May 16, 2011
Orlando angler and marine artist George Liska battled several piranha between dorado strikes.
George Liska set the hook hard and looked downstream for a gleaming, golden missile to blast through the surface. But the reactive expression of a typical Argentine golden dorado didn't happen. His fish went into a surging, head-shaking mode and eventually exhibited a powerful swirling action.
“Not again!” he grimaced, as he continued to battle the feisty fish through the muddy current toward the boat.
“Piranha George,” I quipped, as the toothy 3-pounder rolled on the surface 15 feet out at the edge of the current. “Hold him in the water when you get him near the boat. I'm going to test Javier's theory.”
I dropped my 1-ounce crankbait beside the piranha at the surface and jigged it a couple of feet down, before an obviously following fish slammed it. The fish grabbed the lipless crankbait with heavy duty, extra-strength hooks and took line without showing itself. I knew it wasn't another piranha. Just 15 feet out, the 5-pound dorado tired of pulling drag from my baitcaster and, hiding its fury in the turbid waters, shot straight up some six feet in the air.
“Wow, it worked!” I said to my now humorless partner. “Dorado really do follow hooked piranha to the boat.”
Adding to my partner's frustration, an hour later we both cast simultaneously to a cut in the marsh and each hooked a fish. The double consisted of another 2 1/ 2-pound piranha for George and a robust dorado of 8 pounds or so for me. An avid tropical angler and renowned marine artist, George did end up catching dorado from that very productive marsh. We finished the day with 37 dorado in the air for at least one leap. We landed about 40 percent of them. Add to the mix another 20 to 25 piranha and a couple of other species, and it made for a very release-filled day in the Rio Parana Delta area near Goya, Argentina.
Argentine outfitter and head guide Dickie Miles, who with his brother Nick runs the operation, calls the boat's drift down the current “dancing.” Indeed, our 16-foot boat did seem to dance through the marsh. Strong currents often turned the boat end-for-end along the deeply trenched weedlines, sometimes as we were fighting fish.
George and I discovered that Argentine dorados are voracious, aggressive predators. They seem to feed in fast-moving water, primarily on a variety of minnows and fingerlings. These “river tigers” would hover ahead of current breaks, approach their targets with a terrifying charge, and then render a crippling strike. Their bear-trap jaws are lined with twin rows of razor-sharp teeth.
Dorados do dirty dancing. With a streamlined, muscular body, the dorado leap skyward when they feel the hook, and continue the spray-flinging leaps between awesome runs that peel yards of line from tight-drag baitcasters. Often the dorado, with anger in its eyes, is successful at throwing the lure; otherwise it is reluctantly brought boatside.
Overall, they're one of the strongest, most acrobatic and challenging fish to land. Previous trips attest to that. If they don't throw the hook in the air, they use other ways to gain their freedom—like breaking my steel leaders, as two of them did, straightening out 3X hooks, or opening split rings. Because of this, a hooked dorado is far from being a boated dorado.
Rat-L-Traps in gold-and-pink, or red-and-white, worked best on the Parana Delta waters, and they held up to the fish's powerful crunch. Additionally, those 3-inch long, gold-colored Krocodile spoons worked well in marsh waters there. Both lures were linked to 6-inch wire leaders. Fly fishermen in a nearby boat were catching a few more than us, but their fish were generally smaller.
“Fly fishermen mostly use Deceiver flies, along with muddler minnows in black-and-yellow and black-and-red, tied on 1/0 and 2/0 hooks,” explained Dickie, an avid fly angler himself. “Ideal fly rods are 8-weight for the bigger runs in the Parana, or while looking for big fish in the marsh.”
The freshwater dorado ( Salminus maxilosus) is unique to south-central South America, including Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The conquistadors, who ransacked South America looking for gold, reportedly gave the dorado its name, which means “golden.” It is a member of the tenacious-toothed Characidae family, and its relatives include the fierce tigerfish in Africa and the menacing payara and piranha in South American waters. It has a massive head and a body sheathed in distinctive golden scales, appointed with crimson-tipped fins and a unique tail with a reddish black spot.
When they feed on small sabalo, a plant-eating fish of river edge sloughs, dorado hunt in schools or packs. They often follow schools of sabalo that are moving upstream. Dorado pursue several of these baitfish in the school, or all attack the same unfortunate one and bite chunks out of it with their formidable dentures.
Dorado are free-jumpers and sightings are common throughout the day. They are also spooky and may leap in the boat, as we found out while boating through a narrow cut in the marsh our first morning. A 6-pounder launched from the water off our port side. It thudded into George's chest, bounced off and went overboard off the starboard gunnel. It completely knocked the wind out of George. An hour earlier, a dorado jumped as I set the hook and came flying into the boat, hitting George in the belly. After the second impact an hour later, George had been struck by more fish than his lure, which is a rare day.
The freshwater dorado (Salminus maxilosus) is a member of the tenacious-toothed Characidae family. It has a massive head and a body sheathed in distinctive golden scales and appointed with crimson-tipped fins.
The Parana River is the eighth largest in the world, twisting 2,500 miles through its basin. Its relatively clean headwaters lie in the Brazilian rainforests to the north, but its waters do become muddy in Argentina.
From Corrientes all the way to Buenos Aires, which is about 600 miles away, the Parana River is muddy. South of Goya, the waters spread out and form a delta marsh, called Esteros del Isoro Reserve,
where catch-and-release restrictions prevail, allowing only fly and lure fishing. The maze of waterways meanders about 65 miles to the south, where the marsh waters flow together and back into the river proper.
The Parana offers numerous dorado of 7 or 8 pounds, and does yield trophy-size fish. From September through April, chances of catching a giant dorado here are good, according to the outfitter.
Male dorado up to 17 pounds and females up to around 44 pounds are taken in the deep main channel runs, called “corridas,” by trolling in the fast currents around a very rocky stretch near Goya. Huge boulders sit on the bottom of the Parana, and the dorado take refuge there from 8- to 10-knot currents. In November and early December, however, there are often big rainstorms that raise the river and muddy the water even further, and fishing suffers. When the waters clear and begin to fall, the larger dorado initiate the bite.
“In December during the dorado spawn, you can't keep any fish from the Parana,” cautions Dickie. “It's catch and release only, by law. Overall, fishing in the tributaries for numbers of smaller dorado is usually better than in the main channels. During the spawning season, you find the fish moving up the feeder streams of the Parana to spawn in the marshy lagoons, so you have better chances of catching bigger fish.”
In the Rio Parana Basin, dorado always feed better when the sun is out, Dickie contends, and we found that to be the case. During our stay, the water had a visibility of only four inches or so, and long casts to the edge of the current on the opposite side of the cut proved most productive. The dorado would strike when the lure began to swing with the current into its feeding lane. The Delta reserve normally produces good fishing, even at low water, because there are great conditions present with the vegetation structure and moving water.
Vegetation in the marsh is abundant and fairly efficient at absorbing nutrients from the water. It is composed of submergent vegetation and lots of floating islands (moved by the winds and currents) with cattails, reeds, lily pads and various types of water hyacinths. The predominate grass is called “carrico” and grows both on soil and in the water. A large leaf plant that is abundant all along the nearshore waters is “achiras” and a rooted hyacinth-looking plant called camalote thrives in all places it reaches water. In some shallows, huge lily pads up to three feet wide lie on the surface.
Interestingly, we fished in an area where long ago, the Chana Indians (rivermen) fished and hunted. They were wiped out by the Guarani Indians in the 1500s, but artifacts of the Chana still remain. We found cracked pottery pieces on our visit to one of their camps on high ground.
There is plenty of wildlife to see in the marsh. Bigger animals include caiman (called jacare in Argentina), capybaras, otters and swamp deer. Birds that feed heavily on baitfish included herons, eagles, hawks and cormorants. Other birds that feed on shellfish, insects or larvae included ibis, stork and the famous Southern Screamers. Rheas, the largest birds in the marsh at a height of five feet, feed on mice, grass and insects.
While the marsh areas offer some interesting vistas, so does the town of Goya. Horse-drawn carriages compete with cars and pickups for space on the narrow streets. Bicyclists are everywhere, and leather-skinned gauchos ride their horses along the roads and streets. In the midst of a mostly poverty-stricken town is the very nice Estancia La Pousada, which lies on three acres along the Parana River. Large bedrooms with private baths, air conditioning and even television make for comfort that is nice to come back to each evening. Famed Argentine grass-fed beef is the norm, and the selection of other meats and vegetables and salads is tremendous.
We were greeted each morning by our guide in one of two boats. One had a 35-hp outboard and the other sported a 40-hp engine. They use grappling-type anchors to position the boat to effectively work a run. The fishing grounds near Goya allow communication by radio with the Coast Guard. Cell phones also work throughout the main Parana River channel, in case the boats have engine trouble. When you are dancing with dorado in thousands of acres of marsh, that's nice to know!
Getting to the Dance
Several air carriers including American Airlines make daily flights from Miami to Buenos Aires. Upon our arrival and after the transfer of our bags from the International airport to the Domestic Service airport, George and I had an interesting tour of the cosmopolitan city with transfer agent Leticia Acosta. We then took the 1 1 / 2 -hour jet flight to Resistencia, where we were met by one of Dickie Miles' bilingual guides with their van. He drove us the final two hours to La Pousada.
Although you can fish the massive Rio Parana year around, Miles & Miles Outfitters book clients from mid-December through March, which is their summer fishing season. The typical package includes four days of fishing, with accommodations in one of their excellent lodges. The Miles brothers also offer a second dorado fishing venture, and you can combine the two lodge options for an 8- or 9-day itinerary.
They will also take you to Rio Claro Lodge, which is located on the Rio Santa Lucia and Ibera Marsh, a 3-million acre, subtropical wetland and wildlife preserve. The Rio Claro Lodge is a beautiful African-style safari lodge with electricity and hot water. It's located on a working cattle ranch of 2,000 acres.
Water in the shallower Rio Santa Lucia watershed is generally cooler and cleaner than Rio Parana.
The U.S. booking agent for the Miles brothers' two Argentine dorado lodges is The Detail Company in Houston, Texas. For more information, contact Jeri Booth or Briggs Vest at The Detail Company, 3220 Audley, Houston, TX 77098; phone 800-292-2213 or visit www.detailco.com.