Fly Fishing the Bolivian Amazon
In Search of the Golden Dorado
Cruising up a tributary of the world’s largest river in a dugout canoe, I can’t help but think about how far I’ve come to pursue a fish with my fly rod. My journey to get here began many years ago when I learned how to fly fish. I didn’t know it then, but in my hand I was holding a key to the gates of the world’s greatest wilderness sanctuaries. At last, the quest for the perfect river and my thirst for adventure would bring me to South America to try and unlock the mysteries of the Amazon.
In 2013, my brother Neil and I spent a month in Bolivia to check out the skiing potential and complete our first voyage into the jungle. Why Bolivia? Her primordial forests are relatively untouched, escaping for now the persistent deforestation and extraction that has decimated other large swaths of the Amazon basin. Because of this pristine state, Golden Dorado of monstrous proportions found a home in some of Bolivia’s most remote waterways. That first trip really opened our eyes to a part of the world so full of mystery and diversity within the ecosystem, the likes of which we had never experienced before. We knew it would only be a matter of time before we would be back for another dose of the jungle, to maybe try and push up the river further to this place we kept hearing about … a place called Ajises.
The only practical way to reach the headwaters of some of these rivers is from the bottom up. Although I haven’t done it, it seems very similar in style to climbing the high peaks of the Himalaya—long distances, remoteness, dangerous conditions—all of which require the effort of a dedicated team. It was September of 2016 at the height of the dry season, and we were back in Bolivia for another expedition with our friends Patrick and Federico, who were essential in helping us execute our first trip three years prior. They now run a guiding operation called Angling Frontiers, taking people from all over the world into a slice of paradise for the fish of a lifetime. These guys have worked hard to figure out the logistics of the area and develop good relations with the local indigenous people who call the place home. There is nothing that I’ve experienced in life quite like camping on a sandbar surrounded by dense jungle, with such style and comfort that you almost forget you’re in one of the most hostile biomes on the planet.
After making a few connecting flights from Salt Lake City, we finally arrived at the airport outside of La Paz. Fortunately all of our gear made it as well, including a stack of Yeti coolers and Goal Zero batteries—equipment that was essential if we intended to keep our cameras charged and food fresh.
Miraculously, we cleared customs, and met up with another fellow who was coming along—a young cat by the name of Jared, who runs the popular Instagram account, Flylords. With limited camping experience and an uncertain journey ahead, he was naturally little nervous about his first trip into the Amazon. We told him stories about the gnarly bugs that lay ahead to try and calm his nerves. It didn’t work. Another flight to go, finished off with a sketchy two-hour Cessna ride over impenetrable country, and we made it to a little airstrip alongside the river. It was only then, when our boots dug into the sandy earth, did we enter the jungle domain of the Tsimané tribesmen, and our mission to Ajises could officially begin.
Ajises is a very real place in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon, but you won’t find it on any maps. The name (which loosely translates to “spicy peppers” in English) was coined by Patrick on his first expedition upriver. To me, it represents a window into the past, and hopefully a vision of the future. It’s a place where native people can still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle like their ancestors did, fully connected to nature, without too much influence from our world. An ecosystem so healthy that all life flourishes from the small fish at the bottom of the food chain to the top, where the jaguar stalks its prey along the banks of the river. This river is the source of life for the Tsimané people, and it’s our only way into this mind-bending wilderness. We meet with Federico at the airstrip, and with the help of a crew of locals who would be guiding us through their territory we load up three massive dugout canoes and set off upstream. The river here is wide, flat, and low. With evidence of gigantic rainy season flows surrounding us, we carefully navigate the treacherous route of sunken logs and invisible sandbars as the sun fades into the dark canopy.
Two days of mostly flat river travel bring us to a new camp being built by our Bolivian friends to accommodate adventurous fishermen. It sits on a bluff overlooking the confluence of two beautiful rivers, far beyond the last human settlements. It’s here where the landscape really begins to change—mountains rise up in the distance, the sandy river bottom turns to stone, the stones into boulders, and the ever-encroaching forest grows darker. It begins to resemble a stream from the Rocky Mountains, but with a very distinct Amazonian twist. Our crew was now officially assembled, the dugouts resupplied, coca leaves packed tightly into the cheeks of all the men for the numbing work ahead, everyone stoked for the chance to explore the upper reaches of the river.
For days we forced our way upstream, hauling the enormous canoes through the shallow rapids, and camping on sandbars when our bodies were played and the light disappeared. A stick fire roasting different meats and freshly caught fish with fried plantains and rice kept the crew well fed. The uninterrupted laughter of our Tsimané brothers telling jokes around the fire is nearly drowned out by the deafening chorus of life in the jungle. It’s impossible to ignore the ever-changing diversity of plants and animals that stimulate your senses both day and night. We fish along the way until we reach the high camp in Ajises. Strangely, fishing—or even catching a fish—seems secondary; just being in their environment and appreciating the venue is of the highest value.
The river, which at times in the dry season runs crystal clear, became high and muddy after intense rain. Fortunately, it didn’t keep the fish from feeding; it just meant that we had to work harder. The Golden Dorado is a truly remarkable fish, and the reason why we traveled thousands of miles from home to this headwater stream. True apex predators, like a pack of wolves, hunting and terrorizing schools of helpless baitfish. They dominate the river. The locals hunt the baitfish, called Sábalo, with a traditional bow and arrow as they try and hide in the shallows from the ravenous Dorado. We used 8 and 9 weight fly rods from Orvis, black and purple streamers about a hand in length, and titanium wire tippets to keep it all together when tangling with one of the golden beasts. Reaching upwards of 30 pounds, built like a missile with broad shoulders and a gigantic mouth lined with razor sharp teeth—they’re a serious opponent. Once hooked they have nowhere to go but up so they jump to throw the hook, and also to evade other larger fish who are usually attacking them from below. The feeding frenzy continues—it is pure pandemonium. Finally landing a trophy Golden Dorado is usually a product of teamwork, as dealing with the sharp end of such a brute is risky business. These animals demand a lot of respect and are always handled with care and admiration.
This is not a relaxing fly-fishing excursion to your local trout stream to throw elk hair caddis. It’s a tremendous adventure to a remote part of the world that is certain to provide life changing experiences. While perhaps not as unknown as other regions of the Amazon, fishing alone between the megalithic boulders of Ajises, Neil and I couldn’t help but think that maybe we’d meet a wall of poison tipped arrows around the next bend. Though highly unlikely, where else in the world can you get such a mystical feeling while casting a fly rod? Also found almost nowhere else in the world, and certainly a very real threat any day here, are the scores of venomous creatures that you need to avoid.
On our seventh day we finally made it as far as we hoped to go—a deep canyon carved by the waters flowing down off the east slope of the Andes, giant boulders washed over and shuffled around by an eternity of floods, and a canopy so thick with biodiversity it creeps over the river and nearly blocks out the sky. We’re greeted at a freshly blazed trail to the river, not by hostile uncontacted peoples, but by Chivo, one of our favorite guides. He’s caught a giant catfish as big as a man with his hand line. We head back down along the new trail and make it back to camp just as the last rays of light brush the treetops. Two days later we’ve returned downstream to the little airstrip, and only when the first sip of ice-cold beer goes down at a little pizzeria in La Paz does it feel like the journey is complete. A hot shower and few hours in the concrete jungle later, and I’m already longing for the chaos and chatter of the crickets and cicadas and birds and frogs and whatever else lives back there—my kind of nightlife.