Pluma Camp – Tsimane – Bolivia
It was meant to be the dry season and, at this time of year, the dorado run these rivers, the Secure, Pluma and Itirizama following the run of sabalo, an algae eating silver, almost roach-looking fish, from 1 to 3 lbs in size on average. They run in big numbers and populate the shallows in and among the rapids between the pools, or at least that is where you will see them. They suck the rocks and leave lip marks as if a sumptuous lady has been kissing the rocks or just like the Costa Coffee bean logos in powder on the froth! They are canon-fodder for the dorado which is designed with a big powerful head with a square jaw armed with a fabulous set of teeth geared to not letting go once they have something in their grasp. One can only imagine the muscle power within that great head. The eyes are set like the pilots’ windows on a jumbo jet, again designed for maximum ability to ensure hitting the target. The running dorado join the sizeable resident population, and they say that the way to tell a resident from a runner is by the tail: residents are more perfect than the runners whose tails have been worn by the journey and from attack from other dorado en route. The run can arrive between April and July it seems but there are enough resident fish that a visit to Tsimane should always be good.
I say meant to be the dry season because it had rained the previous week and we had a rainy but improving day the day when we arrived so the river was not its famous gin clear, but reddish-grey. It was dropping and improving and the guides assured us that within a day or two we would have great conditions. The morning of our first day of fishing, the river still looked pretty dirty to me, if one was salmon fishing, one would have played golf, but the guides seemed content and we headed out all geared up and excited.
The team was feeling its way in terms of how the beat rotation works because they found themselves in a new location considerably downriver from the old camp. Not in terms of where everyone would fish but more how they would get there and back etc. The basic idea is: two rods go to the Upper Pluma for a walking/small canoe day; two rods go to the Itirizama and do the same; two fish their way up the main stem of the Pluma to the confluence of the Upper Pluma and Itirizama; and two fish downstream of camp on the main Pluma. The last of the two main river beats could handle more rods if need be, especially the lower one which is almost limitless. The challenge is getting there.
In theory the upper two teams drive by Suzuki jeep to the old lodge (there is a very muddy jungle track), get in canoes which take them to their river and they walk and canoe from there.
The team fishing up from camp slowly canoe their way up and walk past rapids because they are either too big or too shallow. The issue here is that it is unlikely they will ever fish their whole beat. I believe it would be better for them to drive up to the old camp and simply fish their way down using a canoe as they wish. This might mean some moving of canoes each day but a system could be evolved for that. Another option would be an inflatable raft but that does not go back up river very well if you want to go and try for a fish again! To some degree, the same applies to the lower beat though the water is deeper but this time the issue is how to get the guests back and the ideal answer would be by vehicle but I do not know if this is practical. If one cannot move around a little quicker it makes for slow moving and therefore less water covered, but maybe once the water is clear there is less need to cover more water so these suggestions are really only made based on my experience. Bottom line, if all the beats are fishing, there is plenty of water and it is a good and varied rotation.
On the first day, the guides had us searching for dorado in the fast water at the heads of the pools and again in the tails. In hindsight, due to the higher water, the heads were not the right place, we had all our action in the tails of the pools, but as the week developed this changed and some of the places which seemed questionable did show fish once the water was lower and clearer. To be honest, when we set off for the day, given the colour of the water I had real doubts about our chances. I was using a big black Andino deceiver tied by Rupert Harvey and it did show up in the water well. We were using floating lines and the fly, which had a muddler head, was sinking just below the surface. On the second pool, towards the tail just above a nice lip I had my first take, very fast, very violent and very soon the action was over! The line was ripped out of my hands and by the time I gathered it, the fish was gone. In my defence, there were scales on the hook when I checked it so I might not have had much chance anyway even if I had held on to the line. The next take came soon after in the faster water in the real tail, it was terrifyingly violent but I held on better this time and the fish began streaking its way into the rapids. I am asking myself how I am ever going to land this thing and then it came off. The guide told me I had not been hard enough on the take, not enough strip-striking to set the hook. So, let’s talk about the take!
The stat that tells the story is that when the dorado takes in full attack mode (sometimes they don’t and I think it is because they are unconvinced by the fly) they move at between 80 and 115 kph. I now know what it is like to be on the end of such a take and much as I tried I have to admit that many times the line was simply ripped out of my hands and tightened with such speed it would sometimes get around the reel too. Ironically this would sometimes help with the hooking process because there was no give on the line and one could almost strip-strike using the reel as support but other times something would snap! Again, as you will understand as you read this, we did not fish in low, clear water so there is a caveat to what I have experienced but my advice is, I know of no other fish that I have caught where it is so important to have your balance set, and a solid footing before making each cast. We all teeter from time to time as we wade down a salmon pool but it is not a good idea here. One needs to really have a secure footing and be ready for the take so that you can react appropriately and quickly. Ideally the guides do not want you to lift and strike, they want you to hold on tight to the line and pull back at the fish, hard and numerous times until it jumps. They say that a dorado is not hooked until it jumps. This is easier said than done but they are right, that is what you should be aiming to do.
My third take came on the lovely tail of a pool. I saw dorado rolling showing their full, deep, yellow, leopard-skin like flanks. They were a long way across the river but eventually I made the distance and the take came almost instantly before I could gather the line. Another frustration but at least we were finding and getting fish to take. At lunch the guides set up chairs and a table on the riverbank and food and drinks are provided from the big Yeti cooler in the boat. It was here that we asked Herasmo and Papito, our local guides and boatmen, to show us how they catch sabalo with either their bow and arrow or net, both of which we had in the boat with us. Herasmo took up the bow and arrow and began looking for sabalo in the shallows. His body language changed the moment he spotted a fish (which we could not see) and he moved very slowly but smoothly a little closer to the river. When he pulled the bow back (something none of us could do despite being bigger than him!) it was as if he was pulling his whole body tight, not just the bow. He let the arrow loose and hit his mark. Quite remarkable! What is more, he had hit the fish behind the gills thus not really damaging the meat. They clearly think it is ridiculous that we were impressed but we were, very!
Now it was Papito’s turn. Out came his net, the same process of spotting fish, soon the net was whirring around in preparation for flight and then dropped over its prey. Needless to say, the process was done equally seamlessly and another sabalo was captured. Once we knew they were there, we began to see them and as the water cleared and their numbers swelled, they were everywhere in the shallows. We had witnessed a true lesson in sighting and catching fish.
I will not go through every take, but after lunch I looked for a tail with sabalo nearby thinking there had to be a fish, and there was indeed and I landed my first Tsimane dorado. It did all they are trumped up to, hit the fly like a steam train, jumped many times and then took a lot of pulling to get in. The afternoon continued as the day had, some follows, some takes, my screwing up because the fish kept ripping the line from my hands and dropping off before I got control. In torrential rain I fished another good looking tail and had four violent takes, almost one after the other and none stayed on. The fifth take was even more violent and this time the timing of the take was perfect and the line was not ripped from me. I strip-struck for England and the fish began jumping. It was a big fish and kept jumping and would not give an inch. Eventually it came to hand and Lucky Peter and the team arrived in perfect time to help take photographs. The rain eased long enough to get some good shots. The guide said it was a 12 kg fish, which in my book is 26.5lbs! A few more unsuccessful takes and we returned home to the lodge; everyone had had experiences, most had landed a fish. This was getting really exciting, we all went to bed full of confidence for the next few days.
I should point out that particularly when the water is not clear and at this time of year (first two months of the season), the guides will be in a real hurry to release your fish. The reason is a tiny fish called a ‘candiru’ and it lives in the mud in the shallows. What is likes to do is get inside the dorado’s gills and eat them which causes the dorado to bleed as if bleeding from being hooked in the gills thus potentially killing the dorado. There are times when the guides are holding the fish in the water and can feel the candiru trying to get in. They are drawn to the fish by the fight. The guide will also try and land the fish in deeper water where there less candiru and they can get in less easily. Not nice!
Sadly, it was not to be. Most of the night a storm raged over us, thunder and lightning all night long and we awoke exhausted from little sleep to a very blown out river, easily a metre higher than yesterday. The guides felt it was dangerous to go near the river until it showed signs of stabilising so the morning was spent catching up on sleep. In the afternoon we went fishing for catfish called sarubi. The locals caught a few, we caught one but it was a very amusing afternoon watching hardcore flyfishers lobbing chunks of sabalo into a red, swollen river and then sitting there, beer in hand, waiting for a bite!
As guides so often do, the team tried to keep our spirits up that the next day would be better and we headed upriver thinking if the water was clearing it would be upriver before anywhere else. We enjoyed a great barbecue on the bank, and looking at stunning butterflies and caught the odd dorado on bait. In the afternoon, one was caught on fly and I had three rises, none of which took the fly properly. In reality, the river was still very out of condition. It had been a very big storm and was always going to take time to recover.
On day four Lucky Peter and I headed upriver again, this time to see more of the Itirizama. It was still pretty milky but Lucho the guide was much more up-beat, you could see it in his body language. We walked or poled up the first couple of pools and reached a pool where the river turned a corner. It is where one of the famous photos hanging in the lodge by Val Atkinson was taken. Below is a small rapid and the boys, Tigre and Benancio (or nickname Misha), poled us up. Misha’s pole slipped at a key moment and suddenly the canoe was slightly side-on to the waves and we were filling with water fast. In seconds it became clear we were sinking so I bailed and that took the whole canoe over and Lucky Peter into the river too. I held one dry bag with two heavy cameras and lenses and paddled out of the fast water and found my feet. Lucky Peter did the same and the boys floated down with the gear collecting it as they went. It could have been really bad but actually we only lost one Go Pro from Peter’s head and that was it. We hope that when the river clears, they will find it because it was running at the time. A dry bag with a huge lens in it floated and was retrieved. Moral of this story – always roll up your dry bags with air and do it properly! Well done and thank you Simms!
We sat in the sun and dried ourselves and everything else out and then headed up river, this time walking around the rapid! Soon we were upon a stunning pool and there, for the first time we saw big dorado hunting – these were 15 – 20 lbs fish and they were going in and out of three small bays right in front of us. Lucky Peter had a good chance but got his fly well and truly stuck so we arrived at a stalemate. To retrieve the fly and spook the fish, or just watch the fish. On we went up river but to no avail. In reality, the river was still too high and coloured but we were seeing glimmers of hope. We decided to fish our way down. Lucky Peter got a stunning 17 lbs fish and I got two more rises where I had had rises the day before!
On day five we decided to go up again but further this time, in search of the clear water. The Itirizama seems to just get more and more beautiful as one goes up. To our surprise, still no real action so we headed down. As we paddled down slowly I asked if I could cast to the likely looking spots and Lucho encouraged me to do so. It was great fun, like floating in Montana. Hit the spot with the fly, three strips and lift again and hit another spot. The key spots were close to the bank, above and behind any structure but particularly wood. Also, soft water next to fast. It turned out to be really good fun and very successful, we landed three 5 – 6lbs fish, a 12, 13 and 20 lbs fish and had lots more takes. It was a great last couple of hours to the day and two rods can easily do it at the same time.
That lifted the spirits and the water kept dropping and clearing so the next day we decided to do the main river above camp again. It was where we had had the most success and where we had seen the most fish and seen and caught the biggest fish. It was a long trek up with the water now quite low but we saw a lot of fish on the way up. We saw seven dorado lying in the tail of a small side-stream pool and we saw what we felt were proper feeding attacks/frenzies though Facu and Agustin, our guides, assured us this was dorado just warming up. As we began to come back down, it was the heat of the day so the river felt sleepy. I had one take that was so hard it was scary. I will never forget it. The line got wrapped round the reel and it was all a bit of a disaster! By mid-afternoon, things were livening up and we began to see hunting fish again. It is fascinating; they cruise along the banks right next to the rocks, backs out of the water hugging the contours of the river bank. You have to cast your fly into about 3 inches of water accurately and strip immediately if it is not to get stuck. Lucky Peter did a great job and got one. The drifting fishing was not as good but we kept seeing fish. Peter had a huge fish look at his fly but not return and then he had a go at the fish in the side-stream, one took but Peter had broken his hook. That was the last cast of the week.
There is no doubt we were very, very unlucky but what can one do? It was a big storm and such is life. We felt we had only scratched the surface of what this place is about. The takes are awesome and the fish strong and beautiful. The experience has the potential to be very visual and just being in the jungle was both fascinating and a privilege. The two sounds I will always remember are the lamenting or almost arguing of the toucans the day they came to camp and the eerie screech of the huge macaw parrots that pass overhead in perfect, paired flight. Some were pre-dominantly red, others blue and yellow. They mate for life and if something happens to one, the other will remain single. Given that we were basically washed out it might have seemed a crazy suggestion, but everyone agreed with me that it might be almost worth coming for two weeks because the flight is long and there is so much to see and enjoy. One almost wants to relax a little on the fishing in order to enjoy the jungle. Many of the team are keen to give it another go, and I certainly want to and really, given how poor the weather was, that is the best testament to a fishing destination one can give.