Based on a vague tip, Nick organises his own trip into the Amazon wilderness.
“I know a mysterious river deep in the jungle, very hard to get to. The water is crystal clear and there are packs of huge dorado. You have to walk for days and cut your way through the bush with a machete to get there.” I had phoned Reuben for advice on the Amazon, and as he spoke, I became determined to go there. I wanted a real adventure, and Reuben’s story promised one.
The next six weeks were dedicated to solid research. I researched as if my life depended on it, which it very well might. After all, I was going independently into the unknown Amazon, not through an agency or fishing lodge. This sort of trip was impossible to organize from New Zealand. I would go over with nothing booked and work it out as I went.
There were no reports available on the fishing in the area I had in mind, as it was outside the usual guided region of Bolivia. I could, however, take the right gear. I asked my good mate Silvio Caldelari. He put me onto some Kiwis and Aussies who had guided in Bolivia. I requested advice on gear and approaches, and they very generously shared some basic tips with me. Eugene Pawlowski and Alex Waller mentioned RIO knot-able wire leader, tricks to prevent the dreaded jungle rot attacking your feet, and 8-9 weight rods. I researched fly patterns – big and black, and Max Graham tied me some lethal-looking flies in record time.
On arrival, I use my networks and spend a few days tyre-kicking and negotiating, until I secure three great jungle guides. Two of them only speak Spanish. The young guys are vying to be chosen for this trip as they have never been up this river. It is unknown country, even for these locals.
It’s taken a lot of preparation, but it’s finally happening. The boat, full of provisions and fuel, pushes out into the muddy waters and we begin our journey.
The river begins wide and brown. We travel upstream day after day, then enter the chosen tributary. It feels like taking an off-ramp, with the tributary a quiet dirt track heading into the hills.
I am learning to trust my guides. Juan and his nephew Simon grew up in the jungle and have spent their lives on the river. Juan’s great. Even though he speaks no English, and my Spanish is not yet perfect, we understand each other well. We speak the international language of anglers.
It’s the midwinter dry season and the river is low. Eventually, we reach a rocky riffle that would barely cover your boots. The riffle is 20 metres long and the hardwood boat full of gear weighs a tonne.
“Well, it’s impossible to go any further, I guess that we have to get out here and start hiking,” I say to Juan.
“Nothing is impossible,” says Juan. So we dig. With our hands. Half an hour later, the four of us have moved enough rocks to create a shallow ditch up the rapid, and then its “uno, dos, TRES!” On three we all push. Amazingly the boat slowly advances up the gradient, a yard at a time. At the top is a long deep pool which we motor through and then get out to push at the next rapid. We repeat this procedure many times each day. By doing this, we advance beyond the fishing range of other anglers.
There is camaraderie in pushing the boat up rapids together, and I am happy to get out of the boat and lend my muscle to the mission, breaking the client/ guide model and becoming one of the group working towards a common goal.
We settle into an easy jungle rhythm. Waking up to the campfire breakfasts with generous pots of tea. Young Simon is always laughing. Juan works hard, and loves his food. Every day is sunny, with hot afternoons and cool nights. The air is so clean and fresh, you can almost taste the extra oxygen oozing out of the rainforest. The river water is fine to drink straight.
Jaguars like to eat turtle eggs, and it is the river turtle breeding season. There are fresh jaguar tracks all over the beaches. My guides assure me they pose little risk, even while we are asleep on these same beaches. But I notice they sleep back-to-back beside their machetes.
However, stingrays are an acknowledged danger. They’re like dinner plate-sized land mines, and you do not want to step on one. Juan tells me about being stabbed by one, and being unable to walk for three months. They warn me against wading at dusk when I can’t see clearly. Each morning I lash on tough gaiters over the heavy boots, and I watch where I step. The others throw stones ahead into the riffles where we will cross. After many days of such travel we are deep in the jungle, far from other people, and ready to fish.
The Fish and the Fishing
Plunging run-ins, rock walls, deep green pools and sunny, sandy beaches characterise the upper river. The biggest dorado are associated with the most impressive-looking water. After days of travel through increasingly fishy water, we finally reach the perfect pool. We spot half-a-dozen fish in the tail of this large, lake-sized pool, cruising under overhanging bushes. The dorado feed best from 2pm–5.30pm, when the water is warmest. Packs patrol the shallow tails and edges of the pools, where they gang up on the baitfish in the shallows. They live in pools rich with fish and invertebrate life, swimming among a dorado supermarket. They’re big enough to eat anything in there, so I guess they don’t need to be too well camouflaged. But for near metre-long golden fish, they’re still surprisingly difficult to see.
I get into position on the open side of the pool, six-inch streamer in hand, with some line stripped off ready to cast. There is a strange rippling on the far side of the pool in the dark water beneath the bushes. It looks like the river is flowing over rocks causing standing waves. But I’m sure that the surface was calm and still a moment ago. Then I realise what it is. The huge dorado are swirling and herding up baitfish just beneath the surface. Next minute they are coming my way. A pack of several fish swim unhurriedly along the open shoreline, dark eyes scanning the shallows.
I start to cast the fly out ahead of them to lay a trap. However a snarl forms in my line hand and the fly line ties itself into a tight knot – the first time for the trip! As I unpick the tangle, I see that the line has been sliced open and this is what caused the issue. I calmly and quickly undo the knot and look back up the crystal-clear water. By now, the dorado are almost upon me. I make a short cast a couple of metres ahead of the pack and to their outside. One of the large females moves forwards without hesitation. She turns on the fly, all mouth and teeth, and munches its six inches with a casual brutality, like eating popcorn during a movie. I set the hook and hold on. During the fight she jumps several times while the men cheer, until I can subdue her enough for Juan to grab her tail.
At 31 inches (80cm) this fish is a lot heavier to lift than a trout, more like a golden salmon. I can’t quite believe it has really happened, especially when I had that tangle at the crucial moment. Securely hooked in the scissors, this large specimen also has very impressive teeth. Rows of golden scales glisten in the afternoon sun.
The weather’s perfect, and there’s a feeling of deep calm and timelessness. Each day gradually flows into the next, and always there’s the river, leading us on, deeper into the jungle. The deeper we go, the more wildlife we see. There are spider monkeys in the trees, huge raucous macaws overhead and toucans by the river. I am in the hands of quiet masters of these jungle waterways and they point them all out to me.
They are expert anglers in their own right. They catch large yatorana fish in the belly of the pools, motoring up behind me as I hike ahead to fish the prime water at the heads for dorado. They live in harmony with the jungle, and I learn to watch and do what they do.
I also fish for yatorana, casting a Woolly Bugger hard against the far bank, and sometimes getting a hit almost immediately as I jerk it back out into the flow. These fish jump and fight strongly; pound for pound even better than dorado.
I cast to sighted dorado, or if I prospect, I generally see the takes as a pack of fish materialise behind the fly, excitedly darting in and having a go. They move fast when they grab, and if you don’t set right, they can drop the fly just as quickly. You have to make each hook-up count, as the rest of the pack won’t bite after you hook one.
Eventually, we reach a deep canyon, and can go no further. We must leave the boat, with two men to protect it (and each other) while Juan and I trek on alone. I pick up my machete and we head into the jungle to get further upriver. In the last pool, I catch one more big dorado, the heavy fish jumping into the trees on a short line. It’s 33 inches, 84cm. It’s very hot, so after the fight I wade into the water to cool off.
As I dip underwater and then pop up, Juan excitedly points behind me saying “Tapir, tapir!” I stare at the dense jungle on the far bank, straining my eyes, but see nothing. Then a snout and head emerge from the water, right where I was swimming a moment ago! A large male tapir! Gracefully, at home in the water, the strange grey animal ducks and swims underwater to our shore. They have excellent hearing and smell, but poor eyesight. For half an hour we’re treated to a display, as Juan expertly whistles to keep him around looking for the cute female that he’d heard splashing in the river a minute ago, and eventually convinces him to get out on our shore. Tourists pay top dollar to go looking for these animals – by going remote, we’ve had one thrown in for free.
I’m satisfied, and don’t need to fish anymore. The hard part has been getting here, beyond other people – not deceiving these large Amazonian predators. It’s time to turn around and begin the long journey home.
We chew on coca leaves and lie back in the balmy evening as the boat powers on down rapids and the number of people on the river gradually increases.
This is a world away from the usual cares of man. Sitting beside the fire on the last night, I feel very grateful to have found this quiet place, deep in the green jungle. And I find a quiet place inside. The canyon was the end of the road. But not the end of the story. We will return to push deeper.
I gratefully acknowledge the fishing guides, jungle guides, and mates here and there who made the trip possible through sharing some of their knowledge. There are still adventures out there, for those willing to pursue them.
Nick Moody works in river conservation in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you are interested in joining him on a dorado fishing trip in future, email [email protected] or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/mrnicholasmoody.