FISH STORY: AN EXTRAVAGANT OR INCREDIBLE TALE

BY ERIC LADD

As a blood-orange sun rises over the Iberá Wetlands, northern Argentina’s landscape comes alive. A family of capybara emerges from the reed cover and the young ones play in the water like kids at recess. A five-foot caiman slides onto a neighboring mud bank and appears to drift off to sleep as a flock of bright green parakeets roost in a tree by the boat dock. Pirá Lodge guides carry YETI coolers to the boats and begin rigging a series of rods as the faint crow of a rooster from the nearby village frames the setting for a perfect fish story.

For over 20 years, fishing guide José Insaurralde has called these waters his backyard. A man of few words, José’s distinct mid-cheek sunglass tan and worn, callused hands are evidence of his time stalking fish in the marsh. Other guides call him “fishy,” the ultimate compliment for a guide who hunts golden dorado.

Argentina’s Iberá marsh is the second largest wetland complex in the world where even park rangers get lost in the nearly 3.2 million-acre maze of channels and lagoons. José has a plan today to visit a hidden lagoon filled with monster dorado ranging upwards of 20 pounds. We are rigged for battle with 8-weight fly rods with steel leaders, dark purple and red streamers and a standby rod with a golf ball-sized mouse fly should the mood strike.

Last night a full moon rose above the wetland, in many circles an urban-legend kiss of death for fishing. Anglers theorize that fish feed all night and in turn avoid feeding during the day. Could this be our luck? The morning started slow. Fish ignored the flies and José slowly poled through the lagoon pointing: “Really big fish”, he’d hiss. “Another really big fish.” But we had no takes, no looks, no bites. Damned moon.

A few location adjustments, fly and technique tinkering, and our guide put us in the sweet spot. A sight cast to a 10-pound golden dorado and the powerful fish leaps from the water after hitting the fly on a full-speed sprint. Another fish! A third, fourth, fifth, a double hook-up (when two anglers hook a fish at the same time). Never mind the 8-foot caiman—a sort of hybrid between an alligator and a crocodile—swimming toward the boat and looking for an easy snack as we release fish.

José taps the prehistoric creature on the snout to remind him of his place in the lagoon. “Honey hole,” José murmurs from the back of the boat followed by fist bumps and a celebratory beer. We can’t wait to share this fish story back at the lodge.

LEFT: The fleet of Pirá Lodge boats awaits the eager anglers. RIGHT: Writer Eric Ladd shows off his fish of the trip. Outlaw Partners photos

GOLDEN DORADO

The famed golden dorado is an angler’s dream, embodying the best aspects of fishing including hard fights and acrobatic jumps along with strikes that require steel leaders and a solid cast. With a prominent head, powerful jaws, sharp teeth and a ferocious strike, the golden dorado—often called the “river tiger”—mimics a saltwater fish but resides in fresh waters. It has an allure and mystique on par with Atlantic salmon or steelhead resulting in a cult-like following of dedicated anglers. But the golden dorado is a unique species of fish unrelated to the freshwater trout, the anadromous salmon or the saltwater dorado (mahi mahi), and isolated to a relatively small region of South America. The fish can live upwards of 15 years and adapts quickly to its surrounding making it even more difficult to target

DELTA LODGE

Tucked within the thick maze of jungle and in the shadow of the Buenos Aires skyline lies the Delta Lodge. Founded by the famed dorado angler Noel Pollak, Delta Lodge is nestled in a bend of the river, one of Noel’s favorite fishing holes. Polla k has been on a quest to perfect the art of fishing for golden dorado for 22 years and is arguably the foremost “Yoda-esque” expert on this fish.

While Noel has traveled the region setting up fishing programs and training guides on other sections of water, he has landed back at one of his favorite fishing holes due in part to the diversity of fish in this area as well as the specialized nature of targeting them near the city of Buenos Aires.

Delta Lodge is a comfortable, five-building complex built on stilts above the Paraná River wetlands with everything you need for a pleasant stay, including the lodge dog, “Dingo.” Songbirds surround the lodge and anglers can cast flies the same day they arrive in Argentina while enjoying first-class homemade cuisine and no shortage of Malbec wine.

Dorado fishing is a sunrise-to-sunset sport with midday siestas during the heat of the day. At Delta Lodge it’s a game of timing the wind, tides, sun, water temps and, of course, angling skill.

Delta Lodge tucked into a corner of the Paraná River. Photo by Harrison Beckwith
Noel Pollak tying flies for the day’s dorados.

“Guiding is a privilege,” Noel says as he sits in his hammock rolling a cigarette and telling tales of chasing golden dorado. Wearing a timeless pair of laceless Chuck Taylor sneakers, vintage pants and a weathered Delta Lodge hat, Noel is not only a con- noisseur of fishing but also of vintage music.

After a few days of fishing, anglers witness Noel at his best, navigating side channels of the river during a super-low slack tide that would send most anglers back to the bar. Dorado fishing can be a tricky sport and as the group departed for other reaches of the region for the Nervous Water fishing trip, Noel gave some fatherly advice after a particularly slow day of fishing, “Welcome to the dorado world,” he said to one perplexed angler who didn’t land a fish. “Trust me that when it finally happens it’s so, so special.”

DINGO THE “LODGE DOG”

The Paraná River is a large, powerful river with deep undercut banks and swirling eddies. Noel was fishing a remote bank channel of the river one afternoon and in the distance saw a dog struggling to swim, barely keeping his nose above water. A quick rescue of this mixed street canine and it was an immediate friendship, Noel recalls.

Named Dingo, this dog needed no training and quickly took home to the Delta Lodge. Dingo knows his role: send off boats in the morning and welcome them home with more tail wagging in the evening. Every fishing lodge needs a four-legged companion and Dingo is one of the finest.

Suindá Lodge perched high above the banks. Photo by Andrew Julian

SUINDÁ LODGE

As the sun sinks over the Paraguay skyline, our guide Fabi positions the boat in the center of the Paraná river channel directly over a small riffle. Fishing here is best early and late, Fabi explains: it’s when you have the best chance to land a 30-plus pound golden dorado. This, amigos, is trophy hunting. The back-drop of this fishing spot includes the hallowed Basilica of Our Lady of Itatí, which sees 300,000 pilgrimages a year. On this particular night, the Southern Cross constellation shown directly above this national treasure.

The bare necessities for a day of Nervous Waters fishing. Outlaw Partners photo
A capybara overlooking the marsh. Photo by Harrison Beckwith

Suindá Lodge is a newly built, well-appointed fishing lodge located on a bank high above the mighty Paraná River. This is the lodge that will test an angler’s casting ability with oversized flies and heavy gear, but with every cast you have a chance of landing your fish of a lifetime. The Paraná River begins its journey in Brazil to become the second longest river in South America, and flows more than 3,000 miles touching Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Suindá Lodge sits in a sweet spot of this massive river with a mix of fishing styles, rich cultural experience in neighboring towns, and a lodge perfect for mastering the art of a siesta.

The idyllic setting of Pirá Lodge and pool. Outlaw Partners photo

PIRÁ LODGE

The thoughtful intention of living within a landscape is an art that yields a more harmonious existence inside a surrounding. This is Pirá Lodge, a setting reminiscent of being in the center of a national park, isolated within the intact fabric of Mother Nature, surrounded by thousands of plant and animals species. The art of loving something so strongly that one wants to protect it is the emotion that the Pirá Lodge will invoke. There’s a reason that this epic fishing lodge not only attracts some of the finest fishing guides in the country, but it inspires artists, brings return guests year after year, and attracts lodge managers who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of the wetland.

Fishing nearly becomes secondary to the amazing boat tours through the marsh, hundreds of bird species dotting the landscape, vast array of mammals living here, and an impeccable mix of flowers. The fishing program is dialed, guides are seasoned and fishing waters are rich with bait and lacking human impact.

One early morning in March, we left Pirá Lodge with lead guide José Caparros, the consummate guide double-checking every knot and making sure the cooler is stocked with drinks. We departed early and took a long drive through the marsh waking up birds and caiman as we ventured to one of José’s favorite fishing zones.

The acrobatic nature of the golden dorado. Photo by Harrison Beckwith
Cameron Scott and José Caparros celebrate a bucket-list catch. Outlaw Partners photo

One fishing buff on our trip, Cameron, had been practicing for this moment for years. In fact, the past couple months he’d been in his snow- filled yard in Bend, Oregon, practicing long casts with his heavy rod and line setup. Cameron has called this trip a bucket-list journey and while he’s been a guide in Oregon and Idaho for years, the golden dorado was the fish he had only dreamed about until now.

When we reached a deep-cut corner in the river, José and Cameron decided on a bright white fly with red eyes and a green back. Both guides and both crazy about fish, they exchanged stories about fish species, the art of guiding and the one that got away. Just then, José pointed upstream and told Cameron to lay a 60-foot cast across the river, just like he had been practicing back home, and to give it one big mend. On the first cast of the last fishing day at Pirá Lodge, the sun barely above the marshy landscape, BAM! A 16-pound dorado broke the surface and shone its golden body. “First cast, first cast!” José proclaimed and he rallied the net and gave Cameron direction on landing the monster. This one didn’t get away and as José and Cameron posed with the dorado, the mutual stoke of the moment was palpable, helping cement this fish story in the halls of history.

We couldn’t help but recall the sage advice Noel had given us 10 days earlier that the reward is well worth the wait: “Trust me that when it finally happens it’s so, so special.”

A curious caiman in the Iberá National Park. Photo by Harrison Beckwith

IBERÁ NATIONAL PARK

Covering nearly 3 million acres, comparable in size to Yellowstone National Park, the Iberá Wetlands lie in a remote section of north-central Argentina. This massive wetland complex is a critically important freshwater reserve and acts as a nursery for spawning fish, sanctuary to more than 350 bird species, deer, capybara and caiman, and is named after the largest lake in the preserve, Laguna Iberá. This park is so remote and large that there are over 200 indigenous, subsistence-living families who still live in the marsh in thatched huts and shrouded in urban legend with so little known about the hidden civilization.

Since 1982, part of the wetland is included within a provincial protected area, the Iberá Provincial Reserve, which comprises about 5,000 square miles, the largest such area in Argentina. Ongoing plans to raise its protection status to a national park are making headway thanks to conservation legends Doug and Kris Tompkins and their Tompkins Foundation.

As part of the largest reintroduction initiative of wildlife in South America, giant anteaters and pampas deer have already been established within the Iberá region. Puma, maned wolf, giant otters and jaguars are also making headway. The illusive and cherished jaguar will see its big moment in 2020 with the current plan to reintroduce four jaguars into the park since they were hunted to extinction. The jaguar project is over five years in the making.

On December 5, 2018, Argentina’s Congress passed legislation for the Iberá National Park, giving it the highest possible hierarchy of a park in the country, and resulting in greater legal protection (such as the prohibition of fumigation over the entire area) and preserving conservation of the area for future generations.

NERVOUS WATERS

With more than 30 years of experience hosting and guiding anglers and hunters, Nervous Waters owns and operates some of the finest sporting lodges in Argentina, Chile and the Bahamas. The Argentine-owned company’s staff are well trained and execute a high-quality experience that includes concierge assistance in trip planning and all the details to help transition smoothly from the airplane to the fishing boat.

Argentina has a storied history of exceptional golden dorado fishing, and Nervous Waters has not only helped pioneer this story but now has premier access to an angler’s bucket-list trip. Visit their website to learn more: nervouswaters.com.

SCENES FROM NERVOUS WATERS

RIVER GOODS

When you’re on the water, you can only last as long as your gear will allow. Take a look at the following selected items, featured on our trip to Argentina and support the brands that support Mountain Outlaw.

Eric Ladd is the publisher of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

Harrison Beckwith is a full-time fly-fishing guide for Brookings Anglers in Cashiers, North Carolina, and hosts anglers in fly- fishing destinations including Patagonia, the Bahamas and Northern Argentina. Harrison and friend Andrew Julian’s photography business, River Wizard Company, specializes in outdoor media for destination lodges, brands and magazines.