By Pat Ford
The more I travel the more I realize that if a fishing lodge isn’t annoyingly difficult to get to…it isn’t worth going! The Amazon jungle fits that bill perfectly. Untamed Angling has set up multiple programs in the jungle that are just amazing. They scout out locations, meet with the local Indian villages and offer them a deal. They will build a wood/tent lodge, bring in anglers that promise to release all fish, and will pay the village a $600 fee per person just to be there. They employ a native staff and use locals to operate the 30’ dugout canoes that transport the anglers up and down the rivers. It’s a win-win situation and their multiple lodges have flourished. My latest venture took me to Tsimane’s Aqua Negro lodge in Bolivia.
We flew from Miami to Santa Cruz, Bolivia where we spent the night and the next morning, we were transported to a charter flight that flew an hour into the Amazon jungle to a native village that has a level spot that suffices as a landing strip. From there we proceeded up-river for 2 hours in a dugout canoe propelled by a long-shaft motor that is impervious to shallow water, mud, rocks and tree stumps. Located just above the confluence of the Aqua Negro and Secure rivers on a bluff high above the rivers sits the lodge. It’s built on wood platforms and has a main dining area and is actually very comfortable. Though oppressively hot during the day, the jungle cools down at night and makes sleeping with a fan very comfortable. Their generator electricity continues thru the night allowing for the use of a cpap machine if necessary. The food is so good I offered to bring the cook home with me! The actual fishing is something else.
After breakfast everyone shifts to the boats and the day begins. The ‘boats’ are 30‘hand carved canoes built by the natives out of local trees and are about 3’ wide and there is usually 2 inches of water on the deck, if you can call it a deck. Any pack you bring better be waterproof! The river is lined with huge trees uprooted and washed away by the 30’ floods during the rainy season. The golden dorado are the ultimate predators and hide in the roots and branches and ledges so the entire day you are casting an 8” black, lead-eyed fly into this chaos with an 8 weight rod loaded with a 9 weight line. Over-lineing turns the fly over a bit easier and in some spots. a short intermediate sink-tip helps get the fly down faster. Leader is straight 40 lb fluorocarbon to a 40 lb braided wire leader. IGFA fly rules are a joke in the jungle.
Casting is very important. The fly has to land at an exact spot and you have to start stripping the instant the fly hits the water, so line control is essential – you can’t ever let go of the line. It’s not easy.
There’s a slight interruption in your casting when you change spots, but many times these rests will find you walking over ankle-twisting size rocks or hiking thru the jungle sometimes led by a local with a machete. Heavy duty wading boots with felt soles are a must and I strongly recommend you buy new boots before your trip. I bought a high end pair of boots about 5 years ago and only used them on two prior trips to the Amazon. Halfway through my first day on this trip, the felt sole fell off my right boot. We tied it together with tape to finish the day then duct taped it together, only to have the sole fall off the other boot the next day. Fortunately ,the lodge had a spare set of very old boots to lend me for day three only to have the soles fall off them too. Even duct tape couldn’t hold them together in these conditions. I borrowed the manager’s flats wading boots for the last day which barely protected my feet from the rocks the few times I was able to leave the canoe. While I was fumbling with footwear, the natives are walking around barefoot.
We made the mistake of scheduling this trip during the full moon. Our fishing was really tough and I personally feel that the moon phase had a lot to do with it. The dorado were there, they just weren’t hitting our flies. My friend Chris Lalli is a musky expert and the best streamer fisherman I’ve ever seen…when he has trouble catching fish, the rest of us are in trouble.
After casting a thousand times a day for three days in 100 degree heat with zero catches, I was getting a little desperate. My guide , Santi, recognized my plight and did his very best to put us on fish, but I was hopeless. This area does have a good population of exotic catfish and I’ve always wanted to catch a barred sorubin, aka zebra, catfish. Santi followed my philosophy that if fly fishing isn’t working, do whatever it takes to have fun. He felt that the catfish would be easy to catch if we put a chunk of bait on the fly and dropped it into one of the deep pools. I agreed and our native guide brought out his bow and arrow and promptly shot a sobalo and cut off a chunk. Adding a small strip of meat to the fly initially produced a few 10 lb dorado which were fun. Eventually my friend, Mark Bennet, caught a small surbui, but I was hoping for a big one. When the bite stopped, we moved upstream to a larger pool. I rigged up for catfish while Mark and Santi moved upstream to look for dorado. It wasn’t long before my bait was picked up and when I set the hook, I instantly knew I was into a ‘grande’.
The catfish stayed in the pool for a few minutes until it figured out it was in trouble. When it panicked, it ran out of the pool and upstream about 100 yards to exactly where Mark and Santi were fishing. The line passed right in front of them as I raced across the tail end of my pool and then up the bank towards them. When I reached them, Santi had the line in hand and it was pointing directly towards a giant sunken tree. Santi followed the line to the catfish which had buried itself under the log and he dove in and literally ‘noodled’ it out by grabbing it by the nose. A bit unconventional, but I finally had my trophy zebra cat. Dozens of photos later it was successfully released only slightly worse for wear. That crazy fish made my whole trip. Anything goes in the jungle and the objective is always to have an adventure. Mission accomplished!