Golden Dorado, Gauchos, and Clouds of Magellan

This season the outfitter, Parana on the Fly, was given the opportunity by the Argentina government to open a fishing operation for golden dorado in the northern part of the Iberá Marsh in the new Iberá National Park. Six of us ventured there to fish pristine, clear waters that have not seen anglers before this year.

Our home base was the La Alonda, a lovely inn located in a quaint town with dirt roads, horses in backyards, and chickens crossing the road. The rooms were very comfortable and the food and service excellent. The inn was once a market and has been remodeled with a dramatic dining room, air conditioning, and excellent plumbing. Getting there was easy – a short flight from Buenos Aires to Corrientes or Resistencia, then an easy drive to Concepción. Getting to the fishing each morning was an early morning 45 minute drive to the boat ramp in the national park, past packs of docile capybaras lounging in the road.

The Iberá Marsh is the second largest wetland in the world, comprised of floating islands of grasses and brush that are constantly in motion to create everything from small channels to large lagoons. Over the course of a few days some channels close while others open up, sometimes making navigating a challenge. There is no one else there, other than a small handful of families that live completely off the grid in the distance.  There are no sounds, other than that of the marsh. More than once the angler in the bow got an adrenaline rush as a huge caiman was flushed from its mudbath, and we could hear them grunting in the reeds. Some guests made a game of counting how many caiman they saw in a day, upwards of 150.   The capybaras – essentially 100 pound giant rats, but cuter – mostly just look the other way when a boat approaches, but they are excellent swimmers after making a huge splash. Bring binoculars for bird watching and for spotting the small marsh deer that can somehow make their way over the reed islands.

Fishing for golden dorado in these waters is a bit different than fishing in the Upper Parana River. Long casts to structure is the rule there, whereas here the fish tend to lie in nervous water and the deeper, dark blue water that runs through a channel. It is astounding how these large fish can be found in a three foot wide channel; casting to them in a narrow, twisty space in the wind has a challenge of its own. Yes, there can be top water action with a mouse or baby gator pattern, and yes, there can be sight fishing. A tropical intermediate sink tip line works well here, but a heavier line is too much for the relatively shallow water. Some days the bite can be slow, but on a good day one can expect maybe five good fish, and on an excellent day, a fish over 20 lbs.

On the first day we fished in a large lagoon, where our guide observed that there was an 80% chance of getting a fish there – and we did. Golden dorado tend to pod up, like smallies or stripers, so where there is one there are likely others. The shallow waters and tight channels make panga-style poling more practical than rowing, with one angler casting in front and the other chilling. Dorado are voracious predators when they are actively feeding, and often once a fish was hooked other dorado would appear next to it to check out the action. We soon learned to keep a second rod at hand, so that the angler who was sitting out could take a shot into the melee and got several double hookups that way.

Every species of fish in the marsh seems to have lots of very sharp teeth. One guest, in just a momentary lapse, found his finger in the mouth of a nice dorado while taking its portrait and ended up with quite a gash. Piranhas are abundant and huge here. They are so fast that they are upon a fly before it can be jerked away. One piranha bite and the fly gets trimmed of all its feathers. Hooked up dorado also suffer injury from piranha bites, so getting them into the boat quickly makes a difference. Every dorado tail and dorsal fin seems to have big piranha bites taken out. On the other hand, a piranha just nibbled the ears and nose off my mouse pattern.

This year, the outfitter rotated guests throughout the week to a trip to a more remote fish camp. The floating islands closed off access by boat to the fish camp, so the journey there became quite an adventure.   Anglers took a boat to as far as it could be driven, at which point a gaucho on horseback towed the boat through very shallow water to not quite solid ground.  There were horses waiting there for anglers to mount up and ride the rest of the way to the remote camp, through mud and water. There was no way to do this on foot, though ankle deep mud and water, and caimans lurking nearby. Haven’t been on a horse for 50 years – no problem. It was an extraordinary introduction to the gaucho life in this part of Argentina.

Gauchos are essentially Argentine and Uruguayan cowboys. Dating back to the early 1800s, rural horsemen lead a rather nomadic lifestyle, herding horses and cows and working for estancias. Many gauchos today still wear the traditional baggy black pants, or bombachas, wide brimmed hats, and carry a facón (long knife), leather whip and lasso. Of course, some have cell phones, and some wear Polo brand shirts. Many still wear the traditional gaucho neck scarf.  We were told several different versions of what the neck scarf color means, from political affiliation to family lineage. Today, gauchos still work on estancias with cows and horses, and live a simpler life than city dwellers. They seem to prefer a diet mostly of meat, and, we were told, don’t eat salad.

The horses we rode were very well trained and very responsive to the rider’s commands. The saddles were not the wide leather Western seats we have in the USA; rather, they were recados, a saddle as vestigial as possible. A foam pad, a girth, a kind of small rug to sit on, and some stirrups. No horn to hang onto. The gauchos and fishing guides ride barefoot with their toes only in the stirrups. We tenderfoots keep our shoes on and got wet feet from the splashing horses’ legs and tails, while balancing fishing backpacks and rod tubes on our backs.

The fish camp was modest but pristine and comfortable. A small bath house has flush toilets and a quick hot shower possibility. Everything has to be brought in by horse or boat, so the meals were simple but well prepared. We drank gaucho lemonade after a day of fishing.  Everyone wanted seconds on the pasta. The location of the camp makes fishing even more remote water possible, along with the opportunity to fish until dark and just roll into the camp.

The extremely flat landscape here lends itself in general to big sky cloud watching and other solar phenomena. Solar halos can sometimes be seen here. Sunsets fill the sky. Every single person who went to the camp raved about stargazing at night. There is simply no light pollution there. This is the southern hemisphere sky, different constellations in different places.   We all noted what seemed like star clouds, later learning that these were the Magellanic clouds, irregular dwarf galaxies visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere.

Crystal clear skies, crystal clear water, big fish, being a gaucho for a day.  Check out and to make it happen.