Yellow Dog’s Ian Davis just returned from Bolivia’s Pluma Lodge. This was a return visit for Ian, but, the experience was again first-rate. Here is Ian’s trip report in his own words and images.
What brings me back to Bolivia in search of the “Gangster of the Jungle”- The Golden Dorado? My first explosive eat was many years ago on the upper Secure River. I had hooked my first fish, a spunky six-pounder, when a huge dorado simply swirled on it and chomped it in half with minimal effort.
I asked my guide, “Are you sure it is OK to wade fish in this river?”
I was instantly hooked and have been back to the lodges of Tsimane many times since that first experience. The golden dorado is a spectacular gamefish, but what truly resonates with me is the native culture of the Tsimane people, and the magnitude of biodiversity within the pre-Andes in Bolivia.
Upon returning to Pluma Lodge this fall, I was amazed at how much had changed with the fishery and how the operation had improved—which it was already a first-class operation to begin with. The outfitter improved upon many aspects of the overall experience, which is a massive challenge in such a remote area, but the river was totally different than my previous visit.
Most of my favorite runs, flats and pools, that I had dreamt of fishing again were gone. I was mystified as we would glide around a bend in the dugout canoe. Whole river channels had shifted to form unfamiliar waters. I already had my angling playbook for each stretch of river planned out. Now it was totally useless. The playing field was totally foreign. This created a nervous anticipation within my fishing soul.
I had prayed for two years to have optimal conditions: kind of like an outgoing tide in the salt, or just after a fresh rain for steelhead. I wanted dropping and clearing water, and we had it. A few feet of rain had flushed the system just prior to our arrival. This shuffles the deck, moves fish through the system, and is a rejuvenating injection of life to the jungle. I have fished this area in a drought year with very low water and during high off-colored water, and in both conditions have always had good fishing, but you want perfection when hosting a trip of close friends.
The fish gods were smiling down upon us, so I thought.
On our arrival day, we fished the home pool with fine success. A large fish was taken on a skating mouse fly, so I was reassured that it was going to be “lights out” fishing. Well, day one and two were tough. “How could this be?” I thought to myself.
Yes, fish were landed and a few big ones, but we had to work extra hard for those fish. Bolivia is not for the faint-hearted. The phrase that 10% of the anglers catch 90% of the fish is a true statement when fishing for Golden Dorado. You must remain acutely focused at all times. It seems like you cast a thousand times a day, and when a flock of macaws fly overhead distracting you, the toilet bowl flushes and a streak of gold disappears below the stained water, and the empty jerk from your line stings deep.
It is also a challenge to set the hook hard enough during your first two days. You are fishing 40-pound leader and wire, the fly line stretches 30% at 50 feet, and this ain’t no trout taking a streamer. Golden Dorado’s mouths are hard and the eat is fast, so you need to strip-set hard, keep stripping, and if possible, walk backwards to maintain a tight line. You want to stretch that fly line and literally drag the fish towards you to drive the hook home.
Once that is accomplished, the dorado will explode out of river spraying water droplets long and far. Then you gather up your slack line onto your reel and work the fish to hand. But not your hand, the guide’s hand. A dorado’s razor-sharp teeth can create deep cuts loaded with nasty bacteria, so long pliers are a must.
Once our group understood the importance and severity of the hook set and aggressive fish fighting tactics; the river dropped, the water clarity improved, and there were many more smiles at the end of the day. My nerves were calmed as the host on day three.
We had four beats each day to fish between eight anglers. The upper headwater sections offer sight fishing in clear water, spookier fish, and strong numbers if you can make the cast. The lower two beats consist of big, fast runs with log jams, undercut banks, and braided channels, which are all contained within wide valleys.
Blind casting with sinking lines is often the most productive method, but fish sometimes want a surface fly as well. You might hook a few smaller fish in the four to ten-pound range, but these lower beats hold honest predators that can reach 35 pounds. Having this diversity within any of the Tsimane river systems keeps the guides and anglers constantly adjusting their tactics. Each day is totally new. The fish migrate and the river is always changing, so what worked yesterday most likely will not be the answer today.
In short, you need to bring you’re “A Game” to Bolivia, because a Golden Dorado is an apex predator.
The highlight for most anglers was making a physical commitment to fish the upper stretches of the rivers, where clear water cascades through large boulders. On one specific day, a few anglers, two guides and a small group of natives hiked around 14 miles (33,000 steps) to fish virgin waters, and they were hard miles.
We navigated dense jungle trails, climbed over massive rock formations, and waded through rapids to reach the upper, upper Itirizama River. Only a handful of anglers fish this remote canyon a season. Fortunately, the hot jungle weather had backed off as high clouds shielded us from the penetrating sun. After two hours of hiking, we slid down to the river’s edge and were amazed by the sheer scenic beauty of the river leaking from the Andes Mountains.
Boulders the size of school busses filtered plumes of clear water, that in turn fed azure-colored pools loaded with sabalo, a very nervous baitfish. Golden Dorado patrolled the runs and pools. Larger fish nipped at the smaller schoolies to defend their prime feeding lanes. The baitfish nervously pushed into the shallows as the huge dorado neared.
The sandy banks were dotted with fresh jaguar, ocelot, and tapir tracks. You could almost feel the cold stare of a jaguar. While we could not see them, they were watching us, hiding in the thick refuge of the jungle.
In this clear water, the fishing was fast and furious. We fished all floating lines with small Enrico Puglisi streamers. If a small dorado was hooked, a larger fish would appear from nowhere to engulf your fish. It was hectic as the guides fended off the larger predators. After many laughs and high fives, two broken rods, and around a thousand photos it was time to retreat back to the lodge, which took around four hours. The group did not talk much on the way back—as we spent our own time to reflect upon an amazing day that each angler declared as the “most amazing fishing experience of my life.”
On our last day, a few hearty anglers forged back up to the lower headwaters that had rested for a few days. A few of the satisfied anglers fished hard in the morning, and then took time to slow down and enjoy a traditional Argentine BBQ known as an asado. The natives constructed a tepee of palm fronds to provide shade at the confluence of the Secure and Pluma Rivers.
This is one of the most productive stretches of rivers, so before lunch one of the anglers landed his largest dorado of the trip right at our lunch camp. It was party time. An array of grilled meats including short ribs, fillet of beef, and shortbreads were served with Malbec wines. Stuffed pumpkin, fresh salad and warm bread rolls completed the meal. The one-hour shore lunch metamorphed into a four hour (and four bottle) fiesta. Chucky, the lodge manager, the guides and natives catered to us on every level. It was an amazing way to wind down the epic week of fishing comradery.
All the lodges Yellow Dog chooses to work with in Bolivia will take fine care of you. The strong infrastructure of these remote operations is truly amazing. It is hard to fathom how such a comfortable lodge setting can be accomplished. Guests often ponder just how the heck they got all the building materials, generators, furniture, motorcycle carts, supplies, food, and endless Malbec wine to these remote jungle settings. The meals are incredible, the level of guides are among the finest in the world, the bedding is so comfortable, and now there is often a masseuse to massage your aching muscles.
Yes, the travel can be arduous, but once you get home and rest up, the wilds of Bolivia start nagging at you.
You will never truly rest again until you return jungle.