Hiking the Argentinian jungle in search of an extraordinary fish with amazing people. This is the Río Dorado
BY JOHN SADUSKY, Images by John Sadusky and Jose Caparros
My favorite fishing destinations will make me feel slightly uncomfortable. Places that I hide the money I carry with me in two different locations—maybe a third somewhere else—and where there exists a minor threat of peril. So when a fly fishing partner and good friend of mine from Idaho called and invited me to fish golden dorado in Argentina I booked my plane tickets before the call ended!
For many anglers, golden dorado are at the top of the list of prized game fish. They have it all: power, beauty and a challenge to catch. And while this sought after species can be caught many ways in many different places in central and east-central South America it was the where and the how my friend suggested that really got me excited.
The plan was to travel to Northwestern Argentina in May and hike small backcountry rivers, five to ten miles a day, over uneven terrain in search of these fish. The travel would be long, the hiking would be physically testing and the fishing would be very technical.
I loved every part of the plan.
The travel for some to this destination could be a bit of a grind. Minneapolis to Atlanta would take me four hours and an additional ten to Buenos Aires. I didn’t care. I had a new book to read, some writing to do and besides, I was meeting up with one of my favorite fishing partners on the layover at the Atlanta Airport.
At the airport bar where we agreed to meet my friend Ron Miller walks in, looking confused for a moment, before he spots me across the room with a grin. He is a bit shorter than most with a medium build, clean shaven and wears round glasses. A retired doctor he has the demeanor of a mad scientist and at 73 is a force of nature, getting around better than most people 20 years his junior. As an active conservationist, he’s on the board of directors for the Henry’s Fork Foundation in SE Idaho, is fun to spend time with and is very fishy.
We land in Buenos Aires uneventfully, spend one night on the town enjoying its hospitality and beautiful architecture and the next day are off to the city of Salta, a two-hour plane ride north. There we are to be greeted by Christian Druetta, Managing Partner of Tuku Lodge, who will be accommodating our stay.
Christian finds us, loads us in his truck and we are off. With interesting conversation and beautiful mountainous scenery, the two-hour drive goes by fast and soon we are pulling into Tuku where we were offered a beer or two and food before departing for the final destination of where we would be staying in the bush.
After showing us around his gorgeous lodge, Christian wished us well and introduced us to Agustin, my soon to be fishing guide, as well as to lodge hunting guide Francisco, who will now be driving us the rest of the way.
The asphalt road leads us through the town of Las Lajitas, eventually turning into gravel then sand and mud with large ruts at times, forcing Francisco to pay attention driving. Fence gates, cows and a few small streams are crossed adding charm to the 90 minute drive.
We finally arrive at the remote San Fernando Lodge. It is the last remaining building of a once busy logging town that at one time 300 people lived and worked. The small concrete structure at the driveway entrance housing a statue of the Virgin Mary and a tree cleared field are the only remaining evidence of the once booming village.
Inside the screened in rambling concrete rambler, we are greeted and shown around the recently renovated building, which was simple but done nicely, and I felt more at home here than at the posh main lodge.
Joining us on this trip is Ron’s good friend and guide for the week José Capparós. An accomplished guide and international fisherman, Jośe knows the Río Dorado and the Seco Rivers well and will be a tremendous help in finding fish. He’s a cool breeze of a guy with a great sense of humor and will be fun to hang with in the evening. It’s fair to say I liked Jośe immediately.
The next morning, we were finally ready to do what we came here for. Not quite yet finished with travel, we loaded into a side-by-side four-wheeler and made the one-hour drive towards Río Dorado. Weird how you can hop into a plane and change seasons so easily but that is just what we had done, leaving spring at home and arriving at early fall in Argentina. The green leaves were drying out with a few starting to fall and the morning air felt cool and crisp.
“Fishing here is very difficult and technical. There is nearly always an obstacle like brush or trees in range of your backcast”.
The ride was a bit rugged at times, driving into and crossing rivers, fields of grass as tall as the vehicle hood, dark green jungle forests and around large ruts from recent heavy rains.
Finally arriving at Río Dorado we readied our gear. I will be using a seven-weight rod today with an eight weight floating redfish line to aid in casting the large flies. The leader is two eight foot pieces of 30 pound mono, braided by Agustin to aid in laying out the flies when casting, followed by an additional foot of 40-pound wire to stay off the sharp teeth of the dorado. I was really pleased to discover we would be mostly dry fly-fishing as Agustin tied on the large brown mouse pattern. After loading up our packs we descended down the hill towards the river.
Walking along the crystal clear water I immediately noticed schools of sábalo, a fish that looked to me like a combination of a white fish and a carp, being spooked from the bank, moving upstream and putting the rest of the fish on alert. They are black and silver, possess large scales, appear to be 12 to 20 inches in length and are everywhere. A few minutes later on the far bank I spot the first golden dorado. I was very surprised how camouflaged and difficult to see they were—sometimes only visible by a small strip of lime green. Being so visually striking with their yellow-gold color I thought they would be seen from a mile away. The massive fish looked out of place in such a small river.
As we pressed on more large schools of sábalo, boga (another baitfish similar to sábalo) and a few more dorado spooked and it suddenly became very clear to me: on the Río Dorado the river and the earth were one in the same. They were one body, all somehow connected with the rocks, sand and branches like nerve endings connected to the fish, feeling any movement. We had to use tremendous stealth when approaching the water!
Soon we spotted more dorado but they were moving away. Agustin informed me that unless they are holding in shallow water, unaware of our presence it is not worth casting to them. Rejecting any fly presented would only agitate the pool.
Fishing here is very difficult and technical. There is nearly always an obstacle like brush or trees in range of your backcast. Branches, rocks, sticks and grass seemingly reach out to find your line, and seldom you get a clean shot without the possibility of snagging.
Always moving ahead of me is the speedy Agustin. By the time I retrieve my line he is racing to the next spot and has already rolled and smoked half of a cigarette before I join him to get a look into the water. He is not only a very experienced guide, having fished this area for over 25 years, he is an excellent educator. Instructing me to make several adjustments, I listen intently to all of his suggestions and eventually I start to get the protocols and the feel of the river. I had already blown a few chances at fish earlier and after correcting my mistakes he had me moving in the right direction. Fish were now showing real interest in my fly, doing everything but eating it—a nice improvement from my previous approach which scared the fish away.
Coming to a small pool in a channel where the river split Agustin instructed me to pick the water apart, casting to each section starting from closest to furthest away. Having no luck in the previous attempts my last cast dropped the fly on an area of foam at the head of the pool and immediately the water exploded. “El bicho”, the giant green foam grasshopper fly at the end of my line was in the mouth of a dorado and five feet in the air before I could react! It jumped twice more before throwing the fly and I stood there, no doubt looking confused, having never experienced such power and speed in a river this size.
“You got one to eat! You’re starting to get it!” shouted Agustin.
The fish was not a trophy but a welcome site for sure. Gathering my line up I stepped to the next pool and while Agustin was scouting ahead, I cast into the current with again the water erupting, but this time I was ready, setting the hook hard twice and holding on. The fish made several acrobatic leaps and after a short run it was at my feet.
I stood there in amazement looking over the dorado, admiring it’s beautiful yellow-gold colorings, black spots uniformly placed all over its main body, trademark black band on the tail and of course the gorgeous gill plate, with its mix of colors and cracks like an aged porcelain that are unique to each fish like our fingerprints.
This fish was not large but I did not care. I was standing in the Río Dorado, the fish was stunning beautiful and I finally had seen one for myself.
On the hike out that night my feet were a little less achy and the ride home in the four-wheeler seemed slightly less bumpy and cold. That was a fun day of fishing after not having any luck the first day and I could not wait for morning to come to return to the river to be tested by a hopefully larger fish.
That evening, like every evening, we had a ball. Great food, nice drinks and the four of us—Ron, José, Agustin and myself—hanging out and talking about fishing and everything else made for some great entertainment. The lodge staff of Ellie and Nelson added greatly to the experience with their charm and humor.
The next day we again make the trek in the wheeler and planned to walk up river to the canyon section. It is a 45 minute hike to start the day. Our first stop is at the “Cemetery”—a large bend in the river with a clearing of brush and rocks, supposedly near an old grave site. Like many places along the river there is evidence of busy animal activity with tapir, wild cats and pigs leaving their tracks in the sand.
We move in quietly and look into the water, seeing several schools of large dorado and, swimming with them nervously, sábalo and boga. You could feel the tension in the sand bottomed pool and knew something had to give.
Agustin whispers “this situation could be good or not so good for us,” and soon chaos breaks out when a dorado attacks and bites into a boga. Several other dorado react and start fighting over it. In the melee I casted my fly into the fish, ripping it over the frothing water many times with each cast being ignored. All that held their focus was the half-eaten boga and nothing else as they were completely oblivious to their surroundings. Having had this situation happen with success in salt water countless times before I could not believe none of the dorado would eat my fly! We shook our heads with disappointment, left the pool and continued upstream.
Despite that brief activity fishing was slow this particular morning. I dropped some nice casts right on the head of a few holding fish but they showed no interest and it seemed like we might be in for a tough day.
After lunch, at the tail of a pool that looked like a giant shallow rock bowl, we saw two dorado and then a third joining them holding with sábalo. I quickly dropped the green grasshopper fly in the middle of the group and watched the largest fish swim slowly underneath and sip the fly. Setting the hook hard twice, yellow and gold exploded from the calm water and the large fish ripped out my line in three giant leaps! I fought back, dragging it towards the bank to keep it from going into the rapids downstream and after a few, tense moments Agustin secured it in the calm water in front of us. This was a much larger fish than I had previously caught and our excitement matched it! Again, I sat amazed staring at the fish, soaking in its beauty and looked in disbelief as it swam off. “Did that just happen?!?” I asked Agustin.
To me fish are art and golden dorado are as gorgeous as they get. Their color looks like the first ray of sunshine you see in the morning or maybe the last gasp of the sun before it settles behind the horizon in the evening. Photos cannot capture their beauty and you have to be truly present to experience them.
I caught more golden dorado on this trip and each time I was speechless. Catching such a fantastic fish in such a beautiful place with truly great people was overwhelming and I will not soon forget it.
I owe a great deal of gratitude towards my guide and now Argentinian Brother Agustin Garcia Bastons. He found fish when I could not see them, taught me how to catch them, kept me from getting lost and made me laugh all day long. Mostly I will miss our lunches when we would sit by the river, eating, smoking and talking about so many things enjoyable.
As a caution this trip is not for everyone. You have to work very hard to get to, find and catch these resident fish. The ground is uneven and the rocks in the river are slippery(I have two broken teeth to prove it!) and insects will bite any part of your body not covered.
Without a doubt many anglers are well aware of much easier places and ways to catch golden dorado, with no right or wrong way to accomplish this goal. But for me, traversing on foot through the jungle to site fish and hunt these majestic fish, the reward far outweighed the effort and I’m already dreaming of returning to Río Dorado.
Admittedly, in the end I probably didn’t have to hide my money anymore so than I would have back in the states. Travel felt reasonably safe everywhere we went and I loved everything about this wonderful country, it’s magnificent scenery and its welcoming people. If you are up for a challenging physical adventure, one that will test your fishing skills, backcountry fishing in Argentina for golden dorado should be an essential addition to your bucket list!
Authors note: our last evening at Tuku lodge we were lucky enough to cross paths with Ben Pierce and Christine Marozick of Side Channel Productions, who were on the way to San Fernando Lodge in hopes of creating a film that might somehow capture the Río Dorado experience. As someone who was just there the week before I can say, with great certainty, they nailed it! Please watch their wonderful short film below.