"Dorado are either the Argentineans best kept secret or else travelling anglers, hell bent on pursuing the admittedly excellent Sea Trout fishing, simply miss out on the opportunity." In fairness neither of those statements are quite true. Argentineans absolutely love their Dorado fishing and happily boast about it. On the other side, "Western" anglers do come and fish for Dorado although they are usually given second priority. From my perspective I have definitely fallen into the latter category. In 2009 I resolved to make amends with a visit to Pira Lodge in the Argentine district of Corrientes. What a revelation it was!
The contrast between the barren terrain of Tierra del Fuego in the very South of Argentina and the Iberian marshland in the North East is staggering. Quite apart from the landscape, visitors require a very different wardrobe. For starters waders, woolly hats and fleeces are exchanged for bare feet, shorts, linen shirts and sun tan lotion. It has all the outward vestiges of a saltwater fishing operation; climate, skiffs, guides on poling platforms but that is pretty much where the similarity ends. The assault on your senses starts the moment your guide guns the engines on your skiff and you disappear into the marshland.
On my first afternoon/evening fishing session I strolled the 100 yards from the lodge to the fishing dock. Walking along mown grass you have no real feeling of the marshland beyond. It is only on the dock itself you get an indication that things are a little different. Rather than the large waterway I had envisaged there was instead an absurdly narrow channel with barely enough water in it to keep the skiffs afloat. (As it turned out the water levels were lower than Noel Pollack the manager had witnessed in his 8-year tenure since the lodge first opened). The water surrounding the boats the shimmered with life. Fish rose, wriggled and splashed everywhere.
Vicente, my guide, greeted and presented me with a box of expertly tied flies which he had knocked up over lunch. We loaded our 9 wt rods, cranked the outboard to life and raced off down the channel. The journey and each one that followed was spectacular. Less than 100 yards from where we started we passed a family of five Carpincho, the largest rodents in the world. Clearly accustomed to Pira boats they seemed almost entirely oblivious to our presence just yards away. Moments later it was a 5ft Caiman (type of Alligator) that took centre stage. Less keen on our passing, the surface of the water erupted as it darted for cover.
Our journey wound for 15 minutes through 8 ft high weed beds and lagoons which due to the low water were now covered in weeds, lilies and wild flowers, and which are interconnected with barely visible channels rippling with activity from both Dorado and more commonly Sabalo. Aside from the vegetation, mammals and reptiles the birdlife was simply astonishing. I would happily confess that I am a bit of a heathen when it comes to ornithology. My interest tends to rest along the principles of the ‘bigger the better’. Out in the marshland it is different. During a single day the observant could easily spot 40 different species ranging from a Tiger Heron to an Amazon Kingfisher and for those with a checklist you have 350 different species to work through. It is quite simply bird watching heaven.
The channels have crystal clarity when the water is higher the but in times of low water it carries more colour and although one could clearly spot fish in the smaller channels the larger streams and the Corrientes River, which the marshland drains into, carried with it the muddy stain of the slacker water. This is not a problem, as although you can sight cast at fish the emphasis is on reading the river and casting into every confluence, ripple and likely ambush points from which a Dorado might strike. Depth is not necessarily an essential feature and you will find 8-10lb fish in tiny streams no more than 9 ft across, although the larger fish are more likely to inhabit the bigger pools.
On our first session I had expected to be casting from the front of the skiff being poled around the marshland. Instead we wove our way through reeds and lagoons to the point where we were on the outer perimeter of the marshland which would be classified as a drainage stream as opposed to a marsh channel. Were it not for the steel trace and large deceiver style flies we were fishing with we could have been casting on an English chalk stream. In place of rising Trout we were casting at what could best be described as "explosions" from feeding Dorado.
When the take comes it is an unquestionably violent affair. Forget the tentative takes of a Salmon; nine times out of ten Dorado will hit the fly like a sledgehammer. When Dorado are feeding in the smaller streams the take will probably come within moments of your fly touching the water. The bigger streams require a variety of tactics. Sometimes it is sufficient simply to cast and let the fly swing in the current. On the other end of the scale you may cast upstream and feverishly strip the fly back again. Variety is key as well as the usual maxim of listening to your guide. Very quickly you will get a feel for the likely taking places but a key ingredient is to land your fly within inches of the far bank or ripple and let the current whip it out of the safety of the shallows and into the main stream.
My first evening resulted in successive takes and action although no ‘hands on’. Fish grabbed the fly, fish took the fly and leapt skywards and some just came unhooked. Vicente, who I had asked to fish alongside me steadily notched up the results with a number of nice fish whilst I reverted to the role of photographer – a good excuse to spare blushes during the evening summary! The final pool we fished consisted of a confluence of two streams that resulted in a whirlpool of sorts. As the sun dropped below the horizon and the sky turned a deep orange and then red the fish reached a frenzy of activity; jumping, rolling, head and tailing and eventually a solid take for Vicente resulting in a nice fish of around 5lbs.
The following morning I made amends. I quite swiftly notched up a small fish of around 1-1/2 lbs although having previously been reliant on my guide and having failed to pocket even the most elementary set of forceps or pliers I found myself in an interesting predicament. This was a small fish and one that was hardly worth hollering for assistance with the unhooking. At the same time a Dorado has ferocious teeth. There have a menacing front row of fearsomely sharp triangular incisors. The end of the barbless hook was clearly protruding and on the face of things it looked like a simple operation; however in the same way as when you are shown a very sharp knife and told not to touch it you do, I knew what was coming next. Firm hold, grab, shake and snap. Razor like teeth gripped two of my fingers and blood flowed. Distinctly embarrassed I now waited more patiently for assistance from Vicente to do the job properly. Lesson re-learnt!
Maybe it was my blood dripping into the water that brought on the next take. A shoal of minnows which had gathered below my hand and which hungrily hoovered up each droplet as it fell certainly appreciated my mistake. The take, unlike almost all the others was very soft. I had cast a longer line and let it swing on its own when it gradually drew tight followed by the steady pull as a fish headed off downstream. A huge leap revealed it to be at least 10lbs followed by an upstream surge to find cover in a weed bed from whence it had originally come. With the main line partially tethered it now proceeded to leap and thrash on the surface. With 20lb nylon and a wire leader I did not hesitate long before giving it three or four hard jerks and then as quickly as it was on it was off and I was left with a broken leader.
I looked somewhat accusingly at Vicente as one does when 20lb nylon snaps for no reason. He politely informed me that jerking the line was the worst thing I could have done. The whipping action of the line against the water had excited either another Dorado or a Piranha, which in turn bit the line. New lesson learnt!
I do not consider myself a trophy hunter, but like all fishermen size counts and I needed to get one of these bigger fish to the bank. Luckily my wait was not a long one and a short while later in almost exactly the same spot I landed my first 10lb fish. Although still a relative bambino in the bigger scale of things it was enough to sate my appetite. Added to this is the fact that Dorado must be one of the most fantastic looking fish in freshwater. The streamlined golden flanks and red and black flash on their tail combined with one of the most menacing front-ends in the business make them totally unique.
The scale of the streams we were fishing meant that most fish were not going to pull out 100 yards of line but their acrobatic leaps are spectacular and guaranteed. Most fish will leap clean out of the water at least four times during a fight. In higher water the fight and the style of fishing can be totally different. Unconstrained by tight pools Dorado will happily take line from your reel. Similarly, lagoons that were currently huge expanses of weed beds interwoven with channels would normally be full in a high water year. In these conditions it is possible to spot the wake of cruising large Dorado. Given a bit of luck, some canny poling and a good cast it is possible to select, intercept and cast at individual fish. Not so much sight fishing as wake fishing.
Pira lodge is a very special setup. Like all of the Nervous Waters Lodges it has been purpose built and designed with no details omitted. Rooms are big, spacious and airy. Comfortable sofas, hammocks, deck chairs and day beds are scattered liberally all over the lodge and alongside the pool. On our return each evening beds are turned down and the air conditioning turned on in anticipation. Each afternoon and evening exquisite smoothies, drinks, dips and snacks would be waiting for us on our return followed by a sit down meal with a choice of main courses and deserts. An open bar invites you to do your best.
As with any lodge the staff are often more critical to its success than the infrastructure and Pira is no exception. Noel Pollack, the manager and head guide, has been managing and guiding at Pira since its formation 8 years ago. As well as guiding in other locations around the world he probably has more experience fly-fishing for Dorado than anyone else on the planet. Vicente, although only in his second season, has been brought up on the banks of the Panama River and knows the fish and fishing backwards. He is also a humiliatingly good caster.
Throughout my three days at the lodge the fishing was slower than the guides would have hoped due to a period of "unsettled weather". In the best traditions of any fly-fishing trip, I was told that had I been there not just last week but in this case at any stage throughout the entire season since mid January the conditions had been outstanding. From my perspective, I landed or lost fish up to 10lbs each day as well as many smaller and medium sized specimens. This combined with the laid back ambience of the lodge and the thrill of fishing in as diverse an environment as that of the marshland definitely makes Pira lodge and its Dorado fishing at the top of my Argentine "do it again" list.
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