Are golden dorado the perfect game fish? When targeted with a fly rod, dorado combine attributes of many of the best fish species. They possess the predatory instincts of a musky. Their head-shaking leaps are reminiscent of tarpon. A baffling wariness may remind an angler of the choosiest permit. Dorado are often sight-fished in crystal clear water like a brown trout on the South Island of New Zealand. With iridescent, speckled flanks, they rival sea-run dolly varden and arctic char as one of the most visually appealing fish in the world. Dorado thrive in spectacular jungle environments, brimming with butterflies, macaws, and tapirs. What more could an angler want in a game fish? Chad Agy Presents: 2023 Golden Dorado Trip Recap
The vast majority of dorado reside in the Paraná River, the second longest river in South America. Draining much of northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia, this expansive waterway provides ample habitat for dorado. Many outfitters target dorado throughout the region, particularly in northern Argentina. However, a peculiar group of dorado reside in the headwaters of the Madeira River, a major tributary to the Amazon River. How these fish got there from the Paraná is unclear, but high in the Andean foothills of central Bolivia exists a special breed of dorado, thought to be a distinct subspecies of the Paraná fish. Here, a company called Untamed Angling established a trio of lodges designed to target dorado in this unique, mountainous jungle environment. Also known as the Tsimane Lodges after the indigenous communities that allow access to the area, these lodges have become the most popular high-end option for targeting dorado over the past decade. Although I hope to soon target dorado in the lower-lying marshes of the Paraná, the rest of this article will focus on my recent experience at the Securé Lodge, one of the Tsimane Lodges.
Fishing for Dorado
Going down the dorado YouTube rabbit hole is a dangerous activity. There exist many impressive videos about fishing for this species, especially ones that were filmed in Bolivia (Google “Tsimane 3x Episode Two” if you want to be ruined). Quite simply, dorado really are an incredible species of fish, and they are easy to showcase. However, these videos are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. Instagram can be deceiving. While some lucky anglers might show up during outlier conditions when the fishing is next level, these are generally fairly tough fish to catch. They probably aren’t quite on the level of the most difficult species like steelhead, permit, or musky. But 1-2 fish landed per day constitutes a successful trip for most. Even out in the middle of the jungle, the waters fished by the Tsimane lodges are fairly heavily pressured. The first time I saw a dorado soft spook into deeper water like a rainbow trout on the Railroad Ranch of the Henry’s Fork was… fairly discouraging. The drought that is currently gripping much of South America means that there are fewer naive migratory fish making it up to the Bolivian headwaters. The resident dorado have seen a lot of flies. The fishing is tough–but not impossible–and anglers need to bring their A game.
To catch a dorado first requires an adept presentation, whether blind casting or sight fishing. The cast doesn’t need to be done from a mile away, but the angler can’t go stomping up to the water right next to the fish. Anglers need to have an accurate cast between 40-60 feet in length. Many dorado eats will happen within seconds of the fly hitting the water. When fishing a streamer, the fly needs to be moving the moment it touches down. I actually tried to start stripping before the fly hit the water. When sight fishing, the fly needs to come down on top of the dorado’s head in order to take advantage of the fish’s tendency to produce a reactionary bite.
So you’ve hooked a dorado! Great work! But that’s just the beginning of the process. The dorado have a rock hard mouth, and they require a tremendous hook set. The best advice I got about the hook set was “keep setting until the dorado jumps.” I lost a few fish I should have landed because of an inadequate hook set. Two or three strip sets is often not enough to drive the hook point into the skull of these fish.
The hooked dorado will make the others in its school go nuts. The other dorado see your fish going berserk, and this process may initiate a pseudo-feeding frenzy. Other dorado will literally try to steal the fly out of your fish’s mouth, to the point that the guide will start throwing rocks into the water in an attempt to scare the other fish away. Several fish were lost during our week due to other dorado snapping the line with their razor sharp teeth in an attempt to steal the fly out of a hooked fish’s mouth. It was baffling to see these wary, intelligent fish turn into murderous psychopaths the moment another fish was hooked..
If you can make it through the first 30-60 seconds of a fight with a dorado, the fish is yours. They generally don’t come unattached after the initial fight, and they expend all of their energy during the first chaotic 30 seconds.
At this point, pretty much every mainstream fly rod company makes one or more rods that would work well for dorado. This isn’t the time or place for the gnarliest, stiffest rods out there. Rarely does the angler need to cast more than 60 feet. Presentation matters as much if not more than casting distance. 8- and 9-weight rods are the norm when fishing for dorado in Bolivia.
While fishing Maniquicito Creek, one of the most special corners of the Securé Lodge fishery, the G Loomis NRX+ rod was thrust into my hands by my friend Dave, who was encouraging me to try a different fly. Simply put, I didn’t want to put the rod down after I had a chance to cast it. It certainly has the backbone for a long cast, but compared to other fast action rods, the rod had a feel to it that was quite enjoyable. I had an easier time casting around the trees and vines of the jungle, while I felt more accurate with this rod than other options.
In Bolivia, the relatively small, shallow nature of the rivers means that one does not necessarily need to go dredging to find success. Additionally, most of the feeding fish position themselves in the heads of the pools, often in three feet of water or less. Therefore, most of the fishing is done with floating lines. In deeper sections of the lower river, it may pay to have an intermediate line. Rarely is a full sink line required. I did all my fishing with the Rio DIrectCore Jungle Series Lines. 90% of the fishing was done with the floating line, and I occasionally deployed the S3 for slightly deeper spots.
The guides prefer fairly simple, stout leaders. About 9 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon is attached to 1-2 feet of 40 lb Rio Powerflex Wire tippet. This system almost makes the reel obsolete, as even a large, 20+ lb dorado will not be able to break this tippet system. The smart move is to brutally strip the dorado in without getting it on the reel.
Both dry flies and streamers are used during the pursuit of dorado in Bolivia. Again, presentation trumps all, and the exact fly doesn’t seem to matter so much. If fishing during high water, weighted flies like the Andino Deceiver are used for dorado. During the dry season, unweighted baitfish patterns are preferred. Anglers should bring an assortment of colors, but the black, gray, and copper hues of the sabalo baitfish are generally preferred. The quality of the hook is more important than the exact pattern. I tied my flies on Ahrex SA 270 4/0 and 5/0 hooks. These hooks are razor sharp and practically unbendable. They work very well for dorado.
During my trip to Bolivia, the guides actually preferred dry flies. Fishing on top is especially effective during the dry season of September through early October. The Titanic Slider outfished every other fly during our trip. A variety of large mice patterns were also productive. For an adept fly tier, this is where the preparation for a trip to Tsimane is particularly enjoyable. Ever thought about tying a gecko fly? This is the trip for it! Caterpillar flies, bird flies, bat flies, snake flies… get creative! Again, these fish have seen some pressure. Bringing some flies they haven’t seen before can play dividends in overcoming their pickiness.
Other musings about Tsimane
- Take a reliable water filter. Depending on the client’s level of fitness, opportunity exists for long walks into the backcountry, where the jungle really shines and the fishing opportunities improve. The weather fluctuates immensely, and on the cooler days these sojourns may not be too exhausting. However, our longest walk was an 11-mile hike to the headwaters of the Securé River, and the temperature hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit on this day. Although the indigenous porters carry as much water as they can, predictably we ran out of water just over halfway through the day. The walk back to the dugout canoe was a true sufferfest in the blazing heat, as dehydration progressed to heat exhaustion. With pathogens like leptospira and giardia present in the waterways, a trusty water filter would have made this experience a bit more tolerable.
- I don’t use felt wading boots much due to their tendency to transport hitchhiking organisms between waterways. That said, I’d recommend getting a new pair of felt wading boots for Tsimane. Walking on slippery basketball-sized boulders for a week was much less of a task due to the stickiness of the felt. Leave the cleats at home. They will be more slippery on the large rocks, and the noise they make will signal the angler’s presence to the wary dorado.
- Take advantage of the jungle experience! I tend to use fly fishing as a vehicle for travel, and nowhere is this more true than in the jungle. Many people couldn’t identify Bolivia on a map, and Tsimane is in a remote corner of this oft-visited country. I feel immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit such an isolated and special locale. The travel and jungle adventure honestly supersedes the fishing aspect of the trip (which was incredible in its own right). Taking advantage of the jungle experience will mean different things to different people. Take a telephoto lens and photograph the many exotic birds that fly overhead. Talk to the natives about their lives (some are more receptive to conversation than others). Ask a native to borrow their bow and arrow and try to shoot a sabalo. Bring a butterfly identification manual and see how many species you can spot. I took a catfish rod and tried to catch a monster at night (without having any idea what I was doing). I hooked into a catfish of unknown size, but after 60 seconds of the hardest pull I’ve ever had on a fishing rod, the fish broke my 80 lb braid. Opportunities abound to experience a way of life many of us can hardly conceptualize… if you can look up from the next dorado holding at the head of the pool upstream.
- Several other worthy fish species inhabit the waters of Tsimane. Pacu seem to enjoy the most notoriety. These omnivores eat fruit and nuts, but also seem to enjoy a well-placed, small black streamer. I didn’t luck into any pacu during my week at Tsimane, but several were caught by others in my group. Yatorana are another awesome species to catch on a fly rod. Although they run a bit smaller than the dorado, pound for pound they are respected as the strongest fish in the jungle. I landed one of the biggest yatorana I’ve seen anywhere, and the fish put on an absolute show while a school of 15 lb dorado tried to steal the fly from its mouth. A few catfish of various species are landed every year at Tsimane. Although these are a realistic catch, they don’t readily take flies, and therefore these fish are not necessarily targeted and catches are fairly sporadic.
The Tsimane Lodges have so much to offer, particularly for a physically fit and mentally tough angler. We suffered through oppressive heat. We had the skin of our feet slough off due to unrelenting warm water immersion and the trauma of tough wading conditions. We endured the most painful insect bites and stings of our lives. But everyone in my group will treasure the experience indefinitely. The Bolivian rainforest is a special, unadulterated place, and it offers one of the best fly fishing experiences in the world.