El Tigre of Argentina – A fisherman’s paradise
By Larry Larson – Professional Fishing Guide
“Don’t cry for me Argentina. The truth is I never left you,” that’s how the song goes and I felt like I’d never left after looking through my passport, which contained 25 border crossing stamps for Argentina in the last eight years.
It was early December and I had time to reminisce as I waited for dinner aboard my flight from the Washington-Dulles airport to Buenos Aires. My thoughts of the hunting expeditions, good friends and the fantastic food I’d discovered in my travels throughout Argentina brought a smile and hopes for yet another exciting adventure.
I had booked a fishing trip with Mario Battiston of Dorado Adventures to chase another species on my “Most Wanted List.” This trip was about prospecting for gold, the dorado, like the lost city of gold- El Dorado. This dorado is not the saltwater version (the dolphin fish found on both coasts of North and Central America, also known as Mahi-Mahi in Hawaii) but the freshwater dorado known as “The Tiger” or “El Tigre” of the Rio Parana’ and Rio Plat river system in Argentina and Brazil.
Known scientifically as “Salminus Maxillosus”, this brilliant gold member of the Characidae family of fishes is one of the most aggressive, acrobatic and downright mean son-of-a-guns with which you’ll ever tango. The dorado is one tough customer, but I guess that comes with the territory. South American rivers are chock-full of toothy critters, constantly patrolling the waters in search of something or somebody to chomp on. That’s right, if the piranha don’t get you, then the cayman (South American alligators) will!
Joining me on the adventure were friends Shawn and Lisa Morse of Kansas City, both avid anglers with many global fishing accomplishments to their credit. We arrived in Buenos Aires and headed to our hotel to freshen up, relax and then soak in the hospitality of the “Paris of South America.” Forgive me if I sound like the minister of Argentine Tourismo, but each year millions of tourists and visitors travel to Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires for more than just the great hunting and fishing. The trip is worth the effort just to study the splendid architecture, stroll tree-lined avenues, shop in quaint neighborhoods and dine on delicious beef asado, complemented by superb Argentine wine. And of course, no visit to Buenos Aires would be complete without witnessing the romance of the tango, performed live.
As our afternoon passed into evening, Buenos Aires lived up to her reputation as a gracious host by cooling the early summer heat with a pleasant onshore breeze to accompany us while we walked out the kinks from our long flights. After a delicious meal taken “al fresco” in Porto Madero, a chic restaurant district in the port of Old Buenos Aires, we repacked for our sleeper-coach ride to the city of Mercedes in the province of Corrientes. Located in the northeastern corner of Argentina, Corrientes holds vast natural resources, including the famed Ibera Marshland. Its 3.5 million acre natural wildlife sanctuary is twice the size of the Florida Everglades and home to thousands of species of plants, birds, animals and fish, including the prized dorado.
Mario met our “cama coche” in Mercedes and we set out immediately for one of his lodges, The Capita Mini Lodge. As we drove into the wilds of the Ibera I began to fee; the thrill of this amazing place. A few minutes after arriving at the lodge, we packed the skiffs and headed out on the Rio Corrientes to start prospecting for gold! In those first minutes on the skiff, while cruising the glassy water, it finally hit me: I had traveled 10,000 miles by jet, bus and jeep for a chance to catch the mysterious dorado. Would it be worth it?
It took less than five minutes to answer that question as flock after flock of brightly colored tropical birds, rose to the sound of our outboard motor. Dozens of cayman slid into the river, eyes just above the surface as if waiting for us to get close enough for a taste. Capibara and nutria (large water-going rodents) stood motionless as we passed.
The number of birds and animals we observed was staggering. My guide Alfredo, slowed the motor and motioned for me to cast to an eddy just ahead. Although Dorado Adventure is best known for its fly fishing expertise, this day I chose to throw small Rapalas and spoons with a nine-foot medium-weight steelhead rod, paired with a medium-light spinning reel.
When a fish hits your first cast, you’re never ready and this time was no exception. I had just begun to retrieve my bait when the water beneath my “rappy” exploded as El Tigre made his grand entrance. What a strike! Taken by surprise, my hook set was laughable and this dorado wasted no time in tossing my offering back with his second tail wagging water dance.
I struggled to settle down, regroup and be ready for my next opportunity. Dorado have a mouth as hard as stone with short, but jagged teeth. Sharp hooks and solid hook-sets are critical when trying to connect with these brutes. We continued to work water that had good current, eddies and whirlpools. It didn’t take long to get hit again and as I turned to yell, “fish on!” to Lisa and Shawn, I saw they were hooked up as well. These waters hold high numbers of dorado, but are also home to a number of very aggressive “meat eaters” like the four varieties of piranha we caught.
It was pretty easy to tell the difference between dorado and piranha at the strike, although they both hit harder than just about any freshwater fish I know. Dorado simply will not stay in the water once hooked, while piranha stay deep and pull like a freshwater Jack Crevalle!
When I said earlier that these fish are aggressive, I meant it. Every dorado we caught had several bites taken from its tail. Any thoughts that only the dorado were under attack disappeared while I was reeling in a four lb. piranha and out of nowhere a dorado hit it like a golden bullet! The dorado hung on until I was just about to land the piranha, but he only left his jagged signature around the side and belly of the piranha. This environment gives new meaning to the phrase “eat or be eaten.” Later that day while Freddo was assisting me in removing a feisty five-pounder from my plug the parana flashed its smile like a surgical scalpel and took a 10-stich bite out of Freddo’s hand. Being careful is not just a good idea – it’s mandatory!
We fished for several days at the Capita Mini Lodge, landing 12 to 15 dorado each day. We then transferred to Mario’s other lodge in Goya for a slightly different fishing experience. While the Capita Mini Lodge is set in an area that appears much like the rangeland or “humid pampas” of Argentina, it is actually a huge flood plain. The Iberia Marshland floods during the wet season and this flat grassland becomes a huge body of fresh water, studded with thousands of small islands. As the water recedes, the main channel of the river becomes evident and fish and game congregate there, creating fantastic fishing opportunities.
Mario’s other location, the Goya Lodge, is located on the banks of the Rio Parana’. This is the main river flowing through the Ibera, south from Brazil and in places it is as wide as the Mississippi. Surrounded by jungle, this area is a lush, green, unexplored paradise full of birds and wildlife and its small tributaries are prime spots to ambush a gigantic dorado. Dorado are fast growing fish, reaching weights up to 70-lbs, although it’s more common to catch five to 15-pounders. Frankly, I can’t envision landing a dorado over 20-pounds after seeing what a 10-pounder will do to your tackle!
Our first evening at Goya, we started back into the jungle, following a serpentine and narrow channel where we cast into fast water eddies and any downed branches or stumps we could find. We weren’t disappointed. In the shadow of an approaching thunderstorm, the bit was on! Doubles (and even a triple) were the rule as a lightning show flashed around us. I hooked and fought a nice dorado through its numerous jumps and tail-walking antics, but as I pulled it close to the boat, the fish magically transformed itself into a piranha… The piranha had eaten the plug and the dorado had then pulled free! It’s a good thing I had Lisa, Shawn and the two guides, Javier and Freddo as witnesses or even I wouldn’t have believed it!
During the week, we used a variety of floating, sinking and deep-diving plugs of all colors, shapes and sizes along with Johnson silver minnows. For the ultimate thrill, we used large colorful streamers when fly-casting. The dorado cooperated on them all. If you decide to go, bring plenty of lures. You won’t lose many to snags, but the jaws of a dorado can crush just about any stick bait and the teeth of the piranha will cut a Rapala in half. What a problem… fish that bite. Yeah baby! We caught numerous pintado, surubi, dorado, piranha and other exotic fish, all great fighters.
In addition to being a great host, Mario Battiston is a world class fly fishing guide and knows how to provide a topnotch fishing adventure. His lodge staff is professional and always ready to help His guides know their stuff, no “B.S.” I love to eat and Mario’s chef created great food. Each meal was prepared with a local flair and a special touch. The accommodations in both lodges were cabin or bungalow style: private, comfortable and air-conditioned (a must in the tropics). In the evenings, we would relax on the deck outside Capita Mini Lodge and marvel at the tremendous expanse of the Ibera Marshland. Overall, this is a well organized and efficient operation and definitely worth the trip to get here.
Larry Larson can be found in Alaska where he is a licensed outfitter and guide.