Fly-Fishing the Bolivian Amazon

By Ian Provo.

“We spent two days traveling upriver without ever making a cast. Our lead Tsimané guide, Patricio, navigated through the murky water in a fully loaded dugout canoe while dodging sunken logs every 50 feet. It was his decisive handling of the boat that allowed us to return home safely.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

Part I

After two hours of flying in a single-engine Cessna above the Amazonian canopy, I knew this trip was going to be crazier than anything we had done before. I looked out the window, and all I saw was jungle, the kind of impenetrable stuff I’d seen in my parents’ National Geographics as a kid. I couldn’t help but think about Alaska, where my brother Neil and I had our first taste of fixed-wing adventuring and expedition camping only a few years before, and where the concept of skiing and fishing in one trip was conceived. The vastness of the jungle reminded me of the Alaskan glaciers and mountains, and the feeling of remoteness crept into my bones just as it had up north. We were in Bolivia, which is nearly as big as Alaska, more remote, more foreign, and essentially further from our reality than any place we’d been before.

We brought our skis and snowboard along just in case we could make our way to the mountains, to the source of the Amazon, but we traveled to Bolivia with really only one thing on our minds: catching a golden dorado on the fly. Going after these fish in Bolivia is almost impossible to do on your own, and I knew we needed to meet the right people in order to make it happen. I found exactly who we needed on Instagram, of all places, while searching the hashtag #goldendorado, and without really thinking it through, I was sending thousands of dollars to some guys in Bolivia I’d never met. The lady at the bank must have thought I was moving drugs.

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Our new friends, Patrick and Federico, had all the knowledge about fishing in the Bolivian Amazon that we didn’t have, and they agreed to take us in. We couldn’t have done this trip without them. After months of planning, organizing supplies and handling logistics, Neil, Federico, and I stepped off the plane and onto the jungle airstrip, ready to begin our journey. For the next eight days, our pursuit of the “river tiger,” a.k.a. the golden dorado, one of the most possessed fish that swims on this planet, would be relentless and challenging, and everything we’d hoped it would be.

Traveling by dugout canoe, guided by the indigenous Tsimané people of the area, we spent two days moving upriver to the headwaters where the prime fishing grounds were located. Little sets of curious eyes could be seen through the jungle foliage as our team ascended the river.

At our third camp, the clouds dissipated and the Milky Way appeared to glow above the jungle canopy. After a hearty meal cooked over the fire, the crew was always eager to fall asleep to the deep sounds of the forest.
“At our third camp, the clouds dissipated and the Milky Way appeared to glow above the jungle canopy. After a hearty meal cooked over the fire, the crew was always eager to fall asleep to the deep sounds of the forest.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

Every so often we would stop into these riverside communities to visit with the locals and, of course, ask them how the fishing was. They were living the old way, disconnected from modern society, and it was absolutely fascinating to witness. We entered this primordial jungle to fly fish, but the cultural enlightenment we experienced had a more profound impact than any of the fish we caught.

Our first dorado came to hand on the third day, within minutes of my very first cast of the trip. The fish were hunting their prey, crashing through schools of sábalo at a tremendous rate. My 10-inch-long streamer landed amidst the feeding frenzy and almost immediately I hooked up with one of the golden beasts. After a few hard stip sets, the large hook settled into his bony jaw, and he blasted into the air. The energy coming through the line and down the Orvis 10wt rod and into my hand was blowing my mind—I was totally out of my element. The water looked like the perfect trout stream, but this was no trout. The ferocity of this animal was unparalleled to anything I’d ever had on a line. We released our first golden dorado and watched him vanish back into the pristine headwater stream, the energy of the fish now embedded in our souls forever. Our first interaction with the apex predator was short lived, and for the next five days the weather conspired against us. A cold rain infiltrated the jungle, and the rivers swelled. Not even our polarized Smith optics could help us see through the discolored water, and it seemed that our first day might have been our only chance at the legendary sight fishing these waters are known for.

Each day our Tsimané guides would prepare a breakfast and dinner of rice and meat over the fire. Some days they roasted monkey or boiled up a catfish-head stew for themselves. The eleven of us enjoyed plentiful food, drink, and laughter around the camp each day. We had no idea what was being said, and even if we’d known Spanish, it wouldn’t have helped us much out here, but the hilarity of these Tsimanés and the jokes between them in their native tongue were universally understood.

"A classic grip-and-grin shot. Patricio, with a mouth full of coca leaves, hoists up a nice dorado that he helped Neil bring in. These fish are pissed off when you try to land them, so having a buddy nearby is always helpful."
“A classic grip-and-grin shot. Patricio, with a mouth full of coca leaves, hoists up a nice dorado that he helped Neil bring in. These fish are pissed off when you try to land them, so having a buddy nearby is always helpful.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

Once we’d established our base camp at the confluence of two rivers far beyond the last community, we set out on day missions upstream in search of fish. We launched our massive flies into every single piece of water we could, hoping to come upon another golden dorado feeding frenzy. I never once saw one of these large fish stationary. Every encounter happened so fast, as groups of them would come racing out of the depths and into the shallows, chasing down their prey. It was moments like this that Neil and I would have the most success, but only if we were in the right place at the right time, with a fly ready to cast within seconds. Just as fast as they appeared, they were gone. More often than not, we were left scratching our heads, pondering how a fish could move so fast in water so shallow, chasing down a baitfish bigger than most trout we catch at home. The intensity level of the hunt was extremely high, for the dorado and for us.

When the time came to begin our journey downstream to the airstrip and back to civilization, I felt as though I never wanted to leave the jungle. We’d only had a small taste, no 30lb fish, no 30-fish days, but it wasn’t due a lack of effort: we’d traveled deep into the jungle-choked headwaters of the Bolivian Amazon and made our wildest dreams a reality with the very first fish. More important than the fish, though, were the new friendships we’d made, and a sense of having discovered for ourselves the sickest fishing venue on the planet.

We arrived back in Santa Cruz, where we had a few days to clean and organize our gear, charge up our Goal Zero batteries and cameras, and try to come up with a way to get back into the jungle as soon as possible. Our friend Patrick and his family hosted Neil and I while we dialed in a plan. After deciding to delay our trek into the mountains, we were presented with an opportunity to fly out to a lowland Amazonian river on the border of Brazil, where a place called Caño Negro existed. The Caño Negro Green Forest Lodge is the only place of its kind in Bolivia, and by a stroke of good luck, we were on our way to experience this fishing paradise, to have ourselves a once-in-a-lifetime Bolivian grand slam on the fly.

Part II

“Payara fishing with a fly rod is absolute madness. The fish makes his initial strike, a flash of silvery commotion intended to wound the helpless fly, and before the first shot of adrenaline has entered your veins, the payara strikes again with lethal intention. Neil hoists up his fish of the trip, a brilliantly chromed slab of predatory perfection.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

The concrete jungle of Santa Cruz, our temporary home, was a world away from the distant Tsimané territory where, only 24 hours before, the greatest fishing experience of our lives came to a close. Navigating the inner rings of the city, in and out of the maze of markets with our new friend Tiko, we dodged the erratic drivers and street meats while embracing the relentless culture shock. Two days go by in the city, and I can’t stop thinking about getting back into the real jungle somehow. Even as the idea of climbing into the mountains lingered, we still had time, and I wanted more.

Our friend Patrick sat across the table from us as we ate dinner one night, nursing a severely broken leg that he’d suffered on an exploratory trip in the jungle only weeks before we’d arrived. What a gentleman—even though he couldn’t go with us, he made sure we got our golden dorado, put us up at his house, and anxiously awaited our return with the stories and images we came for. Sensing that Neil and I were not quite ready to give up on fishing, he mentioned a place called Caño Negro along the San Simón River near the Bolivian-Brazilian border. He talked about the beautiful Green Forest Lodge, in the midde of the jungle, 10 days by boat or three hours by air, with freshwater sport-fishing opportunities not found anywhere else on the planet.

Coming down to Bolivia, we had no idea this place existed or even imagined we’d be indulging in the fishing lodge life. Then again, I never guessed we’d ever even go to Bolivia, let alone connect with the best person we possibly could have. Patrick was good friends with the owner of Caño Negro, as our luck would have it, and before our wading boots had time to dry, he’d arranged for us to spend a week at this fishing paradise. Back in a little bush plane for another three-hour flight, but instead of the cold, mountainous rivers of the golden dorado and expedition-style camping, we were heading toward lowland Amazonia for a completely different experience.

The lush accommodations of Caño Negro stand alone in the heart of a 4.5-million-acre nature preserve, along the banks of a sprawling network of spring-fed lagoons, the vastness of which could be fully appreciated during our flight. We were greeted at the private airstrip by the lodge manager Jaime and other members of the staff, and through our broken Spanish we enjoyed a warm welcome. This place is a relatively unknown destination in the fly-fishing world, but with the insanely diverse selection of over 29 species of freshwater game fish, 10 of which we caught on the fly during our stay, I wondered how it could have remained a secret. We walked past a sign that read “welcome to fishing paradise” on our way to a thatched-roof bungalow where an afternoon siesta was in order.

Within hours of landing, Neil and I were casting our flies into the dark corners of the Rio Caño lagoons with our guide Jesus, and hooking up on peacock bass every time the fly hit the water. It was the kind of interminable action every angler dreams of. We thought about how our Pop, who at times struggles to catch the finicky trout of our home waters, would have a hard time keeping the fish off his line at this place.

After a few hours of catching peacock bass and piranha, we motored our way back to the lodge as the last rays of sun retreated through the canopy and we began to settle into our new routine: catch fish all day, eat delicious food, and rest. Even though we’ll always be passionate “do it yourselfers” and love the thrill of being on our own, this was nice—REALLY nice. We could get used to this.

Each morning we cruised through a system of channels and lagoons to reach the main stem of the river. The hour-long ride was a perfect chance to behold the mystical energy and teeming wildlife of this pristine Amazonian jungle. Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com
“Each morning we cruised through a system of channels and lagoons to reach the main stem of the river. The hour-long ride was a perfect chance to behold the mystical energy and teeming wildlife of this pristine Amazonian jungle.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

Every day started with a quick stop in the dining room for a delicious breakfast, and before the sun returned again through the branches of the sub-tropical forest we were on the water. All we had to do was mention to our guides the name of a species of fish we wanted to catch, and they would take us to the most prime locations where the fish could be found. Most mornings were spent targeting the payara, known as the “vampire fish” or the “saber-tooth river tiger” of South America. A prehistoric looking thing with two massive mandibular incisors and a savage appetite for other fish, it is a true river monster. Luckily, the flies we brought for the golden dorado would be effective for these equally aggressive payara. One thing we did not account for, though, was the rate at which the piranha, which inhabit every inch of water, would ravage our flies down to the bare hook. I can’t count how many times I casted a brand new seven-dollar fly into the water only to have a pesky piranha take off eight inches of fiber in one bite. While I was excited to catch a piranha in the Amazon, the novelty wore off quick.

The beginning of a long nine-hour day of fishing in the subtropics.
“The beginning of a long nine-hour day of fishing in the subtropics.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

When the sun was high in the sky, an extremely predatory species of catfish known as the surubí became active on the sandy flats of the San Simón River. We spent hours sight fishing to these monstrous cats who sat on the bottoms of the shallow oxbow bends, ready to ambush anything that swam within distance. Only if the fly presentation was perfect would one of these shark-like fish go in for the final strike. Once hooked, the fish would scream across the flats searching for deeper water. On one occasion, Neil had a surubí on the line and a large black caiman, which infest these waters, had taken notice. Our guides grew tense, and warned us to keep an eye on him as he slipped beneath the surface of the water. These crocodilians were notorious for snatching fish off your line, but of even more concern as we stood knee deep in the murky water was getting a leg snatched off, or worse.

The flats-style sight fishing for surubí at Caño Negro was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. I never knew such an aggressive species of catfish existed which could be caught on a fly rod. Another radical fish to add to the list.
“The flats-style sight fishing for surubí at Caño Negro was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. I never knew such an aggressive species of catfish existed which could be caught on a fly rod. Another radical fish to add to the list.” Photo by Ian Provo. Courtesy OutdoorResearch.com

After five days of fishing at Caño Negro, casting big flies and catching fish from sunup to sundown, my right arm felt like it was going to fall off. My Outdoor Research Buzz-Off clothing constantly drenched in sweat from the dank jungle and physicality of the fishing and my hands covered in hundreds of no-see-um bites were signs that we had put in our time here. We were flying away from this fishing paradise feeling enlightened, having discovered a whole new world of fishing potential. Even though the flight back to Santa Cruz was one of the bumpiest, scariest experiences of my life, I could not help but think about how far our passion for fly fishing has taken us, how lucky we were to explore Bolivia and fish for an Amazonian grand slam of such tremendous variety. Our golden dorado expedition and stay at the Green Forest Lodge took up more time than we’d planned, and we only had one week left to get into the mountains to achieve another goal for the trip: reaching the source of the Amazon with our skis. But after spending three weeks down in the jungle at around 500 feet above sea level, the oxygen-deprived air that greeted us at 12,000’ in La Paz was a clear indicator that the third and final part of our adventure would be the hardest yet.

Ian Provo is an Outdoor Research ambassador. Reblogged from OR’s Verticulture.

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