March 07, 2018
This article was originally titled "Freshwater Permit" in the Feb-Mar 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Fernando, the charismatic and passionate host at Asunta Lodge, says that pacus are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "freshwater permit." The reality, he told me while sharing an ice-cold beer on the evening of our arrival on the Sécure River in Bolivia, is that "permit are actually saltwater pacus. Most fly fishers just don't know any better."
I've caught a few pacus over the years; the first time was in Argentina when I was guiding in the early 2000s. At that time we thought they were purely vegetarians, and we cast flies of spun deer hair trimmed to resemble fruit falling from the trees. That worked sometimes. On other occasions, we'd hit rock bottom in frustration, and thread real fruit or nuts on a hook to get a pull.
The pacus loved sitting tight to the bank, always under overhanging trees, and that made the casting challenging. To top it off, they love structure. As soon as you hooked them, they'd head to the heart of the closest logjam.
I caught a few other small pacu-type fish in some other jungle adventures. But none of those smaller cousins gave me the healthy respect and admiration that Fernando was articulating. Maybe I was missing something.
I came to the Sécure River because of its reputation as the best place in the world for hard-hitting, acrobatic golden dorado, so Fernando's passion for pacu fishing implied I was missing something. I decided to head upriver one day to find out just exactly what he was so excited about.
Sight Fishing for Pacu
I'm often asked what my favorite fish is and the reply is always, "anything I can see." Sight casting for me is the pinnacle of fly fishing. Sight casting to big jungle fish is up there with the best there is, and the upper Sécure River didn't disappoint me.
Every long, slow, deep pool was stacked with pacus, and comparing them to permit is completely justified. Their platter-shaped body is unusual in a river environment, and they are uncannily aware of what's going on beyond the river. I would swear they heard us talking a few times and just sank into the depths not to be seen again. Not only were we wading stealthily, we soon began whispering to avoid spooking fish. They were line shy enough that I didn't just have to be accurate, I had to lengthen the leader to 12 feet and place the fly and line as gently as possible.
One fish I remember was in hot pursuit of my fly, and I thought I was going to get tight on the next strip when I saw the fish 50 feet away make eye contact with me, turn off, and disappear. That degree of awareness is very permitesque, or pacuesque depending on how you look at it.
Permit are notorious for giving you the stink eye, but pacus do the same things. I watched one pacu turn completely horizontal in the water with its giant eye just beneath a dry fly. It floated downstream with the fly for a few feet, looking for all the world like a big trout questioning the veracity of a #22 Parachute Blue-winged Olive. Then he disappeared into the abyss.
That's not to say they were all like that. Most of the time the fish weren't interested, but when they were it was incredible. The most effective technique was sending in a small weighted streamer using a wide-open loop so the fly plopped downward in the pool to mimic a falling nut or fruit. If you did it just right, a pacu would eat the fly just as it started to sink.
The streamer gave us the advantage of a retrieve for those situations where the fish didn't find the fly immediately after it landed. Small short strips often triggered those fish to eat.
The Pacu's Powerful Shape
The strength and stamina of a pacu are unsettling. If you have been pulling on 30-pound dorado in the jungle, a 15-pound pacu seems like an easy match for your 9-weight outfit.
They aren't. They are surprisingly strong, and they are more likely to test your backing connection than any dorado of any size.
The rigging for pacus is simple, you use the same rod you likely brought to the jungle for dorado fishing. I used a 9-weight G.Loomis Asquith with a tropical weight-forward fly line, and a 9-foot nylon monofilament leader tapered down to 30-pound-test, a heavy swivel, and then 8 inches of 40-pound-test single-strand wire. Pacus will easily bite through monofilament. You need a stout leader to put pressure on the fish early and steer them away from structure.
On our best day we landed nine pacus, all in the 15- to 25-pound range. We saw them in every slow pool we searched, sometimes single fish, occasionally in small groups of four or six, under overhanging branches, in deep pools. We found them holding deep, feeding, and cruising the flats, and managed to get a few to eat in each circumstance. My guide Guido even hooked one we spotted from on top of a 30-foot cliff. It was magical trying to convince these moody fish, but unlike with permit fishing, there were lots of pacus. You'd blow a shot and just walk to the next run for a chance at redemption.
One of the highlights of being in the jungle is just spending time with indigenous people. They are so tuned to their environment, it's humbling to experience and witness their heightened senses. I was constantly amazed at the incredible vision of the natives. Without even using polarizing lenses, they could find fish I had no hope of seeing.
The outfitting operations at Tsimane SÃ©cure Lodge embrace and support the local communities. All the fly fishers are guided by a professional expert fly-fishing guide and two indigenous guides who know the terrain, the potential dangers and hazards, and most important, where the fish are.
Rubin was my boat captain on our best day of pacu fishing. He was young, but wise beyond his years from a hard life growing up in the jungle. After lunch, Rubin picked up a spare rod and showed me his casting skills.
He threw a decent loop and even had the basic foundations for a double haul, a demonstration of his athletic ability because he'd never formally been taught to fly cast--he learned just by watching people cast, and experimenting with their rods during lunch breaks. Although he'd shot thousands of fish with an aboriginal longbow, he'd never caught a fish on a fly rodâ€”and he seemed to be interested.
We walked toward the next pool and spotted a dorado holding in the fast water. I'd already caught a bunch of dorado, so I handed him the rod and encouraged him to take a shot. The fly landed short, the fish spooked, and Rubin handed the rod back with a sheepish smile. I could tell he was grateful for the opportunity, and could see the sport in catching a fish he wasn't going to eat.
Upstream, we saw a pacu feeding happily along the inside of a bend. Again, I handed Rubin the rod, and you could see his stoke as he stripped off line and made one cast. The pacu jumped all over the fly, and Rubin was hooked up to his first fish on a fly rod.
The reel handle battered his knuckles as he tried to hold on, and it looked at first as though the pacu might win the battle, but Guido jumped in and gave Rubin a quick tutorial on how to pump the rod and then reel down to gain line and control the fish.
Rubin had an ear-to-ear smile with a bent rod, a pacu on the line, a mouth full of coca leaves, and he eventually landed that fish. That was the best moment of the week, watching someone who had spent his whole life on this river feel the excitement of his first fish on a fly rod. He felt the same thrill as any fly fisher, and I'm still wondering whether he learned more about us (visiting fly fishers) or whether we learned more from him.
Showing him why people travel to visit his very humble home was one of those perfect moments I'll never forget. These life-changing experiences are the reason I travel. Just being there to witness that spark of understanding and enthusiasm, and to welcome a new fly fisher to the fraternity, is worth all the miles.
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 (indifly.org)--a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sportfishing as a method of conservation.