Golden Dorado: Savage River Gods of Argentina

Struck bottom, was my first thought, not a monster golden dorado. I must have been lazy in my stripping retrieve and let the fly sink deep enough to hang on a rock. I held tight and kept pressure on it just in case, then lifted the rod, but it bowed in a steady, unwavering arc that confirmed my suspicion.

“I’m hung up. Sorry guys.” I said to my fishing companion, Gustavo, and our guide, Diego.

I relaxed my rod and released the pressure on the fly line, and then everything that I knew about the normal, conventional world of fly fishing became distorted. Just as the brilliant green RIO line fell lightly to the surface of the water, it snapped back tight and sizzled through the serpentine guides along the shaft of the rod so fast that they resonated in a loud “ping”. The forefinger on my right hand was hooked around the line, and was instantly seared as the line burned over the flesh in the first joint. I clutched the line in my left hand to anchor it, and instinctively pulled the rod high to set the hook, as decades of trout fishing had taught me to do. The rod bounced and bucked, the tip plunging into the brackish clear water, and then, everything went slack.

I’d just blown my first shot at a really huge Golden Dorado.

This was one of my bucket trips. After twelve years living and exploring the trout waters of Argentina, I finally answered the call to chase the most vicious freshwater game fish on the continent, the Golden Dorado. A brilliant, glowing metallic river god with sharp teeth and a hunger for fleshy meals. They’re the top of the food chain in these waters, and relatively few fishermen will ever take one on the fly. But fortune has smiled on me in recent years, and I’ve made friends in the right places. Friends like Gustavo Hiebaum, owner of Andes Drifters. Gustavo has cultivated a unique relationship with a lodge and guide service on the upper Paraná River in northern Argentina, in the jungle strewn delta along the border with Paraguay. In this place more than any other ever found it’s possible, even likely, to have a real shot at hooking a big golden dorado on a fly. Not just the garden variety five-to-ten pounders, but the kind of monster that breaks the scales.

 

*   *   *

“Are you ready?” my friend Dan asked as we met up in the boarding line at the airport.

I was anxious, but not completely sure of my state of readiness. We were on the same flight out of our small hometown, San Martin de los Andes in the northern Lakes region of Patagonia. Dan, an easy going pro-fishing guide, with a permanently-relaxed disposition and a rarely-combed tangle of hair has been a friend and river companion for many years. He relishes the wilderness rivers, camps, and exploratory early season trips. This was one of those. A trip for the guides and a few lucky friends to get their fish-catching juices flowing before the regular trout season opens in November. And nothing brings the guides to life better than big, mean fish on a fly.

Last year, on this same preseason adventure, Dan landed a monster. The kind of fish that would make a career for the average guy or even a guide from somewhere else in the world. He landed a golden dorado that weighed something in excess of 19 kilos (42 pounds). On an 8-weight fly rod. And typical for Dan, he was completely nonchalant about it. The rest of us would be showing photos on our iPhones to everyone willing to stand still for a second.

The Aerolineas Argentina 737 chirped into the runway at Buenos Aires where we picked up two more of our companions, Gaston and Gonzalo. We lounged in the food court and munched on pizza and German beer before our final flight. There was a soccer match playing on the large screen tv across the way; a match between the two most adored and despised teams, Boca Juniors and River. It’s a match that literally stops Argentines from breathing in normal rhythms, but as much as my friends tried to feign interest, they were incessantly checking the weather forecasts and water conditions in Corrientes and scanning for updates. The water clarity, temperatures, storm systems, everything outside our field of control, could impact the success of this hunt for golden dorado. Their eyes were glued to the tv, but their minds were hovering over a river to the north. A river that might hold destiny or utter defeat in the coming days.

We were four now, and meeting another six tonight at our hotel in Corrientes, Argentina. At nearly midnight, we landed in its sister city, Resistencia, on the opposite side of the mighty Paraná River. As the flight attendant opened the door and we stepped out into the darkness and down the rolling stairs onto the tarmac, I realized how far from Patagonia I’d ventured in just a few hours of flying time. I left in cold and snow, and now felt the oven-like heat of the South American jungles sucking the wind from my lungs. The ambient temperature was 91 degrees in the evening.

A private van was waiting for us and drove us across the river and through the late night bustle of Corrientes, another Argentine city that never seems to really sleep, and as we pulled up to the hotel, the rest of our team was gathered outside, licking ice-cream cones and sipping on cool drinks.

“Are you ready?” came the question again. This time from my pal Gustavo, as we stepped out of the van. I had to wonder.

The next morning I rose before the sun, which is my nature, and carried the bags to the elevator for the ride down to the lobby. A light backpack with few clothes and personals, and a large, heavy laden Simms bag with the bulk of my weapons and gear. Rods, reels, rain gear, everything I thought I might possibly need and a few more items just in case, “por la duda” as my Argentine friends say. I was the long-tooth in the group. Only weeks away from my fifty-ninth birthday, with nearly fifty-seven years of holding a fishing rod in my hands. I’ve lived and fished in wild places over the world, and yet, I was the unmistakable rookie in this group.

Expecting to find a moment of solitude and the first fresh coffee in the lobby, I found Gustavo had arrived ahead of me. His gear bags patiently perched in front of the lobby doors, as he sat at a small table and handled the laptop needs of managing his growing business. This was his birthday-week fishing trip, but he never disconnects from his clients and managing the coming season. Since his twenties, he’s been slowly growing Andes Drifters from a one man guiding operation into a full scale Patagonian adventure company. But this week, he was also fully committed to chasing his own monsters.

golden dorado fishing at Parana on the flyWe arrived early at our final destination, the Paraná on the Fly Lodge in the small village of Itati, along the shores of the Paraná River. Breakfast was waiting, but as the ten of us sat at the long table it was obvious we all had our eyes and our imagination fully focused on the vast water moving past, just outside the window. I abandoned the food, stood and walked to the screen door for a better look. Then compelled by the cooler air coming from the water, I pushed the squeaky door open and stepped out onto the lawn. Five skiffs were tied at the ready below at the dock, and as I walked to the edge, the shear size of the river took me back.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but not water this enormous. It was miles across, lined by thickly forested jungle, and I could hear the cackling and deep, groaning calls of howler monkeys in the trees. Then, as if to remind me that I’d traveled far from home, a wild toucan with a glimmering black body and an impossibly long bill painted in the colors of the rainbow landed in the tree just above my head. I’d only ever seen them as cartoon characters on the front of cereal boxes, and again, it slightly shook my sense of reality.

Lost for a time in my own little world, I was suddenly aware that others had wandered out and stood around me, hearing the same river song. It was a call to battle.

In minutes the non-essentials were safely stored in our rooms and rods were strung and standing at the ready. I brought the largest weapon I owned, a TFO Clouser 8-weight, and a TFO Axiom 6 for the smaller Pacu fish. One of the five guides inspected my rods, and offered to properly rig them for the big golden fish. He removed the existing leader and replaced it with 60 lb monofilament, and to that he added two feet of plastic-coated wire for tippet.

“These fish have nasty teeth,” he said, as he finished the rigging with a streamer that more resembled a saltwater marlin fly.

The engines roared and five Carolina skiffs, each with a pair of anglers and guide all peeled to different headings. Some up-river, some down; and as I later learned, it made almost no difference. This massive watershed held structure and fish everywhere you looked. The golden dorado are much like other predators, they seek out the trees and stumps that fall from the edge of the jungle during high water seasons and floods; and also the endless array of natural rocky points along the shore. They lie in wait in the deep water in large schools and hunt from cover. And it didn’t take long to find my first fish.

golden dorado by Patagonia Fly Fisherman, William Jack StephensWe started a slow drift with the current; our guide, Marcelo, using an electric trolling motor to keep us moving slightly slower than the fast river, and in perfect reach of the shore. After a long cold winter, I was still working on my casting rhythm, and only four casts in when the retrieve ended with a violent jerk. Lucky for me he hit hard and turned directly into the hook-set, because I was still daydreaming. It was the perfect introduction to golden dorado; a seven or eight pound fish that jumped, flailed, dove, and spun wildly around the boat. Big enough to bend the 8 weight rod nicely over, but not so big that I’d be shy of the next. Two aborted nettings demonstrated his determination to fight to the bitter end.

Holding that first golden dorado in my hands evoked the same emotions as the first rainbow trout I ever held. Absolute awe. The unimaginably metallic cast of gold, and shimmering opalescence in the cheeks. The thick, muscled fuselage of a body with perfectly aligned camouflage spots, and a flaming orange rudder split down the center by a painted black stripe.

If you ever doubt God’s existence, just gaze at one of these fish and try to imagine any other force of nature that could create such a beautiful thing.

The remainder of that first morning followed much the same pattern, and added another species to the frequently caught list; the pira pita, or salmone as the locals call them. It looked very much like the North American Shad to me, only bearing razor sharp teeth, the typically Amazonian tail stripe, and a really bad attitude. They fight with the same reckless abandon as the golden dorado, and I hear tell they grow nearly as large.

But as exciting as the first day on the Paraná had been, it wasn’t all perfect. Many golden dorado after the first had exposed a gaping hole in my artistry as a fly fisherman.

*   *   *

As the light faded and the first stars began to glow overhead, we turned the skiff into the orange sunset and set a course home. I was absorbed in thought; reflecting on many mistakes made that first day, and lost opportunities. It seemed that all the years and all the successes of my past hadn’t translated into an automatic victory of the golden dorado. In fact, I had my ass handed to me about a dozen times this day. Marcelo gave me polite instruction early on about my hook-setting technique, and advised that only a strip set would effectively seal-the-deal on a large golden dorado.

“Asi,” (like this) he said, as he leaned forward and yanked his hand back as if he were snapping back a rope that was attached to an immovable object.

But whether it was slowness to adapt, or just plain hubris, I wasn’t catching on. It never failed; as I was lulled into a trance after many casts without a strike, and by the wonderful sites and sounds all around me, from nowhere a dorado would rush from the deep and smash my fly. And functioning on instinct rather than conscious thought, I’d lift the rod to set, and promptly lose the fish.

It became my quicksand. The more I tried to think about it, the more often I fouled it up; and while I still managed to catch some nice fish, I was losing more than I landed.

On the third day, I was paired with Gustavo when I lost the fish that could have made my year. The fish I started this story with. As my line went slack, we had just a glimpse of his giant glimmering head as he rolled and laughed. My shoulders and head fell as limp as the fly line floating in the ripples of his wake. I stared at my bare feet on the deck, and considered that I might just not be cut out for this challenge. I was defeated yet again.

Our guide, Diego, whispered something to Gustavo, and he nodded his head in agreement.

“I know. I lifted the freaking rod. He caught me napping again.” I said.

“We were speculating about the size of that fish.” Gustavo answered. “We’ve seen this a lot, and when a fish follows a fly that far out and attacks late in the retrieve, it’s almost always a really big one.”

My angst grew.

 

Twenty feet further on, Gustavo made a beautiful cast into the rocks and as suddenly as he started stripping his fly, a massive shadow bolted from the cover in chase. It closed in on the fly and just as it reached it, it stopped dead in the water mere inches away. And watching this unfold, I learned my greatest lesson. Gustavo never paused, never lost his nerve, and never changed his stance. He kept stripping the giant black feathered fly in straight pulls, and the instant the fly moved again, the dorado lunged and smashed it to pieces. And I do mean literally smashed it, as it had to be discarded after the battle was over.

Gustavo deftly strip-set the huge fish, and then settled into a smooth fight; allowing the monster to rip line from the reel as he wished, and then recovering it as he could without pushing the 8-weight to the breaking point. Diego slowly maneuvered the boat away from the sharp rocks that might cut the monofilament leader or the fly line. It takes a particular level of nerve to stay calm with a massive beast attached to your line, and Gustavo was as cool as ice. The big fish went deep and moved around and below the boat; Gustavo gently followed, stepping over and around the deck, and as the fish relaxed, he leaned back into the rod and spun the reel handle a few turns at a time to bring him inches closer to the surface.

It was a long and protracted battle that came to a satisfying end. As the golden monster came to the surface and thrashed for the final time, Diego leaned out and slipped the huge net below his chin. My own defeat was quickly forgotten as I cheered and video’d my friend, and I decided to let go of my own big-one-that-got-away. I may or may not have a chance at another fish that size on this trip, but by the gods, I was determined to learn how to master this technique. What it took in the end, was a complete shift in my fishing mind.

I finally realized that this was not a lazy man’s game. There’s no room for relaxing, or letting your mind wander to the clouds. These fish are unpredictable. I have to be ready at any moment, any second, and every strip of the fly. And that’s where the epiphany came: “Every strip of the fly.” Among the trout fisherman of the world, myself included, stripping is how we bring animation and a semblance of life to the fly. It’s what makes it seem natural and triggers a bite, which is why I’ve always enjoyed streamer fishing so much. After the take, and sometimes even pausing for a moment to allow the trout a better grip, you set the hook. But that mindset was failing me in the world of the golden dorado.

I boarded the skiff on day-four a different man. Forget the monkeys, and birds, and caimans, capybaras and river otters swimming entertainingly all around us. My mind was tightly wound around the fly and every strip. As the boat slowed and coasted into position for the first drift, I moved to the front platform and braced myself for combat. After three days of casting the heavier rods, my back and shoulders were beginning to throb. Knees and ankles were sore from balancing for eight hours a day on the deck of a skiff in constant motion. My right hand was blistered and bleeding, and there was barely any skin left on my thumbs. I ignored it all.

As I made my first cast into the submerged trees, I hunkered low, moved my rod-hand forward and down to the waterline instead of standing tall and letting it hang comfortably at my waist, and I began ripping out an intense series of strips. Driving back with my elbow and snapping my fist at the finish. I was coiling a yard of line in the bottom of the boat behind me with every rip.

In my mind I was repeating my new mantra; every strip I’m setting the hook.

This wasn’t just adding animation to the fly. Golden dorado don’t give a crap if it moves elegantly through the water. If it moves at all they think it’s food, and that’s all that matters.

For the remainder of my time floating the Paraná, I slew nearly all that crossed my path. On the last afternoon my fishing companion, Franky, and our guide, Alejandro, were yelling, “You’re on fire!” They were right, but it wasn’t a cosmic happenstance. It was the result of taking a terrible beating at the hands of a brutal foe, and being forced to relearn everything I knew about taking fish on the fly. The golden dorado had done what no other fish for decades had; molded me into yet a slightly better fisherman.

Alas, the next giant never rose to my fly before we made the last cast into a brilliant falling sun. But when the next time comes, he’ll face a far more skillful angler than the one he laughed at before.

golden dorado fishing Patagonia Fly Fisherman

And as for my friend Gustavo Hiebaum, the man who schooled me through skillful demonstration, he had not one, but two epic victories on golden dorado this trip.

Maybe it was a birthday gift from the Gods. The Savage River Gods of Argentina.

 

 

 

 

 

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