Climb aboard a Cessna Caravan and leave the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and its 2.5 million inhabitants and you will soon be engulfed by millions of hectares of wild jungle. Forested hills and valleys surround a maze of river systems teeming with exotic fish species ranging from 200-pound moturo catfish to saucer-sized paku that don’t bite a fly so much as they bite it. attacks. For fly anglers looking for the biggest fighting freshwater species, however, many believe the region’s golden bream has no rival.
Fish terrorize the aquatic food chain like lions haunt bison herds. Watching a handful of golden bream hunt in packs, taking sucker-like shoals of sabalo, before tearing them apart with the speed and savagery of so many barracudas, is one of the greatest predatory spectacles in the world.
It’s the same meanness they use to hit a fly, contort and bend eight- and nine-weight fly rods into question marks. What any fisherman who has ever caught a golden bream wonders at this point is simply: can I land this fish?
Beyond its electric yellow color, the next feature you notice in a sea bream is its oversized head and jaws. Watch a guide carefully unhook one of the fish and you’ll see how respectful they are to the sea bream’s teeth. Only forceps are used to extract a fly… at least after an attempt with the fingers.
Their combination of size (some gilthead bream can stretch well over 30 pounds), speed, leaping acrobatics and striking cup were all I needed to see for myself if they were , in fact, the largest species of freshwater fish on the planet. Tigerfish from Africa, peacock bass from the Amazon, pike and musky from the north country are also rightfully vying for this crown.
Of all the places to find gilthead seabream, few rival the wilderness of Bolivia for its abundance of fish as well as their oversized dimensions. For Marcelo Perez, a 50-something Argentine architect turned fishing lodge developer, the crystal clear waters of the secure 2.4 million acre Isiboro National Park were the perfect place to build a series of destinations for its Tsimane Lodges, a series of high-end destinations. anglers from all over the world, most of whom come from America.
I joined a group of anglers from Colorado and South Carolina as we embarked on six days of fishing at Tsimane’s Pluma Lodge. The sprawling lodge consists of a series of well-appointed private rooms with hot showers and comfortable beds. The river meanders below the lodge and consists of a series of shallow flats, rapids and an occasional plunge pool. As the sabalo move up the river beginning in late May, the dorado follow them, never straying too far from their preferred food source. In October, the bait fish begin to move downstream and with that the sea bream season ends.
On the first morning, I go far upstream with Agustin Tettenborn, a 23-year-old Argentinian guide who is in his second season at the lodge. Our pace is a clear stream framed by giant boulders, steep hills and occasional waterfalls. After a few casts, it becomes clear that this is not a destination for a beginner fly fisherman, as the need to cast 60-80 feet is not uncommon. If you want to catch fish, of course. Additionally, the demands of hiking multiple stretches of the river over long distances require a level of fitness comparable to a day fishing a mountain trout stream. If you’re considering making the trip to Pluma, commit to getting in shape and you’ll not only improve your chances of catching more fish, but you’ll also have a much more enjoyable adventure.
Although we were able to spot a few fish before casting, we spent most of the day blind casting in rapids and pockets of water where Tettenborn knew the fish liked to hold. Later in the afternoon, however, we emerged into a pool half shaded by house-high rocks and a few sprawling almendrillos. As we wade through knee-deep water, Tettenborn spotted a sea bream standing at the edge of the shady water.
“Launch at 1 o’clock… fast.”
Two fake casts and I cast the red and yellow fly eight inches past the fish’s nose, stripped twice, and the dorado caught the streamer and flew away at the same instant. The 20-pounder turned the pool into a mixer with its airborne displays, violently protesting my hook as it twisted skyward time and time again. From the first moment you play tug of war with one of these beasts, especially a double digit brute, you understand why anglers travel halfway around the world to catch them.
For the typical angler who can double up (i.e. pull the line forward and back during the casting process), Tettenborn says you can expect to catch 15 to 25 fish in six days. fishing, which was confirmed by what our group experienced. After pitching blind for several days, you tend to feel like a baseball pitcher used a few too many times in the rotation. Ben Gay and bug spray, in the middle of the jungle, cost about the same as gold.
It’s a bit of a miracle how quickly a fly fisherman’s shoulder seems to straighten, however, at the sight of big fish. This was the case as Tettenborn headed towards a natural rock dam on the edge of the river, with the overflow flowing into a separate small channel.
“Do you see those two dorado sitting there?”
About 50 feet ahead of us were two 20-pound (or larger) dorado, parked like two submarines in port. I’ll have a shot to get the fly where it needs to be, or the fish will scare away, and the chance will be missed. Two fake casts and I drop the fly two feet upstream of them and strip it down as the current brings it in front of their noses.
Both fish swoop in on the fly with the winner leaping through the sky, the sea bream being the bull and me the rider praying to hang on. Four jumps into the fight and the fish spits the hook out, but when the fly hits the water, a smaller bream pounces on it. As I begin to bring in the lesser of the two, one of the 20-pounders attacks the small fish, biting it in half. I lift the tailless seabream out of the water as the two giant seabreams beach themselves at my feet in an effort to consume the rest of the fish. It’s as if they were killer whales desperate for a seal meal. The dorado are oblivious to anything other than their predatory frenzy, paying no attention to me.
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think again: is this the largest freshwater fish in the world? I doubt anyone who’s snagged one would say otherwise.