Fly-fishing in the Bolivian jungle

A journey deep into the pristine rainforest presents Sebastian Hope with the prospect of a fly-fishing grand slam, as he pursues plethoras of powerful yatorana, peculiar pacu and predatory golden dorado

The author with a jumping golden dorado on the upper Río Sécure
The author with a jumping golden dorado on the upper Río Sécure | Image: Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre

Saturday evening on Avenida San Martin and the moneyed youth of Santa Cruz de la Sierra gather around quad bikes and all‑terrain vehicles, preparing to head out on dirt tracks for a party in the jungle. It looks like a cross between a hip-hop video and the Paris-Dakar Rally – babes and cool boxes and guys in boiler suits and back protectors topped off with bandanas. I check in at my hotel knowing that four wheels won’t get them anywhere near where I am going the next morning.

Aerial view of a river en route to Asunta village
Aerial view of a river en route to Asunta village | Image: Sebastian Hope

The grassy landing strip is 500m long and appears out of the forest after two hours in a Cessna. For the past 40 minutes the only breaks in the canopy were made by the meanders of muddy rivers, and now we are taxiing towards the village of Asunta, a settlement of Chimane Amerindians on the banks of the Río Sécure. And still I haven’t reached my destination.

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Luggage and supplies are humped down to the river landing and into dugout canoes for the short ride upstream. The Chimane boatman in the bow takes aim with his catapult at every bird we pass. The jungle closes in as the banks become higher and, rounding a bend, we come upon Sécure Lodge, the starting point for Untamed Angling’s whole Tsimane fishing operation. It stands on the set of rapids that separates the broader lower river from the fast-flowing mountain river upstream.

The author with a pacu on the upper Río Sécure
The author with a pacu on the upper Río Sécure | Image: Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre

Fernando Beltrán joins me on the deck outside my cabaña. This Argentine guide has been with Tsimane from the first and speaks to the Chimanes in their own language. We go through my tackle and he shows me the knots used to attach the wire tippet to the 44lb leader and the fly to the wire. These fish have teeth; one once took a piece off the end of his thumb. Twenty minutes later, in the rapids by the lodge, I have landed my first-ever golden dorado and it weighs 20lb.

A golden dorado with an Andino fly
A golden dorado with an Andino fly | Image: Sebastian Hope

The dorado is native to the Río Paraná, the second-longest river in South America, which joins the Uruguay near Buenos Aires and becomes the Plata. Except, the river tumbling past Sécure Lodge belongs to a different watershed. The Río Sécure flows to the Mamoré, to the Madeira and so to the Amazon downstream from Manaus. “It’s only in the Bolivian part of the Amazon system that you find golden dorado,” Fernando states as we head out the following morning. “They say at one time there was a connection between the two basins somewhere to the south of Santa Cruz.”

Tsimane guide Emiliano Basaló directs an angler on the Río Itirizama
Tsimane guide Emiliano Basaló directs an angler on the Río Itirizama | Image: Sebastian Hope

We are heading downstream in a cuamba, a wide dugout canoe that is stable enough for an angler to be able to stand and cast. I’m casting a large green and black Andino towards the bushes as we drift past, when something small and very fast hits the fly the moment it lands. It’s a yatorana, and the black band at the fork in its tail shows it is an Amazonian cousin of the golden dorado. Pound for pound it’s a strong little fish, but hooking its larger relative is taking longer.

The author with a pacu on the upper Río Sécure
The author with a pacu on the upper Río Sécure | Image: Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre

Wading stony runs and muddy pools I begin to understand where the golden dorado lie. Their chief prey is the sabalo, a schooling fish whose spawning migration draws the golden dorado to the headwaters of these rivers. Sabalo swim quickly, so when you’re casting to golden dorado the fly must be stripped as quickly as possible, even in fast water. The takes, when they come, are violent. Smaller golden dorado jump again and again; larger fish are dogged and powerful. They are also very beautiful. As their name suggests, they are intensely golden, with lines of black dots running down the flank and gill plates that have the chatoyance of a gemstone.

Jaguar paw prints in the mud by the Río Itirizama
Jaguar paw prints in the mud by the Río Itirizama | Image: Sebastian Hope

We come to one of Fernando’s favourite pools. He knows there are big fish here, but when the fly stops solid in a backwater it seems more like a snag. It’s not behaving like a golden dorado and when the fish breaks the surface Fernando lets out a shout of surprise. It’s a pacu, a relative of the piranha and one of the real prizes of the Bolivian Amazon. It’s an omnivorous fish and a large part of its diet is made up of fruit. It lives in deeper, slower water than the golden dorado and is more easily spooked. Fernando’s surprise is that I have hooked one while casting blind in faster water. He draws back the fish’s lower lip to show me its unnervingly human dentition. “That’s it, that’s the grand slam,” says Fernando. “A golden dorado, a pacu and a yatorana on the same day. Normally, you only get the slam on the upper river.” And that’s exactly where I am going the following day.

The author with a golden dorado on the upper Río Sécure
The author with a golden dorado on the upper Río Sécure | Image: Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre

Sécure Lodge is so comfortable and the food so good that it seems perverse to leave it for a night’s camping in the jungle but, judging by the size of the coolers being loaded into the cuambas, we won’t starve. The Chimane boatmen put a quid of coca leaves in their cheeks and pole upstream. The river changes character almost instantly as it flows between hills that form the eastern folds of the Andes. The pools are more defined, the rapids rockier. We have to get out of the canoe for the first time, as the boatmen, Rumel and Pedro, battle through one set. At the top we emerge onto a broad, deep pool. Under the high bank on the far side, pacu are feeding. My guide, Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre, directs the canoe silently into position for me to cast. A fish shows its tail swirling at the surface and it seems as if we are all holding our breath as I strip the fly back in short jerks. The line goes tight. It is the first of two pacu I land that day.

The author with a yatorana on the upper Río Sécure
The author with a yatorana on the upper Río Sécure | Image: Sebastián Rodríguez Dela Torre

We pass through a gorge and the jungle seems to lean further over the river. I haven’t seen any large golden dorados yet, but I am catching fish of 4lb or 5lb that are eager to take the fly and jump repeatedly. One makes too much of a commotion and suddenly there is another flash of gold alongside it – a very big golden dorado, which hits the hooked fish repeatedly until it gets a firm hold above the tail and shakes its pit-bull head. I am left holding half a fish.

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We continue upstream all day, fishing and walking and poling and motoring, until we come to tents pitched on the inside of a bend. The Tsimane operation has opened two “out-camps” for the 2013 season on the upper Pluma and Aguas Negras rivers, safari-style tents on wooden platforms, but here and on the upper Itirizama camping still means tents pitched on the sand and cooking over an open fire. Sebastián produces fillets of beef and chorizo sausages from the cooler and sets about grilling them on coals raked from the fire.

The night is full of sounds and close to dawn there comes a snarling nearby. The boatmen say it was a heron, but when I pass by the spot later, there are jaguar prints in the mud. The boatmen have been out hunting in the first light and return with a pair of razor-billed curassows they have shot with .22 rifles held together with wire. They set about plucking them straightaway and save the pinions to fledge arrows. They bring the rifles and their bows with them as we set out on foot upstream. The jungle is their larder.

What follows is one of the most extraordinary days’ fishing I have ever experienced. We fish fast and push on upstream. It seems like every run has a golden dorado, every pool a feeding pacu – one bites clean through my wire trace. Or I find myself running downstream over river stones after a 3lb yatorana as it leaps through the rapids. The recent high water has wiped clean the sand and mud banks along the river, so all the tracks of wading birds and rodents, ocelots and weasels are fresh. There are no human footprints, and the largest spoor is the four-toed track of a tapir. I follow the path one took to get to the water’s edge and am wading into the river to follow Sebastián to the other bank, when a croaking overhead makes me look up. A flock of blue and yellow macaws is flying downstream. I count 22. As they swoop past I turn towards the sun and it has two haloes. For me, the moment is epiphanic; for Rumel, crossing the river behind me, it is a chance to loose off an arrow at the birds. He misses. He notices the sun. “Rain coming,” he says. The dry season is about to end.

The rain didn’t come till the following night, by which time I had transferred to the Pluma Lodge by canoe and Cessna. At breakfast, the river rose 2m in 10 minutes, and continued rising. Whole trees floated by. But the flood passed overnight and I was afforded two more days of extraordinary fishing, before the rain came back and the Cessna didn’t. Two more days of listening to rain on leaves, on palm-leaf roofs, and then news of an imminent window of opportunity had us racing down the swollen river in a cuamba to the landing strip. That night found me in a São Paulo airport hotel, looking out at rain falling on concrete, with a macaw feather in my fishing bag.

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