Jaguar of the river

The search for golden dorado in the Bolivian Amazon

My obsession started a decade ago. In 2009, Duane and I started fishing for toman (giant snakehead) in southern Taiwan, when the bug really bit. I’ve always loved fishing, but catching toman really kicked my fascination with adventure fishing into overdrive. Since then I’ve done numerous trips to all corners of the world in search of bucket list fish. But this whole time there was one fish at the top of my list – the king of the river, the son of Tupa – the Golden Dorado.  

Getting there

After several days of traveling I finally made it to La Paz, Bolivia. My journey started with a local flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, a very turbulent flight on to Sao Paulo in Brazil where I spent a full day sightseeing, on to Santiago in Chile where I got to spend another half day, before making the final trip to El Alto, Bolivia. Our group decided to apply for visas before departing South Africa as no one could give us 100% assurance that we’ll be granted visas on arrival.  All the websites advised that South Africans qualify for a visa on arrival, but the Bolivian Consulate in Johannesburg was firm: under no circumstances can we fly without a visa. As the saying goes – rather safe than sorry – so we got visas.

I spent a day or two exploring La Paz, and then decided to travel south to visit the breath-taking  Salar de Uyuni (the largest salt plain in the world). Definitely something to add to your bucket list, if it’s not already on there. Except for the natural beauty of the area, it’s probably the best place in the world to play around with your camera and get creative with your pictures. You can literally spend hours here taking optical illusion pictures. It still blows my mind that this place isn’t one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

After this detour I headed back to La Paz where I met up with Garreth Coombes, Pete Furber and his son, Kim. The El Alto airport is the highest international airport in the world at an altitude over 4000m. The effects of the altitude was much worse than we expected, and we were quite happy to get on the plane and fly to the jungle way below, where we met up with our guide, Greg.  After buying our last supplies and a really delicious dinner, we went back to our hostel to get ready for the long haul into the jungle the next day.

The Fishing 

As the norm with these kind of trips, we got away an hour or so later than planned. For the first two days there was no fishing planned. The first day and a bit we headed upstream on the main river, before going up a tributary into the jungle for another day. We were in search of the clear water that golden dorado run havoc in. After two days on the water without making a cast the itch got real and we were ready to wet our lures.

From this point we were on foot. The crew would break down camp and follow us by boat, while we were wading and stalking the golden beasts. I have to give credit to the five Bolivian guys that helped us – they did their best to make this trip a success. The water was a lot shallower than expected and in most rapids they had the backbreaking task of moving rocks to make a canal for the boats to proceed.

D-day finally arrived. After a cold night and a warm breakfast, Garreth and I went ahead and started working the pools and rapids. It wasn’t long before we spotted the first fish. Not a targeted species, freshwater stingray. We were warned about “little” freshwater stingray, but this was a solid fish and could easily nail you above the wading boot with that infamous barb. They are very well camouflaged and we were more than just a bit careful from that moment onwards.

 

It wasn’t long before we had our first fish of the trip. My AfriG jig got hit and shortly after I landed a yatorana. The yatorana is mostly vegetarian but hits a lure quite hard and puts up a great aerial display once hooked. Still not the targeted species, but a fish I would happily catch any day.

The Furbers joined up with us and we kept on hitting the pools and rapids. It wasn’t long before the first bar of gold came flying out the water. Again, I was blessed by lady luck. After a few huge jumps, the first golden dorado of the trip was landed. Not the biggest, but hell… these fish are fun to catch! They spent about as much time in the air as in the water. The golden dorado is truly a stunning fish – a body of glimmering gold with a huge head and the teeth of a demon.

We continued moving upstream, casting at every rock or anything that moved. It wasn’t long before everyone started getting fish. Kim got a really nice yatorana, numerous double ups on dorado, a ripsaw catfish and black pacu. Garreth managed to land a massive black pacu from a deeper pool. What a fish! A few pools higher up he managed another black pacu, slightly smaller than the previous one, and then a ripsaw catfish. Pound for pound the black pacu is definitely one of the most powerful fish in the Amazon. The ripsaw is also a remarkable catfish with those very distinctive oversized scutes (blades) on either side of its body. Those scutes are really sharp and I wouldn’t be surprized if the ancient Amazonian people used them as a tool or a weapon in some way.

 

 That night around a large fire, we were all very pleased with an excellent day’s fishing and just as excited about the next five days of fishing ahead, especially as the most productive areas were yet to come…

After a freezing cold night, which we weren’t prepared for, we trekked upstream again. Day two started in a very similar way as the first. Garreth and I went ahead, spotted a stingray (an even bigger one this time) and worked the pools and rapids. Day two just didn’t deliver the fireworks from day one, but we all managed golden dorado and we all arrived at camp happy. If you are a true fisherman on a trip like this and you’re not happy, there’s something wrong with you.

The scenery is spectacular. It’s wild and isolated. We followed a tapir for about a kilometre before it spotted us. We also had a tapir walking into camp before it spotted us and took off. Capybara, jaguar tracks all over, monkeys and of course all the Amazonian birds. We were in paradise.

Before leaving town, we left half our luggage behind. Still we were carrying too much and it was halved down again. For the remainder of the trek upstream we were all on foot. With the water level too low, it was impossible for the boats to advance. After carefully selecting the best lures, most important items and all our clothes (the nights were cold), we headed up stream and fished as we went along. The five helpers packed up camp, hid the redundant goods in the jungle and followed us upstream. Except for a few silver dorado (new species for all of us) and golden dorado, the fishing was really slow. When we hit the gorge, entrance to the usually most productive area, there was basically no water except for a small pool and a little stream. 

The four of us ventured further upstream, but soon realised that we would probably have a much better chance at catching fish downstream, as the locals have been suggesting the last day or two as we moved further and further upstream. The call was made and we turned back. In hindsight, we should’ve set up camp here and explored further upstream the next day. But we didn’t and so we ended up at the same campsite as the night before.

For the first time this trip we knew what was laying ahead for the day, but it was still exciting as we would fish the same area where we had most of our success so far. The day did not disappoint. We had a proper smash when we ran into a school of golden dorado, hitting anything in their path. A few pools down we found a large school of ripsaw catfish and I think we caught nine of them in no time at all. Fun was had and continued into the evening as we built yet another massive fire to sit around and talk about the good times.

Day five started off with a bang. In the pool just below camp, Kim landed a decent golden dorado. We all realised that the theory of the fish moving down because of low water levels might just make perfect sense. But then, after toiling really hard for the next few hours, we realised we made the wrong call to come downstream. We also started to see signs of civilization – foot prints, shelters, fire places. Going back was no option, fishing downstream was a waste of time. A unanimous decision was made to start the long journey back to town, a day earlier than planned.

After spending a lazy day in the small jungle town, we headed up to altitude again, where we rode the famous La Paz cable cars and did some souvenir shopping. My flight back was two days later than the rest of the guys, so after they left I decided to go cycle the notorious Death Road – the most dangerous road in the world. What an experience. You start high up in the Andes mountains at just under 4700m and then end in the jungle at around 1400m. The scenery from start to finish was just incredible with some cliffs dropping down 900m, waterfalls clearing the very narrow and steep roads, snow and ice and of course plenty of jungle. Adrenalin rush of note. The perfect way to end an amazing time in Bolivia.      

This was probably my most enjoyable fishing trip up to date. A memorable trip for me must be an adventure, an experience, a challenge. This trip had all of that and more. Golden dorado is a really exciting fish to catch, the scenery was incredible, the trip was well organized, we had a great guide and excellent company. Can’t wait for the next one…

Pictures by Gerhard Terblanche and Garreth Coombes. 

For more pictures and videos you can visit the Facebook and Instagram pages of Adrenalin Fishing and AfriG Adventures.

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