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Editor Note: It’s remarkable the way new parts of the world emerge quite suddenly on the radar screen of international anglers and become the “hot” place to go. Think Seychelles a few years ago. Before that, think Kamchatka Peninsula. Somewhere in there would be French Polynesia. That area flared up red-hot, you’ll remember, and quickly cooled off when it became apparent that the most important sport species there – the bonefish – is way over-fished commercially. Well, enter the South American country of Bolivia. Until quite recently, and I mean a matter of months, not years, hardly anyone even thought of this country as a place to go fishing. Now, there are two important destinations there – Caño Negro Lodge and Tsimane Lodge. The former is emerging as a truly interesting place to fly fish for peacocks and payara, while the later is a stream hotspot for golden dorado. This month, Angling Report Editor Don Causey takes a look at Caño Negro Lodge. Next month, Honor Roll subscriber Mike Sadar will weigh in on Tsimane Lodge. Enjoy!)
Quick now…. What does the South American fish, the peacock bass, have in common with the comedian Rodney Dan- gerfield? That’s right, it can’t get no respect. Not from many fly fishermen anyway who view the peacock as a South American bubba fish that has been hijacked by hawg busters slinging double-propeller lures bigger than the trout many fly anglers in Vermont go in search of.
Well, time out for a moment. The peacock bass is indeed pursued by a lot of hardware slingers. But that does not mean the species itself is (for lack of a better word) hillbilly. It simply means many of the anglers seeking the species are (again, for lack of a better word) hillbillies. If you are going to condemn a species because of the way some anglers catch it, you are going to have to turn your nose up at trout, as there are parts of the US where the majority of anglers use canned corn to take them. Libby’s or Green Giant, anyone?
In truth, the peacock bass is a wonderful fly rod species. I rate as one of the highlights of my fishing career watching an enormous peacock bass on the Rio Negro of Brazil rise from the depths and swallow my streamer. The behemoth weighed 22 pounds and took a good ten minutes to land. I value my photograph of that fish as highly as I value any in my collection.
Fast forward to last month on the San Simon River of Bolivia, where a new lodge called Caño Negro Green Forest Lodge has emerged. The peacocks at this brand-new fishing spot are not nearly as large as those available in parts of the Amazon. 12 pounds is a good fish here. But the remarkable thing about the peacocks here is the number of fish you catch – 30 or more in a day – and the way you can catch them. Yes, you can pole around in backwater lagoons, blindcasting. But you can also fly cast to structure for them along fingers of moving or still water. Or, better yet, you can float for them. The experience is reminiscent of river fishing for smallmouth bass. Late in the year – later than when I was there – the river is said to drop and clear sufficiently to see peacocks by the hundreds as you float along. When I was there, in late August, you could already see a few peacocks, along with brilliantly colored catfish and other species. In one morning, the water was clear enough to allow me to catch, not just several peacock bass by sightfishing, but also a moderate size payara and a couple of brilliantly colored catfish called surubi. I was also completely rattled at one point by an immense, black fish that rose on my fly, touched it with his nose and sank from sight. I have no idea what it was. The huge fish must have weighed 50 pounds. Landing him on a 9-weight would have been all but impossible.
All considered, the float-and-cast experience available at this new lodge is simply delightful. Even the surubi fishing was exciting. The two I caught, both under ten pounds, were among dozens of surubi that my guide and I spotted quite by accident. They were all lying motionless on the bottom of the San Simon River, huddled downstream of foot-deep wrinkles in the sand. To get one to hit, you had to cast your fly upstream and let it roll and tumble with the current like a dead minnow. Yes, this was an arcane challenge that may not appeal to everyone, but to me at least the sight of those surubi stirring from their hiding place and slowly swallowing my fly was breathtaking.
More mainstream and even more exciting was the experience of casting to payara, mostly early in the morning and at the end of the day. This was all blindcasting into swirling pools where there were almost constant boils and splashes. Hooking a payara, if you have never done it, or even if you have done it before, is very difficult. These fish with the long fangs that slide into recesses in their upper jaws, have very hard mouths – harder than tarpon, in my view. It was several days into my recent visit before I learned how to fully connect with a payara. Once I did, I hooked and landed four in one evening, including one that weighed 15 pounds.
My tally of four payara, by the way, was not noteworthy. J. W. Smith, the booking agent for this destination, caught nine in just over five hours one day, along with three corvina (still another little-known species available in this area) and more than 30 peacocks. One angler in camp during my stay – a non-fly fisherman – caught an amazing 25 payara in one day. It is believed the payara here will range upwards of 30 pounds or more. A 22-pounder has already been caught. If you know anything at all about payara, you know that such sizes and numbers are extraordinary. Unprecedented.
Indeed Caño Negro Lodge is an intriguing place. Previously un-fished and still largely unexplored, it boasts an enormous number and variety of fish. One that is sure to emerge as important here is the fruit-eating pacu. There are said to be lot of these fish in the river but no one, including myself, was geared up, or informed enough about this species, to catch one during my visit. Interestingly, Amazon fly fishing guru, Garrett Veneklassen (505-989-9938), is scheduled to visit Caño Negro Lodge this year, and one of his goals is to figure out how these fish can be caught on flies at this destination.
So, who is the lodge right for? For sure, the fly angler who likes to push the envelope will enjoy Caño Negro. Ditto the fly angler who simply wants to take an introductory course on peacock bass fishing. In that regard, it is worth noting that the rivers in this area of Bolivia (the Caño Negro, the San Simon and the much larger Iténez that forms the border between Brazil and Bolivia) are more stable than those in the Amazon Basin proper. If you have held off fishing for peacock bass because of stories you have heard about Amazon trips being ruined by high or low water, this may be your spot. J. W. Smith says the average rise and fall of the rivers here is a few feet, not nearly enough to ruin a trip. That’s no small matter when you consider, that according to J.W., up to one third of all trips to the Amazon are either ruined by high or low water or rescheduled ahead of time by conscientious agents and outfitters.
What is harder to predict is the appeal this area will have for traditional peacock anglers who like to sling large lures in anticipation of huge surface blow-ups. The peacocks here (just under four pounds average with exceptional specimens reaching 10 to 12 pounds) just aren’t big enough to crash large surface lures in a satisfying way, though they do readily take fly rod poppers. On the other hand, there are large payara here, and lots of them, that readily take lures. There are also some huge, almost impossible-to-land catfish here, as witness the fact that during my stay one non-fly angler tied into a large red-tail catfish that hit a sub-surface lure and simply spooled him before breaking off. The angler was in the boat, ready to follow the fish, when the line ran out and broke with a loud crack.
The appeal of this fishery to fly fisherman should not be under-estimated. J. W. Smith has that on his radar screen, and he plans to test-market Caño Negro next year as a fly fishing destination by offering some fly-only weeks. As for J. W.’s credentials to operate a fly fishing destination, I was personally surprised to learn that he has more on-the-ground fly outfitting experience than any other US agent I’ve met. Though better known nowadays as a birdshooting agent (his firm is called Rod & Gun Resources), J. W. was the founder and long-time operator of two major, fly-oriented lodges in Alaska: Alaska Wilderness Safari Camp and Painter Creek Lodge. He was also in on the ground floor of what is today called Kemp’s Bay Bonefishing Club, as well as a helicopter fly-out fishing lodge in British Columbia. He currently books a number of fly-only properties in Chile, too, and he has partnered with the new dorado operator at La Zona, Luis Brown of River Plate Anglers, to offer fly-only trips for dorado on the Uruguayan side of the river. This operation, to start next year, will compete with the long-time operator of trips on the Argentinean side of the river, Untamed Angler.
J. W. says he has personally fly fished since the age of 12. And it shows in his handling of guests. During my week at the lodge, most of the guests were fly-only anglers, and J. W. was able to answer all of their tackle and technique questions. He had worlds of back-up tackle on hand – rods, reels, line, flies, metal leaders for the payara, etc. He says he is ordering fly rods for all of the guides, and he is going to push them all to become adept at fly fishing. That is the key to creating a successful community of fly fishing guides, of course. It will be interesting indeed to see if J. W. Smith can replicate in Bolivia the kind of magic he has worked in Alaska and other parts of the world. I’m personally betting he will.
I would be remiss to close this article without mentioning a couple of upsides and downsides of this lodge that relate to its remote jungle location. Covering the downsides first: While I was there, tiny gnat-like insects were a real pest. I was not aware of them the first morning so I departed from the dock in short sleeves and didn’t bother to bring any kind of repellent. By the time I came in, my arms were splotched with red, itchy welts. My elbows had been bitten so much the skin there was swollen into a knot. The next day, armed with a long-sleeve shirt and some repellent with a hefty bite of deet to it, I had no problem at all. If I returned, I would bring nothing but long sleeve shirts, and I would bring velcro or rubber bands, to cinch my sleeves closed. A word to the wise here should be sufficient. Unprotected, these bugs were bad!
The other downside to this trip is the length of the charter into the lodge. The lodge material says it akes two hours. Going in, with an unfriendly wind, our flight took three hours. I had a hand-held GPS, and it indicated the flight was over 300 miles. This is not a big problem if you gear up for it and take necessary steps before boarding the plane to avoid discomfort.
As for discomfort, by the way, you won’t experience any of that at Caño Negro due to the accommodations. The individual, double-occupancy cabins are all air-conditioned and comfortable in every way. There was plenty of hot water. Meals were good considering our jungle location 300 air miles from a major city. You would have to picky indeed to find fault with the infrastructure at Caño Negro.
As for upsides relating to this lodge’s location, this area of Bolivia is teeming with wildlife. I have never seen such a diversity of bird life anywhere except in Africa. The species available included pink-hued roseate spoonbills, wood storks and another species of stork with a scarlet band around its neck that stood shoulder high along the banks. It may be what is called the Jabiru. Other guests at the lodge saw interesting land animals. I personally saw a jaguar my first day out. It emerged from the forest and strolled briefly along the river bank less than 100 yards away before dashing away.
I liked this location a lot. You may like it, too. – Don Causey, Angling Report Editor.
(Postscript: Trips to Caño Negro are pegged at $3,600 for four days fishing; $4,600 for seven days fishing. That includes the charter flight from Santa Cruz and double-occupancy lodging in a hotel in Santa Cruz on the way home. The international arrival city is Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which is served by American Airlines and Aero Sur. The lodge has vacancies this year from October 22 through November 12. It will open next year in mid-July. Trips here can also be combined with dove shooting. You can get more details on that from Rod & Gun Resources, 800-211-4753. Web: www.rodgunresources.com. Ask for J. W. Smith.)