December 20, 2023
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As dawn broke over the mountains, we walked down a small stream called Arroyo de la India. Tree limbs laden with moss and bromeliads and orchids shaped the sunlight into sharp shafts and pools of light that illuminated the sandy creek bottom. The only sound that broke the silence—aside from the persistent hum of cicadas—was the call of a bird I did not recognize.
My wife Christine was beside me, as was our friend, José Caparrós. We’d been walking for nearly an hour through the jungle. We were carrying fly rods and food for the day. There was a palpable sense of anticipation building among us.
Out ahead was Agustín García Bastons. He was walking at a brisk pace, passing in and out of the light and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Wafts of blue smoke lingered behind him in the heavy air. The aroma reminded me of days spent fishing with my grandfather.
We rounded a bend in the arroyo and the canopy broke open to reveal a sky with clouds so low it felt as though we could reach up and touch them. Red stones and sand and sunchos appeared before us.
And then I heard the rush of the river running below.
Into the Yungas
When I first heard its name, the Río Dorado was barely a whisper. Somewhere in northern Argentina, up near the Bolivian border, there was a place called Salta. Golden dorados swam in spring-fed rivers tumbling out of the jungle there. These fish lived in water akin to a trout stream, but dwarfed their counterparts in size, splendor, and ferocity. Word was that in Río Dorado these fish would rise to dry flies.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Río Dorado is no secret, at least not amongst the Argentines. And the whisper I heard would become a roar the moment Christine and I followed Bastons and Caparrós through a small clearing in the jungle, down a rough trail, and set foot in the waters of Río Dorado for the first time.
For anglers in Argentina, the Río Dorado is revered. Every dorado angler in the country wants to fish here. Most trout anglers in Argentina do, too. But unlike trout, which were introduced to Argentina’s Lago Nahuel Huapí in northern Patagonia in 1904, dorado are a native warmwater species. Dorado are like trout in shape, right down to the adipose fin, but possess a radiant golden hue that is simply jaw dropping when you hold one in your hands. They inhabit waters in Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Bolivia, but it is Argentina that claims the dorado as its national fish. And Argentine anglers pursue them with a zeal matched only by the most rabid fútbol fans in the barrios of Buenos Aires.
There is a passion and a comradery among dorado anglers here that is impossible to describe. You need to be on the water and in the fishing lodges of Argentina to appreciate the passion they have for their native fish. And San Fernando Lodge, which provides access to the Río Dorado, is among the best places in the country to immerse yourself in the culture of Argentine dorado fishing.
Operated by Tuku Hunting & Fishing, San Fernando Lodge is set in the foothills of the Maíz Gordo Mountains and surrounded by 65,000-acre Estancia San Fernando. A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Salta winds you through the landscapes of Parque Nacional El Rey to the small agricultural town of Las Lajitas. From here, a four-wheel-drive track leads into the jungle. Fields of sorghum, soybeans, and sugarcane plantations circled by massive flocks of doves give way to a forested landscape inhabited by toucans and tyrant flycatchers of exceptional variety.
San Fernando Lodge hosts just six anglers at a time and is all that remains of a former timber town that existed in the area in the early 1900s. Except for the occasional avocado, lime, or pomelo tree that now offer delightful treats for hungry anglers, the jungle has completely reclaimed the area and the landscape appears now as it may have prior to colonization.
The jungle in Salta is part of the Yungas bioregion which extends north into Bolivia and Peru. The Yungas is a warm, humid environment with high levels of annual rainfall. It defines a transitional zone on the eastern slope of the Andean Cordillera, extending from the highlands to the forested slopes below. The Yungas is home to a spellbinding diversity of plants and animals including South American tapirs, ocelots, and white-lipped peccarys.
Just about the time you realize how far out in the jungle you are, you’ll break out of the woods into a clearing and catch your first glimpse of San Fernando Lodge. On the wall in the dining room inside, encircled by photographs of trophy dorados, there is a hand-drawn map of Estancia San Fernando drafted in 1915. If you trace the topographical lines north across the Río Seco and Arroyo de la India you’ll see the Río Dorado, cutting its way through a canyon, out there in the Yungas, holding the fish of your dreams.
There are many ways to catch dorados, but the techniques familiar to anglers on fisheries like the Paraná River and the Iberá Marshlands are less effective on the Río Dorado. The fish that swim here inhabit a spring-fed river less than 50 feet wide in most sections. The river flows with luminous clarity much of the year and is flanked by dense jungle. These fish are hyper-aware of their environment. Streamers catch some dorados, but more often the noisy presentation and the vibration of the line spooks the fish here. Even a splashy dry-fly cast can shatter an opportunity.
Bastons developed a new technique for the Río Dorado during a horse-packing trip into Estancia San Fernando many years ago. When he arrived at the river, Bastons noticed a dorado holding in the current. “I saw the fish and take a piece of wood and drop in the water, and the fish come and eat it,” Bastons said. “I said, ah, okay, the cast is upstream, it’s like a surprise cast, and started to fish upstream with mouse or dry fly and start to catch really big fish.”
The “surprise cast” is most effective when you can spot a dorado in advance. Sight-fishing techniques familiar to those anglers who have targeted brown trout in the New Zealand backcountry are appropriate on Río Dorado, as are the requisite camouflage clothing, sun, and insect protection. But there are added challenges. Unlike trout that hold their positions in seams, riffles, and pools, dorados are always on the move. They are apex predators that feed primarily on a prey fish called sábalo. Where there are no sábalo, there are no dorados. And those sábalo, of which there are many in Río Dorado, multiply the number of eyes watching you by an order of magnitude. Spook the sábalo and the dorado will vanish like a flake of gold washed downstream in the current.
The surprise cast demands that anglers are both accurate and delicate in their presentation. The recommended gear for Río Dorado is a 9-foot, 7-weight rod with a 7-weight saltwater line. Saltwater lines are built to withstand abrasion and shoot line, which becomes essential when confronted with the sandy bottom and jungle environment of Río Dorado. Due to the dorados’ sharp teeth, you must use wire tippet that is heavy enough to fight and land fish, but supple enough to present a dry fly with finesse. Nine-foot, 40-pound-test leaders are standard. Use an Albright knot to connect the leader to a 12-inch length of 30-pound wire tippet.
When you see a dorado, you must strip out line quickly to make a presentation before the fish moves. Complicating matters, the riverbed is laced with sunchos. This willow-like bush is used locally to treat high cholesterol, but contributes mightily to elevated blood pressure among dorado anglers who must compete with it when trying to shoot line. Most of the time you’ll be attempting cross-current casts in the 25- to 40-foot range, often with backcast obstructions. Your line management and casting skills will need to align with a copious degree of luck to find success here.
“The reason I love fly fishing is the challenge, the technique—and the Río Dorado is the most challenging river for fishing dorado in Argentina,” fly fisher Rodolfo Miguel, of Buenos Aires, said. “Every fish is an accomplishment in this river.”
The ideal scenario in a surprise cast situation is to present the fly six inches upstream of the fish. If you can manage that, the response is often immediate. The next challenge is setting the hook. Dorados have incredibly sharp teeth and hard jaws, strong enough to tear another fish in half or take off a finger if you are particularly unlucky. Setting the hook is a matter of raising the rod tip while simultaneously stripping line. And then doing it again and again to drive the hook in. Once you’ve set the hook and the fish has jumped, which it will undoubtedly do in the most acrobatic fashion, your goal is to maintain tension on the line and back the fish to the shore to land it. When it all comes together there is no feeling like it in the world of fly fishing.
A River Apart
The Río Dorado is connected via a network of waterways to the Paraná River, where sábalo are endemic. While knowledge of how dorados first arrived in Río Dorado is unknown, the thinking is that dorados pursued sábalo up the Paraná and Paraguay rivers into Río Bermejo. The Bermejo is fed by Río Teuco which connects to a wetland providing a migratory route for fish to reach Río Dorado. But that connection to the outside world is fleeting.
Río Dorado is fed entirely by spring water and rainfall. Due to natural water loss and agricultural draw, during normal flows the river never reaches the wetland connecting it to Río Teuco. The only opportunity for new dorado to migrate into the Río Dorado occurs during the rainy season between November and February. The last time enough water flowed from Río Dorado to flood the wetland and connect it to Río Teuco was in 2019. As a result, the fish in Río Dorado today are all resident. And they become increasingly challenging to catch, even considering the light angling pressure they receive. “In the last ten years, the biggest fish we have caught is 21 or 22 pounds,” Christian Druetta, manager of Tuku Hunting & Fishing, said. “But it is not easy. They are smart and they have been there a long time.”
The fishing season on Río Dorado runs from March 1 to Nov. 30. Dorados spawn between December and February. Water levels must rise and remain elevated for several weeks to initiate the spawn, which coincides with the annual migration of sábalo on the Paraná River. Millions of fish move through the system as they travel upstream. When the rainy season does provide enough flow for Río Dorado to flood the wetland, fresh dorados swim into the river. These fish are evident by the red streak in their tail, an indicator of the stress of the migration. Migratory fish are typically less challenging to catch than resident fish, but develop behavior unique to Río Dorado over time.
Dorado are open-water spawners. In an incredible feat of fecundity, the larger females release eggs that are fertilized by males and hatch in a mere 14 hours. The fry feed on insects in the shallows before gaining the size to feed on other fish. Caparrós said dorados in the Río Dorado put on an average of two pounds annually. A massive flood in 2015 wiped out most of the dorados in the river, but the population has rebounded. Today, the biggest fish again tip the scales at more than 20 pounds.
Río Dorado is one of several spring-fed dorado rivers in Salta, and not long ago many of the other rivers in the area also produced exceptional dorado fishing. Río del Valle rises in the mountains not far from Río Dorado in Parque Nacional El Rey. Río de los Gallos flows just north of Río Dorado from a canyon on the eastern slope of Cerro Ceibal. But despite a nationwide ban on the harvest of dorados, these fisheries and others have been decimated by poaching. The reason Río Dorado remains a pristine fishery is due to its remote location, which makes access difficult, and the efforts of guides like Bastons and Caparrós who care deeply for the river and its fish.
“You see a place like this, hardly touched by humans at all, with so many dorados,” Caparrós said. “It’s very pristine, the whole area, all the wildlife, the tapirs, the peccary, the toucans. All that makes this river so, so special.”
Zero to 100
The upper reaches of Río Dorado snake through a precipitous gorge with rust-colored bluffs rising to verdant forest. Bromeliads cling to the cliffs, dotting the rufous stone with pockets of life. This day, the clouds above churned beneath an impossible sky. Agustín, José, Christine, and I had hiked nearly 10 kilometers upstream through the jungle, crossing the river countless times. My feet were swollen in my wading boots, my hands covered in bug bites. I was hungry and tired. But there were dorados here.
We were moving well, seeing fish, and making the casts we needed to make. We weren’t talking much, focused instead on fishing and the sights and sounds of the Yungas. We’d seen a few dorados, but they’d drifted deeper into the pools or ignored our presentations entirely. Though no one had spoken a word of it, a sense of exhaustion and frustration had crept in. The light was getting low, and it would be time to return to the lodge soon.
Christine walked ahead with Agustín to look for a dorado. José and I watched from a gravel bar as they approached a pool, slightly crouched, silent. The river entered the pool in a plunge, hit a stone wall, and then tailed out over a gravel bar. Agustín pointed to the far side of the current with a long wooden stick he’d cut for the purpose with his machete. I saw Christine nod. She stripped line off her reel and coiled it in the stones at her feet. Her rod tip rose through the dense air and accelerated into a false cast, the weight of the line pulling itself through the guides. She opened her loop and laid a delicate cast on the water.
This time a dorado rose to her fly. A flash of gold surged from the river. Christine fought the fish to shore. Gone were thoughts of exhaustion and hunger and bugs. We were all laughing, consumed by a joy felt only by anglers on this river, out in the Yungas. This was the moment we came for, to witness this world and to be amazed.
Gearing Up for Rio Dorado
Fishing Río Dorado is not for the faint of heart, and that’s part of the appeal. You are fishing in the jungle on foot, sight casting to dorados. You’ll be covering a lot of ground, up to 20 kilometers a day. River crossings are frequent. Stealth and a reasonable level of fitness are necessary. Choosing the right gear for fishing Río Dorado means packing only what is essential. Smart gear choices can aid in angling success and comfort on the water.
Simms makes a BugStopper SolarFlex Hoody ($95) with UPF 50 sun protection and a camouflage pattern ideal for stalking dorados. The fabric is treated to ward away insects, which helps to keep the no-see-ums at bay. These shirts breathe well, dry quickly, and are just about perfect for the needs of anglers on Río Dorado.
Moving through the jungle demands long pants or leggings. Simms BugStopper Leggings ($110) are a great choice for women. They have a camo design and are durable enough to withstand the rigors of the Yungas. Orvis Jackson Quick-Dry Shorts ($98) are a good choice for men to wear over a pair of leggings.
Anglers should pack 9-foot, 7-weight rods for fishing Río Dorado. We fished Orvis Helios 3D rods ($998) with great success. They’re fast enough to load and shoot line effortlessly, yet delicate enough to present a heavy dry fly on wire tippet with finesse. The fighting butts on these rods help after the hook-up to bear down and bring a dorado to shore. Paired with Orvis’s Mirage reel ($698), these rods are all you’ll need, even if you hook into a 20-pounder.
Saltwater lines like the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Infinity Textured Salt ($130) are the best bets for Río Dorado. These saltwater lines resist abrasion and coiling, and the taper allows precision casting with smaller flies. Lines like the Jungle Titan are overweighted to cast larger streamers in other jungle rivers, but may not be delicate enough for sight-casting with smaller dry flies on the Río Dorado.
Spotting fish is an essential skill on Río Dorado, and quality polarized lenses are as essential as your rod and reel. We fished with Costa Jose Pro ($284) and Waterwoman ($224) sunglasses, and while Christine proved much more adept at spotting fish than I, the fault did not lie with the sunglasses. The degree of clarity Costa achieves with their performance lenses is exceptional for dorado fishing. Copper Silver Mirror lenses are best for the often shaded areas of the river.
When you leave San Fernando Lodge in the morning, you’ll need to pack water, a rain jacket, a warm layer, and sundry gear—all the while being ready for occasional jungle downpours. Patagonia’s waterproof Disperser Roll-Top Pack ($219) is lightweight, but still provides a 40-liter capacity.
If You Go
Tuku Hunting & Fishing operates San Fernando Lodge and provides exclusive access to the upper Río Dorado. The lodge hosts a maximum of six anglers. There are four beats for anglers to explore, three on the Río Dorado and one on the Río Seco, a spectacular dorado fishery in its own right. San Fernando Lodge is rustic, but comfortable. What it lacks in luxury it more than makes up for in warmth and character. Meals feature classic Argentine cuisine and regional wines that are sure to hit the spot after a long day on the water.
Anglers will arrive in Argentina at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires. After clearing customs, they’ll need to transfer to Aeroparque Jorge Newbery Airport for the flight to Salta. Traffic in Buenos Aires can be heavy so give yourself a minimum of four hours to make the connection. Tuku Hunting & Fishing will arrange transportation to San Fernando Lodge from Martín Miguel de Güemes International Airport in Salta.
Ben Pierce and Christine Marozick own and operate Side Channel Productions in Belgrade, Montana. Both graduates of Montana State University, they produce fly-fishing and adventure travel films, photography, and stories for clients around the world.
sidechannelproductions.com | @sidechannelproductions