Springtime on the Upper Parana River in Argentina

Golden dorado might be my favorite target species, so when the opportunity came to fish the Upper Parana River in October I headed south to Argentina for some southern hemisphere spring fishing. I had fished twice before with the outfitter, Parana on the Fly (paranaonthefly.com) in the autumn, but this was a chance to try a different season on this river.

This is the jungle.  We had all kinds of weather from cold, rainy, windy, and then hot.  Trees were in flower with fragrant blossoms.  Mosquitoes were only just beginning to appear.  Wildlife was so much more active than in the hotter summer months.  Casting to dorado is casting to structure, and on a deadfall limb we found a hummingbird sitting on her tiny nest, with four impossibly tiny babies inside.  Howler monkeys were loud and frisky, watching us from tree tops, sphinxlike.  One afternoon we all heard ominous humming from swarming bees.  An hour later, as we crossed the river by jet boat to find a new fishing spot, we ran smack through the enormous swarm.  It was a kind of “NatGeo” moment as we marveled at being inside the swarm, but this was followed by several anxious minutes of swatting of the mostly stunned bees on our clothing and boat.  There were lots of caiman, more than I have ever seen there.  Some were absolutely enormous and lurked in the deadfall we were casting to.

We saw huge schools of sabalo, the mainstay of the dorado diet.  Sabalo seem disturbed by nothing; we could cast right into the middle of the school with no effect on the sabalo, sometimes snagging a fish or two.  A couple of sabalo actually took flies that week.  Their schooling seems reminiscent of sockeye salmon, with similar boiling on the surface.  Sabalo are so unaware that golden dorado often lie underneath the school, like a wolf in a flock of sheep.  Why dorado even need to hunt at all is a mystery, as their food source is so plentiful and seemingly placid.  We plunked beads under trees in the hope of moving some pacu, but the trees that produce the favorite fruit for pacu were just blooming.  There were reports of the pacu bite beginning, but our efforts only elicited bites from aggressive pira pita and boga, a smallish chub-like fish.

The fishing day is very long here.  On “early” mornings, breakfast is at 5 AM, boat launch at 5:30 AM, back at the lodge at 11:30- 12:30.  Middays are slow for fishing, so guests get lunch and a rest, while guides run errands in town, tie flies, and tend to boat maintenance.   The boats head out again around 3:30 PM, and fish as late as guests are willing to cast to structure in pitch dark.  “Regular” days begin with breakfast at 6:30 AM and boat launch at 7 AM.   Dinner is at 9:30 PM, bedtime is around 10:30 PM or later. One hot day we had a shore lunch upriver rather than return to the lodge. Guests lolled about in the shade until it was fishing time again, while some of the guides took a refreshing swim.

My boat partner, an excellent caster and very experienced angler, chose to go heavy, with a 10 wt rod, while I found a 7 wt was easier for me to cast all day. The guides prefer something with a taper like a tropical redfish line for a floating line, and a second rod with a clear tip intermediate sink tip.  Leaders are straight 60 lb mono with about 12 inches of 40 lb wire. Dorado are not especially leader-shy, but in clearer water a longer leader may be helpful.

Fishing the Upper Parana is not to everyone’s taste.  There is relentless casting, often in very windy situations, to structure, whether to treacherous dead branches, overhanging trees and vines, or rock piles, and to sandy flats.   The Upper Parana water is typically brown, with a few feet of visibility.  This time the water was clearer and especially low, exposing islands and sand banks I had never seen before.  The boats are comfortably long enough for both anglers to cast simultaneously.  There are few “numbers” days on this river; anglers are here to get a 20+ lb trophy dorado.  Most solid anglers can get at least one such fish a week, and you might end up with a photo of you and your trophy fish on the wall of the lodge.  The fish are certainly in the river, as we could see absolutely enormous fish rolling every day, often close to the boat launch.  These apex predators normally dine on huge, 5 lb sabalos.  Getting their attention with a skimpy 8 inch fly takes both skill and luck.  Casting requires teacup accuracy to deliver the fly to where these fish want to ambush their prey.  Of course, there are anecdotal stories about fish taking a fly carelessly dangled over the side of the boat, but that has never been my luck.  On this trip the smaller, “fun size” dorados were aggressively biting.  One might get five or so of these 2-5 lb fish in a day.

The bite is best early in the morning and late in the evening.  Dorado love to hunt at night.  For the angler, this can be daunting.  Rainy nights can be very challenging, just guessing where the cast is going with no visual or auditory clues.  Starlit nights, complete with shooting stars and fireflies, are more seductive to staying out later.  Untangling knotted lines or rescuing a fly stuck in the structure ends the fishing pretty quickly.  Practice casting with your eyes closed to get a feeling for the pitch dark.

One might ask, what happens when a big fish takes the fly in the middle of those sunken branches?  My boat partner hooked up such a fish, which immediately wrapped itself around the nearby deadfall.  He and the guide epically struggled to rescue the situation, just short of actually jumping into the river.  A problem with snagging a fly on structure, or having a fish wrapped around a branch is that the hefty leader and wire won’t break before the fly line does.  The fish couldn’t win here; it was deep in the water and wrapped and would have to somehow bite its way out of its situation.  The angler can’t win either; the fly line eventually snapped.  Bring an extra fly line with you for this possibility.  I picked up a fish that had a wire leader still trailing from its mouth from some other encounter, likely with a gear fisherman.

The comfortable, casual lodge is right on the water, so getting to the boats each day is a matter of a few meters walk to the boat dock. There is always great wine, great food, and excellent service, and lots of delicious red meat.  Try a Coke with Fernet, a favorite drink in Argentina.  One night we were entertained by a family musical group that played the local music of the Corrientes province.  The musicians, clad in traditional costumes, were followers of the Virgin of Itati, a reference to the beautiful basilica in the town of Itati. The music featured upbeat accordion and guitar with some vocals.  Even the most cynical among us was charmed by their stories of using a tractor battery to power a television to watch Karl Malden in the old series, “The Streets of San Francisco.”

Getting to the Parana on the Fly Lodge is easy.   Take a flight from Buenos Aires to Corrientes or Resistencia, where a driver will pick you up and take you to the lodge.  The lodge is near the small town of Itati, with its impressive basilica that lights up the night sky.

(The author with a fine specimen above – thanks for reading!)