Fly Fishing in the Bolivian Amazon
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BY DEREK ULBRICH
Your native guides, using their wooden push poles, steady the dug-out canoe next to the stream’s bank. You jump out onto a long, moss-covered boulder, fly rod in hand, and scramble upstream. Your guide is ahead of you, elevated on another mossy rock. He is squatting, with frozen intensity, as he points upstream with his left hand and emphatically waves you forward with his right. He points to a good spot for you to stand below and makes the universal symbol for big fish with hands wide apart. Something great lurks ahead. Heart rate: 90.
You don’t pay attention to the huge yellow and blue macaws squawking as they pass above, crossing the narrow canyon that towers over you. You hear only the rushing stream, and the sound of your reel as you strip out 60 feet of line and prepare your cast. Your guide, Santiago, and you quickly discuss the fish’s location. It is sitting in the fast current, against the rock wall on the right where the stream is only 8 feet wide and 2 feet deep. You check your back cast situation; jungle plants, boulders and logs behind you wait eagerly to foil your attempt. You have only a very narrow corridor to work with. The cast is straight upstream, 20 meters into fast current; level of difficulty in the 9’s. Heart rate: increasing.
It’s showtime. With a few false casts you feed out the correct amount of line and land the fly exactly where you wanted, 5 feet in front of the fish.
“Strip, strip, strip!” your guide shouts as you furiously try to keep up with the current rushing towards you.
The fish turns and attacks the fly but the current is too fast, you feel it, you see it, but you can’t get tight to strip set the hook. You lift the rod in a last ditch effort to connect but the fly comes free and sails back past you at 100 mph. Brief and reflexive profanity ensues. You keep the false cast going though, ready for another shot. You still haven’t snagged a bush. Heart rate: 105
While keeping your false casts going your guide points again. He sees another fish, 20 feet farther up between a rock and a stick. Impossible you think. That is too far, no room left behind you, target too small, going to snag a tree any second… You muster your best double haul and release a Hail Mary upstream. The 9-weight line rolls out like it has a mind of its own, landing the huge fly exactly where you hoped. You can’t believe it. Perfection. It is happening! Heart rate: 120.
“Strip, strip, strip!!!” he yells as you see the fish turn, charge the fly, and eat. You concentrate on your hands to get tight, setting the hook in that bony mouth full of razor sharp teeth. Heart: not beating….
You come tight as the fish charges past you and races downstream. The native guides quickly move the cuamba out of the way as the fish takes to the air with a dramatic cart-wheeling leap and then continues downstream into the backing. The fish is big. It is your biggest yet anyway. Maybe 9 or 10 kilos. Heart rate: resumes somewhere in the 130s.
After a couple minutes and six more jumps, you coax your trophy to shore and your guide grabs it. You stand there and stare for a moment in a sort of stunned amazement. You carefully pick up the fish for some quick pictures before releasing this beautiful creature back to where it belongs. Your guide is ecstatic. You look at your native guides who are normally quite stoic and reserved. They are both smiling. You did good. Looking up you take in the prehistoric scenery wrapped around you; this place is straight out of the pages of National Geographic. You cheer, “HAMSI!!!” — the Tsimane word for beautiful. It is day three and you still can’t believe you are here. Time to go find another fish.
The location is Sécure River Lodge at Asunta village (S 15.49.821, W 066.26.581) in the Western edge of Bolivia’s TIPNIS National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS stands for Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure). It is a two-hour flight by Cessna from Santa Cruz to a tiny airstrip carved into the jungle. The majority of this flight is over roadless, virgin jungle canopy interrupted only by scores of winding rivers and streams that have zero fishing pressure. The lodge is located where the crystal clear sub-Andean headwater streams empty into the rainforest and feed the rest of the Amazon basin. The fish are the Golden Dorado (Cazare) — arguably the most aggressive, acrobatic and exciting fresh water fly fishing target species in the world.
The outfitter is Untamed Angling, the brainchild of founder Marcelo Perez. The model he created is unique. It is a cooperation between various groups of indigenous peoples and Untamed Angling to provide an eco-conscious and sustainable source of income for the indigenous people, while providing the stuff of fantasy for anglers seeking big fish and adventure in hyper-remote locations. This is a barbless, fly fishing only, catch and release fishery. These fish are treated with great respect. The dorados here are basically sacred to the locals who see them as partners in their hunt for the sabalo, a carp-like species that the dorados feast on during their annual upstream spawning migration. Caught by bow and arrow, Sabalo are a staple for the indigenous people and occupy the same ecological niche as mullet in Florida.
The fish I describe above, while not my biggest, was the most memorable to me. It was the location, the hunt, the difficulty in presenting the fly, the smiles on my guides’ faces…. everything. That fish was caught in Ashahana Creek, a narrow and shallow, crystal clear tributary to the much larger Sécure river. It is like a jungle trout stream except these “trout” can push 40 lbs., are golden with giant heads, and can bite your finger off. There are two other less common species to target here. The Yatorana (Pirapatinga) vaguely resemble shad, also have vicious dentures, and fight and jump their hearts out. They are the least common of the three and grow to over 10 lbs. Pound-for-pound, Yatorana are the strongest. They will take streamers and large dry flies. Then there is the Pacu (Tambaqui). Many of you are familiar with these as they can be found in the canals of South Florida as expats of the aquarium trade. They are essentially a super-sized vegetarian piranha and are usually caught presenting fruit and nut imitations in the deep slow moving pools. Pacu even jump from time to time and are referred to here as jungle permit. To catch all three in one day is a called a Tsimane Grand Slam, a club I was lucky enough to join.
The 70 local natives who live in the village of Asunta belong to the Tsimane tribe (Chi-mon-nay). This is their forest and they are in tune with every aspect of the river, jungle and wildlife. What they say goes. The children here start to learn the use of a bow and arrow at 2 years of age. They still live mostly as they always have getting all they need from the forest and the river. They also raise small crops of papaya, corn, pineapple and bananas. Tribe members older than 30 remember a time before any regular contact with the outside world. Interacting with and learning from the natives is a special part of the entire visit.
It was interesting to learn about their culture. For example, they don’t fight with each other and if a man were to strike his wife he would be thrown out of the village. Men are allowed two wives. They elect the leader of the village each year. They have many legends but no concept of God. They have no words in their language to express “thank you.” The thing they fear most are stingrays and their absolute favorite thing to eat is monkey. They have very wide feet adapted over millennia for this area and walk barefoot all the time. They are very kind, noticeably shy, hard working and incredibly strong. Another interesting note is that the Tsimane people were ranked as having the healthiest hearts of any group on the planet. Every member of the village is involved in some way with supporting the lodge. A trip to TIPNIS isn’t just fly fishing nirvana, it is really about just being there. This isn’t a fishing trip, it is a complete jungle experience.
Untamed Angling runs six such lodges, three in Bolivia and three in Brazil providing opportunities to fish for the Amazon’s greatest game fishes: Dorado, Peacock Bass, Arapaima, Wolf fish, Payara, Pacu and several other species. In each case, you are a guest fishing indigenous land and guided by local Indians along with an expert fishing guide/interpreter. You travel the river by locally constructed, motorized dugouts called cuambas. At this location, nearly every time I stepped out of the cuamba, I was greeted with animal tracks in the sand along the shore— lots of them. The tracks of Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Tapir, Peccary, Hochi, Kinkajou, Caiman and tiny forest deer called Chinyu are everywhere. In the air and trees are a bewildering variety of birds including all sorts of parrots and toucans.
At night many beautiful and bizarre insects visit the outer walls of your tent for your inspection by flashlight. TIPNIS covers 5,000 square miles and is among the most biologically diverse places on the planet. According to Wiki, there are 218 mammal, 992 bird, 157 amphibian and 131 reptile species known in TIPNIS. There are likely thousands of unnamed insect and plant species here. The park is a window into what things looked like a million years ago, still pristine and untouched.
After a day of fishing you return to the comforts of the lodge which was expertly built by the villagers using sustainable materials from the local forest. Despite being so remote, this is five-star jungle living. The camp chef is an expert gourmet. It was shocking to be eating such lavish meals considering where we actually were. Queen beds in large private tents, ceiling fans and lighting, private baths with hot showers, satellite internet Wi-Fi, ice cold beer and soda round out the comforts. The small group of about four to eight lucky anglers who visit here each week have want for nothing. The camp generator shuts off around 10:30 and it is time to get some rest for the next day’s fishing excursion. A day of fishing here can be quite strenuous, but if your adrenaline won’t stop dumping and you find you can’t sleep, solar powered batteries provide light in the pitch black darkness of the jungle. The jungle wakes up when the sun goes down. Sitting alone on my porch late at night, in the pitch black, looking at the stars, and listening to the sounds of the jungle, was simply awesome. From haunting chirps and calls, to violent crashing in the brush, each new sound seems more mysterious than the last.
A trip to Asunta Lodge may not be for everyone. I would not recommend a person going there unless/until they are pretty good with a fly rod, so practice a lot before you go. I also wouldn’t suggest anyone with a heart issue or who is in poor physical shape go. Standing and walking in wet boots in the sun for eight to nine hours a day, for six days straight, while casting large flies on 9 and 10 weight lines is physically quite demanding. Ninety percent of the fishing is wading or walking the banks of the river. They don’t let you just tromp through the jungle here either. There are things that can bite you that you would surely regret; this is not a place you want to get hurt. Visiting here is very safe but the nearest hospital is a long way away and requires a plane to come get you. I am pretty sure it is impossible to land on that airstrip in the dark.
So, if this story calls to you, and you are the kind of guy or gal who is seeking an unforgettable fishing adventure in true jungle paradise, then you need to put this trip at the very top of your freshwater bucket list. I would encourage you to look up Untamed Angling online to learn more or search Tsimane on YouTube. I am not affiliated with Untamed Angling. I am just a guest who returned awestruck and wanted to share this jewel with his Lighthouse Point neighbors. There are many fisherman in our town who travel far and wide to feed their fishing addiction. Visit this place and you will not be disappointed; it is incredible, it is humbling, it is Tsimane!