The reasons that get us onto that British Airways flight south to Argentina during the first three months of the year are three-fold. The sea trout of Tierra del Fuego (TDF), the doves of Cordoba and the giant rainbows of Lago Strobel out of Laguna Verde Lodge. TDF is a week’s stay, Cordoba is three or four days and Laguna Verde is anything from four days to a week. They can all be combined too, and often are, but how about a new dimension which involves next to no extra kit and is something interesting and different. Enter Alto Parana…dorado, pira pita and pacu!
While travelling in Argentina I had a spare day so I headed north to see Alto Parana (Corrientes Province) for myself. The first good thing about it is that it is only a one-hour and 15 minute flight from Buenos Aires domestic airport. I arrived at the tiny airport of Posadas (in Misiones Province) and the non-English speaking Kevin was there to meet me with a note from Fani, the manageress, introducing me to him and telling me that I had a one hour and 15-minute drive which is exactly what I had. On arrival (at 2200 in my case) the whole team was there to greet me and dinner was served. I was expecting to ask for a quick bite of toast and an omelette before bed but it was some of Argentina’s finest beef from the 32,000 acre estancia we were staying on. I had dinner with two dorado legends, Fabi Antastasio and Matias Pavoni, the husband of manageress Fani. They explained the fishing to me and we talked about the area over dinner. I knew Fabi from his days on the Rio Grande but we also had many friends in common from his days guiding in Bolivia. Matias is obsessed by dorado and that makes him a superb guide. His winter business is his own dorado fishing business elsewhere in Argentina.
Alto Parana is the upper part of the huge, mega Parana river (second only to the Amazon), the water from which begins its 3,030 mile journey in Brazil. In Brazil it is dammed by the huge Itaipu Dam, the second largest dam in the world to the Three Gorges dam in China. Then it makes it way to the Yacyreta dam near the towns of Ayolas in Paraguay and Ituzaingo (close to Posadas) in Argentina. Just below its junction with the Iguazu river, the Parana becomes the natural border between Argentina and Paraguay. The water that comes through the dam is settled and therefore can be really clear in the summer, so much so that one can see some of the fish. The mighty Parana continues its journey joining the Corrientes river in its middle reaches and then joins the Uruguay river to form the famous Rio Plata basin at Buenos Aires and Uruguay’s Montevideo, the scene of the famous Battle of the River Plate. In 1940, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee tangled with three allied ships, Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, before limping into Montevideo harbour to carry out repairs. Thanks to British trickery (including that of my grandfather, Sir Eugene Millington-Drake, the British Minister to Uruguay at the time –) Captain Langsdorf of the Graf Spee elected to scuttle the ship in the belief that there was an armada waiting to attack it when it left the neutral shelter of Montevideo harbour rather than risk the life of his sailors.
This area of Corrientes is famous for its cattle but also for the fastest growth of pine and eucalyptus trees in the world and there are big plantations all over the estancia and the greater area. The main pine is pinus taeda (from the USA) and they grow so well due to the soil and weather. This provides quick, cheap timber. The wild saplings from natural pine nut fall were astonishing with one to ten foot saplings everywhere around the plantations. The Alto Parana Lodge is located in one of the main estancia buildings of Estancia San Gara nestled in eucalyptus trees looking out over the beginnings of the Ibera marsh which stretches as far as the eye can see covering 3.5 million acres of north-western Argentina. The noise from the birds on the marsh morning and evening needs to heard to be believed. The lodge has four ensuite rooms and can take up to six fishermen. There is a nice sitting/dining room and as always the lodge, food and staff are very good as one would expect from a Nervous Waters property. It has a relaxed and personal feel to it and I really enjoyed my two evenings there with the staff.
There are some parts of the river around Alto Parana that are simply vast in width and deep too at over ten metres but there are numerous islands, lagoons and channels which make the fishing scenic and interesting. The fishing in the main river is often very good and is where the biggest dorado often are. The fishing is all about the habitat and structure. It is rare, if at all, that one fishes to the outside of the boat, one is always casting into the bank (easily done by two rods at the same time from the type of boats they have) looking to land the fly in and around the wooden structure along the bank. This makes for never a dull moment in terms of fishing because one’s accuracy is tested with every cast (the braver one is in terms of getting the fly right in all the nooks and crannies, the more successful you are likely to be) but one’s imagination is always in full flow believing that a dorado or other species will launch itself at the fly at any moment from all the likely looking spots. It is intense and therefore tiring in the heat but it is great fun, sociable and exciting.
The dorado (salminus brasilliensis) is the King in these parts, the beautiful green and gold predator is always on the look out for its prey, small baitfish and the larger sabalo which move in numbers and are very spooky because they are basically on this earth to be dorado canon-fodder! The dorado is considered a salmonid because of its adipose fin. The average size here at Alto Parana is about 6 lbs but they catch them in the teens regularly and up and over 20 lbs as well. When they take, it is usually very explosive, so much so it can give you a fright, and the key is to give no line, do not lift the rod but just haul the line very tight in what is a known as a ‘strip-strike’ and yield nothing until such time as the fish begins to jump, then you know you have a good chance that the fish will stay on. The next focus is to stop the fish going into the structure so, again, you have to be very hard on them until you have pulled them out into the main river. They really are very beautiful fish designed for attack from below with a broad head and jaw and eyes slanted to see up as well as to the side. The dorado will take bait patterns as well as mouse and rat patterns fished in the surface.
Next up is the pira pita. There are two species, brycon orbignianus and the more commonly names brazil piraputanga, both are free takers and hard fighters. The average size is about 3 to 4 lbs but up to 10 is a good fish. They will take the dorado flies but they can also be targeted with dry flies such as large hoppers and Chenobyl ants as well as bass flies, frogs etc. The best weight rod for pira pita is about a 6 or 7 weight as opposed to an 8 or 9 weight for the dorado. Floating line is the norm but on occasion sink-tips work well though rarely used.
Finally, we might be more accustomed to seeing a pacu (piaractus mesopothamicus) in our local aquarium shop but they are a very wild, wily and game fish best caught using fruit fly patterns. They are very strong and can be caught up to 15 lbs. In the prime of the season, they sit under the fruit bushes taking the ripe, red, orange and green fruit as it drops into the river. The best rod for pacu is about an 8 weight. In all cases you want a good weight forward tropical line – the best is the red fish taper by Rio.
The ultimate goal for your three-day stay (recommended time) would be a Parana Grand Slam of all three species!
The great thing about a visit to Alto Parana as an add-on is you do not need to bring any kit of substance. You can borrow all the rods, reels etc and buy the flies there so the only extra kit you need is some very light saltwater type clothing in the form of a saltwater pair of trousers and a couple of light shirts. You can wear tennis shoes, crocs, deck shoes or be barefoot (likely the best as you can feel if the line is under your feet – wear socks if you want to avoid being burned) in the boat and then a hat and sunscreen to protect from the sun.
My day’s fishing was rather uneventful but I took heart that my two legendary guides who fished with me had no success either. I landed one small dorado at the end of the day. From time to time, any river has days like this when the fish simply do not want to play and as Fabi said, our day was one of those days. It was however a pleasure to be with them talking and learning more about dorado which are increasingly finding a comfortable place amongst the best species to be caught on fly. We spent the evening looking at pictures of fish from past days, seasons and other locations where they had guided and pioneered. They really do have a passion for the dorado and with fly fishing as a sport growing in Argentina and the dorado’s status as a game fish ever-rising, these guys are true innovators in finding the best places to fish and bringing these wonderful places and great fish to the attention of their fellow countrymen fly fishers as well as the fly-fishing world at large.
One cannot hope for much in a day but I really liked Alto Parana the lodge, and I left inspired to do more dorado fishing especially with Fabi and Matias. If one leaves a place having caught just one small fish feeling this way, then there must be something right about the place and I would not hesitate in recommending it as an add-on or part of a whole week of fishing for dorado.