Peacock Bass and Dorado
come together in Bolivia - A cutting edge exploratory adventure in the
world’s most diverse freshwater fishery.
A Meeting of the Great Waters
by Garrett VeneKlasen
The common consensus among geographers today is that the mighty Amazon
River and the massive Paraná River run into separate drainage
basins. After recent travels, I have come to the conclusion
that the Paraná actually interconnects with the
Amazon via a marshy region found in south central Bolivia and northern
Paraguay. I am confident that at the height of the rainy season
in the southern Amazon one can travel, via a small boat, from the
port of Buenos Aires on the banks of Argentina’s Plata River all the
way (via the Amazon’s upper tributaries) to the Orinoco delta some
3,075 nautical miles to the north. This extremely challenging
journey would take at least six months and cover over 10,000 river
miles! To my knowledge, such an incredible adventure has yet
to be undertaken. But that's another story yet to be written.
The story that concerns me now regards the previously-mentioned
connection between two of the world’s largest rivers, for it is this magical
place where one can find a conglomeration of both Amazon and Paraná
ecosystems; a freshwater fishery so diverse and fantastic that nothing
can compare to it anywhere in the world . . .
October, 1998 – Initial Exploratory: You might say I was
a bit skeptical when the idea of a Bolivian Amazon exploratory fishing
expedition first manifested itself. I have spent over a decade extensively
prospecting the entire Amazon basin and the surrounding subtropical fisheries
in Southern Brazil and northern Argentina. Bolivia was always considered
a marginal angling destination. All my sources gave the same report;
the peacock bass there were said to be small and scarce and piranhas were
the only other incidental species in ‘fishable’ numbers.
Adding to my doubts were further rumors which said
both peacock bass and freshwater dorado could be found in close proximity.
This made absolutely no sense, as the dorado’s range was thought to
be limited to the Paraná River drainage in Paraguay, Argentina
and Southern Brazil. It all sounded too good to be true.
The chance of encountering such a dynamic tropical freshwater fishery
means a once-in-a-lifetime angling adventure; so plans were quickly
made and we were off to Bolivia!
In Santa Cruz, Frontiers International’s Dick Viall,
my wife, Annie, and I are met at the international airport by Bolivian
outfitter Jorge Molina. Molina is an energetic, driven professional
who has clearly done his homework prior to our arrival. Molina pulls
out a stack of photos picturing huge catches of peacock bass. Some
of the fish look to be in excess of 15-pounds. Molina says it is
a snap to catch over a hundred peacocks a day. By the looks of the
photos, he isn’t exaggerating.
“And what about these rumors of freshwater dorado?” I ask.
Molina smiles proudly. “You will soon see for yourself
my friend . . .”
A 15-minute drive through the bustling semi-tropical Santa Cruz
finds us at a small private airport. Here, a meticulously-maintained
twin Otter awaits our arrival. We quickly load our gear into the
plane and taxi out onto the tarmac. The Otter heads north out of
Santa Cruz, flying first over a vast agricultural region of soybeans and
This country eventually gives way to solid jungle;
the periphery of the Amazon basin in the Guayaros province with not
a single sign of human intrusion. Jungle stretches away from
horizon to horizon as far as the eye can see. The plane ride
lasts about 45-minutes
before we begin our descent. Recently, Molina has cut a 5,000-foot
air strip out of this solid jungle. This nearly impossible endeavor
is just the beginning of the impressive camp setup we are soon to
A second partner, Victor ‘Chi Che’ Añez,
greets us when the plane doors open. Chi Che has lived in the region
his entire life and owns the property on which the camp is built.
Molina explains to us that Chi Che knows the seasonal nuances and
fish habits better than anyone in the region.
At the edge of the strip sits Molina’s newly-constructed
fixed camp set beautifully on the high banks of the Rio Grande River.
Built in typical ‘jungle’ style, the camp itself is a thatched roof ‘H’
shaped structure with a central dining room connecting four spacious guest
rooms. The lodge looks to be right out of the pages of Robinson
Caruso, with an ornate bamboo interior tastefully decorated with oversized
handcrafted furniture carved from surrounding jungle hardwoods.
After a fabulous lunch we gear up and head out
for the first evening’s fishing excursion. It is decided that
we quickly ‘sample’ the river on this day and then concentrate on
the inland lakes the following morning. We load up in two of
Molina’s 18' flat bottomed Jon-style boats and head up river.
After a 15-minute ride through spectacular jungle brimming with caimans,
turtles, parrots, macaws and guans (jungle fowl), we come to a roiling
set of rapids fed by a particularly ‘fishy’ looking tongue of almost
clear water pouring out of a flooded stand of timber. Chi Che
explains that the river flooded many years ago and changed its course,
forming a new set of inland lakes.
The boats are tied up at the periphery of the fast
water. Right from the start we catch a payara on almost every cast.
The payara are one of the smaller Paraná species (up to about 5-pounds)
of the silvery saber-toothed fish, so we decide to move the boats into
even faster water where the dorado and sardinata are holding. Not
three casts later I am into a beautiful sardinata that jumps and runs like
a sea-fresh Pacific salmon. On a 7-weight fly rod it is all I can
do to hold onto the freshwater ‘golden tarpon.’ Three more sardinata
up to about 10-pounds are caught in rapid succession before Jorge suggested
we move upriver to his favorite dorado hole.
The boat’s wake hardly settles before Jorge begins
casting a 6-inch Bomber plug into a swirling shoot of water piling into
a log jam. On his second cast his rod is nearly jerked out of his
hand by a 15-plus-pound dorado that cartwheels and ‘greyhounds’ down into
the log pile, then throws the lure in quick succession. Jorge immediately
retrieves the lure and casts again with similar results, except it is taken
by an even larger fish which makes one spectacular head shaking leap which
tosses the plug up into an overhanging tree.
With Jorge temporarily out of action, I cast a bulky
Muddler-style black streamer into the same spot and instantly hooked up
on a 12-pound dorado which strips off about 50-yards of backing in a spectacular
leaping run before the fish shakes off the fly. The dorado are up three
to zero! Jorge casts several more times and hooks up on a fourth
fish which would have weighed about 20-pounds, but the big dorado again
throws his plug almost instantly. Jorge proceeds to give me an extensive
lesson in Bolivian-style profanity. By now it is getting quite late
and we are forced to head back to camp with the bitter-sweet taste of the
dorado ‘education’ fresh in our minds.
By about eight the next morning we gather
up our gear and head out for the day’s fishing. Dick and Chi Che
are in one boat and Jorge, Annie and I are in another. We again head
upriver, but turn off into a small side channel after about a ten minute
run. As we head up the channel the river quickly begins to clear
until it is so crystalline that you can see a coin in twelve feet of water.
Jorge calls this section of the river the “aquarium.” The place soon
begins to take on an almost magical quality, with untold varieties of tropical
fish flashing below our bow and countless nearly-tame birds flying and
squawking overhead. Pairs of brilliant blue and yellow and red and
blue macaws, egrets, fish eagles, kingfishers, guans, parrots and parakeets
sit on branches not 20-feet away, while hefty peacock bass, oscars, dorado,
sardinata, huge catfish hardly spook as we pass overhead. This visual
feast lasts for perhaps 20-minutes before the channel suddenly dumps out
into a massive tree-lined inland lake. The guide kills the outboard
and we quietly drift into the lake’s inlet.
“Welcome to peacock heaven!” Molina proudly
I pick up my fly rod and make a horrible haste-inflicted
cast that lands not 10-feet from the boat. The fly crashes down
like a wounded duck and is instantly surrounded by four menacing wakes
which converge in a sizeable explosion of water centered around the
fly. I desperately mend in my wounded cast while the peacocks
play tug-o-war with the fly. Somehow I manage to
hook one of the peacocks,
which instantly proceeds to peel line off the reel and simultaneously
swing the boat around. The fish fights hard for about five minutes
and then finally comes to the boat with a school of excited companions
swirling about in search of more action. The 7-pound fish is
boated, briefly admired and then released. Just out of curiosity
I flip the fly over the side of the boat and once again the water
This craziness continues for a full three hours
and the boat only moves fifty yards or so! In this amount of time
I catch perhaps 60 peacocks between 5 and 13-pounds, as does Jorge with
his light-weight spinning rod. Jorge’s largest fish is about 14-pounds.
Meanwhile Dick and Chi Che are off in the distance hooping and hollering
with regular three-at-a-time hookups. We also land several hard-pulling
oscars. Oscars are the popular beautifully-colored orange and black
aquarium fish closely related to the peacock bass. In an aquarium
they only grow to a pound or so, but here they are commonly taken up to
5-pounds! At near exhaustion, we finally retire onto shore for a
lunch of barbequed peacocks and then got back out for an afternoon no less
spectacular than the morning. Never in my life have I seen such a
concentration of healthy peacock bass!
At sunup the next morning Annie and I awake to excited shouts
of alarm right outside our window. “Snake! Watch out, he’s
after you!” Someone cries in Spanish. We jump out of bed and
run to the door to find several of the guides warily surrounding an 8-foot
bushmaster. The snake coils menacingly and then strikes out at the
closest guide, narrowly missing his leg with its glistening fangs.
Bushmasters are far more poisonous than rattlesnakes and can easily kill
a grown man. They have a nasty reputation for their aggressive behavior
throughout the Amazon basin. Jorge grabs a shotgun and quickly dispatches
the unwelcome visitor. “It looks like there are still a few
wrinkles in the camp we still need to work out!” He calls out while
closely examining the now headless reptile.
The last day is designated as an ‘exploratory’
into another chain of huge inland lakes adjacent to the one we fished
previously. Jorge arranges for two boats to be portaged above
the rapids we fished the day of arrival. Above the rapids, the
river braids through a flooded forest. The channels in this
section are fairly narrow and full of trees, so for twenty minutes
or so the guide has to pick his way through the fast water, carefully
avoiding underwater log jams and weed piles. The river here
runs fast and shallow only to plunge into a deep pool at the end of
each run. Log jams brake up the runs and pools into a fascinating
series of classic ‘pocket’ water. The water isn’t crystal clear,
but visibility is still at about five feet. Each pocket holds
a new surprise, from big dorado, the fast swimming yatorana (a close
relative to the dorado), 4-foot spotted catfish, to sardinata and
other fast water game species. With every new fish sighting,
I can’t help exclaiming what fun it would be to fish our way back
down through the pools on our way back to camp. Jorge replies
that no one ever fished the stretch because it is almost impossible
to work such tangle-ridden water with a spinning rod.
Eventually, the braids give way to one slow moving
flat channel flowing out of a gigantic inland lake. The body of water
itself is perhaps five miles wide and twice as long. The water is
fairly murky on one end, but crystal clear on the other. Schools
of peacocks are present around all weed piles and flooded timber.
The clear side of the lake is fed by a sizeable feeder stream running gin
clear. Dorado, yatorana, and giant catfish are spotted with regularity.
Jorge comments that these migratory species arrive in great schools at
the start of the rainy season. To me the numbers are already quite
impressive – I can’t imagine the fishery when the ‘migration’ commences!
We motor up the feeder stream for about an hour and then begin heading
back. By then it is past lunch time and we have a long way to go
before we can fish the previously-mentioned braids.
It is late afternoon when we finally arrive at
the headwater of the braids. Chi Che and Jorge want nothing
to do with what they call a “nasty fishing nightmare.” They drop a
guide, Dick and me into the smaller boat and head downstream to the
main rapids. We gear up with floating lines and Clousser-style
bucktails and begin a slow decent into the pocket water. The
first pool we come to is a classic run rushing over a sizeable downed
tree. The water is shallow until it hits the tree and then drops
off into an ominous looking hole. The guide positions the boat
so we can both cast into the pool, presenting our offerings simultaneously.
Dick’s fly hits the water first and swings in a tantalizing arc, but
doesn’t get far before a huge dorado comes up and makes a slashing
swipe at the artificial. For some reason the fish never returns
to the fly. My bucktail sweeps over the lower part of the hole
and is ravaged by a 10-pound yatorana which races wildly all over
the pool, flipping and jumping like a tarpon. The fish is boated,
quickly photographed and released.
The next hour progresses in the same manner, with
either yatorana or dorado appearing in almost every ‘fishy’ looking spot.
We manage to boat a half dozen more yatorana and have several short strikes
from impressive dorado, but can’t manage to hook up. Unfortunately,
we are running out of time and have only one more chance at dorado before
heading back to camp. The guide suggests that the dorado are not
in an aggressive feeding mode and will most likely take a deeper fly, so
I switch to a blue Muddler-style weighted streamer. Dick casts
first and raises a beautiful dorado which again takes a swipe at the fly,
but doesn’t take. The fish again appears under the fly near the boat,
but seems disinterested. We rest the dorado about five minutes and
then I cast the blue pattern into the hole. The streamer lands in
an eddy and settles deep before the line catches up in the current.
The swing doesn’t get far – a golden flash appears deep in the hole and
the rod bows heavily under the weight of the big dorado. At the strike
the fish is out of the water in a dazzling, head shaking leap. It’s
golden, holographic scales catch the sun just perfectly, lighting up the
pool in a shimmering flash. The pool itself is quite tight, so the
fish runs back and forth in between a series of equally-stunning leaps.
Just when I think the fish is through, it decides to jump headlong into
a half-submerged tree. Horrified, all I can do is instruct the guide
to quickly get us down to the dorado in hopes of extricating the fish from
the watery branches before it can break off. When we finally get
to the dorado, it is laying calmly on the surface with the line tangled
around one of the tree’s branches. The fish bolts back out into the
pool and the line miraculously comes free.
For next few minutes the dorado bulldogs deep in
the pool’s depths, but the line’s heavy pressure prevails and the
exhausted fish finally comes to the surface. Not two feet away
lays a spectacular 20-pound dorado. In our haste we forget the
landing net. Now what? The only option is to try and tail
the fish, so I gingerly coax the dorado to the side of the boat.
As I ease my hand around the thick, muscular tail, I happen to gaze
into the maw of the fish. It has taken the fly deep and the
steel leader is well
beyond its razor-sharp teeth. At that very moment, I hear a
loud splash and look up to see an 8-foot caiman rushing the boat with
its jaws snapping wildly. It too wants my dorado. The
dorado realizes the new threat of danger and gives one last thrash,
snapping the badly frayed section of monofilament connected to the
steel leader. My golden prize slowly descends back into the
depths as all three of us release a simultaneous cry of disbelief.
The caiman too vanishes into the pool and that is the last we see
We are out of time and out of water to fish and
feeling quite sorry for ourselves for not managing to actually land a single
dorado, but what an amazing three days of fishing! What first looks
to be another hoax turns out to be the most dynamic freshwater Amazonian
fishery I have yet to encounter. The peacock bass numbers are nothing
short of spectacular, but the added dorado bonus was something I never
expected. Throw in the leaping sardinata and payara along with the
aggressive yatorana and hard-pulling oscars and you have something no other
fishery can match. And I can’t wait to get back to the river when
the main migration of fast water fish happens. Catching dorado, yatorana,
sardinata, “until your arm falls off.” I imagine fighting the 40-plus-pound
permit-shaped tambaqui in fast water. Chi Che also promises to take
me for giant catfish when I return. He says a 200-hundred pounder
is as good as in the boat.
I could stay another month, fishing and exploring
these unique Bolivian waters, but we are scheduled for a dove and wild
pigeon hunt the following day. A fifty-minute flight in the Otter
puts you into some of South America’s finest bird hunting. This too
is an unheard of bonus! The only sensible option is to return again
in December when the water begins to rise . . .
December 1998, Second Exploratory - The date is December 7,
1998, only 6 weeks after my first visit to the Rio Grande River.
Since that time the thought of returning to Bolivia became practically
an obsession. What will the river be like in a month? Will
the migratory fish really show up in great numbers? What will it
be like to fish for the huge tambaqui with a fly rod? If I can get
them to actually take a fly, how hard will they be to land? What
about the dorado? By the time the date of departure arrived I can
think of nothing else other than this mysterious new river and its incredible
variety of game fish. Joining me on this trip is J.W. Smith of Rod
& Gun resources Inc.
Upon our arrival, the rains have started and the
river is up about a half a foot. The water clarity is the same,
but notably faster. Bolivia is just the opposite of other Amazon
fisheries – the best fishing comes with the high water. With
the rise of the river comes the first wave of migratory fish.
The dorado and yatorana have just started to show up and the first
schools of tambaqui have established themselves in the braids.
Like king salmon, they arrive in small pods of four to thirty fish.
Ranging between 20 and 90-pounds, they move in intimidating wakes
which deliberately surge upriver as they head up to the inland lakes
to spawn. Physically, tambaqui are built like a stocky permit
or jack. They have a pleasant grey-blue back which fades into
a purple-brown shade near the belly of the fish. An omnivorous
distant relative of the piranha, tambaqui have dazzling teeth which
look exactly like a set of human dentures. These fish have amazing
jaw strength as they often feed on rock hard jungle seeds, and they
can crush a 4/0 saltwater hook as if it were made of bailing wire.
Tambaqui reside in fast current and are perfectly
fit for such an environment. They have huge anal fins and extremely
wide, thick tails. When hooked they use their powerful oval body
against the current and makes incredible heart stopping runs which are
unstoppable even with the heaviest of terminal tackle. These fish
are so strong that the locals fish for them with stout green saplings secured
to 120-pound monofilament, heavy cable and 6/0 tuna hooks! One in
three tambaqui will jump, and to see such a huge fish throw itself out
of the water is spectacular. Until very recently tambaqui were not
known to take flies or lures with any consistency, but for some reason
the Bolivian strain of the fish are particularly aggressive and will take
both flies and lures with abandon.
The first afternoon of my return trip is spent fishing
the lower section of the braids. This stretch of water is like nothing
I’ve ever seen in all my jungle travels. It is a huge expanse of
flooded forest which formed when the main river switched its course.
The river flows fast and furious through a labyrinth of dead trees.
Behind every tree and downed trunk lies some kind of game fish and one
never knows what will strike when a fly or lure is presented. We
do not have a great deal of time to fish the first afternoon, but I still
manage to land three dorado and a nice yatorana. Several more dorado
escape either by jumping and throwing the fly or by running headlong into
the submerged timber.
The second day we travel into the nearest inland lake to
show J.W. Smith the abundance of peacock bass. Our group,
consisting of owners Jorge Molina and Chi Che Añez, J.W.
and myself, fish in close proximity and land countless peacocks.
That afternoon the group decides to return to the river to fish
for tambaqui and dorado in the braids below the big lake.
Jorge and I are in one boat, while Chi Che and J.W. are in the other.
Before the boats have a chance to split up, Chi Che hooks a magnificent
20-plus pound dorado. The fish makes a half dozen incredible jumps
which end in a drag melting run over a downed trunk. The dorado
breaks Chi Che’s 30-pounded braided line with ease.
After Chi Che’s loses his dorado, our guide carefully
drifts our the boat down through the flooded timber. We stop periodically
at select-looking holes to give us a chance to work over the fish.
I am casting a black and white 4/0 Clousser-minnow and hook a 15-pound
dorado which gives me a spectacular fight. Fortunately we are in
a spot relatively void of timber and I manage to boat the fish. I
replace my mangled Clousser and we continue to drift down river.
The guide again stops the boat above a particularly fishy-looking deep
run. Jorge immediately spots an ominous set of wakes heading up through
the current. Something so large can only mean one thing – tambaqui.
Jorge casts a #5 gold Vibrax spinner into the midst of the pod. The
lure hits the water and is inhaled by a monstrous tambaqui. The take
is an incredible waking swirl of water which brings about cheers from both
Jorge is using braided line even heavier than that
used by Chi Che. The tambaqui does not seem particularly impressed
and takes off downstream in a blistering run. Jorge has the drag
cranked down as far as it will go on his spinning rod, but the huge fish
doesn’t even slow down as it races through the shoot at the bottom of the
run. The line suddenly goes slack and when Jorge retrieves the lure
we are amazed to find that the heavy hooks have been flattened by the enraged
Up to this point I have never had a big tambaqui
take a fly, though I’ve repeatedly cast to them in the Brazilian Amazon.
I let fly with a blue Clousser streamer, laying it down a foot or so above
a particularly large wake. The tambaqui responds immediately, charging
the fly and taking on the surface. I am so surprised that I jerk
the streamer out of the fish’s mouth before it has a chance to turn.
A bit shaken, I present the fly to the same fish. Again, it attacks
with equal enthusiasm but this time I manage to have enough nerve to let
the fish take the streamer. The fish turns its huge form into the
current and races downstream. This oversized bluegill is every bit
as strong anything I’ve ever hooked in salt or fresh water. The tambaqui
overpowers my tackle and snaps my 50-pound mono tippet and steel leader
like it was 7X!
Now the shakes set in and I’m a real mess.
I tie on a second blue Clousser and have another go at one of the remaining
wakes. The next fish eagerly eats my streamer and we’re off to the
races. Instead of running down stream, the tambaqui sprints
upstream toward the boat. Not five feet away it throws itself out
of the water in a heart-stopping leap which sends a spray of water into
the boat. The fish continues upstream with a full head of steam and
snaps me off as it races around a sunken log.
I hook seven more tambaqui in nearly as many casts
and they all manage to bust off, pull the hooks or smash them in their
immensely powerful jaws. By the end of the afternoon I am obsessed
with these incredible game fish – nine hookups and not one fish in the
The following morning I am up before day break. I spent half
the night lying in the dark with my eyes opened up like two oversized
dinner plates. Visions of tambaqui torment my brain.
Finally I get up and furiously tie a dozen or so blue Cloussers.
I’ll have one of these tambaqui in the boat before the day is over
if it kills me.
J.W. and I are off in one boat. Jorge and
Chi Che in the other. We are on a tambaqui quest first and foremost,
then later plan to head upriver to explore another inland lake not previously
fished. I instruct the guide to take us directly to the run Jorge
and I fished the day before. We arrive at the hole only to find that
the previously-fished pod of tambaqui have already moved upriver.
Without further ado we pack up and continue on in search of a fresh school.
It doesn’t take long to find what we were after. A pod of tambaqui
are spotted in short order. These fish are extremely aggressive and
both J.W. and I miss several violent takes before I manage to hook
up on what the guide calls a ‘baby.’ It is all I can do to control
this so-called ‘baby,’ which races about peeling off 50-yards of line run
after run. Fifteen tense minutes later, my first fly-caught tambaqui
comes into the boat. This 20-pound fish is the smallest tambaqui
I’ve hooked in two days of fishing!
The pod disperses so we again set about in search
of a fresh school. We pass Jorge and Chi Che who are in the midst
of their own battle. The fish Jorge has hooked is actually dragging
their boat upriver! The fish drags them some 50-feet before crushing
all the hooks in Jorge’s lure. We soon stop again in another run
crisscrossed with telltale wakes. I hook up again and battle the
fish for nearly half an hour before the 21-pounder across our bow.
Another ‘baby’ the guide comments. This ‘baby’ has me worn out.
J.W. hooks up not 5 minutes after I release my second
fish. He spies a small school of tambaqui holding in a shallow run
and sight casts to them like they are some sort of Jurassic permit.
One of the fish takes the fly, but J.W. too prematurely rips the
streamer out of the fish’s mouth. He hooks the fish on his second
cast and the tambaqui runs and then jumps in another spectacular leap that
leaves us breathless. Twenty five minutes later we manage to get
his fish in the boat. Another ‘baby’ 21-pounder almost identical
to my fish. J.W.’s fly is demolished and the 4/0 saltwater hook is
bent out in an exaggerated U shape.
Guided trips to Bolivia for peacock bass, dorado, tambaqui,
yatorana, payara and all the species featured in this article are available
The guide makes a final comment in Spanish as the
fish swims away. “Next month the big ones will arrive and they’ll
flatten those puny hooks in one bite. I don’t think a 45-kilo tambaqui
will even know its hooked on those silly water whips of yours.” I
translate this to J.W. and he laughs aloud. “I’m not so sure I’d
want to tangle with a 90-pound tambaqui. I’ll settle with these little
‘babies,’ thank you very much...”
For more information
about available fishing trips for peacock bass in Bolivia,
InterAngler - 888 347-4329
Copyright © 1999 Garrett VeneKlasen
All Rights Reserved