October 15, 2021
This article was originally titled "Leaving Fish to Find Fish" in the Feb-March 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I’ve always felt in fishing that if you work a little harder than everyone else, you have a better chance of finding something magical. Hiking farther down the trail, pushing through the tougher side channels, scouring topo maps for the most remote streams, or being the first or last one down the river are all ways of finding a special place or moment.
As a result, I constantly find myself pushing upriver into seldom charted territory. Part of my creed is to go farther than everyone else, hopefully to find something special. There was no reason to think the jungle of Bolivia would be any different.
On my first trip to the Sécure River in Bolivia, the fish gods shone on us. The water was clear and we found monster dorado holding in the current like 25-pound golden trout. We sight-fished them with mice—or if it’s tied on a 5/0 hook, is it a rat? As soon as the fly hit the water they destroyed it. Pacu held tight to cliff walls and under overhanging branches, and if you got a fly in front of them with some stealth, they ate the fly every single time. [For more on Pacu see the story “Freshwater Permit” in the Feb.-Mar. 2017 issue. The Editor.]
It was one of my all-time best trips, and the fishing certainly justified a return visit, but it was really a three-way conversation with the lodge manager and a local Tsimane native that planted the seed for my next adventure. One day we fished far upriver, and had to leave great fishing behind to make it back to camp. I asked how much farther upstream the Tsimane people had explored.
“To the end,” he answered.
“How long does it take?” I asked.
“Another day or two,” he replied.
“What’s up there?” I pursued, expecting a lake or a division of the river that made it too small to navigate.
“The falls,” he replied.
“Well, what’s beyond the falls?”
“Nothing,” he answered.
“What do you mean nothing?” I was perplexed, knowing that unless the river boiled out of the ground as a freshwater spring, there must be something after the waterfall.
“It’s the end,” he replied factually and looked away.
The only Tsimane phrase I know is tanuk tanuk, and his English was even worse. I knew there was something out there after the waterfall, but because of my lack of comprehension, he couldn’t explain it.
When we returned, I asked the lodge manager Fernando about the waterfall and his eyes lit up.
“The Tsimane believe the waterfall is the end of the world,” he said.
“You mean the end of their land?”
“No, the end of the world. There is nothing after that.”
I imagined a massive, impassable falls in the forest with no portage routes, but Fernando said it was only a 12-foot drop. He had visited the spot only one time, and could see the river beyond. No one he knew had ever crossed that barrier.
“Do they think there is something evil past there?
“No, it’s just the end.”
That was it for me. I had to know more. I felt there had to be a story, a reason, something that created a boundary where the world ends.
I had to see it myself to understand it. I wanted to venture to the other side.
Right then and there, a plan was formed. Marcelo Perez and Rodrigo Salles (owner/operators of Untamed Angling) and I the following year would explore the headwaters of the Sécure River beyond the edge of the world.
Poling Up Bolivia's Sécure River
Prior to the development of the lodges in this region, travel was exclusively by indigenous guides poling dugout canoes. They are masters at skillfully and quietly moving upriver, but it’s slow going. They traditionally explored the river in two- or three-week hunting expeditions. They filled their canoes with hochi (a giant rodent also known as labba in other parts of the Amazon), wild pigs, tapir, and monkeys to feed the village. Yes, you read that right, monkeys. These primates are a local favorite.
Even today, with the new degree of wealth created from the local sport-fishing operations, the natives prefer to live off the land. Even while guiding sport-fishing clients, they carry their bows and arrows everywhere they go, and react quickly when a large sabalo or hochi is in range. When you hear monkeys chattering in the trees, the excitement among the natives is palpable as a hunting party is quickly dispatched. Seldom do they return empty-handed.
Interacting with indigenous cultures is one of my all-time favorite aspects of jungle fishing. In some ways, it is that return to primal instincts, privative and simple that draws me back. In the jungle, you can almost always experience a level of contentment that is uncommon in the developed world.
As we pushed upriver toward the waterfall I watched Coti, a young Tsimane guide, make several unbelievably accurate shots with his primitive wood bow. It was a tool made entirely from materials he collected within a few miles of where he was born: arrows he had straightened by eye in the fire, points he carved from a harder wood, and a bowstring he twisted himself from plant fibers.
The first shot was a giant sabalo holding in the tail of a rapid. He climbed a rock and made a mental calculation for the water refraction and didn’t miss. Shortly after, someone spotted a hochi (a 10- to 15-pound rodent) on a rock in the middle of the river. He was able to wade out unnoticed, and connect on a 20-yard shot, then sprint through the river to get a second kill shot on the swimming, injured animal.
He was in tune with his environment, and we ate well for a couple of days as a result. For humane reasons, they took a single shot with a rusty .22 caliber rifle when we found monkeys. For them, it’s a delicate balance of eating yet respecting other cultures, and they knew many of their guests were either uneasy or repulsed by the idea of eating a distant evolutionary cousin. Torn between curiosity and disgust I let curiosity win, but I won’t be checking that box again.
An unusual cold front pushed through the region as we made our way to the waterfall. It was the first time I wore a down jacket in the Amazon. It rained almost every day, and while the river wasn’t blown out, it wasn’t clear either. It was tough conditions for exploring and for fishing but we managed a few big resident dorados in some of the small tributaries we passed. We also saw schools of tiny bait migrating upriver. They were destroyed by a pack of hungry dorados that vanished in seconds.
We sight-cast to big pacus, and also to a giant maturo catfish we saw holding in a rapid. As with most of my adventures the fishing tied it together, but it’s the people and the places that make it special. I enjoyed spending time with the Tsimane and learned to use their bows and arrows.
As we turned the final corner in the river, I spotted the falls, but was honestly underwhelmed. Instead of “the waterfall at the end of the world” it was merely a cascade. Nothing about it screamed “Do not pass!”
I was baffled that aboriginals would come this far and randomly decide this was the end. I watched the locals closely, to see if they were fearful or concerned, but registered nothing. From a high rock below the falls I climbed up and looked beyond. I asked Coti the young guide if he had ever been past, and he shook his head. When I pressed on, he just shrugged his shoulders.
We spotted two nice pacus holding tight to the cliff at the base of the falls. I crept over the rocks looking for an angle and found a small ledge that offered a perfect opportunity. Perched on a vertical rock face, with my wading boots pinched in a crack, I stripped out line and fired off a long cast. I doubt that pacu had ever seen a hook, and as soon as my fly landed, it was game on. I struggled to clear my line and get the fish on the reel while sliding down rocks and through bushes to land a beautiful pacu at the end of the world.
As it turns out, the fishing, hunting, and everything else was pretty good on our own side of the waterfall. It’s no wonder they had never pushed onward. I was looking for answers that didn’t exist. The Tsimane had discovered the falls perhaps a thousand years ago, and possessed every skill necessary to continue upriver. But they had no need.
Their lives were complete, and they were happy. They had wisely situated their village near the best fishing in this watershed, and there was no need to explore for the sake of exploring. It made me question this crushing desire I have to explore new places and to push into the unknown. I’d never considered the possibility that it could be a negative trait.
There is incredible value and peace in being content with what you have right here and right now. That’s one reason I admire the Tsimane so much. It’s a trait that would serve us all well. I don’t think it will dampen my own exploring, but it did open another layer of thought as to why I’m doing it, and it will push me to be more like them, and work on my own contentment wherever I am.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He cofounded IndiFly —a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sport fishing as a method of conservation.