Twenty six hours after lift off from Miami, 5 anglers and I sat aboard two Cessna as we cruised over the jungle below, I couldn’t help but notice how similar the jungle canopy was to the vast wilderness of Alaska. There were countless winding rivers that made their way through the jungle just as they do through Alaskan tundra. A blue tarp and opening in the trees was a cocoa field signature. I couldn’t stop staring and thinking about the 6 days of fishing (photography for me) that laid ahead, having no clue what to expect.
Tsimane Lodge, is situated in the very remote Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure, which is about 1.5 hours Northwest of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Tsimane Lodge takes its name after the Tsimane people which are indigenous to the area. Anglers have the privilege of fishing two different locations when they visit; first being the upper Securé, and then on to the Pluma, where access to the Pluma, Itirisama, and Securé rivers are within reach. The first camp sits on a high bluff, where the eye is first drawn to the rapids below and then up to a towering cliff that is covered in small shrubs and rocky rubble. After three days of fishing anglers make the transfer to the second camp. It’s a quick 10-minute flight and then an adventurous off-road drive through the jungle for about 30 minutes. The second camp is a carbon-copy of the first, only sitting right on the river. Instead of watching flowing rapids, there is a constant display of hunting dorado (most active feeding time is in the morning). Both camps were built from local, hand planed wood – making the entire experience that much more rustic. The surrounding landscape was simply breathtaking. Towering canopies of various trees and tall shrubbery gripped the rivers edge, and riverbanks in most cases were uneven collections of large river rock and boulders. There was always a stir in the air as hundreds of differing butterfly species were on the move looking for any salt residue left behind on the rock floor. The variance in color on these butterfly wings was something I’ve never seen before, and will hold as some of the strongest visual memories of my trip.
Each camp had a “pet”. Our first encounter was the friendly and inviting white-bellied parrot named “Profundo”. I referred to him as our “meat eating, alcohol drinking, singing, parrot friend” as that’s precisely what he was. Chorizo? He ate it. Scotch? He drank it! Beer? Couldn’t stop. Chocolate? Made him whistle longer and louder. Literally the coolest bird I’ve ever met. A three week ocelot graced our prescence at the second camp. She was so beautiful and fragile. Her mother dropped her in the jungle while being hunted by locals.
My first impression of this lodge was complete astonishment. It was shocking how beautiful it was. To start, it’s built from all local wood, giving it a very rustic feel. I felt as if I were staying in a 5 star resort. Inside our jungle style “tiki huts” were tile showers, fancy sinks, hot water, comfortable beds and much more! No detail was missed, and every amenity was put there for the guests ultimate comfort. The fact that all of this was available to us in the most remote part of the jungle blew my mind.
Obviously we were in Bolivia for one reason, and that was to catch golden dorado. Surely you have read about this fish in magazines or seen one of many short films, but if not, please read on. Yes, they are gold, very gold! They are also equipped with hundreds of razor sharp teeth that are used to sevor prey in half. Take the aggressiveness of a giant trevally and pair it with the acrobatics of a tarpon, and poof! Meet the golden dorado. Without hesitation, these fish will smash just about any dark colored streamer put in front of them and if you screw up the hook set, don’t count on that same fish to chase your fly again. As he swims back to his cover, he’s laughing at the fact that you just tried to trout set him. STRIP STRIKE DUDE! Another characteristic of this fish that blew my mind is its kind regard to annihilating the hell out of its little cousin. In other words, they are cannibals. It was common to hook up with a small dorado (3-5lbs) and have a monster (20+lbs) dorado come in and inhale it. Not only is your hook in the mouth of a dorado, but it’s inside the stomach of another. Double hookup!! Eventually, you would get your fly and fish back, but this time it was just the head.
A typical days itinerary was simple – fish your assigned beat for the day with your guide and skilled dugout canoe “drivers”, which in this case were two natives from the Tsimane tribe. All beats showcased various types of water – shallow runs, deep undercut banks, back eddies, etc. While most “fishy” locations held fish, sometimes we would scratch our heads as our guide would say, “sometimes they just aren’t here”. The most exciting time to fish for golden dorado is when they are hunting. There is no mistaking a hunt. Golden dorado will attack sabalo (primary food source) with extreme aggression. The average sabalo is comparable to a small bonefish, a perfect bite size snack for dorado. They are almost always in large groups and migrate up or down river just as a salmon would. The closest thing I can compare a “hunt” to is when a roosterfish pushes sardina into the beach. What makes it so intense is the fact that there are multiple fish hunting at once; so when that dinner bell rings, it is absolute chaos. Instead of waking up to chirping birds in the morning, it’s the thrashing sound of feeding dorado – no joke.
It’s such an incredible sight to see that I actually laid motionless for two hours on the shoreline with my 400mm telephoto waiting for them to hunt in front of me. Patience paid off as I witnessed this no more than 30 feet away. Unfortunately I only had one morning to shoot this event. Next time, I will be out there every morning!
If the planets align and this “hunt” unfolds in front of an angler, get ready. My fishing partner ended up with a bit of luck as more than 10 dorado over 20lbs came into hunt a short 20 feet from his rod tip. All it took was a short cast and he was on his way to landing the largest fish of the trip – a super fat, twenty five plus pound fish. It was a jaw dropping sight watching a fish of that size massacre his fly in no more than 8 inches of water. Damn, it gets my heart going just thinking about it!
On the contrary, pacu are a much more laid back species. Think of pacu as the permit of these waters. Not only is the shape of a pacu similar to that of a permit, it’s fight is as well. While employing a stealthy approach for dorado is recommended, pacu demand it and are far more reluctant to take a fly. Soft disturbances heard or seen in the water’s surface continually stretched our curiosity. We would then look to our guide expecting an explanation, and without hesitation he would whisper, “pacu”. We quickly learned that this disturbance was pacu feeding on leaves or large seeds from the towering trees above. In addition to plant matter, sabalo is also in their diet. Flies varied from black streamers to flat, green poppers. Jared finally broke the dry spell on our fifth day and by the sixth, had 4 pacu under his belt. His largest was close to sixteen pounds and was taken on a green popper that was dead drifted through a fast rapid.
Every day was different. Each day brought a new guide and a different beat to fish. If you are up for an adventure, overnight camps are available on request in which anglers travel to virgin waters in search of fish that have never seen a fly. My fishing partner and I decided to camp on the upper Pluma. It’s not very often you can boast about a jungle camping experience so we figured it was worth giving a shot. Camping has its ups and downs; for our particular experience, the 600% jungle humidity made it very difficult to get any quality rest. Other than that, it was exactly the adventure I had expected.
That night after dinner, we used a conventional rod and cut-bait to fish for catfish. Once the bait had sunk to the bottom it wasn’t long before the line went tight and started making its way up or down river. Give it about 5-6 seconds and then set the hook – hard. The fun part is not knowing what’s at the other end of that line. We ended up landing a few catfish weighing a little over 65lbs which is on the lower end of the scale. Our guide, Vincente, told us these particular species can weigh in at upwards of three to four hundred pounds. I’m not saying that I had one of these on, but I did hook into 3 very large fish that I had zero control over until they ultimately snapped my 80lb wire leader. I can only wonder what was at the other end.