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PPS Destinations Report 

Tsimane Lodge, Bolivia
Date:        September 2010  

Reported by Dr. Brian Griffith, New Jersey, USA  

While fishing the Rio Parana for golden dorado in 2008, my guide, Ramiro, told me about an exploratory trip he had just completed in Bolivia.  He spoke of untouched jungles, clear fast waters, and large dorado.  On this river, while he was going upstream in a dugout canoe being poled by the some of the local people, he spotted a huge dorado.  Before he could strip the line from his reel and get a cast to the fish the Indian had picked up a bow and shot the fish.  I knew I wanted to see this place.

This September the PPS “Atlantic Division” made the journey to Bolivia in search of dorado at Tsimane (pronounced chee-mon-ee) Lodge.  The lodge opened last August for an abbreviated first season so there were only a few reports about the fishing there.  Every one of the stories glowed.  Pete Esposito, John Barrett, Larry Flatt (a friend from a trip to Kamchatka), and I met in Miami for the overnight flight to Santa Cruz.  We were lodged at Los Tajibos hotel, a lovely place in a poor city of about 1 million people.  We spent the afternoon and evening with some friends of John’s who lived there and were shown the city’s central plaza and had two lovely meals with them.  There is not a lot to see in Santa Cruz but these folks showed us things a normal visitor might walk right past.

The following morning we loaded into a Cessna Centurion for the 225 mile flight into the Parques Nacionales del Indios passing over Bolivia’s “Red Zone”-the center of it’s cocaine production that requires a special permit to pass over.  As the flat jungle gave way to more mountainous terrain we soon landed on the grass strip near a small Tsimane village.  It seemed as if every local woman and child came out to greet us (actually it was the bread that the pilot distributes they sought).  The Tsimane are the indigenous ethnic group in the area and are generally very shy and quiet.  They rarely make eye contact and are small framed but have immense feet with toes that more closely resemble fingers and thumbs than I have ever seen.  We loaded our gear into several aluminum boats equipped with 15 hp engines and after a fifteen minute ride during which we passed cliffs, huge rock outcrops, dense green jungle, more sabalo (a baitfish of up to 8 pounds) than I could imagine a river supporting, arrived at the Asunta camp.  Camp is not a word that does this place justice.  It is comprised of three guest cabins each with their own bath, a common dining/living room, kitchen, guest/staff quarters, and a caretaker’s home.  It was comfortably appointed and sat on a hill above a set of rapids dropping into a dark green pool and facing a huge stone cliff.  This place is breathtaking and is a tribute to the owner’s vision, logistical skill, and hard work.

After a short introduction, I got down to the river and within minutes hooked a small dorado on the opposite bank of the Secura (seh-coor-ah) River.  While bringing the 2 pound fish across the home pool (20 yards) a 20+ pound dorado came up and promptly ate it.  Welcome to Tsimane!  The next 2 hours were spent catching small 2-4 pound dorado in the rapids although there were no big ones seen again.  Because it was warm and I saw no bugs to speak of and I waded in shorts, t-shirt, and sandals.  This proved to be a mistake as the no-see-ums loved my blood type and the itching stayed with throughout the week and is only just now starting to subside.

The fishing day generally started with breakfast at 7:30 and getting on the water at 8:30.  Lunch is on the river (no siesta here!) and you return at dark around 6:30.  Pete and I fished upstream on day one and in the first pool in which we could see dozens of big dorado, Pete landed an 18 pound fish.  At the next pool I had a very large dorado break off my 20 pound tippet like it was 7X.  Not far upstream I had a 6 pound yatorana (a shad like fish) take the fly the second it hit the water and in the next instant a 20+ pound dorado grabbed it. Within 5 seconds the dorado had torn the yatorana’s body from it’s head and I reeled in a head and GI tract.  I thought this was the kind of fishing I had envisioned. 

Of course, that is the kiss of death and for the rest of the day I did not touch a fish.  It didn’t help that I was suffering from Montezuma’s revenge but the water was incredibly clear and the fish as spooky as any spring creek trout.  Pete landed a nice yatorana and a small dorado.  He had a big pacu on for 4-5 minutes that just came undone for no apparent reason.  We saw a lot of pacu that day.  They look much like permit except they are brown and are nearly as maddening to fish to.  Fortunately I had caught one on a previous trip to the Parana and did not suffer from “pacu fever” like the others.

The upstream beat of the Secura is one of the most beautiful streams I have ever seen.  It winds and tumbles its way through the hilly jungle with clear water and many fish.  We saw several feeding frenzies where dorado would pin sabalo against the shore and just launch themselves into the schools.  The water would boil with fish flying in the air (and sometimes onto the shore) for 10-30 seconds.  One actually happened as we were moving up through a rapid stretch and there were 15 pound dorado hitting our boat.  If you get a fly in the water you would hook up but it really is random chance and in this case we both had our rods strung up so no joy!  We saw clouds of butterflies and a moderate number of birds but no sign of wildlife other than tapir and jaguar tracks.

On the second day we traveled downstream where the river takes on an entirely different character.  Slower in current and a bit murkier it was full of structure to cast to such as cut banks and logs.  This made fishing a bit easier and the results showed it.  I landed 14 fish including 1 yatorana, plus an 18 and 19 pound dorado.  Several other large fish were lost through pilot error.  The first large fish was sighted and cast to and after a few jumps ran towards a deep hole in which another group of big fish chased it around.  The guide actually began throwing fist-sized rocks into the water to chase them off as they can bite through your leader but it took 6 or 7 stones to do the trick.  Pete took quite a few fish including a 10 pound dorado.  The final fish of the day was nice 19 pound fish caught right behind a log-just where he was supposed to be.

Upstream Larry and John experienced the same conditions I have previously discussed.  They saw spooky fish and had few hookups although John did hook and land our group’s only pacu of the week.  Because of the disparity in the fishing we drew straws to see who went downstream.  Larry and I were the lucky ones and the lower Secura did not disappoint.  Pete and John had another tough day while Larry landed an 18 and a 25 pound fish.  I caught a bunch of small fish of 2-8 pounds plus a 12 pounder.  I managed to lose 4 good fish of 15+pounds but was still quite satisfied.

Prior to transferring on day four we fished the camp rapids.  I caught a few small dorados in the pocket water of the rapids but nothing of any note.  The big fish in the home pool were easily visible but I believe they are adequately pressured to “educate” them.  The transfer via a 15 minute flight was a bit late and we all enjoyed a relaxing day after three strenuous days of fishing.

Upon arriving at the Yuracare (jur-a-ka-ray) village we immediately were taken by how the people here were much more open not to mention quite different in appearance.  They spoke openly, laughed much more, and seemed more apt to want to modernize their lives (for better or worse).  A 30 minute boat ride upstream followed by a 45 minute, 8 km ride on the “mule”-a four wheel drive golf cart- and we arrived.  The mule ride is a new feature.  Last year guests were taken the entire way by boat, a 4 hour trip.  The mule cuts through a path in the jungle cut by the locals and takes at least 2 hours off the trip.  Arriving at the Pluma lodge it appeared almost identical to Asunta.  It lies above a stretch of the Pluma River that is packed with sabalo and features fairly regular feeding frenzies-quite the entertainment!  It also lies just downstream from the Rio Iritisama and Rio Pluma confluence, which is a great place for fishing in the early morning or after the fishing day is done.

Day five saw Pete and I fish the lower Pluma beat, one of 5 sections fished at Pluma.  There is the lower and upper Pluma, the Iritisama, and the lower and upper Secura.  I think this might be one reason that this camp fishes consistently better than Asunta-less pressure.  I was immediately into fish when on the third cast I got a 6 pound fish and 5 small ones in the same riffle.  This is classic riffle, run, pool water and there were a lot of eager fish.  Several fish were in the 12 to 18 pound range and I lost a fish that easily went over 30 pounds-one of the largest dorado I have ever seen (and I have fished La Zona twice).  Like all the days the fishing is primarily done while wading.  The wading is not terribly difficult although the rocks are very slippery and felt boots with or without studs are essential.  The walking between spots is tough as the beaches are rocky and it seems all the rocks are too big to miss and too small to walk on.  By the end of the day you definitely feel the effort.  Here there were more sight casting opportunities and it was definitely a great day.  Pete was feeling a bit poorly (this is the jungle!) but still managed a bunch of nice fish of 10+ pounds although neither of us had cracked the twenty pound mark.  John and Larry fished the Iritisama and while catching fewer fish theirs were all large including a 27 pounder by Larry and John’s first 20+ pound fish.

On day 6 we fished the upper Pluma while John and Larry did the upper Secura.  They had a decent but not great day while Pete and I had our time in the sun.  Pete was really feeling the grip of his sickness but soldiered on and ended the day catching more than 20 fish including his first 20+ pound dorado.  Because of his feeling poorly our guide, Ramiro spent much of the day with him and after lunch they started fishing back down after our long walk upriver in the morning.  I spent the day with Demasio and Gonzalo, two Yuracare Indians, who spoke no English and little Spanish.  Combine that with me speaking no Yuracare and little Spanish it had the makings of a problematic day.  Just the opposite occurred.  We were on the same wavelength all day and I saw nearly every fish as clearly as they did. Considering I had a hat and polarized sunglasses while they had nothing it was almost an even contest as to who could spot the fish first.

We started the day with me losing an 18 pound fish on a jump but nearly every other fish I saw I landed.  They were on flats, in rock gardens, in runs, and riffles.  Often you could pick out the largest one and specifically cast to him.  They were really on the feed that day and it was the single best day of fishing I have ever had.  I did break a rod trying to keep a 22 pound fish away from a larger dorado but fortunately we had a spare rod with us.  At the uppermost run I landed over 15 fish.  At one point I hooked and landed four 15 pound fish on four casts.  Fish were literally swarming after every hooked fish trying to bite at the fly hanging from it’s jaws and we were lucky only a few fish were scraped up but not bitten hard.  The largest fish of the day (and trip) happened here-a 15 kilo dorado.  The only downside is that the Indians had absolutely no idea of how to operate a camera and the photos were awful but aside from that they were good company.

The water I fished was rarely touched according to Ramiro.  It required a pretty long and tiring walk to get to and few guests fished that far upstream.  I am in pretty decent physical condition and still felt it.  We all tried chewing the commonplace coca leaves (no high-more like a strong cup of coffee) and on this day I was grateful for it although by the end of the day I’m not sure I would have passed a drug test.  As we began walking back downstream it was surreal.  Here I was walking along a nearly virgin river with two Yuracare Indians whose grandfathers might never have seen a white man chewing coca with them as their people have done for generations.  If that doesn’t make you feel like a hunter-gatherer nothing will.  The final count for the day was about fifty fish with at least 40 weighing over ten pounds, 5 over 20, and a 30+ pound fish.  Almost all were fish were spotted and specifically cast to in clear green waters.  It was perfect and far and away the best day of fishing I have ever had!

 During the final day Pete and I again fished the lower Pluma as John and Larry really wanted to do the Iritisama again.  I had had such great fishing the day before I didn’t care and Pete did not mind either so the game plan was set.  Pete and I switched positions from our previous trip down the river as far as where we each fished each particular run.  The morning was a bit slow although Pete got one around six pounds and I landed 4 fish between five and twelve pounds.  The best one was caught while wading as I watched a school of sabalo take on a U shape.  In the center of the U were five or six 10+pound dorados.  One cast, an explosion of water, and I was hooked up to my biggest fish of the morning.  At lunch however, I was beginning to feel as if it just was not going to happen on this day for us but the action started picking up as the afternoon progressed and we started picking up more fish as we went downstream.  When we got to where the dugouts turned around (due to water that was too shallow) and we walked we saw a massive feeding frenzy and both got our flies in the water.  The sabalo were thickly pressed up to the shore with dorado repeatedly blitzing them.  The sabalo’s backs were actually out of the water!  We both got quick hookups and Pete landed an eight pounder while my fish ran out 150 feet as fast as any ocean fish and came undone.  I think he’s probably in Brazil now.  A steady pick of fish kept us going through the rest of the day.  At one point while casting to a log I got hung up.  I slowly walked over and watched in amazement as a large school of 18-20 pound dorado slowly swam away from the log less than ten feet from me.  After unhooking the fly (and thinking I had screwed up this spot) I walked back out and was surprised to see a wake heading back for the log.  I cast in front of them, stripped the fly once and all hell broke loose. There had to be a dozen big fish racing for the fly.  I hooked and landed the 20 pound dorado, got some photos and watched gratefully as it slowly swam away.

  The final hour was like a nature show.  I watched as a cormorant tried to swallow a 4 pound sabalo.  The fish was so large it protruded out the back of the bird’s neck.  Pete saw a cormorant attacked (unsuccessfully) by a dorado.  We saw thousands of sabalo and quite a few smaller dorado that were eager to please.  As the sun set Pete hooked a 25 pound fish which wrapped himself around a log.  Our guide, Fernando, swam out and tried to release the line but the fish managed to break free.  I moved downstream of Pete and on what would be my final cast of the trip watched as a huge golden fish rose from the bottom of the green pool to take my fly twenty feet from my feet.  A wonderful fight (possibly the best of the trip) and a few photos later we bid farewell to the Pluma.

As we walked out of the river Pete saw a 4 pound dorado take the tail end off a 1-2 pound sabalo.  The fish floated up and Pete was able to grab it for a picture.  The fish was still breathing!  You don’t see that every day.

John and Larry did great on the Iritsama catching numerous 20+ pound dorado.  They had a long day and Larry suffered from some heat exhaustion (as well as the same food GI problems that got me the last night) but made it back OK.  They also saw for the second time a curacao (sp?), a turkey sized bird that is considered to be among the 50 rarest birds in the world.  An ornithologist told Ramiro it does not live in Bolivia.  John has the photographic evidence to say it does.

Throughout the week we had sunny although smoke hazed days that were from 90 to 100 degrees.  This is the season everyone in South America burns their fields.  It was always humid but rarely too windy.  The bugs were bad on any uncovered skin that was not doused in DEET.  The walking was tiring and the wading slippery.  In Asunta the low water made using shorter wire leaders and smaller flies mandatory.  None of us brought enough small flies (2/0 Clousers and Deceivers primarily black with red, gold, or chartreuse trim) or heavy enough wire (25-40 pound).

On the plus side the lodging was excellent, the food superb, the guides knowledgeable, the beer was generally very cold, and the fishing great.  The night’s were down into the 70’s so it was comfortable sleeping.  The dorado is an amazing gamefish (my favorite) and their explosive takes, jumps, and runs would make any angler’s heart race.

This was a trip I had originally had pretty high expectations about but after speaking with Juan Ordonez at the Ekaluk (he was at Tsimane in June) he told me of low water and tough fishing.  Another report from late August seemed to echo that – the water was even lower but the fishing a bit better.  It seemed a lower bar needed to be set.  I was just looking forward to seeing a new place with three guys I truly enjoy fishing with and maybe catching a few fish.  It turned out the week I just spent with Pete, John, and Larry (and I think they would all agree) was one of the best weeks I have ever spent fishing anywhere.  Hard to argue with one bad day, four great ones, and one day that was just off the charts out of six days of fishing.  Despite losing a camera, breaking a rod, getting sick twice, and my wallet is still being somewhere in Bolivia it was the trip you simply could not have asked more of.

This place is amazingly beautiful and wild yet the lodge is incredibly comfortable.  We were blessed to see it and I could not recommend the trip more highly.  I’ve fished a lot of pretty cool places and if I had but one week to fish anywhere on Earth this would be the spot.  Every single dorado (even the doraditos) brought me pleasure and were a true gift.

The cost this year was $6100.  Next year will see an increase to $7200 with the possibility of two more anglers being added.  The added pressure concerns me a bit, especially at the upper camp although they are talking about adding a spike camp several hours upstream to make enough room for everyone.  There are a number of booking agents that are taking reservations.  We used FishQuest out of Atlanta who did a great job.  If anyone has any questions please feel free to contact me at traydog@enter.net.  

Brian Griffith

Following are some thumbnails of trip photos.  Please click on them and then return to this page by hitting the ' back ' button on your browser

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