ON THE HUNT FOR DORADO BOLIVIA: TSIMANE AND PLUMA LODGE TRIP REPORT: WEEKS 1 AND 2
Yellow Dog's Ian Davis and Bessie Bucholz just returned from another fantastic group expedition in the Bolivian Amazon with Untamed Angling's Pluma Lodge. Dorado were abundant and along with landing this mythical fish, the group witnessed the rich biodiversity of the rainforest--toucans, myriad butterfly species, nutria, freshwater stingrays and much more.
As usual, the hospitality of Untamed Angling's Pluma Lodge and the Tsimane people were outstanding. Yellow Dog’s Ian Davis traveled down to the jungles of Bolivia with Yellow Dog's New Zealand program director, Bessie Bucholz, to host two weeks of fishing at Pluma Lodge, located in the heart of the legendary golden dorado fishery of Tsimane.
The first group of Yellow Dog anglers met in Miami and boarded the flight to Santa Cruz via La Paz and were picked up by Hugo from Untamed Angling and driven to Los Tajibos, a luxury hotel in the central city. From start to finish, it was a very smooth and easy trip from the USA. The guests took the afternoon to tour the city and learn more about the fascinating cultural, historical and political landscape of Bolivia and concluded this tour at Las Cabañas for beers and various locally-baked breads and cold beverages.
The group enjoyed a delicious dinner at Los Hierros, a fantastic steakhouse only blocks away from the hotel. The following morning, the group boarded a bus for the regional airport in Santa Cruz where they were then transferred by fixed-wing aircraft to the grass landing strip next to the Omoromo community, 1.5 hours away into the heart of the Bolivian jungle. Representatives from Pluma Lodge greeted us and after the traditional distribution of candy and toys to the Chimán locals, we piled into the boats that awaited us on the banks of the lower Secure River.
One significant change from years past is the introduction of 5HP mud motors on locally built, 18 foot wooden boats, which eliminated the need for a long and rough 4x4 Jeep drive to the lodge. It became quickly apparent that these motors would also be crucial for getting the boats upriver given the unusually low water levels.
One even more interesting change was the fact that the original Pluma Lodge, located at the confluence of the Pluma and Itirizama rivers, was completely wiped out by a massive flood event in April 2015. Fortunately, a nearly identical lodge was constructed further downriver in just two months. This new location increased the diversity of fishing out of Pluma Lodge.
Being further down stream allows the anglers to fish the lower Secure with substantially less boat travel time. The larger river downstream is mainly a trophy dorado fishery, with lots of structure and long runs. After a hearty lunch, Ian and the guides assisted the guests in tackling-up.
The guides explained that the lower water conditions called for longer leaders with heavy fluorocarbon leader materials for optimum stopping power, since hooked fish tend to make a run for the nearest log jam. We then tied the 60 lbs butt section of leaders (three to five feet of twisted flouro), to four feet of 40 lbs tippet, and finally to 12 to 18 inches 40 lbs wire.
The length of the leaders depends on water clarity: clear water called for long leaders and off-colored water required short and stout rigs. Large, dark-colored Andino Deceivers have always been the top fly pattern for Tsimane, but with the ultra-clear water, smaller flies are a solid choice above the confluence of the Pluma and Secure, as well as up the Itirizama tributary.
Since the Secure was pumping coffee-colored water, the spun deer hair streamer patterns would produce below the confluence. Once they were rigged up, the anglers set out on foot to fish the home pools. With the low water, wade fishing was easy and allowed for the anglers to spread out. Dorado were rolling in the larger pools, a few fish were hooked, but none landed on the arrival DIY day of fishing. It was good to get out and stretch the line and get a feel of the fishery before the first day of fishing.
All the anglers had the right gear and flies due to the extensive pre-trip planning materials they had received from Yellow Dog. After a 7 am breakfast consisting of fresh fruit, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, juice, and fresh coffee, the group got ready to fish. There are five beats of water for the anglers to fish each day. Beat one is the lower Secure, beat two is the lower Pluma, beat three is the middle Pluma, beat four is the upper Pluma, and the fifth beat is the Itirizama or upper (upper) Pluma tributaries.
The guides greet the anglers each morning to check tackle, re-rig of needed, and then head down to the boats. Each boat has two chairs, a well-stocked Yeti cooler, and two local boatmen to maneuver the boat either up or downstream for your day of fishing. Everyone was able to catch fish on the first full day of guided fishing, but it was clear that large, darker flies would be more appropriate for the lower sections of the Secure while lighter-colored style baitfish flies would suit the upper sections.
The dorado responded to Enrico Puglisi baitfish patterns in black and purple, white and green/ blue, as well as peanut butter and mullet patterns. Dorado are, by nature, migratory fish which makes each day totally different from the previous days. You might find strong numbers of fish in one beat and then fewer the next day in the same beat, or vise versa.
Larger trophy dorado can be found in any section, but it seems the lower, bigger water holds more fish over twenty-five pounds. The upper, smaller, and more intimate sections of rivers present anglers with quality numbers of smaller- and medium-sized dorado, but the chance at a trophy fish is always on the table. If you spot and stalk a big fish in small water you better have your "A" game ready, as these fish are spooky!
These upper sections are sight-fished on foot all day and only at the end of the day, when returning to the lodge, do guests ride in the traditional canoes back downstream. The chances for a truly large fish are most commonly found in the lower Secure river. Anglers will mainly blind-fish out of the boat (or wadefish) in these areas, often swinging the flies as if fishing for steelhead. Generally speaking, in high water, golden dorado feed near the banks and in slow pools.
In low water conditions, they spread out and can be hooked in tail outs, log jams, under banks, and along hard seams. We suspect that they were not able to migrate as easily due to the low water conditions, but all the Yellow Dog anglers found fish in all sections each day. The most exciting fishing scenario was the feeding frenzies. This is when a gang of dorado slide up into the shallows and start busting up Sabalo, which are the resident baitfish. You can see these frenzies from afar, and the most common time to see them was just as the sun dips behind the canopy of the jungle.
Some of the anglers with trout fishing backgrounds had difficulty with the strip-set, and even those who were accustomed to hooking tarpon and bonefish had trouble setting the hook on these angry fish with their big, bony heads and tough bites. The "bite" is so fast and vicious anglers are often astounded by the pure aggression of the golden dorado that setting the hook becomes difficult.
Fighting the fish with the bottom half of the rod is essential to landing these strong fish—and preventing a broken rod! This is called the "down and dirty" technique and it enables one to steer the fish away from log jams, and get the fish in quickly. After a few days, the group became accustomed to the required angling techniques and were landing not only dorado, but also pacu (like a freshwater permit) and yatorana.
Pacu are mostly vegetarian and typically hold in deeper pools below rock cliffs and overhanging branches so that they can feed on the berries, nuts and other objects falling from the trees. The pacu typically go after small and colorful tarpon type streamers, large chernobyl ant type dry dries, and spun dear hair (nutty looking) flies. They have been known to take an orange Thinga-ma-bobber right off the surface, mistakening it for a floating berry.
Everyone in the first group had their best day on the last day. The clouds came in following a light rainshower in the morning and the fishing was dynamite. One of our anglers, Captain Scott Owens of St. Simons Island, Georgia, hooked into 8 pacu, many of which were cruising in the shallow riffles and runs (he was literally sight-fishing them and hitting them on the head with small tarpon flies!). In addition, he landed several trophy dorado that day. The dorado down low were least discriminate on this last day and chased any variety of flies that were black with either orange, yellow, purple, or red.
Dorado in upper sections continued to pursue lighter/gray-colored baitfish patterns with 3D eyes. They even struck mice, slider titantics and poppers! The mouse fishing in the Upper Pluma and Itirizama was the most fun for anglers seeking top water action. Dorados often sipped the mouse in a lethargic rolling manner, much like a big, shovel-headed brown trout. The overall feeling is that the fishing in week one was more challenging due to low water levels, but exacting techniques were extremely helpful for landing bigger dorado and pacu.
The sight fishing was epic due to the low and clear rivers. Certainly, the change in conditions on the last day provided guests with great memories to take home with them. The first group of anglers welcomed the second Yellow Dog group at the Omoromo Indian community airstrip. As the first group flew back to Santa Cruz, the second group transferred to the lodge and got ready to fish. Again, Ian and the guides got everyone tackled and the guests hit the river.
Five dorado were hooked on this DIY day, and a few were even landed. Week two saw very improved fishing due to the cooler weather and occasional evening rain. We were all hoping for a bit more rain, which would “shuffle the deck” and allow the fish to move throughout the system more easily. If there is anything we learned in the jungle, it’s that you should be careful what you wish for! A massive thunderstorm on the fifth night dumped enough rain to raise the river by two feet.
Due to the increased flows and the danger of trees sweeping down (and they did), fishing for the morning was cancelled. Many guests took the opportunity to rest aching muscles and catch up on reading—fishing in the jungles of Bolivia can wear you out! A few of the guides led a group of guests into the jungle with some of the locals to hike and check out the local flora. Seeing the river rise overnight from just one storm left the anglers with a new appreciation for the immense power of these rivers to completely transform the landscape.
A few anglers braved the raging river in the afternoon and managed to land a few fish in tough conditions. The river fell and cleared significantly overnight, but it was still much higher than we had seen over the two weeks. The fishing was slower in the lower sections on the last day, but the upper sections were more productive because they had already started to clear up. In spite of the difficult and varying conditions, the Argentine guides did a tremendous job of putting anglers on fish. The local boatmen were outstanding at poling up and down the rivers.
The staff at the lodge were top-notch and the food they provided us everyday kept us charged up to fish all day. Appetizers of cured meats, cheese, pizzas, and empanadas with chimichurri sauce were outstanding. Chucky, the lodge manager, served up a traditional Argentine asado barbecue both weeks by slow roasting a pig over open coals all day. Other dinners included pasta, grilled meats, and other classic South American dishes. Malbec wines flowed and the desserts were a sweet reward for all the hiking we did during the day.
The lodge and deck overlooking the river are wonderful social meeting places for anglers to discuss the day over some cold beverages. The staff was excellent at making sure the Yellow Dog gang has plenty of clean ice and cocktails. They were also happy to teach us more about the indigenous culture and the incredible jungle that surrounded us. Above all, it is this jungle setting that makes Tsimane such a unique and rewarding destination… and so much more than just a fishing trip. With Macaws singing in the skies above, cicadas humming from the depths of the lush jungle, and billions of brilliantly colored butterflies fluttering up like confetti as you hike upstream, the environment is truly exotic and this detail resonated very strongly with many of the guests.
It is a place that few foreigners get to experience… and it is this unspoiled quality of the Tsimane area that makes it such a wonderful destination for anyone seeking adventure and pristine beauty. We found that Winston’s new Boron IIIx + Jungle rod was absolutely the perfect weapon for Bolivia, as it is constructed specifically for throwing bulky flies in very rough and extreme conditions in big water. The rod is built with the most durable components, oversized guides, and slightly thicker walls so anglers have supreme stopping power and a rod that is generally more resilient. The castability of the rod can be described as "Winston smooth", yet it supports line with long, heavy leaders and oversized flies with the fast action nature of the taper. A nine weight is a perfect rod for Bolivia, but it would be smart to bring along a back-up as well as a 10wt. for the bigger, lower sections and an 8wt. for technical casting in the upper rivers.
Ian used Airflo’s NEW Bruce Chard ‘Tropical Punch’ floating line, which he would very highly recommend to other anglers travelling to this destination. The line behaved perfectly and allowed for minimal false casting, which is paramount when casting all day long. Due to the low water conditions, we did not find much use for intermediate sinking lines on this particular trip, but it is always important to have them. Rather, we induced several big takes from trophy dorado by casting into deep pools and bringing the fly in with long and very slow retrieves. This proved to be the most productive way to entice strikes in most conditions. On another gear-related note, we do suggest that you bring ray guards to Tsimane, but we note that most anglers didn’t even wear them and if they did, it was only in the lower sections where the water was muddy and the bottom was not visible.
Regardless, it is wise to shuffle your feet in the river, as a sting from one of these things could end your trip very painfully. We also recommend bringing along vaseline to put on your feet each morning so that you don’t get trench-foot from having wet feet all day… it can be nasty! Definitely make use of insect repellent when you’re down here and re-apply sunscreen often. But more than anything, we suggest that you practice your casting before you travel to Tsimane.
This can make a huge difference in your fish numbers and will ensure that you won’t be sore or blistered during the week from casting a big rod all day long. Once you hook that first dorado, feel it's raw power, and marvel at it's golden colors as it thrashes in the air on that first jump, we guarantee that your heart will skip a few beats and the image will be seared into your brain forever. But when you actually land the mighty Salminus brasiliensis, you will never forget the way it made you feel and that is what keeps us coming back to this very special place.