The roguish beauty of freshwater Dorado...
I am in awe… without a doubt, this trip to Uruguay was a complete eye-opener about my perspective on freshwater species. I have various favorite species because of certain qualities and characteristics they each possess – Largemouth Bass with their fly crushing grabs, Steelhead with their aerial antics and speed, Salmon with their bull-doggish stamina, and Peacocks with their roguish aggression and amazing torque. Imagine a fish species that encompasses all of these traits in one fish… meet the freshwater Dorado.
On this trip were my good friends, Shiz from San Jose, CA and husband-wife team, Steve and Joan, from Placerville, CA. The group and I traveled on American Airlines through Dallas and onwards to Buenos Aires. Upon our arrival, the River Plate ground host, Sofia, met us and transferred us across BA to our hotel. We arrived a day early to briefly see the sights in BA. As we were en route to Hotel Dora, the first word that came to mind about the city is “massive”. This was a typical metropolitan city with traffic, high density population, and more traffic. However, when we descended down the off ramp to the famous boulevard, I then saw the charm in this city. Albeit grand, this city is steeped in traditional architecture and history. Many of the buildings’ architecture have a euro influence from the French colonization, and Sofia was excellent at identifying and explaining each structure and its significance.
After arriving the Hotel Dora, we checked in and rested for a few hours. We then headed out for a firsthand tour of BA lead by Sofia. She did an outstanding job of taking us to see a variety of sights from an “insider’s perspective”. She explained the intricate architecture of many of the buildings and even brought us to visit the infamous Malba art museum. And of course, we even visited a few tackle shops to get a local’s view of Dorado fishing and the flies they sell for the same. Later that evening, we met my friend and fellow agent, Joey Lin, for a nice Italian dinner at Sottovoce Restaurant. It was a long day of travel filled with many activities in BA… exhausted to say the least, but excited about tomorrow’s departure for our final destination, the Uruguay River at Salto Grande Dam.
The next morning, we shuttled to the domestic airport in BA, “Aeroparque”, and were greeted by Sophia. She checked us in and we were on our way. As we lifted off the ground at the Aeroparque and circled the city of BA, we saw a birds-eye view of the massive Rio de la Plata. The river is formed by a myriad of major drainages from Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Our flight path took us in the upriver direction with our destination being Concordia, Argentina. As I peered at the topography below I was reminded of the Central Valley back at home – relatively flat with a checkerboard of agricultural farms and cattle ranches. It was a short flight of about 1 ½ hours before we saw the small city of Concordia in the distance.
As we approached, I looked out the window to observe the grand Uruguay River a thick muddy rust color. My heart sank and I thought ‘oh no…’ I had never been to this fishery before, but any fly anglers knows that when a river has a “dense” brown color it usually means tough fishing. I quickly recounted my mental research before the trip – recalling stable weather leading into our week that should yield good fishing conditions for our trip. I was stunned to see the water color and wondered how it was that Mom-Nature served up this surprise.
As we deplaned at the small airport at Concordia, the River Plate host, Patrick Brown, greeted us with a warm smile and handshake. After his welcome, he conveyed that the fishing conditions were poor due to a recent massive rain storm in Brazil hundreds of miles away. Apparently, the Uruguay River’s headwaters begin in Brazil and the resulting rust color was from the soil and tannins in the Brazilian soil upriver. My group and I just took this comment in stride, adjusted our expectations, and knew that we would have to fish hard this week to make it happen.
On the way to the resort, we had to stop at the border to clear customs and immigration. It was quite funny to see a long counter, with one half being the Argentinean side, and the other being the Uruguay side, each with agents wearing their countries official uniform. Our passports were checked by Argentine agent, then we moved over 10 feet to other side of the counter to be admitted by the Uruguayan agent. Afterwards, we drove over the infamous Salto Grande Dam that connects the two countries. It was a massive dam and quite alluring to think that just below it dwelled thousands of hungry giant Dorado. After the 20 minute drive, we finally arrived at the Horacio Quiroga Resort. It is a beautiful resort that resides on the shoreline of Salto Grande Lake.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by our friend and River Plate associate Gabriel Puig. Gabriel has always been our ground host for our Amazon trips and I was excited that he was there to introduce us to this new Dorado program. He showed us to our rooms and we then assembled in the private guest lounge for a toast to celebrate our arrival and beginning of a Dorado adventure.
This week, we planned to fish our first 2 days on the Uruguay River in the public waters below the exclusive zone. We thought this plan was to be an excellent plan to warm-up on smaller Dorado in the public waters, before advancing to the big leagues of trophy Dorado immediately below Salto Grande Dam. With less than optimal river conditions, we fished hard in the public waters for two days and still managed to land a number of Dorado up to 14 pounds. It was interesting to fish in the public waters and see the how the locals fished from both the bank and in boats. It was quite impressive to observe the size of the lures that many of the locals were fishing – some as long and thick as your forearm.
My first Dorado was a juvenile of 4 pounds or so, but I was astounded to see the amount of caution and respect that the guides exhibited while handling the Dorado,… even the small ones. I took a brief moment to note the beautiful and carnal features of this awesome species. This species is a work of Mom-Nature’s art, with their glistening gold body color and defining accents on the edge of each scale. However, my favorite features are the unique striations across the shimmering golden gill plate and the crimson blush of the tail. But amidst all of this refined beauty is a voracious set of teeth. It was amazing to meet a fish with such a contrast of beauty and roguishness. Without a doubt, these fish are killing machines. I quickly discovered that these fish wreak havoc on flies,… no matter the size of the fish or fly. Their teeth seem to have a combination of cutting and puncturing capability, and the guides definitely give them respect. One incident that reinforced this respect is when deckhand, Tito, was trying to handle a fish in the boat and it slipped onto the padded seat. The fish immediately sensed a presence in front of its mouth and bit the pad. Tito grabbed the fish by the tail and tried to wrangle it off of the chair pad, as it continued to “chomp” on the seat. It would not let go, until Tito used pliers to open its jaws and release its death grip on the chair pad. We all got a good laugh out of it, but it certainly reinforced the respect and caution that these fish command.
River Plate runs a split day program at Salto Grande, with the morning and evening sessions running about 3 ½ hours each. Breakfast is served continental style in the resort café. Each morning we were treated to an impressive spread of various pastries and breads, yogurt, cereal, made to order eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh fruits, and various juices and the best bold coffee you could ever hope for. Lunch and dinners are ordered from a full menu and served in the private guest lounge. The guest lounge is exclusive to River Plate guests and is dressed with a full open bar of liquors, beer, and wine. It was always refreshing to relax in the lounge with the group and recount the past day’s fishing stories.
After completing our fishing days in public waters, we geared ourselves mentally and tackle-wise to begin fishing the “zone” for the next 4 days. The zone has been designated by both governments as exclusive, and only one outfitter is permitted to operate from each country. It is strictly enforced, monitored, and patrolled – it is all catch and release, and no public fishing is allowed. This exclusive zone measures approximately 1000 meters X 1000 meters. To put it in perspective, the zone is about the size of 200 football fields and home to an incredible density of trophy Dorado. This zone is a safe haven for the Dorado, allowing them to reach their immense growth potential.
As we begin our first day of fishing, we were relieved to see that the river clarity was improving. Per the guides’ instructions, we were armed with heavy sinktips to counter the higher flows out of the dam. The influx of water from Brazil necessitated a relatively higher flow out of the dam. At the onset, I thought this would negatively affect the fishing. However, I would soon find out that more turbulent flows will often increase the feeding activity of Dorado.
As we set out on the boats, I glanced over at the horizon and saw thick cloud formations building. Rain was in the forecast and it was on its way. Within minutes, we were at the dam face. At first, it was a somewhat ominous feeling motoring up to the massive face of the dam. Flow from the dam was powerful and voluminous. My first thought was how “small” I felt in this body of water. I have fished many large rivers in my time, but this was dwarfing. I almost felt as if I was outmatched by bringing a pea-shooter of a 10 wt. rod to this giant sport fishing arena. Nonetheless, my fishing partner, Shiz, and I were up to the task and commenced our first fishing session at the “zone” below Salto Grande.
On this morning, Shiz and I started out by battling a few average sized Dorado of 8 - 10 pounds. We were both impressed with the sheer power and stamina that this species exerts. Our rods seemed to be torqued-to-the-max on this size class of Dorado. This led us to the thought… ‘Would our tackle be able to withstand the power of a mammoth sized Dorado?’ This question would be answered soon enough.
The boat strategy was to back drift down current as we made multiple casts perpendicular to the current. Due to the higher flow, it was imperative that the boat backed down the same speed as the current. This would allow our 400-450 grain lines to sink without tension/drag and be able to reach maximum depths before retrieving the fly. Often, our fly would be slammed by a Dorado as the fly was on a dead-drift while sinking. It was explained to us that, when the dam is releasing heavy outflows, the hydroelectric turbines act like a meat grinder chopping up bait fish that are gobbled up by the Dorado holding in the current. This continual food factory for the Dorado allows them to reach maximum strength and growth potential.
Later this morning, I would experience a product of this supercharged fishery. As we neared the end of another drift below the dam, our guide “Chopo” told me to make one more cast before heading back up to the dam. I laid out a long cast toward the middle of the river and gave it a 5 count before beginning my retrieve. On the first few strips, I felt the river current working my fly. Then, I suddenly felt the line go slack while stripping the fly. I knew the boat had been tracking properly down current, but this disconnected feeling made me quickly realize that something was swimming toward me with my fly. I quickly gave my line a series of long and fast strips trying to get tight. Suddenly, I felt that desirable solid “thud!” followed by heavy rod-pumping head shakes by something massive on the end of the line. In that instance, all of my attention went to my heap of fly line laying around my feet and stripping bucket. My line was flying everywhere while this fish screamed upriver. Thankfully, I cleared my line and this fish was deep into my backing before I looked up and saw the incredible sight of a massive Dorado going aerial off in the distance. Even from afar, this fish looked behemoth. Guide Chopo and deckhand Maxi gave out a gasp and cheer as it was confirmed that fish was a true trophy on the fly. It was quite a battle as this “grande” made numerous aerial appearances, powerful runs, and duking it out boat-side. I leaned into the guts of my 10 weight rod as hard as I thought possible, and at times it still felt like I was losing the battle. Finally, we were able to land this fish and admire its awesomeness firsthand. This gorgeous Dorado topped 30 pounds and it was an honor to hold a fish of this magnitude.
Throughout our days of fishing, my group and I varied our tackle to match the dynamic conditions produced by the Salto Grande Dam. What was interesting is that the dam outflow follows a schedule based on hydroelectric demand. Since the 4 days fishing program with River Plate is set for Friday through Monday, we saw dramatic differences in river height and flow during our time in the zone. The flows were highest on weekdays Friday and Monday because of the regional industry demands. Conversely, the flows were the lowest on Sunday. Without a doubt, a 400-450 grain sinktip fly line saw that most work below Salto Grande. However, with the lower river height and flow on Sunday, intermediate and even topwater fishing could be had around the rock structure and outcroppings. It was quite a dramatic difference in the “feel” of the river from high to low… almost like fishing a completely different river when the flows changed.
Dorado will test every weak link in your tackle system. Most notable, I had two instances where a mystery mammoth Dorado slammed my fly, only to part ways with a part of my leader system. Complacency has no place at Salto Grande. One of my mystery breakoffs was due to this complacency. I had already landed a few Dorado on a leader, and while checking it, I noticed a slight “wrinkle” in the 30# butt section of my leader. I pulled on it hard to check the strength of this thick butt section and it held just fine. So, I thought I was good to go. WRONG! The next cast I got absolutely ripped boat side by a humongous Dorado and broke my leader right where this seemingly superficial wrinkle in the leader was. This was a hard lesson learned, as the guide looked at me and gestured to me “grande” with his arms and the number 20 with his fingers… not pounds, but kilos! Lesson learned… ALWAYS replace your leader at the slightest hint of abrasion, nicks, and yes, even a wrinkle.
My preferred leader system was simple but very specific. Joey Lin highly recommended Malin BOA single strand titanium wire (35# - 40#) for the bite trace connecting to the fly. The characteristics of this wire resists kinking, stays straight, and seemed to hold up to the Dorado teeth endlessly. The downside to this wire is inherent in its qualities. Since it resists bending and kinking, it can be quite laborious to tie with. The most ideal knot to affix the fly is the Perfection Loop. Most interesting, this loop knot will not fully cinch down but is still 100% secure. This wire was then secured to a 30# mono butt section of RIO Max PLUS with an 8 – 9 turn Albright knot. This leader system can also be constructed with a class section of 20# if desired. I would not recommend fishing less than a 20# class section unless an angler is pursuing an IGFA line class record.
Here is an interesting observation about flies for Dorado. Before the trip, I had read from various sources that “eyes” on a lure or fly are essential for angling success below Salto Grande. Then, in another article about Dorado I read how this species has relatively small eyes, thus reinforcing the fact that these fish target their prey primarily with their lateral line and less by eyesight. So, with their eyesight being the least used senses, why would there be such a strong recommendation for eyes on the fly? Well, it was not until I visited the guides at their “guide shack” would I understand the importance of eyes on a fly. They explained to me that, yes, the Dorado search for their prey with their lateral line senses. However, the final urge or reaction to “kill” the lure or fly is by sight. They showed me a wide selection of handmade lures they recommend for conventional fishing for Dorado. Yes, all of them had distinct eyes and, even more interesting, they had a mid-section “dot” on each lure. The guides say they paint on this second eye to give a backup or secondary “kill-shot” target in case the eyes get chewed off from previous Dorado. So, with this explanation by the guides the “eyes” have it!
Also interesting to note about flies is that, due to the turbidity of the water, the successful flies were darker in color. Many combinations of black and other colors worked well. The motto for the week seemed to be ‘if you can cast it, they will eat it!’ On occasion, I fished a Billfish sized fly called “Big Eyes – Red Tail” in size 6/0 (red/black) by Enrico Puglisi. My other favorite fly for the week was Morgan Thalken’s Cruiser in size 3/0 (red/black). It was this fly that enticed and caught my personal best 30 pound Dorado.
During our days of fishing, it was exciting to watch Shiz, Steve, and Joan battle with these tough Dorado. We all agreed that these are the toughest freshwater fish that we had ever fought on a fly rod. A most memorable moment for me was watching Joan skillfully battle a big Dorado. She leaned into the fish as hard as her 10 weight could handle. She never gave it an inch and it still fought until the bitter end. Another memorable moment was being a spectator to Shiz’s battle with a Dorado that made a series of jumps that almost circled the entire boat! These fish are sometimes above the surface more than beneath it sometimes… simply amazing.
As our week in Uruguay came to a close, we were fortunate that the river clarity improved each day. What was originally a sinking feeling of low expectation due to a blown out river, turned out to be an eye-opener in how incredible this fishery can be. The guides said that we had the worst fishing conditions they had seen all season, and we still caught fish. We landed over 200 Dorado in the zone. We were all pleased with our success and amazed that this was a “slow week” in terms of numbers. It could only get better? Wow! In final, this was a special week of fishing with good friends. We are now Dorado fanatics and looking forward to our next fishing excursion on the Uruguay River below Salto Grande.
Keith’s Tackle Notes:
Rods: Sage TCX 990-4 and 1090-4 / TFO BVK 1090-4
Reels: Sage 6080 and 6010 / Hatch 9 PLUS with 30# Dacron backing
Fly Lines: RIO Leviathon 400 grain / SA Mastery Tropic Express 450
Leader: RIO Max Plus
(L-R: Maxi, Chopo, me, Tito, Pancho, Joan, Shiz, and Steve)
(CLICK HERE for a full slideshow of the trip)