Angling for Gold on the Rio Juramento
ANGLING FOR GOLD
Of Dorado, Doves, Deluge & Demons
Story by Joseph Daniel, Photos by Agustin Garcia Bastons and Joseph E. Daniel. Originally published in Issue Number 19 (digital) of Wild On The Fly.
When you really think about it, traveling to the Rio Juramento in Salta province, Argentina is an extraordinary excursion. For me, the trip began in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where I headed southeast along the Great Plains of America, over the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean Sea to the coastal edge of Venezuela, transecting the Guiana Highlands and crossing the seemingly endless expanse of Amazonia, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay into Buenos Aires, and then back north and west to Salta. Just look on a map and try to imagine doing all that without the benefit of a long-haul aircraft traveling at nearly the speed of sound.
It is an astounding journey in distance covered, a travel-effort of untold magnitude, except that it was compressed into the sterile time warp of jet travel – and so we merely left Denver and arrived in Buenos Aires with little more than a few cocktails, an in-flight movie and a sleeping pill in-between.
In the days before man flew, this same route would have taken weeks – months actually – if it could be done at all. But for us it eclipsed barely the time period of one bad night’s sleep. That compression always disappoints me a little every time I fly somewhere far away and exotic. I’m truly grateful that I live during the time the world shrank, as every place on the planet is imminently reachable. But there’s no longer any assimilation in getting there, no one takes a real journey anymore.
Well, almost no one. My frequent fishing companion, and traveling partner on this latest fishing junket, is Rich Jorgensen. Less than three months after we returned from Salta, Rich and two other pilot pals turned around and repeated the same exact flight, only this time in a tiny single-engine Cessna. It took them 16 days. In one six-hour stretch they flew over nearly 700 miles of Amazon rain forest without seeing a single place to land.
Any fishing trip that requires you flying through Buenos Aires is, by definition, worth going on. Just a day or two in this most vibrant of cities rejuvenates the spirit through its great food and wine, its passion for tango, its edginess of art and design, and its tragic hubris of history. The Argentines say that for most foreigners it is like truly tasting life for the first time!
But that rich dish will have to wait this trip, we’re due in Salta that same afternoon and we blast through customs at Ezeiza International Airport and grab a quick transfer to the Jorge Newbery AeroPark near the middle of town.
This airport transfer is a familiar ritual for anglers traveling further in-country to fish and the two sights that always stand out for me on the drive are BA’s shantytowns of crooked, scrap wood and cardboard shacks beneath the highway overpasses – villas miserias (neighborhoods of misery) – so perfect in their squalid, handmade construction as to appear like a movie set; and the historic 70-year-old Club de Pescadores building sitting at the end of a pier jutting out into the Rio de la Plata along Costanera Norte Avenue near J. Newberry Airport – two disparate icons of this greatest of Latin cities.
At the domestic airport we hook up with one of our trip mates, “Yuyie,” a diminutive Chinese woman who goes by her American name Donna Sullivan (her late husband was Irish). Donna is a spey casting champion of the California camps and an intrepid angler in her own right. We find out later that she’s has been encouraged to go on this exploratory trip by Christer Soberg of Loop Tackle. Like us, Christer is curious about this river we’re checking out and he wants a first-hand report. Yuyie is his unlikely looking fish spy.
The flight to Salta is easy and uneventful. But as we descend towards this picturesque 16th-century colonial town, now the hub of Argentina's prosperous northern agricultural district and a popular tourist center, I notice something from the plane window that doesn’t look good. Every river I see crossing the green expanse below is chocolate milkshake brown and swollen beyond its banks. Yikes!
Okay, I might as well reveal our true mission here since the word is getting out anyway… what with Yuyie and everyone. We’ve come to Northern Argentina to investigate rumors of a jungle river called the Juramento, which is purported to have healthy populations of huge freshwater dorado living in the stretches between its three dams. Argentine outfitter Martin Carranza has partnered up with a group of local guides out of the tiny village of El Tunal who have explored the Juramento extensively and are quickly unlocking the secrets to its aquatic gold. Together they have formed an alliance to develop a fly fishing concession to attract foreign anglers. We’ve been asked by Martin to help in that effort.
We meet the fourth and final member of our party at the Salta airport – Nicolas Olano. Nick is an ex-pat Columbian living in Miami who struck it big with, among other things, a patent on some type of support hose stocking. He also serves as an unofficial business consultant to Martin, and hence was invited along on this ragtag expedition. I don’t much like him at first as he promptly starts taking charge and visibly stressing about our hosts not being at the airport immediately upon our arrival.
Soon, however, Fly Fishing Juramento owner Alejandro Haro and his operations and marketing guy Gustavo Blanco arrive in their pickups and quickly and efficiently transport us and all our gear into town to rendezvous with Martin. As we drive I carefully quiz Gustavo on the state of the river (i.e. is everything freaking flooding?!), and being the practiced promoter he allows as to how the Juramento has been high but it is quickly returning to normal and fishing should pick up. I force myself to interpret this positively but years of reading between the lines when it come to outfitters and guides spinning fishing reports and river conditions has me worried.
My concern only grows when at dinner that night with Martin and his six clients from the week before (who are all headed home the following day) we get the real lowdown. The fishing has been tough due to high, off-colored water. Yes, they’ve caught a few fish, but only a few, and those seem to have come with great effort despite what sounds like a reasonable number of strikes. Once again I start parsing the data. Are these sports capable fly anglers or just a bunch of hardware rubes from the Midwest? Fishing anxiety brings out the absolute worst in me, but I can’t help it. I gotta know if I just flew across two continents for nothing, or if it’s just a matter of bringing the right game to the Juramento.
We stayed that first night in Salta before heading out to the river and our base camp hotel in Las Lajitas the next day. The restaurant we shared with Martin’s departing guests was terrific, serving huge slabs of beef and endless bottles of Malbec, and by midnight it was alive with raucous diners further incited by a spirited guitar and drum duo. Outside street vendors did a brisk business in local arts and crafts to the tourists who’ve come to Salta to view its extraordinary architecture and travel into its scenic mountains beyond. Despite misgivings of an impending fishing fiasco I am once again smitten by Argentina and wish to be nowhere else that night.
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If you’ve ever even heard of freshwater dorado it’s probably been in reference to the huge fish caught below the Salto Grande Dam on the Uruguay River at La Zona, or the smaller fish found in Ibera Marsh in Corrientes, Argentina. We’ve featured both in past issues of this magazine. Until recently these have been the only two locations offering any kind of quality lodging and guided fishing for these bad-tempered goldfish on steroids.
But there have always been many rivers in the northern part of Argentina that have supported healthy populations of dorado and which have traditionally been fished by local fly anglers. Our outfitter Martin remembers fly fishing the Rio Juramento as far back as 1976, when as a 16-year-old he accompanied his uncle, the Argentine Consul to Bolivia, on trips to the area. Over the years he returned to the river several times and just a few years ago, lacking a raft, he used his waterproof backpack as a float and swam the entire stretch of river below the El Tunal dam, stopping on gravel bars to cast for dorado. He managed to land a 30-pound fish and from that point on he became a believer.
Around the same time Alejandro (Alex) Haro was learning about fly fishing from his friend Tuna Labarta, a local angling enthusiast and legendary guide (now retired). Alex bought a raft and set about exploring the Rio Juramento in earnest. Martin learned about Alex and Tuna through a mutual fly-tying friend in the area and the rest is history. Fly Fishing Juramento was born, Martin and Alex formed their outfitting partnership and Tuna’s great knowledge and inspiration all coalesced to the point that somehow we now find ourselves pulling off the road into a modest settlement on the banks of this mysterious jungle river.
El Tunal is a tiny rural village along the Rio Juramento with a strip of small shops facing the highway that crosses the river at that point. Fly Fishing Juramento maintains a small guide’s house there with a fenced yard for its rafts and vehicles. It is here that we find ourselves mid-morning on day one, sorting out gear and tying leaders with 30-lb wire bite tippets. We’re all a little shocked at the size of the flies being handed out, a full six- to eight-inches in length and tied in a wonderful array of long colorful hackles, dyed calf’s tail and synthetic hair, crystal flash, peacock hurl and local rhea plumes all streaming seductively from unique-shaped spun-hair heads with big glued-on eyes. We wondered out loud what they might be like to cast, but only received dismissive shrugs from the Argentine guides gathering at the headquarters.
A plate of tasty empanadas finds its way to our outdoor prep table along with cold beers and plastic glasses of red wine infused with soda water. Everyone digs in and then suddenly we’re headed for the trucks, which now each have multiple rafts on trailers attached. It’s not exactly an early start, but it’s very Argentine, and very civilized.
We drive east on a small dirt road leading to the El Tunal Dam and our put-in just below. The reservoir behind the dam is shockingly full, the water laden with silt and lapping at the rim of its impoundment. El Tunal is a hydro-electric dam and we stop along the top to look down into the large pool below the turbines where schools of sabalo, a mullet-like fish intermingle with the occasional golden-hued dorado. Our excitement is stoked at the sight of the fish and soars as Alejandro points out a dorado easily eclipsing 30-pounds. None of the dam gates are open and according to Gustavo the river is nearly back to its normal height; but it still has the decidedly unfishable opacity of a double latte.
I sense an odd apprehension in Rich as we wind our way down the front side of the dam past the fenced-in transformer yard. He tells me later he was concerned about the electromagnetic field affecting the heart pacemaker recently implanted n his chest following cardiac nerve damage from a bad skiing accident. At 55 Rich is a guy who still believes he’s bulletproof (evidence the plane flight described at the start of this story), and he lives life with full abandon, totally accepting of the consequences. Don’t get into one of those scar and injury comparison contests with him. You’ll lose before you get past your mid-section.
Due to the obvious lack of visibility we decide to rig our rods with five or six-feet of T-14 lead core looped between short 20-pound tapered leaders and 10-weight floating lines in the hope of getting just a little deeper and perhaps more directly in front of the dorado. Rich and I are both fishing Sage 330 grain (approximately a 10-weight), 8-foot Bass Rods, which come with their own custom-designed fly line. This choice of rods and lines was directly influenced by the fact that we would be banging the banks all day long with flies resembling drowned parakeets, and we needed something light enough to make a thousand casts yet stiff enough to turn over such big flies – and, Dagon willing, battle monster dorado in the stiff river current.
We launched as a three-raft flotilla, Yuyie and Martin with a guide named Emiliano, Nicolas and Emiliano’s mom with Gustavo, and Rich and I with Alex. The drill is simple, hold the boat about 30- to 40-feet off the shore and drift down the river casting at every little indentation in the bank, or rock, fallen log, or submerged vegetation. Any structure that creates holding water could provide hiding for one of the most voracious freshwater predators that swims. It’s a high-percentage game when it comes to getting snagged and losing flies, particularly in this higher water and faster current. But the more accurately you can place a fly in these zones the better chance you have of being rewarded with a strike.
We floated less than a mile, warming up our arms and getting our casting routines in order, when suddenly a trash can lid-size patch of soft water I just branded with my fly implodes like a toilet flush. The strike is vicious and immediate – almost as if the fish could see the fly in the air – and I’m hooked up to a (small?) dorado of around ten pounds attempting to take flight. The fish leaps a dozen times as Alex rows us to a large gravel bar where I get out of the raft to do proper battle. These dramatic aerial displays are a dorado trademark and what we’ve come to the Salta Province in Northern Argentina to experience. The excitement generated by this first fish has our group in a lather and once the pictures are taken we’re all back in the rafts banging the banks with renewed fervor.
But that one dorado would prove to be it for the rest of the day. I get one other ferocious strike, as does someone else in our group, but nobody else hooks up. What is more disconcerting is that the water level actually seems to be rising. I can’t prove it, but we are definitely traveling downstream at a pretty good clip and the vegetation along the bank seems to be disappearing.
At the take-out we’re all still pretty jazzed by our first day on the river and our brief encounter with el dorado, and we pile into the trucks for the short ride back to El Tunal. There we collect our travel duffels and drive on to Las Lajitas to a small country inn of the same name which will be our base camp for the rest of the week.
The hotel is clean and comfortable and the restaurant serves good steak and chicken, and a few other local dishes. It also boasts a pretty decent wine cellar of Argentine varietals which Rich, a consummate wine snob, commandeers the ordering from for everyone, telling Martin to put all the wine for the rest of the week on his tab. It was a very generous gesture, and being familiar with his refined sommelier tendencies had me all excited. But in the end it really didn’t set him back too far as good wine in Argentina, even at a restaurant, is extremely reasonable.
That night it started to rain just as everyone was going to bed, and it was still raining hard when we awoke in the morning. Definitely another bad sign given how high the river was already.
The Juramento is divided by three dams along its 70-mile length and so actual water flow is relatively easy to control by releasing from one reservoir while collecting in the next. Water clarity can be more mercurial with multiple tributaries in each section capable of blowing out and spewing rich topsoil into the whole system.
It is for this reason that, although Alex and his crew fish the Juramento successfully year round, Martin has limited his outfitting season to the dryer periods of mid-August through mid-December and mid-March through April. The official rainy season for the Juramento is December 20 through March 10 (Martin also avoids the austral winter months of May through July as water temperatures can at times get low enough to negatively affect dorado activity).
It all sounds good in theory, and in fact weather records indicate that the seasonal demarcations have remained fairly consistent for decades… except for this year. This year is different (of course!) and, as with much of the rest of the planet in this dramatic prologue to global warming, even northern Argentina is being affected by atypical and extreme weather events. The date is April 8, nearly a month out of the rainy season and one would assume on the safe side for floating the river. But here it is raining hard again and it’s obvious it’s been a very wet season up to now. That proves to be quite the understatement; talking further with the guides we discover that just a little over three weeks prior to our arrival the area had experienced its worst flood in 32 years!
During the dry season the Juramento flows at an average of 40 to 50 cubic meters per second (CMS). On March 12, 2008 it peaked at just over 200 CMS and now, today, with one of the dam gates open it was running at about 100 CMS. It was obvious that the rain the night before had forced the dam operators to discharge water from a reservoir that simply could hold no more.
We had little choice but to float the same section as the day before and the results were also similar. Yuyie, Rich and I all had at least one good strike each and Nicolas managed to land a small fish of about five-pounds, but that was it.
The next day was worse with three gates of the dam open and the river at it’s highest since we’d arrived. We quickly covered the same water of the past two days and then floated onward for another few miles on the hopes that we could utilize a new take-out Alex had established on a narrow dirt track bisecting a friendly farmer’s fields. Here the river became more thickly wooded along its banks and broke into occasional braids and tight channels. Flocks of colorful parrots flashed across the sky and myriad egrets and other exotic water birds hid amongst the huge logjams piled up from the flooding. The entire scene was exotic and beautiful, and one could easily imagine that under normal conditions the river here would be teeming with dorado. It simply couldn’t look any fishier.
Earlier that morning when we put in we were joined by another angler, Dr. Guillermo Bruchmann, a prominent orthopedic surgeon from Buenos Aires who is also a veritable dorado junkie. “Dr. Dorado” as we quickly nicknamed him has made these ferocious goldfish his lifetime angling passion and he has caught many spectacular fish here on the Juramanto, which he enthusiastically declared one of his favorite rivers. He is an innovative fly tyer, designing extraordinary dorado offerings with the singular conviction that the bigger the fly, the bigger the fish. He also maintains his own web site on dorado research, and he even carries a tiny flash card in his wallet with amazing pictures of the dorado he has caught all over northern Argentina. I asked Dr Dorado what he thought of the high water and he dismissed it as an inconvenient anomaly. He then proceeded to hook two big fish that afternoon but lost them both!
The river continued to rise throughout the day and by the time we took out at Alex’s new access point we were dragging the rafts across a flooded forest floor to get to the trucks. I was beginning to think it was time to cut our losses and try something else. There was just too much water in the entire system and we had to give it time to flow through.
My sentiment was shared by everyone and the next day Yuyie and Nicolas went off to fish a different section of the river regardless of what conditions they might encounter, and Rich and I traded our fly rods for a couple of rusty old shotguns of Alex’s uncle. Northern Argentina is renowned for its wing shooting, particularly doves, and although there is only one commercial shooting lodge in the Salta area the surrounding fields were teeming with birds. Alex and Martin were considering including a wing shooting option as part of the Fly Fishing Juaramento experience and they were anxious for our assessment. Within an hour of entering the first big field of Milo it was clear to us that this was every bit as good as the more popular shooting areas further south near Cordoba.
We had an absolute blast (yeah, yeah) swinging on the small, extremely fast flying doves indigenous to the area and the larger wild pigeons, which in comparison to the miniature grey missiles, appeared to be flying in slow motion. Rich is an exceptional shot and rarely misses, while I, on the other hand, at least kept the pigeons worried. I did manage to add a beautiful Picasso duck to our mixed grill when a small flock of the popular waterfowl buzzed us en-route to a nearby stock pond. All in all the wing shooting was a great respite from trying to mine gold nuggets from a muddy stream.
Although the weather was steadily improving and things definitely were beginning to dry out, our next day of fishing really wasn’t much better. Nor had the previous day (while we were hunting) been a success for Yuyie and Nicolas. That night at the restaurant it all came to a head for the Irish Asian, and the proverbial caca hit the ventilador. Martin found himself in the hot seat and received a severe dressing-down from Yuyie, which I have to admit Rich, Nicolas and myself did little to abate.
Although she was on the trip at a discounted “exploratory” price, it still wasn’t cheap with all the air travel and Yuyie was pissed that Martin had not made her aware of the previous flooding before she made her decision to travel all the way from San Francisco to Salta. I definitely could feel her pain, but the fact remained that, right or wrong, Martin had been no more aware of the flood than we were, having just arrived from his lodge in Patagonia with the group that preceded us on the Juramento.
The water for their week had actually receded to near normal levels and other than the continued off-color quality none of the Fly Fishing Juramento guides had given the flood of a fortnight before another thought (nor had they informed Martin). Yes, the rainy season had been more extreme and had lasted longer this year than usual, but everyone thought it was finally over. It wasn’t until it started raining again on our second day that anyone realized just how much water was still in the system, and by that time it was too late.
I was okay with it, as was Rich. We’ve both been in this situation before and it’s just the risk you take when you’re charting new ground. As my friend Mike Michalak, a true pioneer of adventure angling and owner of The Fly Shop in Redding, California likes to say, “You can’t expect to fish on the edge without getting cut once in awhile.”
But Martin took Yuyie’s criticism seriously and gracefully, and placated the situation as best he could. This was one of those extremely difficult circumstances which no one really has any control over, and how an outfitter responds is the true mark of his professionalism. Nicolas further smoothed out the evening by ordering us all a delicious Argentine pasta dish not even on the menu and spending more of Rich’s money on two absolutely superb Malbecs.
I could tell that Martin felt terrible about the whole thing. He had been so excited to show off his new fishery, and at great personal expense he had arranged this trip. Now to get blindsided by freakish weather and unhappy anglers wasn’t anywhere near the result he had been expecting. At one point in the conversation Nicolas asked him how he was feeling about everything, and with typical Argentine fervor he replied, “I feel like taking a brick in each hand and clapping my balls!”
But despite the uncomfortable discussion, it was obvious to all of us, even Yuyie, that the Rio Juramento was anything but a bust. There was just too much evidence to the contrary. The afternoon of our wing shooting excursion Rich and I had returned to the guides house in El Tunal to wait for Yuyie and Nicolas, and I had the opportunity to review Fly Fishing Juramento guide Augustin Garcia Baston’s digital photographs on his laptop.
Besides being a terrific guide and yet another consummate dorado freak, Augustin is also a very talented photographer. He keeps his camera on his raft at all times and has amassed an impressive image collection of fishing on the Juramento, including many of the amazing fish photographs which accompany this article. From the sheer depth of his photographic files it’s clear that when the Juramento is on, the fishing is exceptional.
Chalk it all up to simply being in the right place at the wrong time. Hard to swallow when you’ve traveled thousands of miles in search of a dream, but that’s fishing on the edge. Nature is not Disneyland, but a big, wild, badass dorado ain’t no trout pond stockie!
On our final day we drove to the river from Las Lajitas in resigned yet lighthearted moods. We were determined to at least have a good time together, and even Yuyie cracked a smile at our lame attempts to cheer her up. It would be a short float anyway since we had to pack up all our gear and drive back to Salta that evening in order to be ready for our flight home the following morning.
But from the moment we arrived at the put-in I could sense something was different. All of the dam gates were closed and the river was the lowest we’d seen it all week. And most important… it felt alive! Watching carefully we could actually see dorado rolling along a current seam on the opposite side of the river. We quickly strung up our rods, begged a few final flies from Gustavo, and shoved off. Two new Argentine clients fishing with a local guide name Marcello Zambrano had already left ahead of us and I could feel my apathy that had built up during the last few days suddenly evaporate into a fierce desire to fish. On only my second cast a huge dorado, easily over 20-pounds, came off the bank and savaged my fly in an explosive leap that launched the fish two feet into the air. I felt trembling bullion for a split second and then that most precious treasure I had been seeking all week slipped from my grasp.
“Holy shit, did you see that?!” I exclaimed in a trembling voice. Martin, who was fishing from the back of my boat merely smiled with the relieved look of someone who had finally been vindicated.
Over the next few hours we all experienced multiple strikes. It was as if we were on a different river altogether, with dorado once again stalking the banks, and schools of fat sabalo and the occasional toothy tararira erupting in the shallows as we floated by. Our hook-up ratio didn’t really improve but the guides graciously attributed that to the yet murky quality of the water and still relatively fast current. They assured us that when conditions were good an angler could expect between a eight and ten strikes a day and hopefully land three or four fish. They also admitted to the fact that landing, not hooking, a big dorado on the Rio Juramento was the real challenge as the fish fight with such ferocity and power they are quick to break off on snags or throw the fly when leaping.
And then before we knew it we were at our take out, and for the first time all week no one wanted to leave. Auugh, the unfairness of it all! As we were pulling our rafts onto the trailers we received a radio call from Marcelo who had floated the next few miles with his clients to the new takeout we used on our third day. He excitedly reported that they had successfully landed one dorado of 18-pounds and then had hooked another estimated at over 25-pounds. The big fish had made such a powerful run downriver it broke the angler’s 10-weight rod. The guy then proceeded to try and land the dorado by pulling in the line by hand, at which point the fish made another searing run and cut the angler’s fingers so severely with the line that Marcello was now on his way to the local hospital to get him stitched up!
That night at a crowded restaurant in Salta, Yuyie, Rich, Martin and I ate huge platters of grilled vacio and roasted cabrito and drank yet even more Malbec. We toasted our crazy misadventure and vowed right then to return in six-months – this time in the middle of the DRY season! While we were drowning our sorrows and laying new plans, two slight figures in black leather jackets sat down at a small table right next to us. One was a guy in his late forties with longish hair and a sallow complexion, the other was a beautiful young blond girl with skin like porcelain and eyes rimmed with fatigue. Their presence created a ripple of excitement throughout the restaurant and several excited patrons summoned the courage to approach the man and request his autograph.
Anticipating our obvious question Martin whispered that the guy was Argentina’s most famous rock star, Gustavo Cerati, formerly of the band Soda Stereo. Cerati won the Latin Grammys in 2006 for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album. Known for his extraordinary guitar playing he had just returned from a solo tour to the United States, playing in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, and was now apparently hiding out in Salta to recover. It was a strange but sort of fitting ending to our trip. We all felt we had been part of something special that week, not yet entirely understood, but ours to exploit if we could find the key. Having Argentina’s equivalent of Carlos Santana just sit down next to us in a restaurant somehow added to surreal nature of it all, leaving us in giddy moods as we finally strolled back to our hotel sometime very late that night.
* * *
Despite the tenuous, wine-fueled ambition of those final night vows in Salta, Martin and I actually did return to the Juramento the following September – this time with a group of six intrepid clients and six months of memory loss to dull the pain of the previous trip. Like pregnancy and birth, fly fishing leverages the salve of time and gently rewrites history so you’re assured to do it all again. But there was little need for such amnesia; things were different – infinitely drier to begin with!
We revisited the Juramento armed with the intelligence we had garnered on our first trip. The biggest change, beyond simple timing, was to up our game fly-wise. We no longer relied on just the local ties or the assumption that dorado would strike anything big and colorful. I had brought with me several patterns developed by Mark Cowan, an American outfitter running dorado trips on the nearby Rio Parana, and Martin and I had stopped in Buenos Aires at his friend Mario Capovia del Cet for some designs the two of them had conceived. Mario is a noted fly tier and fly fishing historian in BA and his tiny apartment looks like an installation from the American Museum of Fly Fishing.
Joining us on the river were Steve and Beatrice Jensen from Salt Lake City, Utah; Guy Jardine from Logan, Utah; Dr Peter Raudzens from Paradise Valley, Arizona; J.B Benton from Jacksonville, Alabama, and Ed Stein from Highland Park, Illinois. It was the classic kind of group you attract to an exploratory trip like this. Nobody knew each other but they all shared a common fascination with pushing the angling envelope. And although their levels of fishing ability varied broadly, there were some very strong rods in the group who could boast extensive travel experience (except for Bea, who had barely been outside before, but who would prove to be one of the gamest of the bunch!). Martin and I were thrilled. It was exactly the client mix we needed to test the commercial viability of the Juramento system.
And our temperamental jungle river cooperated, giving up a few more of her precious secrets. We didn’t exactly slay ‘em, but everyone caught dorado (largest hooked 25+-ponds, largest to the boat 15-pounds), and a few of the days were downright fishy – at least in terms of strikes, if not hook-ups. Some of our new flies were attracting bigger and more fish, and we were quickly climbing a very steep learning curve on recognizing holding water and refining technique.
The highlight of the trip for everyone was a hike up the Rio Dorado, a trout stream-size tributary of the nearby Rio Bermejo which Agustin and Tuna had explored the previous spring, discovering a rich cache of aquatic gold. We all mined that treasure trove with great success, and I had a fifteen fish day with the largest dorado of about 10-pounds coming out of a small pool only 20 feet across. The added fun of wade fishing that small clear water stream rounded out the week perfectly, and although Martin and I shared a nagging feeling that our timing was still a little off, we all deemed the trip a winner and celebrated in grand style our final night in Salta.
Wild On The Fly returned to the Juramento yet again in early December on one more exploratory trip hosted by travel director Clayton Sparks. We just had to know if fishing there later in the season would add any new intelligence to our growing dossier on this mysterious fishery. Joining Clayton was Martin’s right hand man Gustavo Sarthou and two terrific clients, Taft Ring from Oak Hill, Virginia and Steve Duckett from Saratogo, California. Both of these guys were very experienced anglers and Steve was even a semi-professional fly tier and innovator of a line of “prop tail” flies. He was very anxious to see if his propeller-enhanced patterns might be the secret formula to drive dorado crazy.
The trip was a huge success, but nearly negated for us by a tragic ending. First the good part: The Juramento was alive with fish and both Taft and Steve worked the water in every manner they could. Steve’s prop tails did indeed work, as did a third generation of our own patterns we had tied by our local designer Charlie Craven. Lots of fish were landed and both Taft and Steve eclipsed the 20-pound bar, with Steve’s biggest approaching the next 10-pound demarcation.
But a profoundly unexplainable thing happened on the arrival flight from Buenos Aires to Salta. Clayton (who spoke fluent Spanish) experienced what could only be described as a hallucination or paranoid delusion. Upon landing in Salta he confided to Taft and Steve that he thought he might have done something on the flight to seriously upset the passengers sitting behind him, and he was worried that they had reported him to “the authorities.” Taft and Steve, who were sitting in the same row as Clayton but across the isle, were at a loss as to what that could be as it had appeared to them that Clayton had slept the entire flight. There certainly hadn’t occurred any type of altercation that they had seen.
It took to the end of the next day for Taft and Steve to get Clayton calmed down and convinced that no one was after him. But once the trip began in earnest and the fishing turned on Clayton returned to his normal, highly energized personality and, according to Taft and Steve, appeared to enjoy himself immensely. I spoke with Clayton at length on the phone the Sunday evening of his arrival back in Colorado and he gave me a very positive and excited download on the entire trip. I congratulated him and told him to take the next day off to recover from his journey, and that I would see him at the Wild On The Fly office on Tuesday.
Clayton’s brother called me late the following afternoon and in a tear-choked voice of utter disbelief related that Clayton had taken his own life that morning. He had left both his mother and me similar notes in which he described his irreconcilable shame at “something” that had happened on that flight to Salta.
Clayton was in his late 30s, he was a Cornell University graduate and as team captain had taken his college squash squad to a successful bid at the nationals. He still played the game at very high level. He was extremely bright, incredibly enthusiastic and was a terrific people person. He had eschewed the legal, medical and financial career paths of his college classmates to chase the dream of being a fine art photographer. He had a genuine passion for fly fishing and when he finally accepted the job at Wild On The Fly to become our new Travel Director (admitting, at least for the time being, financial defeat in the art world) he attacked the job with relentless zeal, wanting to learn everything he could about the angling travel world as quickly as possible. He loved working at Wild On The Fly, calling it “the perfect job,” and he had recently hooked up with a wonderful new girlfriend who added yet another positive dimension to his existence.
By all outward appearances life was good for Clayton, but somewhere deep within – completely unbeknownst to any of us who knew him – lurked a demon. That something on his last trip to Argentina awoke this evil spirit, or that it was summoned for other reasons entirely, we’ll never know. But the loss of Clayton was great and even debilitating, and for me at least will forever be associated with that quest for gold on a jungle river so very far away.
* * *
Time once again worked her medicine and Wild On The Fly returned to the Salta region for the fourth time just this past November. This would be our final exploratory mission before outfitter Martin Carranza set the official itinerary and fishing program for the 2010 season.
First in were Martin and Steve Jensen (back for his second trip), along with photographer Brian O’Keefe and videographer Todd Mullen. Their goal was to explore a second small tributary river we shall call the Rio Tucanes. Not because that’s it’s name (it’s not, but we choose to keep it’s real identity secret) but because of all the toucans seen on the trip. As anticipated, the group discovered dorado fishing on a truly epic level, even better than we had on the Rio Dorado, leading Martin to secure exclusive, long term leases on the headwaters of both streams.
I followed five days later with a group of six accomplished clients – Sam Haddon, a federal judge from Montana; David Slick a medical equipment manufacturer from Florida; Will Stephens (a Johnson & Johnson exec) and his wife Sybil from New Jersey; Ron Winn, a CPA from Florida, and Frank Perkins, a retired engineer from Florida. Every one of them could fish, and fish well. And every one of them had been haunted by dorado dreams. We would all fish the big river, the Juramento, and see if we could repeat the success of Clayton’s group from the year before. If so we would confirm a seasonality that is often hard to pin-point in fisheries that support top-of-the-food-chain predatory fish.
Like an aging street performer in the barrios of Buenos Aires, the Juramento danced tango for us, garish in makeup, a little ragged in costume, her currents swirled an accordion rift of promise and denial. First she flirted , then played hard to get, then left us stunned and breathless. Out of six days fishing, three were pay dirt, two were working for minimum wage, and one was a complete write off. Five of us landed fish, two of us blanked. But always, for each of us, four or five times within the numbing labor of a thousand casts a day a fish would explode on our flies and we would be desperate to feel hardened steel pierce molten gold in the aerial alchemy of a hookup.
I finally consummated my affair with this mercurial river, and perhaps exorcised Clayton’s demon in the process, when from beneath a deeply sunken tree a dorado of enormous size engulfed my fly and headed downstream with such force I nearly lost hold of my rod. Within seconds my fly line was gone, then my backing. When the fish hit the knot around the spool of the reel I nearly lost the rod again, but somehow the line held. I yelled to Emiliano to row after the fish as hard as possible and we chased this as yet unseen force through an improbable minefield of sunken logs and snags. That the fish didn’t wrap is inconceivable but the Juramento was apparently paying a rare restitution that day.
I eventually stopped the big dorado in a slow glide of water. Gradually I gained back line as the fish turned upstream, tired now like a sprinter spent from his singular burst of speed. Emi waded in behind the golden leviathan and tailed it expertly. We all gasped as he was momentarily knocked to his knees by the sheer weight of the struggling fish, but he regained control and the battle was over. Video taping the capture from the bank, Agustin kept screaming, “No! No! No! Is record! Is record!”
And so it was – the largest dorado ever landed on a fly on the Rio Juramento, measuring 37-inches long by 25-inches in girth, and weighing 37-pounds. I caught the fish on a seven-inch black and yellow dorado fly designed by Mark Cowan. I was using a 290 grain (8-weight) Sage Bass Rod because I had broken my 330 grain (10-weight) version of the same rod earlier in the day. I had on a Sage 4560 reel with the floating line that comes with the rod, tipped with about four feet of T-14 lead core, a three-foot 20-pound leader, and a ten-inch tippet of 30-pound RIO knotable wire. Everything was connected loop-to-loop (Nail Knotted Loops in the fly line and T-14, Perfection Loops in the mono) except the fly, which was attached with a simplified version of a Homer Rhode Loop Knot.
As I gave this spectacular fish back to the waters of the Juramento I also released the angst of Clayton’s death, making peace with the river and setting the entire ordeal to rest (see our dedication to Clayton at About Us). It has been over a year-and-a-half of trial and test, and from those efforts a virtually unknown game fish has emerged as a major contender on the adventure angling stage – and with it a modern-day angling gold rush on the sub-equatorial rivers of South America. Catch the fever!
To book a trip to fish for golden dorado on the Rio Juramento call us toll-free at 866-723-7776 (local 303-898-3084) or e-mail us at email@example.comFor further information click here.