta.
Salta is a large farming and ranching community that sits on a relatively barren, flat and expansive plateau at the foot of jagged foothills which incrementally grow and rise into the snow capped Andean mountains beyond.
Daniel Esteban, a partner in O'Farrell Safaris, meets me at baggage claim, easily picking the "gringo" out of the crowd of locals. Daniel, his head shaved bald as a cue ball, is an amiable sort, quick to laugh and eager to show me his secret little stretch of Dorado heaven. After gathering up my bags, we head northeast out of Salta in Daniel's little Toyota pickup truck, driving nearly two hours mainly on winding paved roads chocked full of overloaded semi trucks hauling goods to and from Bolivia and Brazil. For the entire ride, I barrage him with questions about the Dorado River and other surrounding dorado fisheries. He tells me there are dorado in "fishable" numbers in both the Bermejo and Juramento rivers, although both are easily accessed and heavily pounded by local meat fishermen. There is no such thing as catch and release in the this country and everything - regardless of size or species - that is pulled up onto dry land never makes it back into the water. The river I am most eager to see and the one he is most eager to show me is the Dorado River.
Daniel's headquarters are located in the tiny town of Las Lejitas. O'Farrell Safaris' primary business is dove hunting excursions and the operation is located here for good reason. There are more doves within 20 miles of Las Lejitas than anywhere else in Argentina. Daniel drops me off in the surprisingly quaint Las Lejitas Hotel. I am immediately perplexed that such accommodations are located in such a remote area. Daniel explains that Las Lejitas is the agricultural center for the whole Salta region and the big land barons from near and far routinely gather at the hotel to discuss business. Daniel checks me into the hotel and then bids me goodnight, saying he and one of his fishing guides, Julio, will be by at daylight. He wants me to float fish the Juramento River one day and then take horses into the Dorado River the following day.
Early the next morning Daniel and his assistant and fishing guide, Julio Perez, pick me up at the hotel. A high-quality 16-foot raft is strapped to the back of the truck. We drive perhaps a half an hour to the Juramento. Julio is an extremely enthusiastic and downright rabid fisherman. We immediately hit it off and get into an intense conversation about the local dorado fisheries. He tells me the Juramento is really just a standby in case the Dorado River gets blown out. In many ways, the Juramento reminds me of the San Juan tailwater in my native New Mexico, with a similar gradient, vegetation and geology. After my spectacular adventure on the Sécure though, it's hard to get excited about such an accessible fishery. Two locals are throwing hand lines at the boat launch and someone has shamelessly dumped a load of trash at the water's edge.
The day is cold, overcast and the water is high. We float down a few hundred yards and stop on the other side of the river where a deep riffle adjoins several braids. Both Julio and I fish the water hard without a strike. We continue to drift fish and stop to pound several likely spots, not getting a strike until lunchtime. Julio finally stops the raft on a lush bank and we eat a hearty lunch of beef, cheese, wine and olives. Julio is anxious to get to the Dorado River, but assures me we'll pick up at least a few fish after lunch.
No sooner do we get underway when I get a solid strike off a big stump breaking the current. I'm using a red and black muddler-style fly. I cast again behind a similar log and hook up on a 5-pound dorado that jumps several times and then bulldogs in the current. Julio breaths a sigh of relief when I finally manage to land the fish. We continue on after the release, fishing the banks and picking up three more dorado between 3 and 4-pounds.
Daniel meets us later that afternoon and we drive back to Las Lejitas. They drop me off at the hotel and then pick me up again later that evening for an asado at their house. There is an informal gathering of half a dozen family members and friends. Daniel buys enough beef to feed a small army and we spend a pleasant evening stuffing ourselves and drinking too much red wine. After dinner, one of Daniel's friends entertains us with his guitar and hilarious Argentine limericks until we're all pained with laughter. We have a long day tomorrow, so I call it an evening and Julio drives me back to the hotel.
The following morning, Julio and Daniel arrive at daylight. We drive through thick fog and a light drizzle into the lush Andean foothills. The road quickly goes from bad to worse, to nearly impassable. Whole sections are completely washed out and several bridges are patched together with a lewd assortment of planks and logs. The little Toyota struggles and lurches, often teetering on two wheels or struggling through mud bogs nearly axle deep. The treacherous journey lasts nearly an hour until we come to the end of the road where an ancient broken down Land Rover stands testament to the torturous perils of the journey's end.
Beyond the broken down Rover sits an old stone farmhouse with a thatched roof. Four stoutly-built mountain horses stand patiently outside the door. They are saddled with traditional Argentine tack and sheep skin saddle blankets. Chickens run wildly about and a huge spotted hog roots along, trailed by a string of tiny piglets. The farmhouse sits at the edge of pristine cloud forest and towering foothills, whose tops rise into the thick swirling fog and drizzle. The farmer, his son and several small children appear at the door of the farmhouse as we unload the truck. Pleasantries are exchanged before we load up the horses with provisions and tackle for the day's adventure. We mount up and follow the farmer's son into the forest along a well worn pack trail that leads up into the impenetrable mist.
The trail soon comes to a small fast moving rocky stream. We cross single file and continue to climb through magnificent subtropical rain forest whose massive trunks and towering limbs are covered in epiphytes, moss, orchids and colorful lichens. Brilliant mushrooms of countless varieties dot the fallen trees along the trail. Here and there, conical pink land snails nearly the size of an ice cream cone dot the trail. The mist and light rain only accentuate the country's mystical nature. We continue to climb for nearly an hour and then level off for a short while before beginning the descent into the Dorado River valley. The trail is often quite steep and covered in thick mud, but the horses are as sure footed as mules and never falter. They calmly plod on at a steady pace, while the farmer's son patiently answers my questions about the local flora and fauna. He says that the forest here is teeming with tapir, deer, peccary and puma. Several species of monkeys are spotted dancing through the trees and the bird life is both varied and intriguing.
For another half hour, we continue downhill, crossing several small sandy bottomed creeks that must at some point drain into the Dorado. After a steady two hour ride through untouched paradise, the dorado can finally be heard far below. Daniel and Julie hoop and holler, excited by the prospect of a golden dorado leaping at the end of their lines. The horses emerge from the river's dense foliage to reveal an enticing river bed of round river worn stones. The river itself meanders through the middle of the course, looking like a displaced trout stream, with tantalizing stretches of pocket water interspersed with deep runs, riffle water and immense pools up to 10-feet deep. In many ways it looks like a miniature version of the Sécure, although it is perhaps half the size and the surrounding vegetation is subtropical instead of Amazon rainforest. Like the Sécure, the terrain rises steeply from the river's edge and up into steep mountains densely covered in towering trees.
In an instant, Julio and Daniel are off their horses and gearing up for the day's fishing. Julio puts on a pair of neoprene waders, while Daniel and I opt to wet wade. They are both eager for me to catch a few fish, but I insist that they fish first, arguing that I need to get good pictures of jumping dorado and bent rods before picking up a rod myself. I need not argue for long to convince the two to get to work and catch me a few fish. Simultaneously the two thread floating lines through the guides of matching six-weight rods. They both tie on similar small Deceiver-style streamers and race right up to the bank of a deep, tantalizing pool without the least bit of fear of spooking the fish. To make matters worse, Daniel is wearing a bright turquoise jacket.
I jokingly lecture both of them about their careless approach. Both assure me that the dorado in this stretch of water see so few anglers that they hardly even notice their presence. This fact is instantly confirmed when Julio hooks up on a spirited 4-pound dorado that repeatedly leaps maniacally then makes a long run into the depths of the pool. After a short standoff the fish jumps again, and zips about the pool for another minute before Julio is able to subdue his opponent. The dorado angrily snaps at Julio when he removes the streamer. I am amazed at its flawless, dazzling orange-tipped fins and brilliant golden hue. It is a perfect specimen in every way.
I take several quick photos and then Julio gingerly slips the dorado back into the current. The fish confidently returns to the depths as if nothing ever happened. The two resume casting in the same hole as eagerly as ever. I ask them if the fighting fish might have spoiled the pool, but they again insist that these dorados are not like the fish I am used to catching and to prove their point, Daniel immediately hooks another slightly larger dorado that repeat's the first fish's impressive performance. Three more fish of similar size are hooked and landed in short order before we move onto to the next upstream pool. We fish this way for several hours until I'm satisfied I have the pictures I need. We take a short break for lunch and then resume fishing, but this time the camera is replaced with a fishing rod. I wade down through a boulder-strewn stretch of deep pocket water that is amazingly similar to the Rio Grande box canyon near Taos, New Mexico. There are even large stone fly husks clinging to the rocks and a sparse caddis and mayfly hatch to add to the striking affinity. With a floating line, a 7-weight rod and my favorite black and red dorado streamer, I proceed to catch 6 dorado in quick succession. The fish are not huge - ranging from 3 to 6-pounds - but there are so many of them that the numbers certainly compensate for the smaller size. With scaled down trout-sized tackle, these little golden treasures far exceed a trout's fighting prowess and I find the whole experience extremely satisfying.
By the end of the afternoon, I have caught and released perhaps 25 dorado. I jump several larger fish, but my best dorado fish weighs in at about 8-pounds. On a 7-weight rod, that is all the fish you want to tangle with. Daniel and Julio have similar experiences and we are all reluctant to leave the river, although the farmer's son urges us to get on the trail to avoid too much night travel on horseback. We all catch a few more fish apiece until we finally head back down to the trail head, where the horses are hobbled. Pleasantly exhausted from the day's fishing, we head back to "civilization" with fond recollections of jumping dorado forever imprinted in our memories. Memories like these are in short supply on this earth…
A horse-accessed dorado fishery
Dorado on the Secure:
An exploratory journey